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Friday, March 11, 2016

"How Odd of God" (William H. Willimon)

TITLE: How Odd of God: Chosen for the Curious Vocation of Preaching
AUTHOR: William H. Willimon
PUBLISHER: Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015, (160 pages).

Preaching is a calling. It is also about God choosing His people. It is God's way of calling the preacher to Him, to preach the gospel in a manner that people be drawn closer to God. It is God's initiative to choose His people in the way He wants. In this series of lectures by the Dr William Willimon, who calls himself "The Peculiar Prophet," asserts that not only is God calling preacher to proclaim the good news, the ministry of preaching sits tightly within the general calling to God Himself. Willimon is currently Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry at Duke Divinity School, Durham, North Carolina. The conviction of the author is that preaching is that "odd vocation" that God uses to bring back to God what belongs to God.

Like many introductions to a sermon, the title alone does not give away much. No one would have guessed that this book parallels the vocation of preaching with the drama of election, more specifically, Karl Barth's chapter of "The Election of God" in his magisterial work, Church Dogmatics. Like God calling people to Him, preaching is about God calling certain people to the pulpit ministry. It is a book to encourage preachers with fresh conviction that the pulpit ministry is the will of God and the way that God will continue to draw people close to Him. Election is God's love. Preaching amplifies that calling. He is retired, after serving for 8 years as Bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church. He was named as one of America's 12 most effective preachers in 1996. This book contains his reflections on election and the place of preaching.

Right from the start, Willimon blasts the modern Church scene with tough words. For students in one undergraduate class, he leaves them stumped at finding biblical references from the gospels to support their theology. Against the atheism and secular culture, he argues that it is not a "disbelief" but a "belief in gods" of modernism. Against American Christians, he attacks the brand of democracy held. Against the political establishment, he criticizes the brand of religious freedom that is a form of slavery. Faith has been reduced to private and personal religion while spirituality is being used to marginalize true belief. He singles out the Christians merely interested in right beliefs rather than practical behaviour. Even the question of what it means to be a Christian has taken on a more philosophical discussion than anything else. Denouncing progressive and liberal Christianity, preachers need to rise above the expectations of modernity and to blaze a trail to remind all that God's way are higher than man's. For the author, it is Karl Barth who first blazed that trail for him. Here are some of the ways Willimon connects Barth's theology of election with preaching.
  • The Word exists first before the Word can be preached
  • Election is first about who God is rather than about man's destiny
  • God's calling is one of mercy and our preaching should reflect that
  • Election is God's revelation to us; and as we preach Christ, we participate in being that voice for God
  • God elects us to be saved and also elects us to be partners with Him
  • God does have have to create the world but He chooses to. In the same way, we can see that of election. We preach Christ not because we have to, but because we loved to
  • God's election is not only the "source but also the agent in our knowledge of God."

In thinking about election and calling, Willimon delves into the character of Judas Iscariot. Is he called? Judas in being chosen is an example of God's grace open to all. The tragedy is not God's choosing him, but him rejecting God. Even at the table, God's love is so deep that he extends grace to his betrayer. He has several exhortation for preachers, pastors, and messengers of the Word. With regard to mission, the whole church is called as an elect people of God. He uses Lesslie Newbigin's insights from The Open Secret, to connect the doctrine of election with the mission of Christ. Election is a positive witness of the things that are to come. He speaks against double predestination choosing instead to emphasize the message for all rather than to dabble with who are accepted and who are rejected.

Preaching is also witnessing, not mere explaining. In a sermon he gave on Hebrews 1:1-3, Willimon describes God as a "young adult" who pushes and engages us, who grows younger in terms of boldness, that we get a better taste and glimpse of who He is. He reminds us that preaching is much more than calling Church people to look outward at the neighbourhood. It is about getting people to be so caught up with the glory of God that they would want to share what they have see, what they have tasted, what they have heard, and what they have experienced with anyone in and out of the Church. Preachers are pointers to Christ. They are heralds of the gospel for all. They are to boldly proclaim the truth of Christ for all who are there to listen. The last chapter of the book will interest preachers especially as it deals with the homiletical implications of Election. We learn that:
  1. God is the primary agent of preaching; not people, because the initiative is always God's.
  2. Listeners are called as they receive God's grace of the Word
  3. Preaching the gospel is about declaration of the hope that is to come
  4. Be prepared for conflict each time the sermon is given.
  5. Preaching is trusting God will speak
  6. Preach for the unity of God's holy people, to let God unite the Church
  7. Let the text unmask the preacher so that the pure Word be preached
  8. It is more important to be true to God than to be relevant to people
  9. Preaching is witnessing to God's calling
  10. Even our own sermons is part of God weaving us into His big narrative of election.

This is an odd book about preaching because it is not about homiletics or the hermeneutical process of sermon preparation. It is about bringing us back to the Person of God and the original calling initiated by God. Preaching is not just about God but is sustained by God. In this sense, the pressure's off the preachers so that they can freely embrace the gospel, experience God, expound the Scriptures, and to expand the audience for God to do God's work. As this book is written just before Willimon's retirement as bishop, it also packs together his lifelong conviction about preaching and how it witnesses one's election. While it begins initially like a polemic against cultural symbols of modernism, atheism, and secularism, it gradually reveals that God is above all. People who are chosen by God will rise above the world because of God's calling alone. God's calling will initiate, enable, empower, sustain, and bring to completion the will of God. Preachers are called to be participants of these. It's odd because we are a peculiar people, a royal priesthood, and a people belonging to God. The stealth-like influence of the book can only be felt as one rides patiently with Willimon through the waves of reflections powerfully expressed in this impressive treatment of election and the implications of this calling.

Rating: 4.75 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Westminster John Knox Press and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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