The Magnificent Defeat is a collection of some of Frederick Buechner’s greatest sermonic moments. He offers his readers prose so beautiful and well thought out that it reads like candy to the ear. As sweet as the messages are to the eyes and the ears they remain profoundly challenging for any who has hears to hear. He speaks into the ordinary human existence offering his readers hope in this life and offering to pastors a model for proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ that touches the soul.
The messages contained in these pages contribute both to the long tradition of homiletics and to the art of blending pose and poetry. This collection of sermons gives students of the art of preaching a glimpse at what preaching, and writing for that matter, can be when done well. The overall aim or purpose of the book is simply to address the human experience with the good news of Jesus Christ by presenting isolated, yet not completely unrelated sermons for the readers meditation and reflection.
The Magnificent Defeat is presented in three parts each composed of several sermons centered on a common theme: surrender, love and grace.
Part I: The Challenge of Surrender contains six sermons that address the difficulty and the necessity of complete surrender to God. The Magnificent Defeat (Genesis 32:22-31) wrestles with the need to surrender to our own brokenness, thereby entrusting God to be present with us in our limp. The story of Jacob wrestling with God is used to highlight the necessity of surrender to the point of being defeated by God. In the Beginning (Genesis 1:1-10) calls the readers to surrender their confidence in their own intellect. Since none of us were present in the beginning we cannot make any absolute claims; we can only ask questions. The Power of God and the Power of Man (Mark 9:14-31) speaks of surrendering our power of destruction to God’s power of love. The sermon proclaims that man’s greatest power is to destroy while God’s greatest power is to love; man’s power is external and coercive and God’s power is internal and transformative. The Two Battles (Ephesians 6:10-18) articulates the need to surrender to God in the midst of battle. One battle is the battle to conquer, to gain “room to live in” (37). The other battle is a battle to be at peace within. Message in the Stars (Philippians 3:12-4:7) is a hopeful reminder that it is not the large miracles of life, such as God writing in the stars, “I created you,” but the daily miracles of God speaking to us, sometimes through silence, reminding us that we are his beloved that keeps our faith alive. We must surrender to these messages. Journey in Search of a Soul (Matthew 2:7-12) looks at the importance of placing our magi-gifts, so to speak, before the Christ and leaving knowing that we are not home yet but a journey awaits each of us.
Part II: The Triumph of Love contains seven sermons that uniquely delve into the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The Annunciation (Luke 1:26-35) challenges the reader to consider the story behind Christianity and invites the reader to make this story one’s own. The Birth is a creative look at the birth of Christ through the eyes of the innkeeper (Luke 2:7), who was too busy to notice, the eyes of the Wise Man (Matthew 2:1-12), too afraid to give anything but his gift, and through the eyes of the Shepherd (Luke 2:8-18), who had absolutely nothing else and so ran to the child. The End is Life is a call to look just above the horizon to see that somehow, in some mysterious way, Jesus did indeed get up from the tomb. “But the proclamation of Easter Day is that all is well” (81).
The Road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-25) addresses our fears and discouragement that somehow Jesus is not able to accomplish whatever it is he alone can accomplish. “Emmaus is whatever we do or wherever we go to make ourselves forget that the world holds nothing sacred …” (85). The Tiger (Revelation 2:17) is a powerful sermon that proclaims the “very basic point: that human beings as they usually exist in this world are not what they were created to be.” Buechner tells the Hindu story of a tiger raised by goats only to learn later that he is indeed a tiger and was meant to live as a tiger. Follow Me (Mathew 9:9) looks at the cost of following Jesus and answers some basic questions all must ask before and as they follow: why should we follow, where will our following take us, what can we take with us, in what manner do we follow, and who is it that we are following? The Me in Thee (1 Cor 11:23-26) is a sobering look at communion and the mystery that in it Christ is made present. When we share in this act Christ is present in us, strengthening us, in some mysterious way.
Part III: The Mystery and Miracle of Grace contains five sermons that address the transformed life. The Breath of Life (John 4:19-24) reminds us that no matter how many times we God we cannot exhaust its meaning and significance, as we can when we say umbrella 20 times, because when we speak of God we are not speaking of a vague idea but of the Spirit, which is the very breath of life. To Be a Saint (Matthew 13:31-32, 44-46) claims that to be a saint one simply needs to be a human, for this is what we were created to be. To be human is to enter into the suffering and lives of other humans. The Breaking of Silence (Luke 11:5-13) is a fresh look at prayer that employs powerful imagery of two strangers in a dark room who hardly notice each other until finally one of them, should they decide to, breaks the silence. Whether there is really someone there or even if they respond is much like prayer, which requires patience, persistence and childishness. Become Like Children (Matthew 18:1-4) reminds us that if we are to enter the kingdom then we are to become like children,
… who in all probability neither knew nor much cared to know what the kingdom of heaven was nor what such a question might mean. And then he told them to become like that child – neither knowing in the sense of understanding nor caring in the sense of being anxious (134).
The Miracles at Hand (Luke 10:25-37) reminds us, “Again and again in our lives, all of us tend to mistake what we see there for what is really there. … we often fail to see what is unexpected” (138). Taking the parable of the Good Samaritan, Buechner shows the reader how easy it is to miss what is really there because we are focused on what we want to see.
The Magnificent Defeat is to be recommended for at least three reasons. First, this collection of sermons is a wonderful example of narrative preaching for any who find themselves fulfilling the role of preacher. Second, it is so well written that it inspires the reader to reflect on his or her own style of writing and to strive for excellence in the world of words. Finally, Buechner’s use of everyday images to communicate truth is powerful and worthy of imitation.
We are at a point in history that values story. As we transition out of the age of modernity (and possibly even out of post-modernity) we are entering a culture that is hungry for story. Our story has been greatly diminished at best and lost at worst. Buechner is able to communicate the good news of Jesus Christ through narrative, as opposed to the typical 3-point mode of delivery or verse-by-verse explication of the text. These approaches aren’t bad, but perhaps they are no longer best. He weaves the stories of biblical characters in with stories of fictional characters and with the stories of real life individuals. The beauty of his storytelling is that he brings the reader into the story so that all can travel to the same place together. The Birth (66ff.) is perhaps the best example of this. After considering the birth of Jesus through the eyes of the Inkeeper, the Wise Man and the Shepherd the reader cannot help but ask, Who am I? I am personally challenged to refine my storytelling (and listening) skills.
The United Press International gives the following praise on the back cover of this edition, “Here is prose so beautifully written that it verges on poetry.” Buechner’s mastery of the English language enhances his message and leavers the reader with a sense of awe and challenge. Inspiring passages like the one below are to be found all throughout this book.
Jesus says that in order to enter the kingdom of heaven we must become like children, and this gives rise to the most poignant kind of awareness of how we ourselves were children once but are no longer, of the dreaming innocence we lost without ever intending to lose it, of a summary, green world where everything was possible, where in the end the evil dragon was always slain and the princess rescued from her tower – all of this replaced now by a winter world about which we feel that we know far too much, a world where again and again we see ourselves as not least among the dragons. (132)
Buechner moves the reader through a masterful blend of verbs and adjectives all aimed at the truth, “We all tore off across that muddy field like drunks at a fair, and drunk we were, crazy drunk, splashing through a sea of wings and moonlight and the silvery wool of the sheep” (73).
Often times, great truth is lost in the process of communication because the speaker fails to connect the truth with a concrete example or image for the hearer to hang on to. Buechner is an exception to this rule. Each sermon is carefully wrapped in a common, accessible skin for the hearer to identify with. His images are timely (save his use of candid camera, which dated him) and provide an avenue for further exploration. His use of characters (Jacob, Inkeepers, Shepherds, etc.), use of analogy (strangers in a subway tunnel to explain prayer, tigers pretending to be sheep), and use of common experiences (the sky, light, fear, death, etc.) help cement the truth of his messages in minds of his hearers.
In the end, The Magnificent Defeat, by Frederick Buechner, is worth the read. One can sit and read it in one sweeping act, but I recommend treating it more as a devotional, reading one sermon per day or even per week. You will want to read slow, not because it is inaccessible, but because it so beautiful, so moving and so thought provoking you will want to savor every moment of it instead of swallowing whole and moving on to the next book.