Our dear friends Rev. Joe and Carrie Bangert are in town for the weekend, and it has been a joy catching up with them. Because our families are incredibly close, having spent years together here at Our Savior—walking together through so many moments in life, our kids being theirs and theirs being ours—it was easy to shore up our time apart. It’s nothing short of visiting with family. We spent most of Saturday morning talking about our children—where they are in life and the kind of people they are becoming. Chatting in this way, it’s hard to avoid comparing generations. And so, we did that, too. We talked about how things were different in our former days, and as we did, we observed ourselves. At least, I know I did.
I suppose I could ask you, “When did you know the path you would pursue as an adult?”
I’ve shared before that my earliest memory of future possibilities envisioned an Indiana Jones life in archaeology. I wanted to dig things up, find artifacts, and solve mysteries. I wanted to rediscover the earth’s undiscoverables. At one time, I found myself wanting to be a doctor. By the time I entered high school, both desires had given way to a longing to fly fighter jets, namely, the F-15 Eagle. I loved that plane. I still do. A secret wish is that before I die, I’ll be able to go for a ride in one—or any fighter jet, for that matter.
Beyond these things, something happened during my junior year in high school that rendered my previous aspirations obsolete. I think Graham Greene described it best. He said, “There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.”
I remember one of a few instances that signaled the door’s opening. It happened while sitting in a midday study hall scheduled right after my Creative Writing English class and just before my Spanish III class. That day in particular, I’d spent my time reading The Masque of the Red Death by Edgar Allen Poe.
In the story, Poe described a revelrous masquerade ball thrown by a prince for his friends in seclusion while a terrible plague was depopulating his country. As if nothing were happening outside, the extravagant décor of the prince’s gatherings betrayed a uniquely twisted personality, one that Poe described as “bold and fiery” designs that “glowed with barbaric lustre.” Poe continued using fantastical language to describe a seemingly grotesque genius inherent to a man who wanted to continue living his life of indulgence, doing all he could to forget what was happening beyond the archways of his isolation.
It’s a unique story. And yet, the point of my sharing is not necessarily its content (even though it does matter) but rather something that happened while reading the story. It was a moment when I felt a genuine appreciation for the rich use of language. Poe wrote in ways that brought me from one sphere into another. There I was sitting in the Morton High School cafeteria, feeling as though I’d been whisked away and into darkly gothic chambers filled with costumed and twirling revelers. His descriptions were incredibly palpable. Here at my computer on a Sunday morning more than thirty years after first reading the story, I still feel like I’m describing something I experienced firsthand. The party’s music, bustling atmosphere, and flickering candelabras dripping wax haven’t left me. Perhaps more significantly, I remember the passion stirred by the story’s pivotal moment from noisy merriment to a sweeping breathlessness that palled every person in every chamber of the house—the moment of moments when a visitor appeared and everything turned sideways for the prince and his guests. It was the moment that revealed Poe’s purpose for writing.
Poe described the scene:
“And then the music ceased, as I have told; and the evolutions of the waltzers were quieted; and there was an uneasy cessation of all things as before. But now there were twelve strokes to be sounded by the bell of the clock; and thus it happened… the presence of a masked figure which had arrested the attention of no single individual before. And the rumor of this new presence having spread itself whisperingly around, there arose at length from the whole company a buzz, or murmur, expressive of disapprobation and surprise—then, finally, of terror, of horror, and of disgust.”
I don’t want to spoil the story (although it was published in 1842, so you’ve had 180 years to read it), but you should know that the masked figure who suddenly appeared wasn’t on the prince’s guest list. He’s never on anyone’s guest list. Still, he has access to every space that humans occupy. One day, we will meet him no matter what we do to ignore him, how we try to hide away from him, or what we do to protect against him. Everyone will. And why? For one, God did not hide the truth regarding the sinister specter’s existence. He is the last greatest enemy of all (1 Corinthians 15:26), the one visitor God told us would be Sin’s final wage (Romans 6:23).
Both then and now, Poe’s story communicates something incredibly theological to me. For my part, however, I remember reading it and realizing how much I loved the language Poe used to tell it. I remember wondering how it could be possible to take such a deep truth carried on such a moving string of language, and translate it into other languages, such as the language I’d be studying in my very next class. Could Spanish interpret the vibrancy of Poe’s English sufficiently. English and Spanish are two different spheres.
There began my desire for a career focused on handling language in the best ways for memorably communicating concepts from one person or place to another. The door opened, and my future stepped in.
I assumed the way forward in this would be as a teacher, so I went to college and eventually graduated with a degree in education. Enticed by the opportunity to teach in a church, I drifted into my school’s Director of Christian Education program. This resulted in an internship in Michigan. A decade later, I experienced the unmistakable pull toward the seminary. Now I’m a pastor—both a teacher and preacher. I’m someone tasked with taking the most remarkable words ever put to a page and communicating them to others.
A few weeks ago, during the sermon here at Our Savior, I used one of my fast-fleeting minutes in the pulpit to examine this privilege, sharing how it actually meets with the preaching task. I mentioned that Christian preaching is, as Saint Paul demonstrates quite simply in Romans 10:14-15, a conduit from God through a person to others. Its purpose is to deliver God’s Law and Gospel—to show us our sins and to give us the solution to the sin problem, Jesus Christ. The result: faith in the Savior and the assurance of eternal life only by His person and work. I noted that a Christian sermon, while it may technically preach Law and Gospel, if it does so unprepared and disjointedly, being little more than a prattling on and on about this and that, eventually becoming a droning form of communication that actually makes it hard for the hearer to listen—such preaching might be doing more to smother its purpose than accomplish it.
In other words, the careful handling of God’s Word—which includes deliberate attention to the language used to relay it—is important. This is true because it can assist in building a platform of certainty in a listener—the fostering of a uniquely powerful (and often overlooked) byproduct: the belief that what’s being said means the world to the preacher, and he desperately wants his listeners to believe it, too. Of course, that’s not necessarily the power of the sermon. The Holy Spirit at work through the faithful proclamation of the Word is the power.
Notice I said the faithful proclamation. Care with words is a part of this and is, by no means, disconnected from the Lord’s sending of the preacher as a witness. When the preacher communicates the seriousness of sin’s predicament (that Poe’s specter is indeed looming) and the solution born from the person and work of Christ, when he does this in ways that show he’s invested in every single word, this can be an extremely sturdy bridge on the road to certainty. Such moments become unforgettable for listeners, ones that welcome concepts right into the middle of the listener’s sphere.
I can honestly say that the beginning of my awareness of these things began to take shape during my junior year in high school. In essence, I was becoming aware of the art of homiletics—the study and practice of preaching. Sure, it coalesced in my youth through visits with secular literature. But even so, the door opened, and my current role (which back then was my potential future) stepped in. Do I sometimes wonder if I’d have made it as a fighter pilot? Sometimes. I just asked myself that question a few nights ago while watching “Top Gun: Maverick” for the tenth time. And yet, as Maverick said in response to Rear Admiral Chester Cain’s ridiculing comments for not having done something grander with his life, “I’m where I belong, sir.” I thought the same thing while sipping my shallow dram of whisky and nodding in agreement. I’m right where I belong. I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.
I suppose that’s enough for this morning.