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For my sermon for the First Sunday of Advent I used an image that I got from my summer mornings at the lake.

I wake up before dawn, make my coffee, and go down to my little prayer-deck at the water’s edge, and there I say my Morning Office.

My daily prayer includes the Benedictus, the Song of Zechariah, which ends with, “the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death …”

I repeat that every day, and it’s often apropos as I watch the dawn breaking during my prayers. And often, before the sun rises, and before the sunlight touches the treetops across the bay, I can see the sunlight reflected on the gull overhead as it makes its first patrol above the shoreline.

That’s the image that I used on that First Sunday of Advent, the light on the gull overhead. My point was that although this world is still in darkness, we can already see the light of Our Lord’s coming on various reflections in our world.

That Sunday afternoon I got an email from a parishioner, thanking me for my sermon. He added that my image of the seagulls reminded him of the image of the wings of the pigeons at the end of the poem, Sunday Morning, by Wallace Stevens, and he quoted the last three lines from it. 

And, in the isolation of the sky,
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
Ambiguous undulations as they sink,
Downward to darkness, on extended wings.

Well, ignorant bonehead that I am, I had never known about this poem, one of the great ones of the last century, as I discovered. So I looked it up. And I was moved, and smitten, and even came to doubt my sermon, though I’m sure that was not my parishioner’s intent.

I was struck by the wistful, pained, self-critical, and generous paganism of the poem. (Wallace Stevens grew up in a pious Christian home, but he repudiated his belief, though he obviously kept his feeling for “Paradise.”) And it led to me to feel, for the first time ever, my unbelief.

I don’t mean to consider unbelief. I have always entertained that possibility. And I do think that the Christian faith, for all its coherence and beauty and power, is in some large sense preposterous, though true. I never think less of people for not believing it.

I mean to feel my unbelief — that I might be content to not believe. Not necessarily happier, nor triumphant in agnosticism, but content, resigned, relaxed, surrendering to the sad reality of the sun and the water and the green wings in Steven’s poem.

*****

I think the trigger was the fact that this was Advent, and I was preaching about the Second Coming of Christ, the Return of Christ, “that he shall come again, with glory, to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end,” as we repeat in the Creed. I realized that though I proclaimed it in my sermon, and tried to demonstrate how important it was to the New Testament, and how rightly to understand it (not as the “end of the world” but the “beginning of the world”), I found it hard to believe. It’s the doctrine I find the hardest to believe, that “he shall come again.” The world of Wallace Stevens seems just as likely worth yielding to.

I have no problem with the doctrine of Creation. (The “scientific” myth of the spontaneous generation of life out of the chemicals in the primordial soup is even more preposterous than belief in creation, just from the standpoint of mathematics; see Al-Khalili and McFadden, Life on the Edge: The Coming Age of Quantum Biology, 2014, pp. 277-80.) I love the doctrines of the Virgin Birth, of the bodily Resurrection of Our Lord, and of the Outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

My feeling of unbelief is not like Gretta Vosper’s atheism or even like John Suk’s general doubt. It’s more like Psalm 27:13 (BCP), “What if I had not believed that I should see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living?” The psalmist says it for me.

And yet, at the Eucharist, I sang the Mystery of the Faith with my people, “Christ will come again!”

In that Advent sermon I was telling my people what God will do and what God says and what God wants. As if I knew! Who am I to tell them this? Most people feel God to be inscrutable, and rightly so. And here I am in front of them declaring what God wants.

****

With these thoughts I was taken for a few days. I was not troubled by them, as if I were a faker or a hypocrite. But “taken” to self-examination, trying to measure in myself the attraction of

Wallace Steven’s mystical paganism, and what I would gain by it and lose by it, when compared to my belief.

Then it hit me, and with relief, and it was maybe because I was reading through the prophet Amos in my Daily Office. “Oh, so this is what it means to be a prophet!”

What I mean is that my message is not mine, it does not belong to me. It’s not for me to judge or even to accept it, but what’s for me is to deliver it. Like Amos, like Balaam, like Jeremiah, like John the Baptist, and maybe even like Our Lord (look at John 5:30-32). I am not suggesting that Our Lord did not believe his message. I believe he did, but I can say for myself that my message does not depend on my belief.

True enough, if I don’t believe the message I am giving, then I’m going to be a lousy pastor (see Peter De Vries’ comic novel The Mackerel Plaza). I have the same responsibility to my message that the soprano has to her rôle in Tosca, to learn it and know it and give my all and my best to it so that I can fully embody it. But in the same way as Tosca, my message is larger than myself, and in a real sense I just embody it. It does not belong to me. This conviction left me with a sudden awareness that although I am less certain in my belief, I am also more secure in it. And I think this is what it means to be a prophet.

I know that the typical understanding of a prophet is someone who speaks truth to power. Fair enough, but that’s not me. With the Reformers, prophecy was understood as the exposition of scripture with relevance to present situations. Calvinist pastors used to meet together regularly for meetings they called “prophesyings,” which must have been a very good thing. The closest to which I ever got was lectionary studies with other pastors.

My own “prophesying” is my private wrestling with the scripture lessons every week, with my parishioners in mind. Because the message does not belong to me. Of course this does not mean that I do not put my whole self into my message—all my study, all my personality, all my history—which I try to do every week, but even then it does not belong to me.

*****

I am relatively well-known in our community. Not infrequently I’ll be having a discussion on some topic with someone on the sidewalk, and that person will say to me, “Why don’t you preach about that?” And then I stand there with my mouth full of teeth. What should I say? “I have to wait till some scripture lesson about it might come up.” Or, “When God gives me the words for it I will.”

Do the people think I have some competence to make speeches from the pulpit on the moral issues of the day? I just say, “Yes, I should. Let me work on that.” How does anybody preach a topical sermon? How can that be prophecy, no matter how daring the message may be? A topical sermon means the message is your own! Of course there are lots of exegetical sermons too in which the message is the preacher’s own.

My best friend and I have a deep disagreement. No wonder, he’s a Wesleyan and I’m a Calvinist. He believes that God speaks to us directly in our minds. He believes that we have certain thoughts from which we can say, “God told me that.” I don’t believe it. I believe that God speaks to us only through scripture (though that can be in many and various ways). I don’t worry or argue about definitions of the Bible’s infallibility or authority, because it’s finally a matter of practice and discipline. So I’m always in the Bible.

The Bible is my addiction. I admit that I am looking forward to retirement, when I can read the Bible just like everybody else, without the burden of its message on my mind. Don’t get me wrong, I love it, and it’s the best job in the world, but even Elijah sometimes wanted out of it.

That’s what it means for me to be a prophet, that the message is not my own, nor even depends on my current certainty.

And that’s my comfort, that my message belongs to my faithful savior Jesus Christ, that he has fully paid for his message’s veracity, and set me free from the tyranny of having to prove it, even to myself, and he also supports me in such a way that not a word can fall from my lips without the backing of my Father in heaven. Because my message belongs to him, Christ, by the Holy Spirit, assures me of my integrity and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready to prophesy for him.

(photo credit: Paul Noseworthy)

Daniel Meeter

Daniel Meeter is pastor of Old First Reformed Church in Brooklyn, New York.

14 Comments

  • Allan Janssen says:

    Thanks. That, my friend, is ambt!

  • Jessica A Groen says:

    “Set me free from the tyranny of having to prove it.” That release is such an entry into living rest. Thank you.

  • Jan Hoffman says:

    Thank you, Daniel. Appreciating this conversation in this jarring week.

  • Rowland Van Es says:

    As a teacher, fellow pastor and fellow prophet, my breath prayer is still, “I believe, help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24)when it comes to some texts, some sermons, and some topics I have to address in the classroom and/or the pulpit “in Jesus’ name” or “in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”

  • Fred Mueller says:

    “…but what’s for me is to deliver it.” I believe too that this is what our congregations come hungry for on Sunday mornings. When we remember that, there will be power in the pulpit and pew.

  • Richard Rienstra says:

    Check out The Message: John 5:34

    “But my purpose is not to get your vote, and not to appeal to mere human testimony. I am speaking to you this way so that you will be saved.”

    NIV…that’s my comfort, that my message belongs to my faithful savior Jesus Christ,

  • This is so helpful. This reminds me of C.S. Lewis who so often reminded people that we trust God in spite of our conflicting emotions. You don’t have to feel it is true, you can trust Him in spite of your feelings. Feelings are God’s infrequent gift to us as a kind of encouragement to persevere. This seems similar to what you are saying about the prophetic office, that it does not depend on your “current certainty.”

  • I’m a Calvinist but I agree with your Wesleyan friend, that God can and does sometimes speak directly to our minds. How is this inconsistent with your loyalty to the Scriptures? Wasn’t the Apostle Paul loyal to the Scriptures and also received revelation from God directly? Perhaps I don’t understand your friend’s point?

  • Cathy Smith says:

    Thanks for this post which resonated with me completely. This sentence especially was helpful: “With the Reformers, prophecy was understood as the exposition of scripture with relevance to present situations.” Also this one: “I believe that God speaks to us only through scripture (though that can be in many and various ways).” That’s also what I believe as a layperson, but it’s encouraging when a pastor affirms the same. Your post speaks especially to your role as pastor, but the idea that we are all “prophets, priests and kings” is a Reformed concept that moves me deeply. We can all prophesy when we voice the Word in the power of the Holy Spirit … wherever we are. The comments are also worth reading … 🙂

  • Debra K Rienstra says:

    All pastors and seminary students should read this, Daniel. This is honest wisdom. It’s also a good antidote to the narcissism that so often turns up in the pulpit.

  • James Hart Brumm says:

    Amen!

  • RLG says:

    Thank you, Daniel, for a thoughtful article. From the comments so far, it sounds like your article resonates with several other people. I know it did with me. But I have eventually come to realize that the Christian religion (based on the Bible) is no more valid than any other religion based on their own divinely inspired writings.

    My doubt began within the box of Christianity, realizing, with the hundreds of Christian denominations, there is no consistency of interpretations for Scripture. Any specific Scripture passage can have a multitude of interpretations (What’s a pastor to preach?) Scripture can say almost anything.

    And whereas I had, at a point, believed the Bible was the true inspired word of God, I cam to realize that all religions make the same claim for their inspired Scriptures. Why is the Bible inspired and true and not the Scriptures of other religions? I had told myself that Christianity made more sense, until I began to think this through. The teachings of the Bible are no less bizarre that the teachings of other religions. That all of creation, including all of humanity has fallen into sin (with a sinful nature) as a result of a serpent’s temptation and Adam’s sin (the first human) is bizarre indeed. That Jesus Christ is God come down to earth as a baby in human form is also bizarre. That Jesus was sinless throughout his life, even as a teenager, is unlikely. That Jesus performed a multitude of miracles, including feeding 5,000 men, plus women and children, from a child’s lunch is improbable, if not impossible. There is no evidence for Christ’s ascension into heaven, where he presently reigns over the church and the world. Christ’s soon return (Paul expected it in his life time) is long past due. So the teachings of the Bible, in my mind, make no more sense than any other religion. We can point out the fallacies of other religions, just as they can ours.

    Christianity piggybacks on Judaism and yet the foundation (Judaism) denies that Jesus is God, but rather a false prophet. And Islam, following shortly after Christianity (with similarities) also denies the deity of Jesus. And, in fact, no other religions affirms the deity of Jesus or the Trinity of God. So much could be said and I’ve exceeded the limit already. Common sense and logic rings out clearly against the bizarre teachings of Christianity and every other religion.

    I believe God reveals himself in his self revelation, the creation and created order.
    This is how God explained himself to Job (the magnificence of creation), and where David gloried in the great creator God and found approval from him. So can we. So if you have doubts, Daniel, don’t be so blindly accepting of what makes little sense. I did appreciate your article. Thanks for sharing.

  • John Paarlberg says:

    Thank you Daniel.Really nice. You reminded me of this from Joseph Sittler:
    It is only honest to say that I have never known fully that kind of life within the full, warm power of that faith for whose declaration I am an ordained minister. The very term “Christian experience” as generally understood, has small meaning for me. I have not seen any burning bushes. I have not pounded at the door of God’s grace with the passion of a Martin Luther. John Wesley’s “strangely warmed” heart at Aldersgate Street—this is not my street. I have not the possibility to say of the Christian faith what many honest persons have said about it. But I have come to see that to declare as a gift of God that which I do not fully possess is, nevertheless, a duty of obedience. Is the opulence of the grace of God to be measured by my inventory? Is the great catholic faith of nineteen centuries to be reduced to my interior dimensions? Are the arching lines of the gracious “possible” to be pulled down to the little spurts of my personal compass? Is the great heart of the reality of God to speak in only the broken accent that I can follow after? No. That ought not to be. Therefore, one is proper and right to sometimes talk of things one doesn’t know all about. In obedience to the bigness of the story which transcends personal apprehension, one may do this.
    –from Grace Notes and Other Fragments (Fortress, 1981), 50-51.

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