Preaching has a long and unsteady relationship with prophecy. I was raised to be distrustful of the kind of preaching that would chart a vision for the church in these “end times” – especially if a real chart was involved! Preachers like these always seemed a little too sure of themselves, given that Jesus himself declared that we “know not the hour of his appearing.” Prophetic preachers were always more dramatic than what might have been respectful in my corner of the church.
Eventually I learned a more nuanced understanding of the nature and place of prophecy. Prophetic preaching is not a novelty act – like Nostradamus on the cover of The National Enquirer. Prophecy is a way of seeing – a renewed vision for the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. Preaching offers a way of expressing that vision as God speaks his will into being by the Spirit through His Word and through the preacher.
Great preaching is consequential. It offers expectation for our exposition. There is a God who is speaking, and we will not be the same for having heard it. If we are going to invest energy in listening for the voice of God, we must believe that having heard that voice is going to change us – and as we change, the world around us also. Prophetic preachers have the ability to see that change and express it as aspiration.
The strength of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s dream was his ability to describe it in visual terms that the rest of us could see with our own eyes. We could imagine the “little black boys and black girls holding hands with little white boys and white girls.” We could visualize our coming together “around the table of brotherhood.” King used visual terms to help us see a better Kingdom future, and in so doing he was acting as a prophet.
Preaching requires prophetic vision. We must be able to see the impact of our preaching even as it forms among us. Whenever I preach, I like to ask myself this question: what will our world look like because we have invested energy in this preaching event? As we have heard from God and responded to his challenge, how will we be changed? Can the preacher paint a picture of this altered future? Can the prophet speak to a better world, amended by the gospel, and empowered by God’s grace? If we cannot, perhaps we should sit down and keep quiet until we have that kind of vision.
We have sometimes thought of this of this aspect of our preaching as making application. But there is something more to this than merely suggesting the action step that corresponds to the sermonic big idea. The prophetic aspect of preaching calls us to describe that kingdom-formed future in a fulsome way. It is about moving past moralistic reactions to something that shapes upon the level of our core being. Great preachers pronounce the Kingdom come. They help us see it not just as warning but as inspiration. Prophetic preachers stoke our imagination to the point where our vision becomes actual as the Holy Spirit moves upon our will by his Word.
I have a dream today, that one day listeners might see my sermons as much as they might hear them. I have a dream, that one day my preaching might be more than hypothetical as lives are changed because listeners have seen what they have formally only understood. I have a dream that our preaching might produce the promise of God’s Kingdom in more than just a hopeful, wistful sense. It is a dream formed in the gospel – the good news that sees the future that God has in mind and will produce by the preaching of his prophets.
Kenton C. Anderson is President of Providence University College and Theological Seminary in Otterburne Manitoba