A word is worth a thousand pictures…
In a recent post I made the outstanding claim that life is liturgical so therefore the Church should have a high view (and high form) of liturgy. That’s still true. But more words are almost always necessary. Because we are fallen creatures our usual tendency is to read what someone says and then get whipped into a well-lathered froth over what they did not say.
To say that the Church needs to recover the symbolic and the sacramental is not to say that this is all that the Church needs to recover. It does us no good to go through all of the motions of formal worship as though the form is some sort of Indian rain dance that magically hauls down the blessing of God. This is certainly not the case–if for no other reason than that most of us are horrible dancers.
The Word must always have the preeminent place in the worship of God. The Word must always be present in order to inform the people of God as to what they are to do and why they are to do it. Worship, like the world, is created ex nihilo through the Word of God. Without the Word, nothing exists.
The Word of God is quick and powerful, sharper than a two-edge sword. Through it we are laid bare before the face of God. The Greek word that describes all of this (trachelizo) is a word that refers to the exposing of the neck of a sacrificial animal just before its throat is cut. It is the word that slays us, hacks us into pieces, assembles us on the altar, and sends us up to God in the smoke. Preachers need to learn to preach with the knowledge that this is happening. We must learn to handle the Word like the sword that it is. Then we must learn that the Word cannot be handled at all. It is alive and it has a mind of its own.
This brings us back to the matter of metaphor. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (Jn 1:1). Christians must see themselves as people of words because they are people of the Word. Notice that John did not say, “In the beginning was the frozen noun.” Parmenides is out. Neither did he exalt the tumultuous verb because Heraclitus is also rejected. Words have no real meaning apart from the the Word. But since He is the Word all of our words have metaphorical potency.
Philosopher and theologian Gordon Clark probably went a little bit too far when he equated the Logos with logic but he did see that the Word must encompass everything that words can do. His mistake was in underestimating what words were created by God to do. It is true that words convey rational order, they bring cosmos out of chaos, but they are not limited to such a narrow working. Think of the familiar trinity of truth, goodness and beauty. Words do more than just communicate the first member of that trinity. Words bring us the truth of the gospel, the goodness of the law, and the beauty of holiness—along with all of the complexities between them. Since this is true, the words of our sermons should exhibit this and set an example before the saints of God.
One of the chief ways that words convey truth, goodness, and beauty is through the use of metaphor. This is true because the Word was God. Jesus as the Logos bears all true reason, so He embodies all true metaphor.
It might be helpful to slow our roll here long enough to say that metaphor isn’t just a helpful tool but a most necessary one. We have to constantly be reminded of two great truths: there is a God and we are not Him. We are finite creatures and not the infinite Creator. Because we are creatures, all of our knowledge is in some sense metaphorical. Only God knows things immediately. We are wound so tight in our finitude that all of our knowledge of the world must be mediated to us—much the same way that a toddler gets his mashed carrots.
Cornelius Van Til has rightly taught us that our knowledge is analogous to God’s knowledge rather than identical to it. In truth, we “think His thoughts after Him.” So metaphor, far from keeping us from meaning, is one of God’s principle methods of bringing meaning to us. He chews the food up for us.
Metaphor, like an honest answer, is a kiss on the lips. But how can we say this? The Logos is identified with God, and He is also distinguished from God. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Is there a barrier of meaning between the Father and the Son? Absolutely not. Jesus said that if someone had seen Him he had seen the Father. Jesus was the way to the Father. According to Paul, Jesus is the visible image of the invisible God and He is the exact representation of the First Person of the Trinity. Simply put, Jesus is like the Father, which means that He is the ultimate metaphor. He is not the Father, but as a distinct Person He reveals the Father. He also is God, which means that there is no epistemological barrier between the Speaker and the Word.
Stay with me here. God the Father speaks the Word, and the Word in turn “speaks” about the Father through being spoken. In a similar way, my words reveal something about me, and so more is happening than just my mind spouting syllables. My words reveal my mind.
Now this has very practical implications for the preacher of the Word. Those who are ministers must never handle the Word in a truncated or wooden fashion. Such conservative and safe preaching really isn’t. A preacher shouldn’t act like an engineer trying to write a telephone book.
Meaning doesn’t come merely through defining things. Often it comes more through describing them. If I were to say, “My love is like a red, red, rose” I am saying something to be understood. If you grab a dictionary to find the meaning by the terms themselves then you never will find the meaning. The meaning of a word will never be found shivering alone in its birthday suit. We can say, “God is immutable” and be saying something that is certainly true or we can say, “ God is like a mountain, never changing.” The first statement may be more precise, but I would argue that it doesn’t carry nearly the payload that the second statement does. The second conveys the truth and then some.
Because of our sinfulness, God gave us the protection of His inscripurated Word, so that we might not be drawn away by our lust and enticed to commit an inordinate amount of exegetical monkeyshines. Guided by the Scriptures we learn the meaning of things and then learn how to communicate. We read and understand because God speaks truth by speaking about rivers, mountains, chariots, clouds, birds in flight, leeches, ants, muzzled oxen, and running races. This is how we must texture our preaching and teaching. A word fitly spoken, an apt metaphor, will do more true teaching, more revealing, than all of our one-dimensional dictionary quoting. After all, the kingdom of God is like baked goods and a pile of dead fish.