Fortress Press, 196 pages
Reviewed by Paul Rowland Jr.
“Have you ever seen workers in the street lift off a manhole cover?” asked a gifted preacher friend. They move around the cover with a prying tool, searching for a point of purchase that will enable them to lift the cover, and that, my friend said, “is what I do each week in writing a sermon.” The manhole he tries to access each week, as with many pastors, is frequently from the Gospels and rarely from the Old Testament.
Like their congregants, many preachers find “Old” off-putting and “New” attractive. Some complain that they find the Old Testament “so judgmental” though, as Working Preacher’s Presbyterian contributor, Matt Skinner, has often pointed out: Anyone who doesn’t believe the New Testament doesn’t include judgment or that the Old Testament doesn’t include grace, hasn’t read either closely enough.
Though the lectionary suggests both a psalm and another Old Testament text each Sunday, many preachers feel led to preach the Gospel or Epistle text instead. Walter Brueggemann doesn’t say that’s a bad thing, but he suggests that preachers and congregations can also be richly blessed by messages based on the Hebrew Bible. The five chapters of this pithy volume suggest perspectives that can help find God’s message in Genesis, the story of Moses, the prophets, the Psalms and wisdom traditions.
Psalms, Brueggemann says, have extensive liturgical use, but “are treated like forbidden territory by many preachers.” He acknowledges the challenges of “sometimes elusive poetic imagery, and a recurring adversarial tone,” but he proposes that the major hindrance is that most of the psalms “are human speech and do not claim to be otherwise.” Psalms provide “a rich panoply of common human emotional extremity … from awed praise to the desperate neediness of our lives.” He offers an approach to the psalm ascription as a way to draw the psalm close to our own life, to claim it, to ask, “Whose psalm is this?”
The chapter on preaching from the prophets begins with a caveat that far too many preachers need. Brueggemann warns, “When we face a prophetic text, we face a text, not a role … we are text interpreters, and not a reiteration of the prophet himself.” He also addresses the fears and self-censorship that discourage many from prophetically preaching on controversial subjects. Acknowledging the challenges presented by prophetic poetry, Brueggemann urges pastors to deliver both utterances that undeceive and a word of hope — as the biblical prophets did.
Wisdom books offer “compelling contact” with more secular listeners who wonder about the world and our place in it, wrestle with questions of meaning, or describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” The book of Proverbs speaks to “the urge toward moral clarity,” Job to “recognition of the elusiveness of certitude,” and Ecclesiastes to “the capacity to dwell responsibly amid unsuitability.” The preacher’s role, Brueggemann says, is not to solve or offer certainty, but “to invite the congregation to dwell in the midst of such palpable mystery that masks our daily life.” If you find Old Testament texts as difficult to lift up as heavy manhole covers, Brueggemann has provided tools that will improve your leverage. “Preaching from the Old Testament” is the first in a series of Working Preacher books. Subsequent authors will be challenged if they are to approach the standard that Brueggemann has set in this inaugural volume.
Since retiring as the psychologist for North Carolina’s Services for the Blind, Paul Rowland Jr. has served as commissioned pastor of Berea Presbyterian Church of Four Oaks, North Carolina.