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Cornelius Plantinga, Jr.

Dancing the Edge of Mystery

The new homiletics celebrates pilgrimage, not propositions.

Every Sunday they do it again: four or five hundred thousand ministers stand before listeners and preach a sermon to them in the English language. If the sermon works—if it "takes"—a primary cause will be the secret ministry of the Holy Spirit, moving mysteriously through a congregation and inspiring Scripture all over again as it's preached. Part of the mystery is that the Spirit blows where it wills, and with peculiar results. As every preacher knows, a nicely crafted sermon sometimes falls flat. People listen to it with mild interest, and then they go home. On other Sundays a preacher will walk to the pulpit with a sermon that has been only roughly framed up in her mind. The preacher has been busy all week with weddings, funerals, and youth retreats, and on Sunday morning she isn't ready to preach. Miraculously, her rough sermon arises in its might and gathers people to God.

Strange things happen when a minister preaches. After the service, people thank the preacher for things she didn't say, or for things she did say but hadn't understood as well as the listener had. Our words can be "wiser than we are," said Ben Belitt, and never more so than when the Spirit of God is in the building. On such occasions, as Barbara Brown Taylor (1993) writes, "something happens between the preacher's lips and the congregation's ears that is beyond prediction or explanation."

But the unpredictability of the preaching event gives no one license to wing it. Faithful preachers work hard on their sermons, understanding that although a fruitful result may be God's gift, hard work is the preacher's calling. To help with this calling, authors write books that address every conceivable facet of preaching. Leona Tisdale (1997) writes of the preacher's calling to exegete not only Scripture, but also her congregation, so that her preaching achieves a genuinely local character. Never letting go of the universal gospel, the preacher must theologically and artistically customize her ...

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