Words have been devalued extensively. When spoken they are often used to deceive or solicit, as in commercials. When written, they tend to come out like computer printouts. Still, in spite of such persistent denaturing, words do have power, especially the spoken word. The ancients knew this. To know something’s name was to have power over it. Which is why Adam could name the animals but Jacob could not name the angel who wrestled with him. In the Old Testament, the word was called dehar, meaning something of great power and potency. The word was not merely an uttered syllable but something of force and thrust and compulsion. Indeed, as Isaiah said, “The word of God goes forth and will not return until it accomplishes its end.”
We can capture something of the power of words if we have ever heard a truly great actor or actress. Then words, as Leo Rosten says in The Power of Words, “They hurt. They teach. They sanctify. They were man’s first immeasurable feat of magic. . .”
In William Luce’s play about the life of Emily Dickinson, The Belle of Amherst, the poet is presented as one who really loves and reverences words. When, for example, she hears such words as “circumference” or “Massachusetts” or “gingerbread,” she cries, “Now there’s a word to lift your hat to!” Lifting one’s hat in those days was a gesture of respect. Reverencing words lead the poet to write:
A Word is dead
When it is said,
I say it just
Begins to live
It is difficult for us to remember, I suppose that the word was long spoken before it was written, long read aloud within community before it became a solitary pastime, long a source of nourishment and centering for a people before it became dissipated on the winds of babble. And perhaps it is even more difficult for us to remember that fundamentally most biblical stories have been lifted from the mouths of the ancient storytellers and put down on paper. In other words, this means that the biblical stories were not meant to be privately read but to be publicly told and publicly heard. Much of the Bible is written oral voice and when orally proclaimed easily regains something of its story power. For example, protestant pastor William R. White gave testimony to the power of the oral word when he participated in a mass celebrated by Catholic Kenneth Unfener of Saginaw, Michigan. He says that the bishop had memorized the gospel and so he told it rather than read it. The result was remarkable. A friend of his remarked that it was as if he heard the passage for the very first time. Another commented that he never realized how powerful the bare words of scripture were. This is not an odd or isolated experience. Charles Laughton, the great English actor, often read Shakespeare and other plays for troops during WWII. On one occasion he announced he would read from the Bible – the soldiers moaned and even booed – until he began to read the story of David and Goliath. From that time on his number one request was to sit on stage on a stool and read the Bible aloud. In a similar way several years ago Alec McGowan made a tour of England and America to critical acclaim to his one-man show. He sat or stood center stage and recited the Gospel of St. Mark! Once more this gives powerful emphasis to the truism that the Bible is basically a proclaimed and spoken word, a book of told stories.
And the stories were nourishing. In the Middle Ages most of the monks, like the general population, could not read. Every morning, however, they would meet in chapel in front of a large table. In silence they would listen while a literate monk read a single passage out loud. He would step back after this short passage, bow, and retire in silence. He would get up and read again – the same passage. And this he did over and over again until the chapel was empty. The idea was that as each monk got something out of the reading to take him during the day, he would leave. As the word invaded his life, he was ready for life. The word had power. Of course, even then, words
are only hints and guesses.
Hints followed by guesses; and the rest
is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.
The hint half-guessed, the gift half-understood, is Incarnation.
Yet, we should remember there is not only the spoken word but the silent Word, by which I mean the divine presence, the divine power that reaches us through or, if you like, underneath the human words that we hear.
Listen to the description of Jesus given in Luke 24:19 “A prophet mighty in deed and word.” There is no suggestion in the Gospels that the words of Jesus were considered less important than his deeds. The mighty word and the mighty deed were inseparable.
The power of the Word is to be seen as a Word of power. For such a word is never to be separated from action. When the Word with power finds lodgment in the heart of a worshipping man or woman, something happens. And that something will sooner or later pass over into action.
It is in him “a prophet mighty in deed and word” that we discover the deepest truth of all: the silent Word, the Word of God, is not only a Word of power, it is also a Word of compassion. It brings from the unseen world not only the knowledge of God’s presence, but also the assurance of his love. The Word made flesh in Jesus Christ speaks of an infinite care and compassion for every human life ever born into this world. “God so loved the world that he gave his Son” – but that “world” was no abstraction. It was the paralytic. It was Mary Magdalene. It was Peter. It was Zacchaeus. It was the man on the corner of Madison Avenue. It was you.
The Bible is full of names, not abstractions. The Word of God comes concretely – to people – and it comes with compassion. Two fascinating stories, one from the Old Testament and one from the New, make this gloriously clear.
Here’s Elisha the prophet. A prophet is a preacher, a dealer in words. There are few more moving stories in the Bible or elsewhere than the one of Shunammite and her little boy, the boy she had prayed for and doted on. And the whole prophetic action seems to stop while the prophet Elisha concentrates on this little boy who has had a heat stroke in the field and has collapsed. It is as if for Elisha only one thing matters. The Word of power that he has to declare to kings and councils becomes a Word of compassion to a little boy and his sorrowing mother. The Word of God is now focused on the lifeless body; and the prophet of God is stretched out in what we would surely call “mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.” “And the flesh of the child waxed warm.” How intensely vivid and human it is. “And the child sneezed seven times, and the child opened his eyes” (2 Kings 4:8-37). That’s how the Bible speaks. And that’s how the Word we hear today must be interpreted. When Elisha preached, men heard the voice of God, but the Word had never greater power than when it was the Word of compassion, and he turned to this mother and said: “Take up thy son.”
And here is St. Paul, the apostle. Surely an apostle is a preacher, a dealer in words. He was the voice that stirred the ancient world from Damascus to Rome. His were the books that were to be read for two thousand years. Yet here, again, the Bible surprises us as with a little story of sheer humanity and compassion.
It was an evening service and Paul is preaching an evening service at Troas; and Luke tells us that it is a stuffy room and the sermon went on until midnight. The inevitable happened. Someone fell asleep – and simultaneously fell from the top gallery of the room. Only the Bible would include a story like this in an account of a great spiritual leader. If Paul was possessed only by this Word of power that was in him, he might just have signaled the ushers to remove the body which he continued to preach. But, again, the Word was compassion and focused for the moment entirely on that one wretched youth who lay prone on the ground floor. There is hardly any mighty thunder in the Epistles that is more the Word of God than this: “Paul went down, and fell on him, and embracing him said, ‘Trouble not yourselves; for his life is in him.”
A church is not a talking shop. Neither is it merely an action group. It is a community where a very varied group of people, of all ages and types, set themselves under the rule of him who was “mighty in deed and word,” and seek to hear the Word of power, in the “lonely crowd,” we listen to the Word of compassion. That is why we are here.