In Karl Barth’s The Word of God and Theology, he delivers a lecture in 1922 about the task of the Christian preacher. In this provocative speech to other pastors, he writes about the complexities and difficulties in preaching. I’m sure anyone that preaches every Sunday can attest to this. (As someone in seminary, I am both excited and nervous for this part of the pastoral position). But what Barth offers in this lecture isn’t condolences towards preachers for preaching and preparing weekly sermons, though that is a task in itself, but because the task of preaching means to proclaim a Word from God. That is to say that a preacher must say something about God to people wanting to hear from God.
People come to Sunday morning services in hopes of encounters. They have such great anticipation for this event, this holy moment, that preachers can never deliver. Because it isn’t for them to do so. It doesn’t matter how much the pastor prepares for a sermon, if the Spirit isn’t there, the Spirit isn’t there. The revelation of God to humanity is God initiated. It is God who unveils himself to us in Holy Scriptures in the person of Jesus, and proclaiming a word about this Word seems like a difficult task.
People aren’t coming to church for a word. They are coming for The Word.
We are doing a disservice to the pulpit, the congregation, and especially to God in our failure to recognize this truth. It isn’t about us. It isn’t about preaching. This is not to say that pastors should not prepare for their sermons nor practice their deliveries. Preaching is an art form, and it isn’t one to be taken lightly. But if preaching isn’t witnessing to God faithfully, then it actually really isn’t preaching.
The beautiful thing about preaching from the Bible is that it brings together two histories: ours and the biblical writers. In some kind of mysterious way, our stories are interwoven with theirs, and we become immersed in this holy moment.
Barth says, “The promise of Christian proclamation is this: That we speak God’s Word. Promise is not fulfillment. Promise means that fulfillment is promised to us. Promise does not do away with the necessity of believing but establishes it. Promise is the human part; fulfillment is God’s part…Do not get confused with God’s part and humanity’s part.”
The task of preaching should cause us to pause. We should stop to realize what we are about to do. What words can I say that haven’t already been said? What comfort can I give to these people? And that’s precisely the point. The only Word that is proclaimed and will be forever proclaimed is Jesus. This is why we ask for the Holy Spirit to come because we aren’t able to speak this Word on our own.
We of unclean lips are given the job to speak life into those who have come on Sundays for encounters with Jesus. It is an impossible possibility to speak of God, but it is a task in which we have been called to do. We are not called to create God, force God into Sunday mornings, but we are called to witness to God. (And it’s also a difficult feat to talk about God to the congregation when the pastor hasn’t been talking to God that week.) There is a need for preaching, for sure, and Barth doesn’t deliver this lecture to discourage the pastors from doing their vocation. What I think Barth did well then and now is to cause people to understand just how reliant they are upon God during these moments. It’s an absolute dependence upon God.
And isn’t that good news that God is more faithful to proclaiming the Word than we are?