Sermons Intended For A Captive Audience

godvertiser —  2010/07/02 — Leave a comment

It’s summertime, and for some that means a breath of fresh air and a chance to pick-up a book or two.  I recently asked a colleague of mine, Benjamin White who is a part of Circle of Hope to share one of his recent reading list selections with us.  His take on Karl Barth’s sermon collection, Deliverance To Captives,  gives it respect, but doesn’t default to just sycophantic praise.  While so many pastors and seminary students are drawn to Church Dogmatics and other Barth works, sometimes the best way to get to know someone is through the experience of sermonic listening (or reading!).  Enjoy Ben’s book review. . .


Barth writes just seven sentences in the “remarks” he says suffice as an introduction to this collection of sermons.  The sermons were preached primarily in the Prison of Basel in Switzerland to what Martin Schwarz, the chaplain of the prison, in his addition to Barth’s introduction called a “critical, presumably even not very ‘Christian” audience.  Barth served as occasional guest preacher between 1954 and 1959.

deliverance-to-the-captives-karl-barthThe title, Deliverance of the Captives, obviously speaks to the state of the audience.  They are literally captives, but Barth recognizes and preaches that we are all captives to our sin and broken humanity.  The nature of his audience at the Prison of Basel serves as a parable for all of us and warrants publication.  The gospel message of deliverance from captivity is just as needed within the prison walls as without.  Barth’s preaching to these men in this particular circumstance serves as a sign to all.  We are called to preach deliverance to the captives so Barth went to the captives and proclaimed a message that goes beyond the realm of physical captivity.  If these men may be freed, so may we all in Christ Jesus our Lord. . .

These 18 sermons would be categorized as expository preaching.  Barth takes a small passage from scripture and expounds upon its meaning.  The sermons are quite short and to the point, in contrast to the Church Dogmatics.  It seems that Barth the preacher was able to distill the message in a different sort of way than Barth the theologian.  This is not to say that these two men are not the same; that Barth the theologian never preaches or that Barth the preacher never theologizes.  In fact these sermons are naturally infused with Barth’s theology and are thus decidedly Christocentric.  This is the first strength I will point out from this collection.  Barth is able to relate any passage of scripture to the reality of God With Us in Jesus Christ and the actual effect that reality has on our lives.  Each sermon is basically a reiteration of the gospel message which is Jesus Christ.  Barth relies on the resurrected and present Lord to be present in his preaching.  He points to this presence and activity instead of pointing to the text.  Expository preaching has the tendency in some contemporary examples to deify the text.  The Bible becomes the answer book for good clean family living etc. as opposed to the witness to the life of Jesus Christ.  Too many preachers want to show us how to read the Bible as experts or how to master the information and apply it correctly.  In my experience I have often encountered an overpowering dependence on the truth of God’s word in Scripture rather than the Word who is Truth witnessed to in Scripture.  In one sermon, “You Shall Be My People,” Barth concludes,

“I am at the end.  I tried to explain this Bible passage as the Word of God fulfilled in Jesus Christ.  Read and heard, understood and believed in this light, this word radiates infinite power.  It the not only says, ‘I will walk among you’, but ‘I walk among you!’ Not only ‘I will be your God’ but ‘I am your God!’  Not only ‘You shall be my people’, but ‘You are my people!’ (66).

The biggest danger of expository preaching is to make the Word of God into an abstraction, to preach about an ‘it’ who is a He, a living, breathing resurrected He, Jesus Christ who is, who walks, whose we are.  The immediacy of that reality is well preached by Barth and would be well observed by future preachers like myself.

Another strength of these sermons which emanates from the first is the simplicity of the message preached.  Barth rarely goes into the esotery of the text’s origins or the original language and when he does he does so in a way that brings the text into our reality.  The tendency of preachers to expose their expertise about the Bible in their sermons usually only serves to alienate those who have little knowledge.  I suppose the preacher who uses a bunch of fancy Greek words is trying to demonstrate his or her authority to be heard.  The congregants are well educated and the preacher feels the need to demonstrate his or her domination of the text.  But such domination of the text is useless because the meaning of the text cannot be dominated.  The meaning of the text is Jesus Christ who is Lord and cannot be used to lord over anyone in any way.  In the sermon titled “God’s Good Creation” Barth reflects on the meaning of the word good.  He points out that the Greek meaning used in the context of 1 Timothy 4:4 is “beautiful” (95), but he does not drop his Greek knowledge between the listeners like a bomb.  He does not say kalos.  The richness of the Greek word and the Greek language is not the focus of his sermon; it is the richness of the reality of God’s meticulous care and love for us that matters.  Barth chooses not to let the distraction of the messenger, the text, take away from the message, the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

A third strength of Barth’s sermons is his reliance on prayer.  He begins and ends with prayer and makes sure the reader does not miss the importance of these prayers.  In his ‘remarks’ he writes, “In preparing and conducting the worship services, the prayers I gave were to my mind as essential as the sermons themselves” (11).  If the preacher is going to let Christ be the message and merely point to Him in his or her sermons, then Christ will have to be invoked and depended upon to be present in the room that the sermon is preached or in the book from which the sermon is read.  Barth recognizes this and includes them as integral parts of his message.  In fact the message is begun in the opening prayer and is concluded in the closing prayer.  The prayers often allude to the circumstance and the company and focus on the realities around the prison, the town, the country, the workers and the business owners.  The context of the worship service and the liturgical year are also constantly referenced.  Invitation to the Lord’s Supper is part of the sermon and the prayer.  The communion elements and their consumption is an application of the message Barth preaches.  Since the message is usually simple truth telling about Christ and our relationship with God through Him, prayer is an extension of that message, as is the Eucharist.  Barth can’t preach everything about Christ in one sermon, nor does he usually get to instruction on how to live in the light of the revelation he professes, but he models these things in prayer.  Though his sermons are fairly down to earth, the prayers are absolutely earthy.  They boldly expect God to be in the room while Barth is preaching, in the lives of the listeners and in the communal life of the town.

This last strength may be the silver lining to what is actually a weakness.  Barth’s sermons are short and they quickly get to the point, which is to preach the gospel, but they do not spend much time sketching out the ramifications of the Truth proclaimed.  He describes a reality that is revolutionary; he tips dominoes that are in a long row.  He is confident that Christ is in the center of it all and He can work it out, but his message might benefit from further development of what life in Christ really looks like.  So much time is spent driving home the point that Christ delivers us from captivity but not much time is spent encouraging his hearers who are trying to live out that freedom.  Does Barth believe that there is no development in the spiritual journey?  That we need to receive the message of salvation each time we listen to a sermon and nothing more?  I have a feeling that Barth could say yes, but I am not qualified to speak for him.  This group of sermons focuses on the proclamation of the gospel from many different angles but the central theme is constant and simple.  The long time disciple of Christ would need more, but the long time disciple of Christ may not be in the crowd for which these sermons were designed.  The prisoners may need this message to be put plainly before them so that they can be given the opportunity again and again to repent and be transformed.  But I think that Barth would say this is true for all of us.  However, I maintain that a parish preacher could not forget further instruction.

The intermittent nature of Barth’s preaching in this context is another weakness.  I cannot really hold it against him.  He was not a preacher by vocation and he was not the full time minister of this group of men.  Guest preaching in general is worthy of some suspicion.  I do not mean to throw it out completely by the inherent obstacles are worth mentioning.  Barth did not know these people, nor could he know them in the way a parish minister knows his or her congregation.  His message is simple because it cannot be more complex in addressing these people as individuals.  His message is universal because he prepares it in isolation from its hearers (This is why it is so accessible 50 years later and across an ocean, here in the United States in 2010.)  But the preacher is more than a proclaimer of the gospel message, or at least the preacher I want to be is so.  I believe that the Gospel is best shared incarnationally.  By this I mean relationally, person to person, even from the pulpit.  Granted God can use the impersonal nature of Barth’s message to transform and Barth adequately relies on God to do so.  This is because Barth has no other choice.  He is not living a life of community with them, nor can he.  The community has decided to isolate them from the community.  So Barth’s sermons are appropriate to the context but not as complete as I would describe to be optimal.

In his sermon titled “All”, Barth writes,

“The text [Romans 11:32] insists that God has made all men prisoners of disobedience.  All, including me, the preacher of this Sunday sermon?  Yes, including me!  Including the good or at least the better fellows among you?  Yes, including them!  Including the best people that ever lived or may live on earth?  Yes including these!  The all-knowing God declares that all, each one in his own way, yet each and all, are prisoners to disobedience.” (90).

Perhaps in response to these exclamation pointed sentences, John Marsh wrote in the preface, “I have read these sermons through with immense profit because I could not read them without having to search my own soul, and ask myself some disturbingly awkward but curative questions” (9).  Because this is true for me, I would recommend this collection of sermons to anyone, especially to the aspiring preacher who more than anything needs to be tempered with the humility to preach the Truth of Jesus Christ to himself or herself and to be transformed by it each day and each time he or she steps to the pulpit.  We point to the Truth who is real and alive-who is Jesus Christ, the resurrected Lord.  In exposition we do not preach the words of the Bible, we preach the Word made flesh and witnessed to in the Bible.  This is my message and it is by this Word that I live and will lead the Church.

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