The Gospel for the World:

*Dwight L. Moody and Jacob of Serugh*

            In The Rise and Fall of Dispensationalism, Daniel G. Hummel lucidly explains the difficult topic of American end-times theology. And, as Hummel shows, before there was Left Behind, particular beliefs about end-times theology were popularized by the incredibly influential revivalist of the Reconstruction, Dwight L. Moody (d. 1899). Moody preached about our lives as pilgrims in this world, and called (white) Christians to look past their differences in the wake of the Civil war to evangelize the world. Christian cooperation, Moody argued, was the only way to bring the gospel to every soul on earth – whether or not everyone would respond to it, everyone needed to hear the good news of the crucified Christ. The goal was speed, to evangelize the world in one generation. Time was of the essence, after all, Christ could return any day.

            There is something breath-taking and impressive in the urgency of Moody’s preaching. He was famously charismatic and persuasive, at least among the white Christians who could afford to put aside the differences that had caused the Civil War. Many of us in the US are heirs to the idea that focusing on heaven means setting aside the things of the earth. After all, doesn’t Scripture say:

9Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices 10 and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. 11 In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, enslaved and free, but Christ is all and in all! 12 Therefore, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. 13 Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. (Colossians 3:9-14)

We are told, after all, “Watch out that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental principles of the world, and not according to Christ” (Col 1:8) and that the end is near (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). The simple unity and urgency of the gospel still resonate with many weary American Christians today, who are empowered by a simple gospel: “The gospel is the good news that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, died for our sins and rose again, eternally triumphant over his enemies, so that there is now no condemnation for those who believe, but only everlasting joy.”[1]

Who needs science, theology, and denominational gunk when you have the gospel? This is our heritage, going back to the Reconstruction at least, and there is something true and beautiful in this simplicity.

But it can be easy to forget the weight and the privilege of preaching the gospel – in our eagerness to reach the world, we can easily miss that we are preaching the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages. This morning, I was reading a metrical homily on the nativity by Jacob of Serugh (d. 521) – and the first 14 lines is him writing how unworthy he is to tell the story of Jesus’s birth. It’s not just him, it’s everyone: “no mouth is capable, is sufficient but your Father, and how, and through what, could my tongue stretch far enough to your hiddenness/ you story was hidden from the Angels and with what voice could I send you a gift of feeble words?”[2]

On the one hand, there is a tradition in ancient Christianity of performing humility in preaching: to emphasize the unworthiness of the writer or preacher. On the other hand, in the face of reading Hummel’s book and considering the career of D. L. Moody, I felt a certain amount of conviction. How often do I sit back and reflect on the weight of the gospel? How often have I tried to simplify the gospel, to tell it as fast as possible – rather than consider the vastness of the mystery of Christ’s coming?

On the one hand, we are called to preach – to make disciples of all nations, to tell the story at the center of our faith. On the other hand, maybe we can learn something from Jacob (and his un-rushed 114 page homily). This is a mystery, hidden through the ages (which in the Syriac tradition is interpreted as hidden even from the angels). What voice could we possibly give to this mystery? How could our tongues every find the words to capture it?

Yes, we will proclaim this message – as Jacob himself will for his congregation in the lines that follow his lengthy admission of his own unworthiness. But maybe we can pause, as well, this Advent and recognize the vastness and the wonder of the mystery we proclaim – as well as the one who commissions and empowers us to share this story.

As Paul writes of his own commission in Colossians:

 25 I have become its servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness— 26 the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord’s people. 27 To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. 28 He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ. 29 To this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me.

May we resist the urgency, long enough to recognize the great mystery we proclaim.


[2] Jacob of Serugh Memro 6 on the Nativity, 11-14. My translation, with Slavomír ‪Čéplö






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