4 Lighting a Fire: Preaching as Teaching and Proclamation

Dr. Paul Scott Wilson

Nowadays we are used to thinking of proclamation as a synonym for preaching. I use the term in a more refined sense, common in the past. Proclamation is a part of preaching that is different from teaching about the biblical text, or teaching about the tradition, or teaching theology, or teaching ethics or social justice.

Good teaching is essential in all preaching. But preaching can go beyond teaching. Teaching ideally leads to proclamation. One of the joys of preaching can be proclamation.

Preachers teach many things: the Bible and its origins, theology, the faith and practices of the church, moral living, all in light of the larger teaching about God and God’s love. Sermons necessarily teach by communicating information, and much important information can be communicated about God.

Information about someone is valuable, but if you go on a tour of an estate in England and you hear about the baroness who owns it, how much better is it if you actually meet her and hear her speak? Teaching talks about God. Proclamation introduces people to God. Like a sacrament, it offers God to the people.

Acts of proclamation speak the heart of the Gospel to listeners in loving, passionate, infectious ways such that, in and through them, they encounter God who meets them not as ideas, but in the Spirit as a person who loves them and empowers them to be disciples. In proclamation at its best, people experience that everything required of them is given to them. People hear God say words like: I love you, I forgive you, I died for you, death has no more power over you; justice is mine.

I may already be off-track. In talking about proclamation, I should ask what, if anything, makes you really excited about preaching? Do we as preachers communicate that excitement when we preach? Do our words catch fire with the Spirit?

According to the Bible, such expectations might be legitimate. Tongues of fire rest upon the disciples at Pentecost (Acts 2:3). Isaiah said, “The light of Israel will become a fire, and His Holy One a flame” (Isaiah 10:17).

The preacher might be expected to burn with an impassioned message, like the flames of the burning bush that do not consume (Exodus 3:2) or the live coal that touches Isaiah’s lips and cleanses but does not burn (Isaiah 6:6-7); the sermon might be like the fiery furnace in which Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are found unbound, walking, and unhurt with a fourth person of divine appearance (Daniel 3:25); John the Baptist promises that Jesus will baptize “with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Luke 3:16); and in John of Patmos’ vision of Jesus Christ, “his eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace” (Revelation 1:14).

Passion for the sake of passion is not worth much in the pulpit, but passion for the sake of faith is important. No one model or set of models exists for passionate preaching. But I believe that each of us has a passionate preacher within us, each of us gets excited about some aspects of the faith, and it is reasonable to expect that some of the excitement that is authentically oneself will come out in preaching.

Most preachers want to be excited about preaching; they invest a lot in it, like their whole lives, so it’s right to be excited, but many of us are often shy about showing excitement in the pulpit. I do not know for how many generations this has been true.

As a child, I heard my father’s uncle preach in a downtown church and asked, “Why was Uncle Ray crying in the pulpit?” Apparently, it was common for preachers of that generation to weep in the pulpit over the sin and brokenness of the world. Various forms of pulpit emotion were more common in previous ages, and not all of them would we want to imitate.

There will always be people who do not want preachers to catch fire in the pulpit, who want their religion in measured amounts with predictable results. They want the place of preaching to be no fireplace. They may know the danger of fire. They may not know of the fire that burns and is not consumed.

They may not want themselves to become incendiary with the Gospel message, because if they experienced it they might become intoxicated with a God who loves them more than they thought possible, more than they deserve, a message that might make them want to get up on their feet and rush out into the streets praising God for all the mercy and justice and righteousness that God will work today.

With proclamation, someone else’s excited manner does not become a model to imitate; rather one’s own authentic passion and excitement is expressed, as Paul says, “in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Cor. 2:4). How can preachers tap into that excitement? There is no point in being excited for the sake of excitement. Excitement in the pulpit is not an emotional matter in the first instance, at least as far as proclamation is concerned.

Passion in the pulpit is a theological issue. It is being excited not about what we humans can do, but about what God has done in Jesus Christ, and about what God is doing and will do in and through the Spirit, today and in the future.

A friend once said, “It is fine to be a believer these days, but it is a lot harder now than it was in biblical times, when God and God’s prophets were more present and obvious.” That may be how many people think, that there was an age of revelation and now we live in the light of those times. It is a sad understanding, as though God is less evident today, is less involved with the world now than then.

Mark ended his Gospel in the original ending at 16:8 with no resurrection appearances, not because there were none to report, but because the angel at the empty tomb had just announced to the women, “But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you into Galilee; there you will see him just as he told” (v. 7). Mark did not need to describe the resurrection appearances because those words are true of all disciples, then and now, “He has gone ahead of you, into whatever trouble you face; there you will see him just as he told.”

In the end of John’s Gospel he says, “But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (21:25). John does not refer to a paucity of appearances, but a plethora of them, so numerous they cannot be counted. Jesus said in Matthew 28:20, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age,” and in John 14:16, “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.”

Maybe we do not live in an age of miracles. I define a miracle as any act of God. God is good and all acts of goodness are performed with God’s help. Evidence of God is everywhere. From this perspective, even the sermon is a miracle: in every faithful sermon, words are given to preachers that are not their own. To that extent, a sermon is a gift from God, inspired by the Spirit, as Paul says, “in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Cor. 2:4).

Every sermon is a frail and vulnerable human offering, yet it is also an offering of a God who comes through the Spirit and the Word, heals in Christ’s name and leads us from death into life. In every sermon God speaks, a new creation is ushered in, communities of love and justice are formed, lives are transformed in Christ’s image. God saves.

Proclamation is daring to proclaim what is at the heart of the Gospel. What is at the heart of the Gospel for you? What do you get excited about? When do you let that excitement out? I came back to the Church in my mid-20s after an absence from Church for many years. A series of personal crises led me back to God, including being with a friend when he was hit by a car while I was with him, and him eventually dying three months later.

Through the surrounding events, I rediscovered, surprisingly, that God is in the business of bringing life out of death. I had known that as a child and had been taught that in Sunday School. When Grannie Scott came to visit as we were growing up, she reinforced that, and insisted that my sisters and I read Bible devotions with her, something we were loathe to do. Yet partly through her, I came to know that Jesus Christ, the same One who was put to death in the Bible, is alive today, speaking the same messages, empowering new possibilities. Maybe I am old-fashioned; I still get excited about that.

Preaching a lectionary passage, preaching a biblical text, is essential, but it may not be enough, at least in our current age. Even if I hear a sermon on some of the miracles of Jesus, and the preacher is faithful to the text, if the blind man sees, or the woman’s bleeding stops, or the lame walk, or the deaf hear, there is a way that the stubborn side of me refuses to believe.

The sermon might be preached with enthusiasm, with real passion, and I can be left feeling somehow distant. I come to a sermon not faithless, but with faith depleted; I long for renewal of faith. I may not know it in the moment, but I long to be reminded of why I believe, in the first place, and that reminder has to come either from the preacher or the Holy Spirit, and preferably both.

Don’t let the sermon end when the story of the miracle has been retold; introduce listeners to the One who is the author of the miracle. He is the One who became flesh that we might know who God is, who ministered among us and performed acts of miracles and spoke truth, who died on the cross and rose again from the dead, who ascended to heaven and sits at the right hand of God, and whose Spirit is with us now.

He is the One who not only did these miracles and said these words; he is the one who does these miracles now and says these words, and guides the ministries of the people in the power of the Holy Spirit such that “justice roll[s] down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). Take listeners beyond the text itself to whatever links the larger story has with the Gospel as a whole.

The Apostles’ Creed is not so much a series of propositions that one must believe, so much as a summary narrative of the faith that Christians may enter as their own. Link the text at hand with the larger narrative that communicates the heart of the Gospel. In other words, go beyond teaching to proclamation; communicate the identity of the One who saves.

A student in Lent preached on the parable of the Prodigal Son. In many ways, it was an excellent sermon. The text was treated well and was effectively recreated in the sermon. The emphasis was on the Father not giving up on either son. The problem was that the student did just what many preachers are taught to do: treat the text and leave it there, do not go beyond the pericope, stay with the text at hand and make some connections to today.

Another student mentioned that Democratic political commentator James Carville wrote on a blackboard in a brainstorming session, “It’s about the economy, stupid!” and Bill Clinton saw it and decided that that would be the slogan for his campaign for president – this student wondered if maybe a version of that is true for preaching, “It’s about Jesus Christ, stupid!” The message was a little too blunt, but if one goes into a church and looks at the baptismal font, the communion table, the cross, the stained glass windows, the Bible, the hymn books, one is reminded of its truth.

Perhaps all preachers need to remind themselves, “It’s about Jesus Christ.” Not that every sermon must get to Christ, or that one speaks of Christ to the exclusion of the other persons of the Trinity, but why not remind listeners where faith is rooted and ethical life is made possible? Why not give them one of the best reasons to believe?

With that particular student sermon, even the fact that it was preached in Lent would have been reason to connect the parable with the cross and resurrection in some way. In fact, that student had wonderful set-up lines within the text itself, lines that suggest the larger story: To the prodigal the father says in effect, “You were dead and have come to life, you were lost and now are found.”

Does God in Christ not say those same words to each of us in our baptism, when we die to our old self and rise to our new? “You were dead and have come to life; you were lost and now are found.” To the elder son, the father says, “My child, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” God says those same words to the elder son in each of us. Paul knows it, when he says that nothing can “separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Are the father’s words not the words that each of us longs to hear God say, not just to us, but to all our neighbors, brothers and sisters all? When the words are right there in the preached text, waiting to be addressed to the hearers by God, why withhold that powerful expression of empowering love?

Proclamation – all the way through history one can find both teaching and proclamation in sermons, until sometime in the 1900s when proclamation becomes rare, with a broad exception of preaching in many African American traditions. Proclamation, at its best, provides for Jesus Christ to speak in His true identity, as the one who died and rose again for the people. In proclamation, the Gospel is uttered and it feels like good news.

God in Christ through the Holy Spirit takes the burden of responsibility from the hearer and accepts it as his own. God does what is needed, and hearers are invited and empowered to assent in faith and follow as disciples. Emil Brunner said of proclamation in the 1930s, it “is itself something other that doctrine. It is faith awakening, faith-furthering, faith-wooing address.”[1] Proclamation “means an event entirely personal, in the nature of a personal meeting”.[2] In this meeting, God in Christ and through the Holy Spirit speaks directly to us in a variety of ways.

Gerhard O. Forde served as professor of systematic theology at Luther Seminary in St. Paul. He argued that proclamation is missing from many pulpits. He defined it as “present-tense, first-to second person unconditional promise authorized by what occurs in Jesus Christ according to the scriptures.”[3] In other words, it is an unconditional declaration of good news from God.

Systematic theology clarifies and gives order to abstract thought but must inevitably lead to proclamation. Proclaiming is “more like a sacrament than other oral communication such as teaching or informing”.[4] In administering the sacraments, he says, “we do not merely say something, we do not merely impart information, we do something, we wash in water, we give bread and wine, to those who come …. We give it flat out.”[5]

Forde calls for proclaiming to be “a doing of the text to the hearers, a doing of what the text authorizes the preacher to do in the living present.”[6] He offers this wonderful example:

Where the text on the healing of the paralytic ends, for instance, with words to the effect that the people were “afraid and glorified God who had given such authority to men” the text virtually insists on what the next move has to be. The proclaimer must exercise the authority so granted. The proclaimer must so announce the forgiveness to those gathered here and now as to amaze them with the audacity of it all. Perhaps they will even glorify God once again. The proclaimer must, on the authority of Jesus, have the guts to do again in the living present, what was done once upon a time. The proclaimer must dare to believe that the very moment of proclamation is the moment planned and counted on by the electing God himself. The proclaimer is there to do the deed authorized, not merely to explain the deeds of the past.[7]

Proclamation does more than teach the text – it activates it; it performs in God’s name the effect of the text upon the hearer. It liberates, forgives, heals, empowers, whatever God intends in the now. It is an inbreaking of the future that marks the new creation happening around us. For Forde, proclamation is “the necessary and indispensable final move” in the sermon.[8] The sacraments extend, seal and deliver the proclamation; they work “by creating the faith which receives them.”[9]

Forde spoke of proclamation “doing the text to the people”; perhaps even stronger, it is doing the Gospel to the people. Not all texts contain the Gospel, but arguably they all point to it if one reads with the larger Christian story in view. In proclamation, the Gospel is uttered and God in Christ through the Holy Spirit takes the burden of responsibility from the hearer and accepts it as his own. God does what is needed, and hearers are invited and empowered to assent in faith and follow as disciples. In the Spirit, Christ communicates His own identity to the hearers in transforming power.

Proclamation was common in preaching throughout history, but became less common in the 1900s. What might it sound like? At the end of the Beatitudes, Jesus tells the disciples to offer the other cheek, give one’s cloak, go the extra mile and love one’s enemies (Matthew 5:38-48), all of which is condemnation to us because none of us can do what is required. (As Paul says, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” Romans 2:19)

By identifying an echo between Jesus’ sermon on the mountain and his journey to the cross on our behalf (i.e., Jesus does all of these things on Good Friday), we can appreciate his concluding words, “Be perfect, therefore, even as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Christ perfects the law. Our perfection comes through our faith in Him and the empowerment we receive through His resurrection.

In the story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-9), Jesus comes along the road in Jericho and Zacchaeus hears about this and climbs up a sycamore tree because “He was trying to see who Jesus was.” And when Jesus sees him, he says to him, calling him by name, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” And later he says, “Today salvation has come to this house.”

It is one thing to teach or retell that story and say how Jesus ate with sinners and inspired Zacchaeus to give away half his wealth and to repay fourfold any fraudulent gains. As it is, such teaching is encouraging, but it leaves the hearers to imitate Zacchaeus, to set right our own lives. The first paragraph below develops good news from the text, the second connects to the larger faith story through the echo of “tree” in the text and “cross,” and the echo between what Jesus says to Zacchaeus and what He says to us in His resurrection:

We have seen Zacchaeus climb up a tree, as the text says, “to see who Jesus is.” No man of wealth and dignity would run, much less climb a tree. Zacchaeus was short of stature in more ways than one; he came up short in the eyes of his neighbours. He had wealth but little dignity. By climbing up in that sycamore, he could see Jesus. He could see the One who called his name. Without ever having met him, he could see the One who would invite himself to his house. He could see the One who would make him want to make amends with his neighbours. There in full view was One who would make him to want to give away half of his goods to the poor and restore any ill-gotten wealth to its owners. Up there he could see the One who would bring salvation to his home.

No matter how high in that tree Zacchaeus climbed, he would not be able to see the hill outside Jerusalem, nor the tree upon that hill that Jesus would climb. He climbed up it so that the whole world would be able to see who he is. Jesus says to us from the cross, “If you want to see who I am, look here. I climbed this tree so that you would not have to. I love you and I die your death for you.” From that cross he says to us, “I must stay at your house today. Your wrongs I give you the power to right, your quarrels I give you the power to resolve, your relationships I mend, your tears I wipe away, your blindness I heal, your deafness I unstop, your loneliness I visit, your hunger I feed, today I bring salvation to your house.

The point I am making is for us to preach the biblical text, but not to stop there. Take the creative and imaginative step of linking your text to the larger Gospel story. Proclamation is an impassioned kind of utterance that is authentic to you and is rooted in faith. Whatever you sound like when you are excited about some topic, let that kind of excitement and passion come through in your preaching, because you have reason to be excited. You are giving people Jesus Christ, you are doing the Gospel to them, you are giving them life itself.

Lest preachers think that proclamation is something new, I cite Melito of Sardis (died c. 180), the author of the second oldest surviving Christian sermon outside of the Bible. He uses proclamation in the form of an impassioned summary of the attributes of Christ.

“He [Christ] arrived on earth from the heavens for the sake of the one who suffered. He clothed himself in the sufferer by means of a virgin’s womb and came forth as a human being. He took to himself the sufferings of the sufferer by means of a body capable of suffering, and he destroyed the sufferings of the flesh. By a Spirit incapable of death he killed off death, the homicide.

This is the one who like a lamb was carried off and like a sheep was sacrificed. He redeemed us from slavery to the cosmos as from the land of Egypt and loosed us from slavery to the devil as from the hand of Pharaoh. And he sealed our souls with his own Spirit and the limbs of our body with his own blood. This is the one who covered death with shame and made a mourner of the devil, just as Moses did Pharaoh. This is the one who struck lawlessness a blow and made injustice childless, as Moses did Egypt. This is the one who rescued us from slavery into liberty, from darkness into light, from death into life, from a tyranny into an eternal kingdom (and made us a new priesthood, and a peculiar eternal people).

He is the Passover of our salvation. He is the one who in many folk bore many things. He is the one who was murdered [as was] the person of Abel, bound [as was] the person of Isaac, exiled [as was] the person of Jacob, sold [as was] the person of Joseph, exposed [as was] the person of Moses, sacrificed [as was] the person of the lamb, persecuted [as was] the person of David, dishonored [as was] the person of the prophets. This is the one who was made flesh in a virgin, hanged upon the wood, entombed in the earth, raised from the dead, lifted up to the heights of the heavens. He is the speechless lamb. He is the lamb who was slaughtered. He is the one born of Mary the beautiful ewe. He is the one who was taken from the flock and dragged to slaughter and killed at evening and buried at night, who was not crushed on the cross, was not dissolved into the earth, who rose from the dead and raised humanity from the grave below.[10]

This example of proclamation from the second century still communicates powerfully, even in translation. Not all proclamation needs to be so impassioned, long, or structured with rhetorical flourish, as indeed most of our own forms of proclamation would be more modest.

The difference between teaching and proclamation becomes clearest when we hold them alongside each other. The border is porous, but in general we may say:

  1. Teaching is informational in purpose, whereas proclamation is transformational. The Gospel comes as a summons of good news: “Jesus says, ‘I died for you.’”
  2. Teaching focuses on what people are to do, think and believe. With proclamation, what God does now is highlighted: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me” (Luke 7:22-23).
  3. Teaching talks about various topics and generally falls short of doing the Word. With proclamation, listeners are introduced to God and cast a) on divine resources and power in the present and future in the name of Jesus Christ, and b) on divine promises concerning the end times.
  4. Teaching points to God but it leaves one in the old creation, saying with Mary and Martha, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:21, 32). With proclamation, we say what Mary and Martha in effect said in the new creation, “Because you are here, my brother is alive.”

Proclamation is more than instruction. It is the empowering words that Christ says to the Church to equip it for ministry. The proclaimed Word slays death. It brings in a new era. It gives people life, identity, community and mission. Proclamation invites certainty and confidence, calls for confession of faith, and evokes service of Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit. In short, proclamation takes information about God and sets it on fire.

  1. Brunner, Truth as Encounter, 178.
  2. Brunner, Truth as Encounter, 179.
  3. Gerhard O. Forde, Theology is for Proclamation (Fortress, 1990), 2.
  4. Forde, 147.
  5. Forde, 148.
  6. Forde, 155.
  7. Forde, 156-57.
  8. Forde, 5.
  9. Forde, 164. The material here on Forde I have also cited in Setting Words on Fire: Putting God at the Center of the Sermon (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2008), 85-87, where I give a fuller treatment of proclamation and teaching.
  10. Melito of Sardis, “Sermon on the Passover,” in Richard A. Norris, Jr., ed. & trans., The Christological Controversy, Sources of Early Christian Thought (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980), 33-47. Reprinted in O. C. Edwards Jr., A History of Preaching, Vol. 2 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2004), 13-14. The translation uses the word “in” at every place I have inserted the words “as was”; even given early Church trust in typology and in the Old Testament as prophetic of Christ, this substitution is easier for us to understand.