Birds, Thorns, and Other Surprising Responses to God’s Word

Song Sparrow(Creative Commons Image by Mark Sardella on Flickr)

Dear Working Preachers,

The “Word of God” is an elusive and complicated topic, isn’t it? What comes to mind for people in the pews when they hear “Word of God”? What do they picture? What do they envision? A big, dusty Bible on a shelf in the family room that they never read? A worn and tattered-paged confirmation Bible on their bedside table that they read every night? The lessons that are printed in the bulletin every week that they then toss in the garbage or the recycling bin if there is one? Just what is the Word of God anyway? Do not be afraid. I am certainly not recommending that you preach a sermon on the doctrine of the Word of God. I suspect that would be incredibly boring. And God forgive us when we make the Word of God boring.

But I do speculate whether an answer to that question would be anything other what seems obvious — the Word of God is a book or words from the Bible printed somewhere, whether in a bulletin, an insert or on a projection screen. The Word of God is words.

I wonder if anyone might conjecture that the Word of God could be an experience. After all, the Word of God did become flesh. Those who met Jesus in his ministry did not just think, “Wow, he’s got some good stuff to say.” No, somehow the words and the encounter were inseparable. The words could not be understood without the particular experience in which they were heard.

The biblical passages for this week, particularly from Isaiah and Matthew, suggest that the Word of God is an experience. And listening is the key to that experience.

It’s not about how much fruit is produced. It’s about the way in which God’s Word has taken hold in you.

Remember, the Bible was written to be heard. It’s full of rhetorical devices from which preachers could learn a lot about how to communicate effectively. Walter Ong describes the biblical writings as “textualized orality” or “residually oral.” Sometimes we forget that the Bible was first and foremost an oral experience until translations started showing up in earnest in the 15th century. No one got a copy of Galatians in the church newsletter. When Paul’s messenger, perhaps the scribe that dictated Paul’s thoughts, arrived at the church in Galatia, there was a full church meeting, maybe even with a potluck to get more people to come. Knowing Paul, I’m quite certain this was not his only correspondence with the Galatians.

But this particular letter included in the New Testament somehow stood out and said something important about believing in Jesus that reached beyond the Galatian church. It was not a systematic treatise on justification by faith. It was a real letter to a real church with something really critical at stake. No one gets to ponder Paul’s words in the privacy of their home. No one is afforded the opportunity to say, “Interesting, Paul. I’ll have to think about that and get back to you.” They have to deal with it then and now and together and then answer the questions, “What did you hear?” and “Now what?”

What I am suggesting is that maybe you craft a sermon where Matthew’s parable might actually work. Create a real experience of the parable. That means asking people to close their bulletins. No peeking in the pew Bibles. Have them sit down. And just listen.

Start your sermon with Matthew 13:9, “Let anyone with ears listen.” The verb “to listen” is in present tense. To hear God’s Word is not a one-time occurrence but an ongoing characteristic of discipleship. Listening is essential to discipleship. And then ask: What did you hear? Where are you in this parable? Or better yet, when and how have you felt all of these responses to God’s Word? And why? And what do you experience in this listening today? Invite them to imagine that hearing God’s word has had different effects on them at different times. And in this sermon you are providing them with an imagination that what they hear on Sunday morning is not static but dynamic. Not fixed but ever meaningful. That their response to what they hear is just as important as what they hear. That what the Word of God does is just as important as what it says.

Unpack each element of the parable that Jesus later explains not with the goal to determine a set reaction to the Word, something like “you better be this” but to create space to reflect on when and how and why we might respond differently to what we hear God saying.

Play with the parable before you move immediately to Jesus’ explanation. In fact, don’t read out loud Jesus’ explanation at all. Just let it inform your sermon. Let the parable do what it wants to do. Then the Word of God will really be experienced. Ask in your sermon: When have you sensed that you heard God’s Word, only to have it make no sense at all? When have you realized that while you think you have heard God speaking, you question what you know, what you have learned, and if any doubt or discrepancy or discord arises because of what you have heard, either with others or within your own embedded theology, you question that which God’s word can do (Isaiah 55:11)?

When have you felt that, as much as you try to listen to and abide in God’s Word, there is just too much around you that makes more sense? That there is too much circumspection about whether this really matters? And you intuit that any hold you had on some sort of foundational truth has been obstructed by that which offers fleeting, yet more logical, satisfaction?

In the end, preach the promise that in those grace-filled times when everything seems to come together, when what you have heard from and about God, what your life tells you, what your community affirms, then the fruit you bear is indeed as unique as your hearing (Matt 13:23). It’s not about how much fruit is produced. It’s about the way in which God’s Word has taken hold in you. This is not a competition about who hears God’s Word better. It’s about what the hearing creates in you.

Blessings in your preaching this week.