03.06.14

“You Missed Your Place To Shout, Right There!”

Many of us have heard this phrase feature over the course of a sermon. As a matter of fact, let’s be honest – about all of us have heard this phrase. It is a contemporary reflection of the historic call/response aspect of the great black homiletical tradition. This particular phrase is often employed by the preacher in order to draw the congregation’s attention to a particular point or passage of emphasis in the sermon – one that is initially “missed” by the congregation.

Being honest again, we would also have to regretfully admit that this phrase is often painfully overused. Nevertheless, given its familiarity among African American congregations – and the fact that I have not had enough pulpit swag to say it in an actual sermon – I’d like to borrow it. I want to draw attention to three unfamiliar portions of familiar passages of Scripture, and contend that these are, in fact, the places that deserve our hearts’ rejoicing.

1. And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. But the LORD God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” ()

The fall of is an account that many have been rehearsed in since days of Sunday School and VBS. It is the record of a divine command, human disobedience, shame, and original sin. In we are given the first hints of the gospel – the protoevangelium. Moreover, following the judgments we see God graciously acting to clothe sinners via a slain substitute. These are all worth celebrating indeed. But we missed something.

Preceding all of this familiar content, before the curses and animal covers, there is something that ought to shock us. It is the powerful, initiating call of grace. Take a look back at the verses. Man is not the initiator of his reconciliation with God. In other words, man does not pursue God – God pursues man. More often this passage is interpreted solely from a negative perspective – reminiscent of a parent having caught a child in a deviant act (i.e. “Boy, where are you!?). But I think the divine question has more to do with God desiring to make unmistakably clear that He has been, from the beginning, the only true “seeker” in Scripture. Here is a portion of a Spurgeon sermon on the matter entitled, “God’s First Words to the First Sinner” (October 6, 1861):

“But the LORD God called to the man and said to him, “where are you?”

“Man had sinned against God…Adam ought to have sought out his Maker. He should have gone through the garden crying for his God, ‘My God, my God, I have sinned against You! Where are You? Low at Your feet Your creature falls and asks mercy at Your hands. My Father, You have placed me in this lovely Paradise; I have wickedly and willfully eaten of the fruit of which You said that I should not eat of it, since in the day I ate thereof I should surely die. Behold, my Father, I submit to the penalty. I confess Your justice and beseech Your mercy, if mercy can be shown to such an one as I am.’ But instead thereof, Adam flees from God! The sinner comes not to God; God comes to him. It is not, ‘My God, where are You?’ But the first cry is the voice of Grace, ‘Sinner where are you?’ God comes to man; man seeks not his God. Despite all the Doctrines which proud free will has manufactured, there has never been found from Adam’s day until now a single instance in which the sinner first sought his God!”

That God did not leave us sinfully and foolishly trying to hide from divine omnipresence, but graciously, effectually called us to Himself – that’s something to shout about!

2. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered and said to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” ().

A narrative analysis of this text as a whole would undoubtedly place the miraculous deliverance from the fiery furnace as the “climax” of the story – and rightfully so. However, there is something in the “rising action” that is almost a penultimate climax in and of itself. And this is found in the passage I referenced.

It is clear that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego possess something that many in our congregations do not – a right theology of Suffering. Let’s look at the following phrases: 1) “God…is able to deliver” 2) “…and he will deliver” 3) “But if not.” Contrary to the Word of Faith theologies of our day, the true depth of faith is revealed not in the first or second phrases, but in the third phrase. A weak faith predicates its belief in the first phrase on the manifestation of the second. In other words, “I’ll believe He is able only if he delivers.” However, this is not the God presented in the Bible. Too often preachers speed by the third phrase, eager to get to the place where they can promise their congregants, “when you come out of your fire, you won’t even smell like smoke!” Sadly, this is not the point of the story, nor is it always true.

Now, I’m not saying that it is wrong to hope that God will deliver from earthly trials. The second phrase demonstrates that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego had faith that God would do the same. But it is wrong to believe that God will always deliver from earthly suffering. They understood and believed in the sovereignty of God, and that He might just choose to demonstrate His glory in them by having them persevere in faith unto a fiery death. In doing so, He would have done them no wrong. Whether they lived or died, ultimately they were delivered – if not from this temporal fire, certainly from the eternal fire. That’s something to shout about!

3. Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. ()

Of all of the examples that I could think of, this one convicts me the most. I’m particularly referring to the loud voice of the last verse of the passage: “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man.” The reason why I’m most convicted about it is because I’m not moved by it like I should be. Perhaps, you’re not either.

“I’m not moved by it like I should be…”

If I had to guess why, I would say that it is because we often lack a biblical theology. We have become so used to scattered preaching on random passages that, after perhaps years of church experience, we fail to grasp the metanarrative – or big story – of the bible. It is a story that goes from creation to new creation, from utter estrangement to comprehensive reconciliation. Yet, if many of us were to be honest, we are more excited about other things in John’s Revelation. Perhaps our hearts are astounded at the thought of massive pearly gates or streets of transparent gold (). Or maybe we are expectantly anticipating our mansions (better translated “rooms”) personally prepared for us by Jesus. While these pictures are revealed to preview the awesome glory of the world to come, they are not meant to be looked upon as the ultimate treasure of our inheritance. The triune God is our treasure! Think about it: gold will be nothing more than pavement, making the way for the saints to adore the triune God in all of His glory. Every reality that the gospel of Jesus Christ secures for the believer: justification, sanctification, glorification – and any other “ation” you can think of – is meant to serve one purpose: God dwelling with us, forever. If that’s not something to shout about, then there is no such thing as “something to shout about”!

A Final Word

This list was by no means meant to be exhaustive. For example, how often have we heard preachers invite congregants to feast at the table of , while giving no attention to the doctrinal legs () on which that table sits?

Rightly so, many people have historically critiqued emotionalism in the black church – from Woodson to Du Bois, and even Francis Grimke. Regarding Woodson and Du Bois, their critique stemmed from a place of concern for political agency. In other words, they were fundamentally concerned that certain predominant characteristics of the “black church” typified the stereotypes employed to justify the Jim Crow realities that blacks were facing. Unlike DuBois and Woodson, however, Grimke’s critique originated from a place of true ecclesial concern. A Reformed pastor – in both the theological and Baxterian sense of the word – he was passionate about the glory of God in the gospel, and was burdened to see local church pastors uphold the dignity of the pastoral office in both word and deed. Likewise, this is where my burden lies.

Thus, the desire of Reformed African American Christians should not be to eradicate the “shout” in our congregations, but rather to relocate it. We should, in the words of Robert Smith, seek to exposit and champion, biblical “doctrine that dances.” Emotionalism ought not dictate truth. On this point, I must diverge from contemporary theorists of African American preaching who posit that the congregation will let the preacher know when he is preaching correctly. This is foolish. Far from advocating dull sermons and lectures from the pulpit, we must vehemently reject any notion that places blame at the feet of the preacher for not manufacturing a desired emotional experience. Not even the best whoop on record can remedy spiritual heart disease – we deceive ourselves if we think otherwise. Our people need the gospel and all the glorious doctrines that surround it, whether they want to hear them or not ().

Congregants should seek to become “expositional listeners.” When listening to a sermon, the Christian must allow truth to dictate the emotions. By the grace of God, the mind grabs hold of a biblical truth being explained, and that truth resonates with the regenerate heart, thereby inciting an emotional response and, most importantly, producing ongoing evidence in the life of the believer. If the mind has not understood, shouting is a useless expense of energy. And yet, what is even worse is glorying over untruth. Friends, dancing, singing, and shouting on untruth is precisely what takes place on Saturday night in the local club. We must not allow the same to take place on Sunday morning in the local church.

And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” (ESV)

3:1 Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made.

He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.

And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” 10 And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” 11 He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” 12 The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.” 13 Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”

14 The Lord God said to the serpent,

“Because you have done this,
cursed are you above all livestock
and above all beasts of the field;
on your belly you shall go,
and dust you shall eat
all the days of your life.
15 I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
and you shall bruise his heel.”

16 To the woman he said,

“I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing;
in pain you shall bring forth children.
Your desire shall be for your husband,
and he shall rule over you.”

17 And to Adam he said,

“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife
and have eaten of the tree
of which I commanded you,
‘You shall not eat of it,’
cursed is the ground because of you;
in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
18 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
19 By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.”

20 The man called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living. 21 And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them.

22 Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—” 23 therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. 24 He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life. (ESV)

15 I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
and you shall bruise his heel.” (ESV)

16 Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered and said to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. 17 If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. 18 But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” (ESV)

21:1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. (ESV)

21 And the twelve gates were twelve pearls, each of the gates made of a single pearl, and the street of the city was pure gold, transparent as glass. (ESV)

28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. (ESV)

29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. (ESV)

4:1 I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. (ESV)

Steven Harris
Steven Harris is a graduate student at Yale University, focusing on black religion in the African diaspora. A Vanderbilt graduate, he received his master of divinity degree at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and has formerly served as assistant pastor for a Kentucky Baptist church.

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