By Paul Koch –
Hanging on the wall of my study, right below the clock and next to the door that leads out to the sanctuary, is a small framed print of Luther’s Sacristy Prayer. I have fallen into the habit of reciting this prayer as I put on my vestments each Sunday and prepare to begin the service. The prayer is, as follows:
“O Lord God, dear Father in heaven, I am indeed unworthy of the office and ministry in which I am to make known Thy glory and to nurture and to serve this congregation.
“But since Thou hast appointed me to be a pastor and teacher, and the people are in need of the teachings and the instructions, O be Thou my helper and let Thy holy angels attend me.
“Then if Thou art pleased to accomplish anything through me, to Thy glory and not to mine or to the praise of men, grant me, out of Thy pure grace and mercy a right understanding of Thy Word and that I may also diligently perform it.
“O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, Thou Shepherd and Bishop of our souls, send Thy Holy Spirit that He may work with me, yea, that He may work in me to will and to do through Thy divine strength according to Thy good pleasure. Amen.”
The prayer is a real gem, and like all great prayers it puts into words our fears and hopes. The prayer gives voice to the reality that I am unworthy for the task I am called to do. It gives me the words to call upon God to do His great work through me and reminds me to trust that He will not be deterred by my weakness. But what I really treasure about this prayer is the end of third line,
“Grant me, out of Thy pure grace and mercy a right understanding of Thy Word and that I may also diligently perform it.”
“Diligently perform it;” There is something striking and profound about that phrase. It gives focus and shape to just what the pastor is to do as a preacher; he is to perform the Word of God. But what is it to perform the Word? Is it to speak about it, to retell it, to illustrate it, to enlighten it? What?
I think that Gerhard Forde is extremely helpful here. In his great work, Theology Is for Proclamation, he makes a useful distinction between the primary and secondary discourse of the church. He says, “Proclamation belongs to the primary discourse of the church. Systematic theology belongs to its secondary discourse. Primary discourse is the direct declaration of the Word of God, this is, the Word from God, and the believing response in confession, prayer, and praise. Secondary discourse, words about God, is reflection on the primary discourse. As primary discourse, proclamation ideally is present-tense, first-to-second person unconditional promise authorized by what occurs in Jesus Christ according to the scriptures. The most apt paradigm for such speaking is the absolution: ‘I declare unto you the gracious forgiveness of all your sins in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.’”
If absolution is anything at all it is most certainly diligently performing the Word of God. It is actually doing God’s Word to someone else! I believe that it is this very thing that the preacher must do, in fact it is the very thing that he is called to do, with God and his holy angles attending to such a performance of his Word.
And yet, I have grown weary of the so-called great preachers that consistently fail to do just this. More often than not preaching is void of proclamation. My good friend asked the other evening, “Why is this so hard to do?” I really don’t know the answer, but the problem stretches across denominational divides and lingers in pulpits near and far. I’m tired of being encouraged to listen to this or that sermon only to be disappointed; all it really was is a great bible study or motivational lecture. There is nothing wrong with excellent teaching but at some point, if it is a sermon, it has to get to the performance of the Word!
Forde’s concern in 1990 is our present reality; “Proclamation gets displaced by explanation, teaching, lecturing, persuasion, ethical exhortation, or public display of emotion about Jesus.” Perhaps it’s time to call out preaching that never performs the Word. Maybe pastors need to challenge their colleagues, and congregations need to demand what has long been absent.
It’s time to make some noise; let the performance begin!