Craft of Preaching

Sermon Development

Tips for effective proclamation, from advance prep work to gathering feedback.

Rebooting Your Translation

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"New Brighton Pier," Image by Ben via Flickr, licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0


A recent State Farm commercial depicts how a shift in context can dramatically change the meanings of words: “Is this my car?!”—with joy, glee, delight; “Is this my car?!”—with fear, shock, despair. It’s a clever reminder of the ways that words can mean drastically different things based on the situation.

But what about when the words themselves change, and in doing so, drastically change our view of the situation?

A dear colleague, mentor, and friend has the beautiful spiritual discipline of posting on Facebook each morning a picture of a sunrise and a prayer from Luke 1:78-79. I love this discipline of his, because as I have seen it appear on my Facebook feed for the past few years, it has started to train me in different ways: to see the sacred in the new day. To be on the lookout for when the holy is happening. To share with others when I encounter the divine.

I was thinking about this discipline of his a few mornings ago, when our daughter asked if we could pick some flowers from our garden to bring for "Show and Share" at her school. As we walked in the cool, wet stillness and the hazy early morning glow, all I could think was, "This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it."

Which, of course, led me to think of my very first Psalms lecture from Dr. Rolf Jacobson and his assertion, which I've never forgotten, that although the Hebrew is unclear, this verse more likely means, “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in God.”

I love and still use the translation with which I was raised -- there's nothing like a Bible verse that you sang as a little pipsqueak. But I also love the shift in meaning of the second one. And as I've dwelled with this second translation over the past few years, it has broadened my view of the original text. I've always thought that the original verse, while lovely, implies a certain lack of sensitivity to what the day itself might actually hold.

If we are to rejoice and be glad in the day itself simply because God made it, what about those days that are so awful, so disappointing, so heart-wrenching that they cannot produce joy or gladness? Are we then to fault those for whom rejoicing on those difficult days is too much? For some people, rejoicing simply because the day itself is a gift from God may be grace, gospel, a boon; but for others, being told to rejoice on the day your life shifted, jerked, ended, is nothing short of perpetuating the trauma.

But a call to rejoice, on any day, in the God who made the days...it's a subtle shift in translation, perhaps, but a profound one:

This is the day that the Lord has made: this beautiful, glorious, joy-filled morning, where the sun is shining, the loved ones are healthy, the world is momentarily at peace; this is the day that was made by God the Creator, whose power stretches from mountain tops to ocean depths, at whose word the molten core of the earth was formed. Let us rejoice and be glad in Him.

This is the day that the Lord has made: this sad, heartbreaking, tragedy-filled day, where the news is breaking, loved ones are dying, the health, the peace, the life has been snatched away; this is the day where the terror is breaking, the victims become oppressors, the weight is beyond our bearing; and yet, this is the day that was made by Jesus the Redeemer, who comes to bind the bleeding, to unchain the tormented, to bring all to God’s holy mountain. Let us rejoice and be glad in Her.

This is the day that the Lord has made: this confusing, limbo, ordinary day, where nothing seems clear, loved ones are fighting, the life that we dreamed of turns out to be more mundane or more momentary or just more than we could handle; this is the day where we no longer recognize ourselves, our loved ones, our world; this is the day that was made by the Spirit of Life, who comes, guides, breathes, nudges, calls us into new, scary, wonderful ways of being -- even when we can't see it. Let us rejoice and be glad in God.

As I mulled over the possibilities of this new translation, I realized that the ultimate purpose of the recognition of this day as God’s is to lead us to God; to the presence of the Triune God and to whichever posture in the face of that presence that our battered bodies most badly need: head held high in terrifying triumph; knees bowed in humble repentance; hands outstretched, trembling with the possibility of actually touching the body of Christ in the world.

Hearing this new translation of an old, beloved verse was fruitful; it sparked a subtly but powerfully different understanding of how I might relate to God on the days where rejoicing is impossible. And all it took was the subtle shift of one word in the translation.

So this is a suggestion for a way out of a rut: Find a new translation for your Sunday morning prep. NRSV, NIV, CEB, JPS, NAB, The Message -- read it alongside your preferred translation. Which words get changed that you love, that open up new possibilities to you? Which words get changed that you can’t stand? There may be a sermon there, too. This is a discipline that could, in time, not only give busy preachers a good sermon hook, but might even start to train you in different ways: to see the sacred anew in the old, old story. To be on the lookout for when the holy is happening in a familiar text. And to share with others the ways in which you have been encountered by the Divine One in His/Her Living, Loving Word.

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