The 46th convocation of our seminary was held last night at Redeemer University in Ancaster. I’m not sure if convocation is supposed to be the formal close of the previous year, or the formal introduction of the new one. Something of both, I imagine. For those of us returning, convocation marks the entrance to another academic year; for those of us leaving, it’s the exit from a significant chapter of our lives. And I use the first person on purpose. After three years of being at seminary with them, the five graduates do feel like “us.”
Having known the five of them for so long made me appreciate the ceremony of convocation even more. So many things things in life end without comment, or even notice. At some point soon, somewhere on the vast fabric of being a small tear will open up and into it will slip five Google chat contacts. One day Gerard will be near the top of the contact list; the next day without announcement he won’t be there at all. So the ceremony of convocation confers a dignity onto the last four years; the pomp and formality a fitting celebration of both the effort the graduates put into their work and the depth and breadth of the treasure they received from it.
As an aside, here is a wonderful quote from C.S. Lewis in which he confronts the many critics of formality and ceremony: “The very fact that pompous is now used only in a bad way measures the degree to which we have lost the old idea of ‘solemnity.’ To recover it you must think of a court ball, or a coronation, or a victory march, as these things appear to people who enjoy them; in an age in which everyone puts on his oldest clothes to be happy in, you must re-awake the simpler state of mind in which people put on gold and scarlet to be happy in. Above all you must be rid of the hideous idea, fruit of a widespread inferiority complex, that pomp, on the proper occasions, has any connexion with vanity or self-conceit… The modern habit of doing ceremonial things unceremoniously is no proof of humility; rather it proves the offender’s inability to forget himself in the rite, and his readiness to spoil for everyone else the proper pleasure of ritual” (A Preface to Paradise Lost, p.17).
That applies broadly, from something like dressing well for church all the way to writing and speaking with grace and elegance. But those are thoughts for another time.
The thoughts for this time were also prompted by last night’s events. After the ceremony it was my duty to bring water to the graduates and their wives, parched as they were by the long lines and many congratulations. Somewhere between spilling water and ice on the counter and stumbling my way back against the flow to bring another round of drinks, I ran into a regular reader of this blog. “Your blog went totally dead over the summer,” she said. “Smarten up!”
Yes, ma’am. Things were quiet around here, and I don’t have much of an excuse. It wasn’t at all because my mentor, Rev. Jagt, overworked me this summer. More likely it was due to my desire to write being satisfied by writing a sermon every week. But I certainly appreciate that readers care enough about this blog to be annoyed when nothing happens.
The summer, as it should be, was a summer of learning. In some important ways I learned more during those three months than in the past three years of seminary. The sermons I’d written in the past were simply exercises, products meant for grading and critique. But suddenly this summer they were infused with significance. Suddenly there was responsibility, like a pilot who’s only flown in simulators and is now at the stick of a real passenger plane. Men, women, and children who had lives far from the academic confines of seminary came expecting me to present the truths of Scripture in a meaningful way.
One of the most important lessons I learned was the importance of preaching Christ. Sounds straightforward. But in my previous post about my classis exam, I’d written, working from 2 Timothy 3:16, “If the sermon does not teach or reprove or correct or train in righteousness, then all you’re listening to is a lecture.” I went into my summer internship with that in mind, the idea that the application is what makes a sermon what it is. But that isn’t right. I had missed the words that came before, in v.15: “And how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.” That’s their primary significance, and only from there does v.16 follow.
Rev. Jagt got me to read Preaching from Timothy Keller over the summer. Keller stresses that the heart and soul of a sermon is the Christology — how well the preacher leads the congregation to Christ. This led to a shift in my own thinking. It wasn’t that I hadn’t preached Christ before, of course, but rather that I hadn’t made that the focus of the sermon. So where I had looked at a passage for the ways in which it addressed our weaknesses, I now went to look for the ways in which it revealed Christ. Human beings are weak, sinful, and poor, a brokenness that manifests itself in as many ways as there are people. But in every way that we are weak, sinful, and poor, Christ is strong, righteous, and rich. And just as human life is full of brokenness, Scripture is full of Christ. So if I’ve got all my exegetical delights sitting in front of me and I’m ready to arrange them all into a sermon, my question now is, “How do I arrange these in such a way that I lead the congregation to Christ?” I wish this had clicked for me sooner, as I’d written most of my sermons by the time it did. But I look forward in the future to learning how to do this well.
That leads me back to last night, to reflect on the title of Dr. de Visser’s convocation address. The title was “His Excellent Word,” and it comes from John Rippon’s hymn, “A Firm Foundation”:
How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
Is laid for your faith in His excellent Word!
It’s simple to say that God’s Word is excellent, just as it’s simple to say “home is where the heart is.” But I find that maturing in faith, and growing up in general, often means a return to the simple truths. Simple truths seem quaint and uninspiring in your immaturity, yet as you grow you discover their ability to persist through the worst challenges. And not just persist, but to be enlarged and deepened. Your home does not become boring the longer you live in it; rather, its familiarity becomes a thing of comfort and respite. The Apostles’ Creed does not become monotonous the more you recite it; rather, repeatedly announcing those truths over and against the raging darkness that assails us is a thing of triumph and even courage.
So it is with Scripture. In Revelation 1 John faints when he sees his friend, Jesus Christ, decorated with the highest glories of heaven. Yet we have the privilege of meeting this same Jesus every time we open Scripture, every time we hear it preached. This is what gives Scripture its excellence, and that is a simple truth that never dulls. Rather, as we suffer the growing pains of sanctification, the Word — the Word made flesh — becomes just plain lovely.