September 6, 2017

Renewing the Covenant

Good preaching—and good listening— is ultimately doxology, the way we worship Jesus with our minds.

Bill Knott

Every Sabbath, in every place where believers gather around God’s Word, a holy covenant unfolds that features what one famous preacher called “the foolishness of preaching” (see 1 Cor 1:21).

This covenant is rarely heard or written down, but functions in that hopeful space between the preacher’s lips and all who lend their ears.

In its ideal form, the covenant is made anew each time one party stands behind a pulpit or the other is seated in a pew. But, truth be told, it’s also frequently nullified through inattention, lack of effort or preparation, or stubbornness that never yields. On many days, in many places, it’s still a fragile covenant, for it is made by broken and unfocused sinners—like preachers and their hearers.

The preacher—Anglo or Hispanic; African or African American; seasoned or beginning; male or female—is offering these terms:

“I’m bringing you the living and active Word of God, which describes itself as ‘sharper than a two-edged sword.’ You shouldn’t be surprised that it will sometimes make you feel uncomfortable, even when I’d rather offer you smooth words. I’m not yet comfortable with the Word I’m sharing, for I have placed myself under its authority, just as I’m asking you to do.

Good preaching—and good listening—is ultimately doxology, the way we worship Jesus with our minds.

“I’ve lived and wrestled with this Word through hours—days—of studying and prayer, because I won’t bring something undeserving of your time and your attention. You may trust that what I share is shaped by my commitment to obey the Lord and be faithful to His teachings. These words are nothing light or trifling: I’m asking for your ears today because I believe that this is what the Spirit is saying to the church—today. Remember, please, I’m also preaching to myself.”

The listener—who may be scribbling on a tithe envelope or making copious notes on a sermon worksheet—is offering these terms:

“I’m quieting my life this hour to do that most unusual of tasks—allowing another human being to speak unfiltered truth into my life. I acknowledge my usual contrariness—the habit of disagreeing just because I can. But for these moments I’ll willingly suspend my disbelief because you say the Word you preach is not your own, but something vital Jesus knows I need to hear. With prayer and all the clarity I have, I won’t go chasing rabbits while you preach. I dare not miss God’s Word, which will, regardless of your words, discern the thoughts and intentions of my heart.

“I’ll make new room for both familiar truths and difficult ideas as I listen, trusting you won’t shape your words to things you think might win my smiles or my applause. I’ll offer you my tears and joy, my hope and deepest longing, for I have pledged I won’t go home the person that I was.”

And where such covenants are made—where preachers and their listeners consciously pledge their deep allegiance to the Word—the Body grows; its wounds are healed; revival coals are fanned to flame.

This is, some say, a fantasy—an unreal, even impossible, arrangement, for who could expect such solemn stuff at midday on a Sabbath?

And the answer is: “We can. We must. We do.”

Until we Adventists make such covenants our norm; until we give the Word—from both directions—all the seriousness it deserves, we are just filling time and winnowing some concepts.

Good preaching—and good listening—is ultimately doxology, the way we worship Jesus with our minds. We have a right to mutually expect that all who preach and all who listen will be attentive to the Word—will bring to this unrivaled hour the best that human praise can give.

So who will make a covenant with me?