Woes and Whoas

Woman holding her head in darkness
Photo by Anh Nguyen on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

I am going to date myself here. Growing up, I learned a lot of grammar, and a decent amount of science, economics, history, mathematics, and civics (at least according to Wikipedia1) on Saturday mornings when Schoolhouse Rock episodes aired in between cartoons (1973-1984). I didn’t know this when I was watching Scooby Doo and Bugs Bunny in 1974, but Schoolhouse Rock was an “American interstitial programming series of animated musical educational short films.” All I knew was that I had a pretty good handle on conjunctions and adverbs, and I can still sing most of the songs.

One of my favorites was a lesson on interjections:

Interjections (Aw!) show excitement (Darn!) or emotion (Hurray!).
They’re generally set apart from a sentence by an exclamation point,
Or by a comma when the feeling’s not as strong.

So when you’re happy (Hurray!) or sad (Aw!)
Or frightened (Eeeeeek!) or mad (Rats!)
Or excited (Wow!) or glad (Hey!)
An interjection starts a sentence right.

Think Schoolhouse Rock and interjections when you read the “woes” in Luke. Look up “woe” in any Greek lexicon and it will tell you—interjection. Luke, well, Jesus, is not about pitting blessings against curses or favor against judgment. Jesus is trying to get the disciples’ attention. He is trying to get our attention.

In the verses leading up to Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, on a mountain, Jesus has just named apostles from the crowd of his disciples and these blessings and woes on the plain are his first words to the newly commissioned. “Whoa! Stop right there! Before we go any further, here’s what you need to know.” And what follows is the Sermon in Nazareth, Part 2. Of course, with the apportioned section assigned for this Sunday, Jesus is just getting started. There are 22 more verses, 11 of which we hear the last Sunday after the Epiphany. Listen up, people!

I know. You can’t preach on an interjection, right? Or can you?

We preachers are usually fixated on the content of our sermons—the lesson, the point, the focus. And if we are honest, there’s a bit of anxiety with this part of preaching. Even though we know it’s not true, we want to get the right meaning—not “the” meaning, of course. If there existed “the” meaning of a biblical passage, we would have been out of a job a long time ago. But we do hope to find the right meaning for the time, place, purpose, and people. The message we think our community of faith needs to hear.

But also important is the effect, the function, of a sermon. What do you want your sermon to do? That’s frequently the harder task. Instinctively we know that sermons are never meant simply to be information about Jesus or about God. But I think we get nervous when we imagine that God’s Word, through our sermons, could actually do something—inspire, console, give hope, encourage, call out. Challenge, comfort, disrupt, disturb, reassure, empower.

“Whoa! Here’s what’s important, disciples of mine. Whoa! Here’s what you need to hold on to.” Remember, in Luke, Jesus will make his way to Jerusalem early on, “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51). Ten chapters is a lot of attention given to the inevitable. Pay attention.

I think “whoa” is exactly what we need to hear right now. A message from Jesus that pulls us up short. Makes us acknowledge what is truly important about our calling and what we believe. What is at stake for us in our ministry. What we hold on to, no matter what comes our way. And “whoas” or “woes” seem especially appropriate for the season of Epiphany. Revelations, manifestations, epiphanies of the glory of God are “whoa-ful” moments.

Perhaps you have read or heard about the recent Opinion in the New York Times about online church. The author maintains that it’s time to drop online worship, making an argument based on the incarnation, “offering church online implicitly makes embodiment elective.”2 Of course, this means, “no longer offering a streaming option will unfortunately mean that those who are homebound or sick will not be able to participate in a service.” Whoa! “Really?! Seriously?” was the comeback of Shannon Dingle’s article in Religion News. Dingle responded with, Do you realize you have just remarginalized those for whom online church was an action of liberation?3 I suspect Jesus would have rejoined with a few of his own “whoas” as well.

Whoa! Is the reaction when claims about Christianity go against what we know to be the truth of Gospel. Whoa! Is the reply when conjectures about the purpose of Jesus’ ministry uphold privilege and reimprison the oppressed. Whoa! Is the response when assumptions about what church should be go against what we have lived the last two years. Trust your “whoas.” Trust why you utter those “whoas.” And give voice to those “whoas,” dear Working Preachers. When you are happy or sad. Or frightened or mad. Or excited or glad, a Gospel “whoa,” a holy “whoa,” starts the sentence right.



    1. Wikipedia, “Schoolhouse Rock!”: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schoolhouse_Rock!
    2. Tish Harrison Warren, “Why Churches Should Drop their Online Services,” New York Times, Jan. 30, 2022: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/30/opinion/church-online-services-covid.html
    3. Shannon Dingle, “Quitting online church is abandoning the one fo the 99,” Religion News Service, Feb. 2, 2022: https://religionnews.com/2022/02/02/quitting-online-church-is-abandoning-the-one-for-the-99/