The Word of God Fulfills Its Purpose

        This Sunday I’m preaching from Isaiah 55:10-13. It’s an intriguing passage, which invites us to take hold of the Word that will not return empty. I want to focus on verse 11, in conversation with Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s doctoral dissertation—Sanctorum Communiowhich he submitted to the university at the age of 21. In my sermon, I will focus on what I believe is, in context, a reference to God’s covenant promise. This covenant promise is mentioned in verse 3 of the chapter, which isn’t part of the lectionary reading. That verse reads: “Listen and come to me; listen, and you will live. I will make an everlasting covenant with you, my faithful loyalty to David” (Is. 55:3 CEB).

        To provide sufficient context, I am including verse 10 along with verse 11 of chapter 55:

10For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
    and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
    giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
    it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
    and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

While I believe that the author of Isaiah has the covenant promise in mind, and more specifically the covenant with the house of David, Bonhoeffer takes it in a different, broader direction, and applies it to the life of the church. Since I would find it difficult to discuss this in the context of a sermon, especially at this moment, I thought I might share it here. I came across this material when I consulted the Bonhoeffer Works, which I have on my shelf. I wondered what Bonhoeffer might have to say. I was interested to discover that he mentions it several times in his dissertation and first published book. It is also volume 1 of the Bonhoeffer Works. In his dissertation he focused on ecclesiology, setting it in a “theology of sociality.”

      In Sanctorum Communio Bonhoeffer makes reference to Isaiah 55 in the context of a conversation concerning the place of preaching in the formation of the church. Similar to Barth, he affirms that when the word of God is preached, preaching becomes the word of God. There are several references in the dissertation to Isaiah 55:11. In the first reference to the passage, Bonhoeffer writes: “Thus effective preaching is possible only within the sanctorum communion. Such preaching has the promise that the word shall bear fruit (Isa. 55:11)” (Sanctorum Communio, DBW 1:232).

Later in the book he writes a summary statement about the way in which the word preached fulfills its promise.  Bonhoeffer writes:

To summarize, the sanctorum communio, the Christian community of love as a sociological type, is dependent upon the word of God, and it alone. According to the promise in Isa. 55;11, it is present within every historical form in which the word is preached. The distinction between church and sect suggested by Weber and Troeltsch is untenable both historically and sociologically. Based on the efficacy of the word, we must believe the sanctorum communion to be present even within the sociologically unique type of the Roman Catholic church. Striving to attain the true church and pure doctrine is inherently necessary.  [Sanctorum Communio, DBW 1:270-271].

It is probably appropriate to remember that Bonhoeffer was Lutheran, which places a strong emphasis on the preaching of the Word as foundational to the church’s existence.

While Bonhoeffer focuses on sociological concerns in developing his ecclesiology here, the question I have for us as we consider this passage and his use of Isaiah 55:11 concerns the place of preaching in the life of the church. I ask those who preach, including myself, do you see what you do when you enter the pulpit an expression of the Word of God? If we do, on what basis do we make this judgment? Barth suggested in his three-fold Word of God that preaching becomes the Word when it is rooted in Scripture and points us to Christ (see my book The Authority of Scripture in a Postmodern Age: Some Help from Karl Barth, Energion, 2014). In this context, Bonhoeffer seems to root it in the church, so that when the church speaks we speak (or keep qualified silence) [DBW 1:250-251]. So, is preaching not only a declaration of the Word but an embodiment of it? If so, how might we understand the message of Isaiah, that this word will not return empty, but will accomplish its purpose?


Popular Posts