As we are all abundantly aware—and those who are not should switch to CNN and check out Wolf Blitzer in full Earth-Shattering-Breaking-News-24/7 mode—there have been a few big and unpleasant events on the world scene this past week, the most noteworthy of which have been Israel’s commencement of a ground offensive against Hamas into the Gaza and the Malaysian Air jetliner that was shot down over Ukraine, evidently by troops with advanced weapons and somewhat retarded training. I do not seek to comment on these events today, as people all over the planet, both religious and secular, have been and continue to be doing just that.
No, I have been reflecting and praying on all of this, of course, but not with my congregation. I was away at a conference last week, and am on vacation until next week. The plane went down on the last day of the conference I was attending, and I was actually waiting for my wife in a lobby of the college where the conference was held when the news was on a TV there. In the ensuing days, of course, there has been an overload of news about violence and unrest in the world, and people pondering whether life is getting worse, et cetera. I have had some time to reflect on that, but I am not commenting on that here, either.
So, here is what I am thinking about today, after not quite a week with these events (CNN is still in full crisis mode): I didn’t preach last Sunday. All of this is going on, and tensions are growing as fast as they did when Stanley Kubrick had Slim Pickens ride that bomb to oblivion in “Doctor Strangelove”, and, because of a trip that was planned before tensions in Ukraine had become an issue on the news, I was out of the pulpit on 20 July, and am still out of the pulpit this coming week. What’s more, this was a summer Sunday when my elders and deacons were leading worship without my presence, using a liturgy, a sermon, and prayers which I had prepared on July 4th. The lectionary had guided me to the story about Jacob’s ladder, and the sermon discussed how God keeps us wherever we go and no matter what we do, and the prayers were built around a hymn about walking with God.
And, as last Sunday drew closer, and I checked in on Facebook off and on, I saw messages and discussions from my colleagues about what they would preach and/or pray and how the lections for Sunday did or didn’t help them address what God was trying to say through them about all of this, and I got worried and felt guilty. I was over 600 miles away from my flock, and they had a sturdy but rather generic sermon to share, because it is difficult to preach on what is in the news before the news has happened. Still, there was nothing I could do without abandoning my wife, driving like a maniac, and teaching my congregation some rather inappropriate things about boundaries.
Then I recalled a story the late Erik Routley, a teacher and mentor of mine, told about preaching.
I am reminded of the great story of St. John Chrysostom, the great fourth-century preacher in Asia Minor . . . The people of his city and his church were in a condition of deep emergency. For some supposed offence against the will of that headstrong though often inspired emperor Theodosius they were in danger of being massacred by his troops. By some means a message got to the Emperor that caused him to stay his hand until their envoy had consulted with him. Tradition has it that the envoy was the aged priest Flavian, who journeyed all the way to Rome and back, and of course whose news of life or death could not be communicated to Chrysostom’s congregation until the double journey had been completed. The story is that during the time of profound anxiety Chrysostom, by preaching without deviating at any point from the prescribed lectionary, kept his people calm, dissuaded them from violent action against the troops of the Emperor, and preserved the peace until the news (which in the end was good) was delivered. There is no reason to disbelieve the substance of that. It was not necessary to preach a special series of sermons ‘on national emergency’ . . . people who could have degenerated into an angry and irrational mob stayed civilized (The Divine Formula, Prestige Publications, 1986, pp. 19-20).
It is our faith that saves us, we know, and our faith that gets us through times like this past week, as Heidelberg Catechism question and answer number 60 reminds us. And, as question and answer 65 tells us, that faith is nurtured by the preaching of the gospel and the celebration of the sacraments. And that nurture works even on the weeks when no sacraments are celebrated. As John Chrysostom knew so well, as Erik Routley—who taught me so much about being Reformed—tried to tell me more than once (as did others after and before him), God is working, all the time, through our week in, week out preaching and praying and worship leading and sacramental ministry. As the Belgic Confession reminds us in Article 13, God doesn’t abandon any of these things to chance: I may not have known the news for 20 July on 4 July, but our sovereign God did, and God’s Holy Spirit was speaking through me whether I knew it or not. God knew what the situation was going to be when leading the Consultation on Common Texts to put these readings in our path for this week. While I can reconsider when I am home and working, and while I might, when preaching myself, continue tweaking my sermons right up until the words are coming out of my mouth, if I indeed believe that God is sovereign, that God uses all things—even my preaching—for good for those who love God, then I have to trust what I have prayerfully prepared.
In other words, it isn’t about me, not really. I am not jettisoned out of the bomb bay doors heading for oblivion. God allows us to participate, but—God be praised—the Holy Spirit has things handled, and so do my deacons and elders. Back to vacation.