Guest Editorial The Comedy, Tragedy, and Ambiguity of Preaching

Included in the purpose statement of our Evangelical Homiletics Society is a line saying we intend “to provide a forum for the identification, study, research, and modeling of biblical preaching.” It is that word “research” that opens up the possibility for all sorts of discussions pertaining to our craft. There is no field of study from which the observant preacher cannot draw some insight that will inform how he or she understands the Bible and the homiletical task. The reason for this has to do with the very nature of God’s revelation. Our God reveals Himself and the truth He embodies in ways both general and special. To find truth anywhere is to discover some aspect of Him. He is the author and sustainer of all life. Life testifies to Him. As biblical preachers, we are called to expound that testimony. Eighteenth-century English writer, art historian, and politician Horace Walpole famously observed, “Life is a comedy to those who think and a tragedy for those who feel.” The Bible looks squarely at life and gives us elements of both and more. The Book itself is a grand comedy. Everything works out right in the end. But it is a comedy interlaced with tragedy. So much goes so desperately wrong before the end comes. It also includes degrees of ambiguity, leaving us to wonder. Preachers who see only comedy in Scripture are apt to deliver sermons that never seem to get at the real pain their hearers experience. They generalize it, though all pain is particular to its sufferer. They gloss it over, dismissing their hearers’ existential distress with talk of their “real” problem that only Jesus can solve. Their thinking is sound enough, but it lacks feeling. Preachers with a keen eye for biblical tragedy are more likely to deliver sermons that are therapeutic or prophetic by nature, depending on their particular personalities and spiritual gifting. They either probe hearers’ pain with great empathy and dispense practical counsel for dealing with it or expose the sin they perceive to lie behind that pain and denounce it with holy zeal. Their feelings are acute, but they can muddle their thinking. Preachers especially attuned to the Bible’s ambiguities deliver more than their fair share of sermons that leave hearers to wonder, looking for meaning and purpose. They walk away pondering, “What did the preacher mean by that? Why do I feel so confused? What am I supposed to do next?” Just as the Bible is a comedy, wrapping a tragedy, and haunted by ambiguity, preaching that is true to Scripture and to life as we know it should be comedic, tragic, or ambiguous depending on a sermon’s text. But how?