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Fall 1989 · Vol. 18 No. 2 · pp. 103–5 

Touching the Heart of a Biblical Text

Response to “Keep on Laughing, Genesis 18 (Sermon)” by Ben Patterson 18/2 (1989): 86–94; and “Faith in the Face of Doubt, Genesis 18 (Sermon)” by John Unger 18/2 (1989): 95–102.

John Regehr

The task of a sermon is to get at the heart of a text, and to express that heart to the hearer. The throb at the heart of a text is good news. To be truly a sermon, it must take its “burden” from the heart of God laid bare in the text. The preacher gets under the text, hears and feels the throb, incorporates the pulse into her/his being, and then becomes the means of conveying that good news to the people who hear.

Do these sermons throb with the text?

Both of these sermons touch the heart of the text. This is not to say that a score of other and different sermons on the same text couldn’t do the same thing. Both sermons call us to faith and faithfulness despite the hopelessness of our situations. “. . . The miracle is that in spite of . . . our doubts . . . Christ will come to us and . . . we will . . . cry out, ‘My Lord and my God.’ ” “Answer ‘No, there is nothing too hard for God,’ and you and the world are in his hands and possibilities are endless.”

One way into the heart of the text is a journey into the experiences of the persons in the text. Both sermons show enormous empathy, especially for Sarah. That is encouraging, especially since both of {104} these preachers are male. But then, it is probably easier for us males to empathize deeply with a woman in the text than to do so with the women we live closest to. “. . .Sarah. . .would go about her work. . .as if nothing were the matter, but inside she was crying.” “It hurt for a while to wait and not to receive. Then the hurt turned to anger, and the anger to cold resignation.”

One way of telling whether the sermon has gotten at the heart of the text, is to ascertain if the throb we caught in the text could be preached as good news to very different people in very different situations. Could the message of this text be preached to the executives of World Vision or of Hammond Furniture? To the women and their children fleeing from Beirut? And equally effectively to the seminary students gathered at the appointed hour?

Try it on for size. Think of the column of boys seen on the newscast. Mostly naked, and all hungry, they plodded through Sudan to the Ethiopian border. Think of them, and listen to this: “. . .They laughed because the thing God promised was hopelessly impossible. . . (They) had long ago finished crying. . .‘Perhaps now is the time’,. . .but it never was. . .and sometimes if you looked closely, you might notice (their) eyes filling with tears.” “Her long waiting has sapped her of her humor. Take surprise away from your sense of the incongruous, and all that remains is a bitter chuckle.”

Though the heart of the text has a universal message, the sermon is tailor-made to fit the immediate situation. This local accommodation is achieved by the choice of illustrations and metaphors, not by the silencing or the diminishing of the throbbing of the text. The Unger sermon achieves accommodation when it talks about a host at a party looking for a particular misplaced recording. It achieves it also by specific reference to the way in our culture we train children to be skeptical. And, appropriate for a seminary setting, the hearer is drawn to think of congregations scattered through the land.

The Patterson sermon does the accommodation by making references to things most young and midlife adults are familiar with, like Woody Allen and Charlie Brown. More specifically it accommodates to the seminary by references to Niebuhr and to McCoy, the pastor.

The sermons are significantly different in some respects. Unger sees the laughter of Abraham and Sarah as an expression of unbelief. He places laughing over against crying, and {105} later sets it over against faith. To laugh is to say God can’t. Using these large obvious categories enables Unger to be straightforward in his call to faith. He moves quickly, though unhurriedly, to the throb of the text. There is strength in this simplicity, a strength which feels like a warm, firm hand laid on one’s shoulder. “And so we ask ourselves after a lifetime of barrenness, is there still hope?”

The Patterson sermon moves from the text to something that at first seems almost peripheral, namely the analysis of humor. The sermon gives the impression that we are watching dexterous fingers unraveling yarn, as Patterson distinguished between a skeptical laugh which is bitter, and a faith-laugh which is full-bodied hilarity. There is more crispness than warmth in the analysis, and yet it leads to a call to faith. As one might expect, it evokes laughter along the way, (though perhaps voiceless in sacred precincts) both of the cynical kind as well as the free full-bodied faith variety. “Thus was launched, at age 72, a brand new, sixteen-year ministry.”

I might be allowed some criticism on trivia. I would caution against the use of superlatives. It is hard to maintain hype if everything is always the greatest, the most important, or the most trivial. Patterson skids to the edge of the error: “The only thing worse than waiting is waiting without laughing.” The sermon is skillful in turning our minds from the fun of finding clarity to faith’s joy in finding new purpose.

Unger’s introduction seems contrived. And the brackets to alert us to a pun by asking our forgiveness for it, actually weakens its impact. A good pun, or any good joke, has its own force. If it doesn’t, scrap it altogether. The sermon uses words beautifully. Ideas turn over gently, unexpectedly, powerfully. Simple words are poetically freighted with meaning and feeling. Even the repetition is masterfully re-loaded: “The party is over.”

John Regehr is Associate Professor of Contemporary Ministries at Mennonite Brethren Bible College, Winnipeg, Manitoba.

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