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The other day my family and I ordered Chinese food from a local restaurant that we love. Along with our lo mein, sweet and sour chicken and fried rice (and a substantial dose of cholesterol that I don’t want to think about) each member of my family received a fortune cookie to top off the feast. It’s become something of a tradition in our family that after we finish our meal we each read our fortunes to one another.
Here’s what my fortune read: “Financial blessing will soon come your way.”
Now, my partner’s fortune read, “Follow your passion,” which we all agreed was not really a fortune at all and my daughter’s read, “Your great attention to detail will open doors for you.” She’s six. We each laughed about our respective fortunes and set about our evening bedtime rituals.
As I loaded the dishwasher that evening, I found myself wrestling with possible means by which my fortune might come to fruition. I’m currently seeking an academic post. Was this the sign that I would soon find employment at a seminary or divinity school? My partner is working toward a promotion at her institution. Might financial blessings indeed be on the horizon?
After running through many other possible scenarios in my mind -- including the possibility of winning the lottery, which I don’t play -- something donned on me. Why in the world was I putting stock in a silly aphorism that some random person slipped into a piece of baked flour coated in sugar and vanilla? I don’t believe that fortune cookies bear any impact on my future and yet here I was pondering ways that such events might come to pass.
That got me thinking about the power we preachers yield when we proclaim God’s promises. For instance, when we proclaim the words, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; God will never leave you nor forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6), what effect does this have upon our congregants?
How powerful for our congregants are the words of Paul when he proclaims, “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39)? Or when he declares that “the One who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6), how might this alter one’s disposition, even one’s life?
We preachers must never forget that our congregants and parishioners have their being in a world marked by uncertainty. Political unrest, economic challenges, international threats, and environmental degradation are ubiquitous facets of the daily news. People crave a word that might bolster their faith, to persevere in acts of justice and compassion.
Moreover, the promises of God have never faced greater competition -- horoscopes, self-help books, and self-proclaimed gurus drown out the word of hope and assurance we offer our flocks each week. At such at time we cling to the words of Karl Barth:
[God] is the theos aphthartos (1 Tim. 1:17), "the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change" (Jas. 1:17). . . . Because [God] is faithful, the word of the apostle cannot be Yes and No (2 Cor. 1:18). The basis and source of all these statements is clear. It is not to be found in any certainty or constancy of any faith in God, love of God, hope in God, or abstract speculation about God, of which those who speak thus about God might boast. God's Son, Jesus Christ, is not Yes and No, but what took place in him was simply Yes. The promises of God given to us in him are Yes and Amen (2 Cor. 1:19f.).1
May we follow the Swiss preacher’s example and declare the promises of God with a commensurate measure of boldness and alacrity. It might be just the thing that our congregants need to hear.
1Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics. IV/4, trans. G. W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981), 19.