Ellen F. Davis
Eerdmans, 356 pages
Reviewed by Barbara Wheeler
Presbyterian pastors face a dilemma in the pulpit. They learned from seminary professors that God is best represented by exegetically-based sermons that hew closely to the order, structure and language of biblical texts. Pastors’ observations and experience in churches, however, have taught them that congregants prefer something less formal: sermons that snatch a general theme from Scripture and then lean heavily on anecdotes and practical advice. In a day when many members of mainline Protestant churches know little about the Bible, edifying them with serious teaching seems like the right thing to do. But, as a movie mogul once said, if the people won’t come, you can’t stop them.
Ellen Davis’ sermons – 50 are collected in this volume – are resounding proof that the choice between biblical and interesting is a false one. Her sermons are riveting and, like those of her favorite preacher John Donne, “entirely focused on the Bible.” There are virtually no illustrations (one of several helpful “homiletical essays” salted among the sermons is titled “On not worrying about sermon illustrations”). Yet this preaching will not let you go: Start one of the sermons and you will be hooked.
Davis achieves this by several means. She makes original and economical use of language — her voice is conversational and concise at the same time. She gives lively accounts of passages’ contexts; as a professor of Old Testament, she knows a lot about the historical setting of texts and their relationship to other parts of Scripture. She sprinkles her sermons with humor — not jokes, but real, penetrating wit. Most of all, her delight in what she finds in the Bible is contagious.
“Beautifying Heaven,” preached at a service in which a baby named Aaron is baptized and “puts on Christ,” takes as its primary text verses from Exodus 28 that describe Aaron’s breastplate. The picture is “one of the most striking snapshots from Israel’s family album.” In the midst of the “moonscape” at the foot of Sinai, “here is Aaron the High Priest, tricked out in enough embroidered linen and precious metal to make the fussiest Anglo-Catholic drool.” Most prominent is a “drop-dead piece of sacred jewelry called, enigmatically enough, ‘the breastplate of judgment.’” Davis links the cleansing power of baptism to the polishing of the breastplate jewels. Like glowing jewels, we, as we live out our baptism, are “cut and severely rubbed hard” by the judgment of God, until our “true identity” shines through and we can reflect the image of God in us back to each other and to God. Our responsibility to baby Aaron and to all our brothers and sisters is to “wear them before God” so that, burnished and cleansed, they can “glimpse the beauty that [they], and [they] alone, can contribute to the glory of heaven.”
Just one less-than-15 minute sermon offers so much that speaks to the Presbyterian condition. It shows how mesmerizing biblical preaching can be. Like other sermons in the book, including a number on Psalms and Proverbs, it demonstrates the riches of Old Testament texts, which are too rarely preached in mainline churches. And it’s theological, offering a compelling corrective to a sentimental view of baptism as a sort of religious baby shower (an essay in the book has wise words about the bias of the lectionary toward cheerful and comforting pericopes).
Davis’ book powerfully illuminates the act and art of preaching. All preachers, even the best, will benefit from reading and savoring it.
BARBARA WHEELER is the former president of Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City.