Thus the witness to the Word of God–the one who testifies that God is the Word and speaks–is in the full sense a witness, while at the same time he restores to the human words its fullness. We have observed that all human language draws its nature and value from the fact that it both comes from the Word of God and is chosen by God to manifest himself. But this relationship is secret and incomprehensible, beyond the bounds of reason and analysis. This relationship becomes luminous and unquestionable only when the word is spoken by a witness–that is, by one who explicitly makes the connection between the divine and human word. He must have the courage, audacity, and enthusiasm to declare, despite his deep humility, “What I say expresses the Word of God. My word projects the Word of God.” This is inconceivable and must surely be paranoia. Yet only thus can all human language gather strength and find a new beginning. Such statements require the courage to look ridiculous (“Who am I . . . ?”); it is crazy to think that I could express the truth of the Most High God, knowing what I know about myself. Isn’t this a potential source of pride? No, because in fact I am overwhelmed, broken, and crushed by the truth of this word I must speak. Kierkegaard lived this experience in its entirety, as did Martin Luther and Augustine. The witness cannot affirm great truths lightly.
Precisely for this reason preaching is the most frightful adventure. I have no right to make a mistake that makes God a liar. But who can guarantee that I won’t make a mistake? I walk on the razor’s edge. On the other hand, if my preaching is nothing but a pious, oratorical, Sunday-morning exercise, then better to keep silent. If through my words I do not proclaim the Word of God, what I say has no meaning but is the most absurd and odious of speeches. If, however, I try to proclaim God’s word, I am utterly called into question by my very pretension. If I make God a liar I risk being the absolute Liar. And what if I err, substituting my ideas and opinions for God’s Revelation–if I proclaim my word as the Word of God, in order to give it weight and sparkle, in order to beguile my listeners? Then my word, unratified by God and disavowed by the Holy Spirit, becomes the cause for my condemnation.Jacques Ellul, The Humiliation of the Word (Grand Rapids, Michgan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1985), p. 109
I find Ellul difficult to penetrate yet delightfully provocative. Here he precisely identifies the fear and trembling that should accompany the preaching of the Word of God. It is no light thing to stand and say that one brings a divinely spoken Word (Ellul is more specific: “the Word of God”) through human words. Far too often, the stakes in preaching are perceived as being too low, not only by the preacher, but by the congregation. However, as Ellul notes, it is the preacher who should be exceedingly wary, not only because of the audaciousness that comes with the preaching task, rightly understood, but also due to the weight of consequence should the preacher err or abuse their trust.
James 3:1 comes to mind, “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.”
Pulpits may differ in their size and construction or perceived prestige and influence. But all pulpits bear this in common: they welcome a human being who declares themselves a proclaimer of the Word of God. The task invites the preacher, as Ellul writes, into “the most frightful adventure.” We foray into divine mystery not fully knowing what we will behold, trusting that in the act of proclamation Christ will be revealed. Rejection is a possibility. We do not know how the congregation will respond, for the Spirit blows where it wills. We do not know if the seeds sown will fall upon the worn path, rocks, thorns, or good soil. We are often left like the sower who sows waiting night and day for the seed to grow up, though he knows not how.
Ellul writes, “The witness cannot affirm great truths lightly.” Preaching is but a step toward witness, and, with God’s help, toward truth.