The Perils of Familiarity

Are we, as preachers, tempted to take shortcuts when re-preaching familiar texts?

The longer I preach, the more difficult I find it to approach a text as though I were reading it for the first time. I even wonder if it might be an occupational hazard, this becoming so comfortable with the text that we frequently overlook its hidden mysteries. It is so easy to rely upon past revelation and skip the hard work of studying, pondering, and living with the text that separates a preacher from one who merely delivers a sermon.

As I look forward to Isaiah 40:21-31 in Epiphany 5b I feel the peril of familiarity as I my eyes quickly scan the text to the familiar comforting words of verse 31: “… those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength.” These words of comfort have accompanied me through dissertations, difficult pastoral appointments, the death of loved ones and other difficult circumstances. Precious as these words are, they and I have become too familiar. I read them as though I already understand them, or as though I had nothing else to learn from the incredible claims of the prophet.

And, because I have scanned the passage too quickly, eyes dancing across the lines looking for my old familiar friend, verse 31, I have unwittingly obscured the profound impact of the beginning of the section: Have you not known? Have you not heard? In my haste to make my way to my beloved favorite verse, I missed the faith-forming affirmations of the beginning of the chapter describing the power and majesty of the Almighty God who has promised to renew our strength!

We often read (and preach) Isaiah 40:31 as though it were all about us. Look at me: I can run, I can fly! But, Isaiah 40:21-31 is a lection with dual focus. Isaiah 40:21-26 directs us to look at God, who has limitless power and authority. It is only when we turn inward, ruefully counting our own feeble resources through the lens of verses 27-31, that we come to realize the impact of the prophetic proposition. The God of infinite power and mercy both remembers who we are and offers to empower us!

Without the profound descriptions of a God so grand that we look like grasshoppers by comparison, the offer is toothless. For those who have never heard, or never known this good news about God, the pronouncements of the prophet are meaningless. The passage is not all about us; it is all about God — with good news implications for us.

Thoughtless cuddling with familiar texts is perilous for preachers and for those who listen to our sermons. The theological implications of rushing past Isaiah 40: 21-30 to my friend, verse 31, are more than mere oversight. A sermon that gives a passing nod to God while lingering with the implications for us risks falling into the snare of our “me-centered” culture. Without realizing it, the preacher could easily shift the focus of the sermon from Thou to I!

What’s a preacher to do with familiar texts? Nearly 15 years ago I lost ten years of sermon files while serving overseas as a missionary. A computer virus ruined all my electronic sermon files one day and a few days later, ants crawled into the computer that held the backup files. Within months of this tragedy, the paper files of those sermons were destroyed in a freak flood in the United States that filled our parents’ basement with six feet of water! My first temptation was to reconstruct old sermons in my mind when I preached on familiar texts. Over time, I learned to view this clean slate as a blessing from God because I was forced approach many texts as though I had never seen them before.

Maybe it is time to burn all our old sermon files — or at least to pretend that we do not know where they are.