This week the Government’s lockdown message has changed from “Stay at home” to “Stay alert”.
This had led to a number of complaints that the message is unclear, vague and confusing. Everyone understood the simple message to stay at home; no one is entirely sure what it means to stay alert.
As Paul reminds us: “…if the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle?” (1 Corinthians 14: 8)
Language is one of the primary tools that preachers possess. The Puritans said, “We worship a precise God”. The careful use of language in preaching is imperative.
The words we use carry the freight of our intentions; they communicate our meaning. Our words are not supposed to be blunt instruments but precision tools.
The task of preaching calls for carefully chosen words and phrases that fit the situation exactly.
“A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver.” (Proverbs 25:11)
Preaching is all about finding apt, well-turned, well-timed words. The right word for the right person at the right time. As Derek Kidner observed: “A truth that makes no impression as a generalization may be indelibly fixed in the mind when it is matched to its occasion and shaped to its task”.
Some of the enemies of precision are the use of clichés, weary metaphors and tiresome slogans.
What about the use of language in preaching during lockdown?
It seems that a whole new language is developing at this time.
“We are in a battle”
“This enemy can be deadly, but it is also beatable”
“We are all in this together”
“We will come through stronger than ever”
“It is a new normal”
Perhaps it is the last phrase that rankles the most.
What would Jesus make of a phrase like that?
I guess he would weep!
Isn’t that what Jesus did when he confronted the “new normal” death in John chapter 11?
All trivia enthusiasts know that the shortest verse in the Bible is John 11: 35.
“The tears of God are the meaning of history”. (Nicolas Wolterstoff Lament for a Son)
Yes of course they are. These tears indicate a solidarity with our situation, but they also indicate that the situation is not the end of the story.
That is what we always need God to do; we want him to join us at the table, and to bring something to the table that does not merely identify with our dilemma but shows us a way through or out of it.
These are tears of rage. He is, according to John, “…deeply moved in spirit and troubled.” (John 11: 33)
Jesus is snorting with rage at the havoc that death, the great intruder, has wrought in the world. This new normal is not to be the final defining reality of human life. We have been made to live; human death is not native to the human condition.
These are tears of purpose. The tear-filled eyes of Jesus see clearly. These are not helpless tears but the tears of one who really knows what needs to be done about the problem. His purpose is to head to the cross.
Here in the words of the Puritan, John Owen, we see: “The death of death in the death of Christ”.
Now that is what we need in a crisis: compassionate and clear words combined with a certain roadmap out of the crisis.
Preachers be clear. Do not allow mental fog to obscure your intentions.
I guess we all need the help that Paul seeks from the Colossian Christians:
“Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should.” (Colossians 4: 2–4)