Preaching The Drama of Scripture With Zwingli

I’ve been digging into F. Bruce Gordon’s new biography of Huldyrch Zwingli, Zwingli: God’s Armed Prophet.

Zwingli (1484 – 1531) is a funny Reformation character – or rather, the way he’s remembered and spoken of among evangelical and Reformed folk is kind of funny. He’s regarded jointly as a bit nuts, a bit of a joke, and yet somehow one of the most influential Reformers for modern evangelical Protestants (thanks to his symbolic view of the Lord’s Supper).

But nobody really knows Zwingli. Gordon’s biography is the only accessible yet decent contemporary one around. Many Reformed folk (and I’ll include myself in here, to be fair) like to deride evangelicalism for its Zwinglian view of the sacraments, but I’ve never met an evangelical pastor who’s actually really read Zwingli, nor one who’s especially enthused about being a Zwinglian. And that’s partly because his works are really, really hard to get a hold of in English. So how did he become so influential? A good question – for another time.

It’s been great to get a sense of Zwingli’s roots in the early chapters of Gordon’s book, and I’m hoping to share more thoughts later. I’m trying to maintain an open mind on the bloke. For all the mad stuff about the sacraments and dying on the battlefield which I know is to come in Zwingli, I couldn’t help but get fired up by reading about Zwingli’s early preaching.

It describes Zwingli’s arrival in the city of Zurich, having been called to a post in the city from his previous rural ministry. This is in 1519 – Zwingli, inspired by the education received from Erasmus (who produced a revolutionary Greek New Testamentin 1516) has been discovering many of the same things in his study of the Scriptures as has the upstart Martin Luther, several hundred miles away in Germany. One of those is the joy of thoroughly preaching through full books of the Bible, following the unfolding drama of God’s work in salvation history. Gordon describes it:

Most of the leading cities of the German Empire had established preacherships in their principal churches for prominent clergymen. Church festivals and the liturgical seasons of Advent and Lent were marked by sermons by well-known clerics, who could dazzle with their rhetorical skills. That Zwingli was called to preach in Zurich was not itself remarkable: it was what he said that was electrifying. Medieval preaching was full of exempla and familiar accounts of sin and virtue, but Zwingli presented to his listeners the full drama of the gospel story, from the opening genealogies of Matthew to Christ’s Great Commission. 

On Sunday, 1 January 1519, the newly arrived priest entered the pulpit in the Grossmunster to preach on his beloved Gospel of Matthew, having resigned his living in Glarus and having delivered his last sermon in the Benedictine abbey at Einsiedeln. Zwingli had informed the canons of his plan to abandon the set readings of the lectionary and to preach from the beginning of the gospel to its conclusion, as he had done in Einsiedeln. Through the cold weeks of January and February, each Sunday Zwingli took up where he had left off in the previous sermon, to continue the journey through the lives of the patriarchs, prophets, Christ, the Apostles and the first Christians. The priest who stood before the people was a dedicated follower of Erasmus, passionately committed to putting Christ before the people by bringing them the gospel. The conviction of the power and accessibility of the Word, set out by his mentor [Erasmus] in the preface to the Greek New Testament, had become Zwingli’s agenda.

p.50

The sheer life-giving, gripping exhilaration of the deeds of the Lord recounted Scripture is palpable there.

Now, I would be the first in line to defend medieval preaching. It’s an exaggeration to imagine there were no grace-filled- gospel-declaring sermons in the Middle Ages – go and read Bernard of Clairvaux, a man Martin Luther regarded as a greater preacher than Augustine. And yet the dire straits of medieval preaching immediately prior to the Reformation mustn’t be overlooked. Zwingli’s shift from preaching Scripture as a collection of moral fables to preaching it as a record of the living God’s works in history would, for the population of Zurich, been like Dorothy stepping into the technicolour of Oz. This approach to preaching is one of the Reformation’s greatest legacies, in my mind (although I am a fan of the lectionary in some ways).

This passage resonated because I experienced something of this when preaching last week. We’re working through Genesis 37-50 (“The Sons of Jacob”) with our 14-18 year olds at church on Friday nights. It’s a big, mixed group of 30+ young people, from a whole host of class, educational, and church/non-church backgrounds. There are a good few boys of around seventeen who can be a challenge to engage – short concentration, low literacy, stuff like that. Working through the early chapter of this series has been a bit of a struggle at points (have you ever tried to get a teen with ADHD to keep track of the Judah and Tamar story?)

But last week, we covered Genesis 42-44: the return of the brothers, and Joseph’s testing of them – another long, dense, somewhat convoluted narrative. I managed to cover the whole thing in a 25 minute talk, and when we broke into small groups to discuss it after, almost every one of those young working class lads had followed the entire thing. As we sat to talk, one said to me “I loved it this week. As soon as you said ‘we’re covering three chapters’, I put my Bible down and thought ‘I’m just gonna listen’”. And he followed every move of the story, every subtle hint of what was going on with the brothers, and then what this meant for our own repentance.

As I looked over my talk manuscript, just before preaching, it struck me that despite having six chapters left, this is the real dramatic climax of the story of the sons of Jacob – twenty years of guilt and regret, slowly turning to genuine repentance as the brothers prove they are changed men, who will not repeat what they did to Rachel’s son. 

And as dramatic as that story is on its own terms, its real drama is that God weaves these repentant brothers into his plans and promises. It’s in this section that they become not simply the sons of Jacob but the “sons of Israel” (Gen. 42:5) – the patriarchs of God’s people. It’s here that Judah comes to the fore, with the brothers referred to as “Judah and his brothers” repeatedly, hinting at the future prominence of his ancestors as the royal, messianic tribe. The drama goes beyond this family – it’s something of national, international, and cosmic significance. And (as I told those young people) we, if we bow down in repentance to God’s Anointed as the brothers did, are woven into the story too.

My prayer just before preaching was “Lord, help me convey the drama of this story, and what you’re doing within it.” And, in his mercy, he did – just like, so it seems, he did in Zurich in 1519. 

And so, at least at this stage in his biography, I’m happy to be in the same boat as Zwingli.

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