Christmas Shows How Preachers from Augustine to Bonhoeffer Contributed to Preaching
They embody the rich legacy of preaching through the ages. Now that legacy is collected into two new volumes that are perfect for students, preachers, and interested Christians alike who want to learn from and carry forward that legacy.
A Legacy of Preaching (Vol. 1 and Vol. 2) explores the history and development of preaching from the apostles to the revivalists and the Enlightenment to the present day. Each contributor in this series tells the story of a particular preacher in history, allowing the preachers from the past to come alive and instruct us in the present through their lives, theologies, and methods. As the editors explain:
This book is about the seasons of preaching history and the preachers who proclaimed the eternal riches of God’s grace and truth. Our goal is to present a historical, theological, and methodological introduction to the history of preaching. This approach to the history of preaching is one of this volume’s unique markers. (vol. 1, 27)
This diverse collection of familiar and lesser-known individuals offers a detailed and fascinating look at what it has meant to communicate the gospel over the past two thousand years. And each entry highlights how each preacher has contributed to the sacred act of preaching the gospel. No clearer does that contribution shine forth than through how they preached about Christ and Christmas.
Continue reading to better understand this legacy and contribution to preaching—while also learning from their Christmas insights. If you teach homiletics, we also welcome you to request an exam copy of volume one to see how it could benefit your course and students.
Augustine: Agape-Driven, Christocentric Preaching
Although most remember Augustine for his theological expositions, Edward Smither explains that his “day job” was as a preacher.
“Although he is known for his writing, Augustine’s primary occupation as a bishop in Hippo was preaching. His preaching was driven by a love for the Scriptures as he literally ‘spoke Bible.’ His approach to Scripture was shaped by a clear hermeneutic in which his chief values were a christocentric focus and love for God and neighbor as the desired outcomes” (154–155).
Smither believes such a drive and focus “offers much for modern ministers to reflect upon and emulate today” (155). The excerpt below from one of his Christmas sermons showcases this contribution to preaching:
It’s no wonder, I say, we cannot find words that we might speak about the one Word [of God] who spoke us into being and about whom we seek to say something. For our minds may form words like these, pondered over and uttered forth, but our minds were themselves formed by the Word. Nor does a human being make words in the same way human beings are made by the Word, because the Father did not beget His one and only Word in the same way He made all things through the Word. For God begot God, but the Begetter and the Begotten are together one God. God certainly made the world; the world, however, passes away while God endures. And so these things that were made did not make themselves, but by no one was God made, the One whom by all things were made. It is no wonder, then, that a human being [like me], a creature in the midst of it all, cannot explain the Word through Whom all things were made. (155)
Francis of Assisi: Using Words and Life to Preach the Gospel
Christmas is an occasion for reflecting on the remarkable moment when God deigned to become one of us, when the Creator became a creature. For Saint Francis of Assisi, this makes perfect sense and formed the crux of his ministry and preaching contribution.
“Francis and the earliest monks in his order,” explains Timothy Holder, “tended to relate their preaching to things pertaining to everyday life” (199). Part of his focus on everyday life included an emphasis on God’s creation, perhaps contributing to such apocryphal legends as him convincing a wolf to repent for killing sheep. “More credence,” Holder reveals, “is given to the account by some of Francis’s contemporaries that he once remarked, ‘All men ought to give a good meal to our brothers the oxen and asses on Christmas Eve’” (199). This may seem silly and strange, but some “see something significant in this. Francis was combating the reemergence of Gnosticism by stressing the importance of the material world” (199)—into which God chose to be born and live with us.
And yet, Francis also implored people to glory in the Creator, rather than in the creation. A portion from a sermon, entitled “No One Should Boast in Himself but Rather Glory in the Cross of the Lord,” explores this theme:
1. Be conscious, O man, of the wondrous state in which the Lord God has placed you, for He created you and formed you to the image of His beloved Son according to the body, and to His likeness according to the spirit (cf. Gen 1:26). 2. And [yet] all the creatures under heaven, each according to its nature, serve, know, and obey their Creator better than you. (201)
Karl Barth: Preaching Christ
“Barth’s robust view of an active, surprising, living God puts Barth at some distance from lots of the sermons that I hear and many that I preach,” writes William Willimon in explaining Barth’s preaching legacy. “God too often enters the sermon as some sort of vague mystery about whom little is to be said. We presume to know more about our cultural context or the subjectivity of our listeners than we know of God. Barth thought it exactly the opposite: Because of Jesus Christ, we know more of God than we will ever know of the subjectivities of our listeners” (303–304).
This focus on the activity and presence of a living God should bolster “our sense of nerve and our conviction that what the world needs most is a clear, direct, enthusiastic sermon that presents the true and living God” (304) Consider this legacy in a Christmas sermon, where Barth characterizes the incarnation as a matter of rescue:
“He stands by you:” A drowning man cannot pull himself out of the water by his own hair. Neither can you do it. Someone else must rescue you. This is the good news of Christmas. He who stands by you and helps you is alive and present! It is he who was born that Christmas Day! Open your eyes, open your ears, open your heart! You may truly see, hear and experience that he is here, and stands by you as no one else can do! He stands by you, really by you, now and for evermore! (306)
“Repeatedly he assures the prisoners that in Jesus Christ, they are loved and actively embraced by God” (306). What a witness for us preachers!
Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Costly Preaching
Keith Clements makes plain that ”Bonhoeffer’s preaching cannot be separated from his life, and his life cannot be separated from the turmoil of its context” (308). In light of that context, “He believed he was witnessing the end of an age when people could be told who Christ is ‘with words—whether with theological or pious words.’ So how do you preach and ‘what does a church, a congregation, a sermon, a liturgy, a Christian life, mean in a religionless world?’” (320).
Good question, one which translated into “letting the living Christ speak directly to the actual human situation” (320), which you can see evident in the excerpt below from a sermon on The Magnificat (Luke 1:46–55):
The judgment and redemption of the world—that is what is happening here. . . . What does this mean? Is it not just a figure of speech, the way pastors exaggerate a beautiful, pious legend? What does it mean to say such things about the Christ child? If you want to see it as just a way of speaking, well, then go ahead and celebrate Christmas and Advent in the same pagan way you always have, as an onlooker. For us it is not just a figure of speech. It is what we have said: that it is God, the Lord and Creator of all things, who becomes so small here, comes to us in a little corner of the world, unremarkable and hidden away, and wants to meet us and be among us as a helpless, defenseless child—not as a game or to charm us, because we find this so touching, but to show us where and who God really is, and from this standpoint to judge all human desire for greatness, to devalue it and pull it down from its throne.
The throne of God in the world is set not on the thrones of humankind but in humanity’s deepest abyss, in the manger. There are no flattering courtiers standing around his throne, just some rather dark, unknown, dubious-looking figures, who cannot get enough of looking at this miracle and are quite prepared to live entirely on the mercy of God.
For those who are great and powerful in this world, there are two places where their courage fails them, which terrify them to the very depths of their souls, and which they dearly avoid. These are the manger and the cross of Jesus Christ. No one who holds power dares to come near the manger; King Herod also did not dare. For here thrones begin to sway; the powerful fall down, and those who are high are brought low, because God is here with the lowly. Here the rich come to naught, because God is here with the poor and those who hunger. God gives there the hungry plenty to eat, but sends the rich and well-satisfied away empty. Before the maidservant Mary, before Christ’s manger, before God among the lowly, the strong find themselves falling; here they have no rights, no hope, but instead find judgment. (321-322)
In some of his final words to his young protégé, Paul urged pastor Timothy to “Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season” (2 Timothy 4:2). Such preparation is a lifelong pursuit, which should be guided by the legacy of others. J. D. Greear, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, explains in his endorsement how this legacy resource can shape your preaching:
To have so many of Christian history’s great preachers and teachers of God’s Word sampled and collected in one location makes reading these volumes an incredible delight, not to mention an invaluable resource. If you want to be blessed by, and mentored by, some of the most anointed teachers in history, this great work is where to begin! I’m excited to add it to my library and hope every serious student of God’s Word will do the same.
Covering a broad range of preaching over the centuries, this resource is the definitive reference for experienced preachers who wish to deepen their own preaching, as well as aspiring students who want to learn from the masters of the past.
Add it to your reading list and soak in this legacy of preachers, letting it inform your own legacy of preaching. If you teach preaching or homiletics, we also welcome you to request an exam copy to see how it could benefit your course and students. Learn more in volume two and the two-book set.