10 January 2013

I've been reading Excellence in Preaching: Studying the Craft of Leading Preachers by Simon Vibert, and was just copy-pasting my Kindle highlights today to try and organize them for some takeaways. While doing so, I was struck by a quote in the book's closing section on the interplay of Word, Spirit, and the person of the preacher. I googled part of the text quoted, and was even more struck. I don' t think we say "unction" that much anymore; we probably say "anointing," but still. Check this out:

UNCTION is that indefinable, indescribable something which an old, renowned Scotch preacher describes thus: "There is sometimes somewhat in preaching that cannot be ascribed either to matter or expression, and cannot be described what it is, or from whence it cometh, but with a sweet violence it pierceth into the heart and affections and comes immediately from the Word; but if there be any way to obtain such a thing, it is by the heavenly disposition of the speaker."

We call it unction. It is this unction which makes the word of God "quick and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart." It is this unction which gives the words of the preacher such point, sharpness, and power, and which creates such friction and stir in many a dead congregation....
This divine unction is the feature which separates and distinguishes true gospel preaching from all other methods of presenting the truth, and which creates a wide spiritual chasm between the preacher who has it and the one who has it not. It backs and impregnates revealed truth with all the energy of God. Unction is simply putting God in his own word and on his own preachers. 

Did you hear that? Putting God in his own word and on his own preachers. The phrase is a bit clunky, as if we could take God and insert him somewhere, but it does make me wonder whether what it is getting at is even on the radar for most of us who preach today. (I am thinking here of those who preach sermons in worship services, not of people who work in a context where nearly the entire gathering consists of an interesting, often practical, extemporaneous talk -- a noble and useful Christian enterprise with some highly gifted practitioners, but I'm not sure it's the same genre as what I think of as preaching.)

Anyway, in my most cynical moments, I've commented that a lot of preaching I hear seems to be seeking to answer the question "How can I fill 12 minutes?" Better preaching: "How can I convey some aspect of this text faithfully in dialogue with this congregation's world?" Even better, "What would God have me say from this text to these people?" But the question presumed here seems to be more like "How do I let God get involved as I speak?"
...This unction comes to the preacher not in the study but in the closet. It is heaven's distillation in answer to prayer. It is the sweetest exhalation of the Holy Spirit. It impregnates, suffuses, softens, percolates, cuts, and soothes. It carries the Word like dynamite, like salt, like sugar; makes the Word a soother, an arranger, a revealer, a searcher; makes the hearer a culprit or a saint, makes him weep like a child and live like a giant; opens his heart and his purse as gently, yet as strongly as the spring opens the leaves. This unction is not the gift of genius. It is not found in the halls of learning. No eloquence can woo it. No industry can win it. No prelatical hands can confer it. It is the gift of God -- the signet set to his own messengers....
I once heard a brief sermon preached by a retired clergyperson filling in at a small congregation whose priest was away -- this is not a joke -- whose entire message was that clergy who took significant time to prepare sermons, and in particular clergy who actually wrote them out, did so purely because their arrogant self-absorption made them oblivious to the fact that congregations were not interested in the Bible or theology and that, therefore, they were just wasting people's time and stroking their own egos. I believe there was then a closing bit about how we all had equally valuable insights into spirituality, or something like that, and that everyone should feel free to say whatever we thought.

I would like to think that extremely low view of the role of the pulpit is not a widely held opinion, but when I hear remarks in that ballpark -- which is not common, but not rare either -- my reaction is always that the person saying them has probably never heard a really good sermon, never had the experience being described above. Heck, I've organized vacation dates around getting to hear preachers whom I knew had good odds of delivering the experience described above. Why don't more of us care, really care, about this?

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