“It is now as it was in the first century,” writes the great Swedish pastor, bishop, and author Bo Giertz. “Faith comes from preaching.” For all his theological and literary works, Giertz was always a preacher at heart. He recognized the pulpit was the perpetual fount of the Church’s faith.
In A Shepherd’s Letter, his extended missive to the Church in Sweden upon his accession to the position of bishop in 1949, Giertz shares some piquant insights on the homiletic task. I will whet your appetite with some of my personal takeaways, but I encourage you to pick up a copy of the book for yourself.
- Speak when spoken to.
“Speak when spoken to,” is not just sound, Victorian-era parenting advice, it is indispensable preaching advice in every age. Until the preacher is himself spoken to by the Spirit of God, Giertz will insist, he has nothing to say.
“A preacher can be however spiritual and eloquent as he likes, he can speak both pathetically and wisely, and it still will not be a proclamation until he himself is captivated by God’s Word and wants nothing other than to let the Word itself come to speak” (45).
This does not mean, Giertz hastens to add, preachers are prophets who are awaiting supernatural communication: “[The pastor] does not go and wait for a revelation and a word from the Lord that shall be given to him in his heart” (46). The Spirit’s means of address is precisely Holy Scripture, not the pastor’s imaginings. But make no mistake, the Spirit does speak therein, and the preacher does well to hold his peace until he hears that still, small voice.
- Do the work.
But what do you do until the divine inspiration comes? Must preachers just sit on their hands awaiting the heavenly muse? By no means. Giertz says:
“When he does not know what he should say, [the pastor] should not just pray uneasily for a moment of inspiration. He should sit down and read his Bible, look up parallel passages, make excerpts, and gather material. He should take from the old proclaimers who knew their Bibles and see what they said about the same text and what biblical truths they exposited in the context” (46).
This is the labor of the Inventio, or “Discovery” stage of preparing to preach. More often than not, there is no definite direction yet for the proclamation at this stage. This is the time for chopping away at the Scripture, digging deep for pearls of great price. It can be laborious work, but (to hearken back to our last essay) for the Craftsman-Preacher, it is also absolutely necessary.
The Spirit’s means of address is precisely Holy Scripture, not the pastor’s imaginings.
Likewise, as a Craftsman-Preacher, he will not futz-about but get down to business in his workshop. “He does not set his sermon preparation on the boardwalk at the beach or the lilac arbor,” Giertz writes. “He is a servant of the Word. His workplace is the study where he works with his concordance, his Greek testament, and all the other means of help he has in his library” (47).
- Connect to reality.
Preachers are not poets, says Giertz. We are not trying to score style points. Yet, there is undeniably a place for the more poetic aspects of communication: “When it comes to seeing what the message means and helps make conceivable for others, then it can be a help to possess a sense of imagination and some artistic ability” (49).
Here is where the good bishop’s literary sensibilities shine through. He recognizes the importance of not merely telling the truth but showing it. Here he demands to be quoted at length:
“It is always unfruitful to speak of ‘sin’ in a general way. It only becomes an empty word to people or binds itself to certain coarse vices which do not burden them. It is far better to try to name a couple concrete sins that the context gives rise to. So, Scripture itself does when it speaks of enmity, quarreling, discord, and cliquishness. Better than constantly using the words ‘contempt for mercy’ is to seek a new picture that says what it means: The dusty confirmation Bible, hammer blows during the call to gather, radio church that is only a pretext for kitchen work. ‘Lovelessness’ is for most people a completely empty word that does not disturb anyone. It is better to speak of grumpy answers, sulky silence, the habit of not seeing if the wife or neighbor needs a hand, the schadenfreude over another’s mistakes, or another of the thousands upon thousands of expressions that sinful nature daily embraces” (50).
Once again, however, the purpose of such embellishment is not to impress your hearers with your creative acumen but to impress upon your hearers the creative Word: “Such small observations give proclamation living details that expound the Word without solicitation in a manner that is faithful to reality so contemporary people can connect it to their reality” (49). God’s Word lives in the warp and woof of everyday life. Preachers need to convey that in their sermons.
- Keep it urgent.
“That which distinguishes the Word is first and foremost that it is a message, something that is spoken directly to us people. So, it is in conflict with the spirit of the Bible to speak in generalities and abstractions, to speak about something without at the same time speaking to someone. Even when a person speaks in the third person, the proclamation may never lose its character of being an urgent message that concerns precisely those who now sit in the church listening” (52).
It is a weighty word preachers carry, and it must not be diluted by doctrinaire diatribes, much less self-help life-hacks. The living message of Law and Gospel ever takes prominence. Which, as Giertz well knew, may not always make for the most popular preaching. Just so. The pastor’s responsibility as a steward of the mysteries is not to be found successful, but faithful. “His most eager efforts are not to get people to come, but to have something to say to them, not to be original, but to be true, not to captivate, but to help” (47). We can be thankful that, in his many decades of Christ-centered and Gospel-focused preaching and writing, Bo Giertz did exactly that.
Bo Giertz, A Shepherd’s Letter (Irvine, CA: 1517, 2022), 45. Page numbers for subsequent citations will be in parentheses.
In this regard Giertz has much in common with Gerhard Forde. See the latter’s Theology is for Proclamation.