postmodern preaching

First Sunday after Christmas Day, Years A,B,C

  • Isaiah 61:10-62:3

The canonical Book of Isaiah is a compendium of interpretations.  Chapters 1-39 are generally ascribed to the historical prophet, but even within that original text, chapter 28 is regarded as a reinterpretation by Isaiah himself of the rest of his text.  Chapters 24-27 also interpreted chapters 13-23.  Later writers reinterpret chapters 40-55 in chapters 55-66.  The single Book of Isaiah, therefore, is the product of continuous reinterpretation, originally by the eponymous writer, himself, and then by subsequent anonymous commentators.  What causes these new interpretations?  New circumstances!   When will the reinterpretations cease?  “I will not keep silent,” God says, until promises made are promises fulfilled.

  • Psalm 147:13-21

According to this psalmist, God provides everyday necessities, including security for families, food (wheat), and the elements to continuously replenish the earth even in the dead of winter– snow, frost and ice.  Each  plays a role in the economy of our survival.  Listed among these concrete necessities, the psalmist also includes other necessities God provides for our survival and well-being– God’s word, statues, and laws.

  • Galatians 3:23-25, 4:4-7

Unlike the other leaders of the first followers of Christ, Paul had not known Jesus as they had.  Indeed, his early personal history and identity had been as passionate defender of tradition.  That makes his conversion all the more remarkable.  In this excerpt, he speaks for himself as well as those whose life experiences are similar to his.  The one-time arch defender of limited reinterpretation of tradition became the most energetic and vocal exponent of new, sometimes highly original, interpretation that saw Jesus as the fulfillment of the ancient longings for a Messiah, and even more.  Paul’s life and testimony bubble over with enthusiasm for his new interpretation of God’s work in the world and in himself.  To Paul  his new experience of God in Christ feels like freedom, bound not by laws but by love.

  • John 1:1-18

John’s prologue mimics the beginning of Genesis.  At creation, God speaks and we and all creation come into being.  This same “Word” now becomes flesh, full of grace and truth.  (See our comments for The Nativity of our Lord.)

Postmodern inquiries into the role and significance of human language conclude that it is far less successful, and, simultaneously,  far more successful than has been thought, especially in Western Modernity.  Human language never fully captures the complexity, subtlety and contingency of human experience, but, at its best, it comes close enough to enable communication, create meaning and get things done.  Therefore, it is inadequate, but all we have got.  It is always incomplete,  but it is direly consequential.  Because human language is always a near-miss, the task of interpretation and reinterpretation is never finished.  Because interpretation is never finished, it must be done with high ethical standards.  This nuanced appreciation of words seems more in sympathy with pre-Modernity than the brute force that Western Modernity ascribes to language.

After a year of personal and professional upheaval, the estimable American poet Wallace Stevens went on a reading binge.  He focused especially on the writings of Vico, Descartes, Hegel and I.A.Richards.  In May 1941, after his marathon reading, he delivered a lecture at Princeton in which he said:

“The deepening need for words to express our thoughts and feelings which, we are sure, are all the truth that we shall ever experience, having no illusions, makes us listen to words when we hear them, loving them and feeling them, makes us search the sound of them for finality, a perfection, an unalterable vibration.” (Stevens: Collected Poetry and Prose, Frank Kermode and Joan Richardson, eds., New York: The Library of America, p. 662)

This Sunday’s appointed excerpt from Isaiah demonstrates the abundance of new meaning made possible by continuous reinterpretation of earlier texts, assuring that the text retains its bite.  This excerpt attests to the two most extreme ways we experience God– silence or superabundance.  God declares that “for Zion’s sake I will not keep silence.”  The climax of this thought comes in the next verse, where God’s people are told that when God chooses to speak freely, clearly and loquaciously, “You shall no more be termed ‘Forsaken’.”  The magisterial opening of John’s gospel is itself a poet’s exuberant and florid verbal attestation to the power of the words that spoke life into meaning at creation and now that “Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” whose traits are “grace and truth.”  The words he speaks and more words spoken about him inspired by his words accumulate into “grace upon grace.

A Word that breathes distinctly

Has not the power to die

Cohesive as the Spirit

It may expire if He–

“Made flesh and dwelt among us”

Could condescension be

Like this consent of Language

This loved Philology

second stanza, from “A Word Made Flesh is Seldom,” by Emily Dickinson

We celebrate this day because “the Word became flesh,” and the human words he will speak to us over the course of his lifetime will initiate a new round of interpretation, which continues with us.  Every legitimate interpretation will be tested by one criterion:  does it produce more “grace and truth?”


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