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Fall 1996 · Vol. 25 No. 2 · pp. 26–35 

Preachers, Deaf and Blind: A Sermon

Ben C. Ollenburger

This essay does not, in any systematic way, take up the topic of preaching from the Old Testament. Instead, its final section consists entirely of a sermon. Granted, the sermon is from the Old Testament. Readers, including Professor Martens, can judge if it is an example of preaching from the Old Testament in a post modern world. I preached this sermon in the chapel of Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary several years ago, to a congregation of seminary students, faculty, and staff. It retains the marks of that setting.


The title of this essay provokes an immediate question. Where is this post modern world in which, presumably, someone will preach from {27} the Old Testament? Do any of Direction’s readers live in that world? Does anyone? My essay’s title may be read as suggesting that the world—all of it, everywhere—simply is post modern, and that this presents unique opportunities for, or obstacles to, preaching from the Old Testament. That suggestion, or that reading, would be misleading. The world is many things at the same time, moving in different directions. To speak of the Hopi in Arizona or the Hutterites in Manitoba as post modern would make no sense. Neither is their world post modern, even if we mean by “their world” the political and cultural environment—Arizona and Manitoba, say—that surrounds them and affects them and of which, in varying ways and degrees, they are a part, even if against their will. To the contrary, that world of their environment is overwhelmingly (in every sense) and, most often, commitedly modern. So, for that matter, are most of the worlds in and by which we live.

... the Old Testament ... may help the church to recognize its enemies and to respond in faithfulness to God, in the midst of a lost and dying world.

What gives rise to talk of a post modern world is the sense that modernity is in a kind of crisis: that its foundations are crumbling or evaporating, or were insubstantial and artificial in the first place, and that nothing has emerged to replace them; or rather, that the metaphor of foundations is itself self-deception and conceit. Paul de Man wrote of modernity that it “exists in the form of a desire to wipe out whatever came earlier, in the hope of reaching at least a point that could be called a true present, a point of origin that marks a new departure” (Microsoft Encyclopedia). That hope appears now, in some places, to be foundering, or—in other places—to be transforming itself into resignation, or into yet another, post modern desire to wipe out what has come before. Anthony Giddens suggests that we are living, not in a post modern world, but in what he calls high modernity, exemplified especially by modern institutions. These, he says, “differ from all preceding forms of social order in respect of their dynamism, the degree to which they undercut traditional habits and customs, and their global impact.” And he offers “the nation-state” as the most prominent social form of modernity (Giddens, 1,15).

Is modernity then in crisis? It would seem so, if we consider what is happening among contemporary nation-states. We know very well about the breakup of the Soviet Union and its aftermath. And we know about the former Yugoslavia, where “traditional habits and customs” have reasserted themselves, or their echo, with a brutal vengeance. Traditions undercut or overridden by nation-states assert themselves in other places as well, in different ways and to varying degrees. Basques press violently for independence from Spain. Belgium is threatened by traditional Flemish-French divisions. Scotland has its own independence movement, while Quebec remains tenuously a part of Canada.

Tribalism, not only of an ethnic sort, may better characterize our world than does the label “post modern.” In a recent issue of the Atlantic Monthly, {28} Robert D. Kaplan describes his visit to Fort Leavenworth, in Kansas, where the future commanders of the U.S. Army plan how to “defend” their particular nation-state; with Kaplan, they wonder just what there will be to defend in decades to come, and against what enemies (Kaplan, 74-90). He points for illustration to the wealthy suburbs of Kansas City, east of Fort Leavenworth, in Johnson County, Kansas. Johnson County, he says, “is transnational, whereas the poorer parts of Kansas City are stuck in the world of the nation-state—at least to the extent that the nation-state . . . is increasingly a device for the subsidy and protection of the economically weaker elements of our population, be they inner-city blacks or blue-collar whites threatened by competition from abroad.” What Kaplan calls “transnational” could also count as tribal. “For an increasing percentage of the middle and upper classes,” he says, “the nation-state, with its taxes, welfare programs, and the like, is becoming an impediment in a global economy.” The very success of the nation-state, for those who enjoy it, is its crisis: “as private life becomes more fulfilling and varied because of material gains and technological advances, interest in public life outside one’s class and immediate community gets pushed aside.” Class and community now transcend the geographic boundaries that define nation-states, high modernity’s exemplary social form, creating a new category of aliens—unloved neighbors—and a form of “ethnic” cleansing far less sudden and vastly more subtle than in Bosnia.

If there is justification for referring to the world as post modern, it is surely, and only, in relation to the crisis of the modern world, a crisis that itself makes any reference to “the world” increasingly ironic. No such irony could be detected in the sermons I used to hear that spoke of “the world.” Inevitably, those sermons defined the world in a particular way, as in the refrain, “a lost and dying world.” The old refrain today has a tone that it lacked some few decades ago, when it took its meaning from an evangelistic ethos and impulse and theology. For some of us, it is startling to realize that, indeed, the world is (at least nearly) lost and dying. It is startling in quite another way to witness, among some of us who most easily sang the refrain and most insistently nurtured the ethos, the impulse, and the theology, a nostalgia for, even a militant commitment to, the very world we once defined as lost and dying—a world we were committed to saving, for God and from itself, as opposed to salvaging its remains for ourselves and our children. Quite a lot of what we used to condemn, and used to define ourselves against, as modernism we now embrace in the form of a modernity whose passing we may mourn or fear, but are in any case part of. The very decade of the ‘50’s, which, I was early taught, was either harbinger or fulfillment of the world’s lostness, can now be hailed as a lost era of Christian (which is to say, family) values.


Stanley Hauerwas, with a characteristic lack of modesty, has claimed that the church, through the gospel it proclaims, offers to the world a history—a story—it would otherwise lack. In Robert Jenson’s summary of Hauerwas’ point,

Were there no church the world would not in fact have a story by which to be construed; it would, indeed, be ahistorical. For the strifeful world is just so no one community and no one history. It can have no story it does not simply make up, since “it is based on the assumption that human beings, not God, rule history” (293).

However, there remains powerful support for the assumption. If it is true that, without the church, the world remains un-storied and ahistorical, it seems equally true that God’s rule over history, and the means by which God is exercising it, are mysterious. We may say, with Psalm 115:16, “While the heavens are Yhwh’s heavens, the earth he has given to human beings,” for better or for worse. And perhaps that is reason enough why one theme—not the only theme, and not the dominant theme, but one theme—in the story the church offers the world is that it is lost and dying. This is not a story that parts of a fractured world are likely to choose for their own.

That may help to explain another of Hauerwas’s claims: that the church, when and if it is the church, has enemies; indeed, by its ministry it produces enemies (26-34). Readers of Direction are unlikely to be surprised by the claim, schooled as we are in the history of martyrdom. Hauerwas isn’t talking about history, though; he is talking about current “false stories of freedom,” whether these are modernity’s legends or post modernism’s eager or resigned replacements (34).

As Christians, we are defined by a narrative that we did not invent or choose, one that makes modernity’s crisis utterly unsurprising and post modernism, in any of its varied forms, neither the end of the world nor its salvation. Given the nature and content of the story by which we are defined—call it Scripture—we should not be surprised by any of the world’s turns, though we should be horrified by many of them. We may be called to resist them, some of them, even in some small way. It seems to me that this depends to a great extent on our grasp of the story, and thus of who we are, and are not; and on who God is. And this “grasp” depends quite a lot on the character of our worship, and on the place of preaching within it.

Thomas G. Long observes that, in North American culture—be it high modern or post modern—“worship is often thought to be largely a matter of affect.” So it may seem odd to recommend, as Long does, “that one does not {30} simply show up for worship; one should come to worship somehow equipped.” Like all of us, Long is interested in the renewal of worship. He says: “Deepening worship, however, requires growth in special skills and knowledge, such as the ability to use a working theological vocabulary and an expanding memory of the main contours of the biblical story” (3). In a culture that takes worship to be a matter of affect, preaching is bound to suffer. It will neither depend on nor nourish the “special skills and knowledge” that an equipped congregation brings to, and takes from, the worship of the triune God.

Preaching, too, like the church under Hauerwas’ description, can produce enemies. Perhaps this is especially the case with preaching from the Old Testament. The modern world, along with its putatively post modern successor, has rendered the notion of “enemy” ambiguous. This is as true for the church as it is for the military commanders that Robert Kaplan interviewed at Fort Leavenworth. I want to suggest that the Old Testament—that its preaching, as well as preaching from it—may help the church to recognize its enemies and to respond in faithfulness to God, in the midst of a lost and dying world. The suggestion is in the form of a sermon, and the examples it cites are from times past, from the hoary past and the recent past. Both times, as it seems to me, could have been perceived as marking the transition from a modern to a post modern world.

(ISAIAH 42:18-20; 43:8-12)

In Isaiah chapters 40 through 42, the prophet asks a series of rhetorical questions; among them, this one may be the most striking: “Who is blind and deaf as the servant of Yahweh?” This is the same servant whom Yahweh has asked, “Have you not known, have you not heard, has it not been declared to you long ago?”

The servant of whom the prophet speaks is none other than Israel, that defeated and broken community identified as Yahweh’s own, commissioned to be Yahweh’s sentinel to the nations—as far as the scattered islands of the remotest seas. In chapter 42, Isaiah asks, “Who is blind as the servant of the Lord?” And in chapter 43, Yahweh commands, “Bring forth the people who are blind.... You are my witnesses, says Yahweh, and my servant whom I have chosen.” Yahweh’s servant is Israel, deaf and blind, chosen to be Yahweh’s witness to the nations. This people, Israel, defeated and in exile, captive to the imperial power of Babylon, are servants: servants not of Babylon, but of Yahweh, and are Yahweh’s witnesses—blind and deaf witnesses that the God whose people they are is the creator of the world, Lord of the nations, and ruler of history.


There is something laughable in this, that Israel, in its brokenness, unable to hear or to see, and thus with no memory and nothing to say, is Yahweh’s announcement to the world. And this announcement is to show the world that Yahweh is none other than its creator, its Lord and sovereign, before whom the nations and their rulers—those same nations and rulers who conquered Israel, ravaged their land, burned their temple, sent them into exile, and ruined their faith—these very nations and rulers are, beside Yahweh, so much weightless dust.

If ever there was a lost cause it was Israel, divided between an exiled community in Babylon and an impoverished community in Judah, the two shattered communities feuding between themselves about who had legitimate claim to the little parcel of land Nebuchadnezzar’s armies had trounced and taken. Subjects of an empire that had devoured them and spit them out, this defeated, floundering, divided, community is Yahweh’s servant, the corporeal and visible evidence of Yahweh’s claim to be the only God and ruler—a community of preachers with nothing to say, blind and deaf . . . and mute.

Well, not entirely mute. Blind and deaf they were, but they did have something to say, these preachers. What they said was, “You have abandoned us, God, and we are left alone.” And by implication, “You are defeated and powerless, God, and we are without hope.” From their experience of exile and defeat, Israel concluded that God, too, was defeated, impotent, absent. The prophet devotes great energy and rhetorical genius—and astonishing theological wisdom—to severing this connection. Defeated you are, he says to Israel, and both deaf and blind. But you have no cause to think that the same is true of God. God’s sovereignty is not tied to your success, or even to your faith. That you are oppressed does not mean God is not sovereign. That you are defeated does not mean God is not victorious. That the world has become frightening and inscrutable does not mean that God is not its creator. That you are without faith and hope does not mean that God has not chosen you and determined your future. That you are blind and deaf does not mean God has not spoken and acted.

The message of the prophet, in Isaiah 40-55, is directed to a particular time and place, but its timeliness is enduring. Before saying of them, “You are my servant,” God robbed Israel of all their security, rendered foolish all of their wisdom, and left them deprived of anything to say—except what God had declared beforehand. And that’s the point. Israel, as the servant of God, has nothing to proclaim, and neither do we, except what God has declared beforehand. This is humbling, and we’ve had about enough of humility. It is hard work, and we’d rather rise up to play. We’ve come to seminary to build on the sure foundations of our faith; we have something to say. But God took Israel to a different kind of school. God eroded their foundations, {32} deconstructed them from within and without, demonstrated their foolishness, their shallowness, their weakness, and their falseness: God sent Israel away, into exile, placed them under the dominion of Babylon and Persia, left them without sight or hearing—until they could hear only what the prophet declared: which is to say, what God had declared beforehand.

This was theological education of a most strenuous sort. It was theological education that began by robbing Israel of anything they might have had to say on their own, of any wisdom they may have thought to possess, of any certainty at which they may have arrived: robbed them of it entirely, and left them deaf, blind, and speechless. And in their very inability to hear, to see, or to speak, Israel was God’s servant, God’s surest witness, precisely because in their deafness and in their blindness and in their dumbness they were thrown back utterly and entirely on what God had declared beforehand. In exile and defeat, and precisely there, Israel was Yahweh’s servant. Not in triumph and not in certainty; not in the elegance of their liturgy or the depth of their spirituality; not in the clarity of their thinking or the immediacy of their experience, but in their defeat and humility—in their bondage—Israel was Yahweh’s servant, Yahweh’s preacher, because there Israel was thrown back on nothing more, and nothing less, secure than what Yahweh had declared beforehand.

Before Israel could see, they had first to become blind. God seems to work that way. God worked that way with Paul the apostle. As Tom Long has put it: We sing, “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound; once I was blind but now I see;” Paul might have sung, “Amazing grace, how disturbing the presence; once I could see, but now I am blind.” In her novel Wise Blood, Flannery O’Connor tells the story of Hazel Motes, a preacher in the Church Without Christ. Motes is a grotesque figure who sees the grotesque, and sees it clearly, in the deformed religious characters of his rural south. Hazel Motes seeks his salvation in himself, in his Church Without Christ. And in his strenuous effort to deny his need of a redeemer, to see through himself the truth that will save him, he lines his shoes with rocks that bloody his feet; he wraps himself in barbed wire under his shirt; and, he smears his eyes with lime and blinds himself. When his landlady finds Hazel Motes sitting dead in his chair, she says to his corpse: “Well, Mr. Motes..., I see you’ve come home.” In the service of God, Israel’s blindness was the beginning of restoration; in the service of Christ, Paul’s blindness was openness to the gospel; for Hazel Motes, in the Church Without Christ, and thus without either gospel or grace, blindness was a step on his journey toward home and death.

Israel, God’s servant, was cast into exile and onto God’s word. And so are we—thrown back utterly and entirely on what God has declared {33} beforehand, bound humbly to ancient texts whose truth we cannot prove, whose meaning we stumble to discern, and apart from which we have nothing to declare but our own dumbness, vanity, and defeat. And by whose truth we may, with freedom and boldness, surrender ourselves to a future whose Lord is our God.

Here is a boldness and freedom born of nothing but faith in what God has declared, and thus in God’s own self. It is a boldness and freedom bound to the word of God, and having nothing in its favor but that word itself, and thus a boldness and freedom that can but seem foolish and irrelevant. As foolish and irrelevant as the preaching of the prophet, who identified a group of exiled Israelites as the preachers of God’s salvation; as messengers of what God had declared long ago; as witnesses to the nations and heralds of God’s reign.

Not long ago I saw a film—maybe you have seen it, too—about the French village of Le Charbon-sur-Lignon. It was, fifty some years ago, an unremarkable village of farmers and merchants. It was distinctive only in being a community of Huguenots, Reformed Protestants with a memory of severe persecution, in a Catholic country; and in having a pastor, Andre Trocme, who was a pacifist. It became remarkable, indeed extraordinary, in virtue of a set of events that its citizens did not welcome, but to which they responded heroically—heroically in our eyes, but unthinkingly and altogether naturally in their own. From 1939 through 1944, while their country was overrun by and then collaborated with the Nazis, this village of Protestants hid Jews, five thousand of them (Matt. 14:21). They hid them in their homes, taught them in their schools, gave them their beds, their food, and their friendship. They did this without meeting to consider whether they should do it, without a church board or committee or study group or task force meeting to decide whether it was the Huguenot thing to do, and without doubting for even a minute that it was the right thing to do. They did it, immediately and at enormous risk to themselves and their families, because they were Christians.

But of course, almost all of Europe was Christian. The collaborationists in France were Christian; the German soldiers who had “God with us” inscribed on their belt buckles were Christian; the German churches who supported Hitler were Christian; the Lutheran and Catholic and the Mennonite churches who remained silent or rose to the support of Hitler, but who said nothing to protest the slaughter of Jews by the trainload—these, too, were Christian. Why, among all these Christians, among all of us Christians, did this village in France act virtually alone and without ever pausing for a moment to doubt themselves—why did they act in a way that we now consider to have been heroic?


We cannot learn much from asking them. Their reply, on film, was consistently along the lines of “It was just the thing to do, the human thing, the Christian thing to do. There were people in need, God’s people, Jews, and we helped them.” The people of Le Charbon knew who they were, and what they were required to do. They knew it, because they remembered what God had declared long ago. And that declaration was held constantly before them by the powerful preaching of their pastor, an intellectually gifted pastor and theologian and author, whose books are available in English. Do not ever underestimate the importance and the power of preaching. If the sermons of the prophet in Isaiah 40-55 seem remote, then remember the biblical preaching of Andre Trocme, banished to an irrelevant village parish because of his pacifism, but who wrote works of scholarship and sustained a village of peasants, merchants, and clerks through Satan’s finest hour in two millennia of Christian history. In explanation of their death-defying heroism, his parishioners quoted the Bible. Against the spirit of Adolph Hitler, the demonic ideology of Nazism, and the threat of the secret police, a pastor in Le Charbon preached the word of God, while he and his congregation—alone among all the Christian congregations of Europe—saved Jews from the holocaust.

And if the sermons of the prophet in Isaiah 40-55 do seem remote to us, as if we have something more pertinent, more relevant, more important to preach than these ancient texts, then we should not consider this to be a problem of hermeneutics, or of homiletics, or of anything else the least bit sophisticated. If we consider these sermons remote and of less importance than what we have to say, on the basis of what we have learned or experienced or encountered, then we do not need to worry about going into exile: we are already there.

A popular bromide has it that God has no hands but our hands. The prophet knew that this piece of common Christian wisdom is a counsel of despair. Our hands are best suited to idolatry and crucifixion. The mystery is that God redeems our hands from the work we set them to do, and that God’s purposes are achieved through, but also in spite of, hands that know not what they do. Being deaf and blind we would count as a handicap; God counted it, in Israel’s case, as a qualification for ministry. The villagers in Le Charbon were, by our lights, deaf and blind. They were deaf to the prudential wisdom of all the Christians who surrounded them, and blind to the possible, and possibly deadly, consequences of their own actions. But they were alert to the Word of God, not least because their pastor had faith in that word which was not his own. The hands of his parishioners were set to sowing and reaping, to sorting and counting. His hands were set to turning pages in an ancient book, and to finding there, and nowhere else, what was declared long ago—what {35} had to be declared then and there, as a witness even to us.

“Fear not, nor be afraid; have I not told you from of old and declared it? And you are my witnesses!” Thus says the Lord.

Thanks be to God.


  • De Man, Paul. Blindness and Insight quoted in the Microsoft Encyclopedia, 1995.
  • Giddens, Anthony. Modernity and Self-Identity in the Late Modern Age. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991.
  • Hauerwas, Stanley. “No Enemy, No Christianity: Theology and Preaching Between ‘Worlds.’ ” The Future of Theology: Essays in Honor of Juergen Moltmann. Ed. Miroslav Volf. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1966, pp. 26-34.
  • Jenson, Robert W. “The Hauerwas Project.” Modern Theology 8 (1992): 293. Jenson is here quoting from Hauerwas’ essay, “The Church as God’s New Language,” in Christian Existence Today. Durham, NC: Labyrinth, 1988.
  • Kaplan, Robert D. “Fort Leavenworth and the Eclipse of Nationhood.” Atlantic Monthly 278, no. 3 (1996): 74-90.
  • Long, Thomas G. “Editorial: Liturgical Storm Clouds.” Theology Today 48 (1991): 3.
Ben Ollenburger serves as professor of Biblical Theology at the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries in Elkhart, Indiana. He registers his indebtedness to Elmer Martens: It was mainly because of Elmer Martens that I came to MBBS as a student, a few short years ago, when he was fresh from completing his degree at Claremont. And it was wholly because of Elmer Martens that I first determined to pursue graduate studies in Old Testament, and renewed that determination when it seemed futile.

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