Are we really convinced that the words we speak convey the word of God Himself? Do we honestly believe what we tell our hearers really makes any significant difference in the coming week for them? Do we expect our hearers to think that we think we have something of interest and meaning for them? Or are some of them facing evils and temptations so huge we feel powerless in the face of them and think our words will change nothing in the fate which hangs over them?
A student in a seminar discussion of theodicy once related a morning in his life as a vicar the previous year. A sixteen-year old young lady, active in the youth group, desiring to enter the mission of the Church after college, had been struck with what was diagnosed as an aggressive and essentially untreatable cancer. He prepared himself to enter her hospital room that morning with words for her, her parents and siblings, her high-school friends, and set out with some dread and some confidence that he could carry out this task. As he crossed the threshold into her room, he realized he had not found words to cope with his own anger and bewilderment at how such a gifted and dedicated believer could be facing life’s end before it had hardly begun.
It need not be such a dramatic crisis. It is just the stray thought that between our ecclesiastically-enclosed environment and the world of factory, office, store, or school a gap lies, and it is very difficult to see across it, to say nothing of cross it. So, it is with some Sunday mornings as we look across our congregation with some sense of the struggles and heartaches of certain hearers. The challenges of meeting severe crises and the hurdles which dare us to say something meaningful to the satisfied and richly-blessed can make us wonder what we are really there to do as we come into the pulpit.
A discouraged, disheartened, debilitated preacher fosters discouraged, disheartened, debilitated hearers. A tired, bored, disinterested preacher breeds tired, bored, disinterested hearers. If the text does not speak to me, it has little chance of speaking to my hearers. So, we dare not try to fake it. The pulpit is the last place where hypocrisy is tolerated. The sermon cries out for telling it like it is. That is the discipline of our calling: Having to say something to our people and to recognize them as our and God’s people who makes a difference in their lives.
The pulpit is the last place where hypocrisy is tolerated. The sermon cries out for telling it like it is.
Confident God is present in His Word as we deliver it and that He stands by His people in the midst of their joys and sorrows, blessings and challenges, we have the pleasure of daring to let His mysterious way of intervening in daily life contradict and repudiate the hearers’ pessimism and doubts. We need to know we do not need to have experienced what others have experienced to speak to them with sympathy, some degree of understanding, and some sense of conveying the stabilizing, at-ease-fostering presence of our Lord despite contrary appearances. Fears and aches and pains will not vanish at our command, but God will join our people in their fear-fostering experiences when they hear His promises, unbelievable as they sound at first hearing. Every worship service brings blessings even—or perhaps especially—on those days when we do not “feel” the overpowering presence of the God who has loved us into His own death and out again.
Part of the challenge of transporting the presence of Jesus from the biblical page to the hearers before us lies in our own perception of our text and our sense of its significance a couple thousand years or more after its writing. The text is not the problem as much as what it could mean for today. What unites our community with the Christians in Rome or Corinth at Paul’s time, with the families of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, are the presence of temptations to stray from our Lord and the presence of the Lord who comes to reclaim us as His own and to stand by us in our need.
The challenge lies in our taking seriously what exists all around us—both the defiance of the Devil and the triumph of Christ. Are we convinced of the reality of Satan and his power? His wily ways disguise him well, sometimes as the fair devil of a piety of our own on which we want to rely instead of on Jesus. Sometimes he attacks as the unfair devil of deception and murder, in horrible perversions of life. Are we convinced the same world we experience as God’s beautiful gift with many aspects which are truly blessings is, at the same time, a world that, in its ingrained, self-protective and self-preserving intentions, perverts at least partially our view of God’s reality? For the world’s ways of recasting the reality around us and in us are not only lurking temptations to depart from God’s paths but also temptations to think our staying on what we perceive to be God’s path is going to make us look good in God’s sight. Do we take seriously the subtle diversions that lie within our own recasting of God’s embrace of our entire being? Do we sense—even if we cannot fully comprehend—how deeply embedded in our thinking and assessment of life around us the directions of the “white” devil of our pious imaginations are? For the Deceiver subtly shifts our wanting to do God’s will and our understanding of what is good and good for us and what is evil and self-destructive for our being to reliance upon our own obedience to God and away from our Lord Himself. Have we been honestly examining how turned in upon ourselves we are and how perverted our pious eyes can become? “Effective” sermons, those our hearers take along with them as they leave worship, have confronted how deeply embedded bad reactions and false impressions of what constitutes the good life are in our thinking and acting. This conviction brings us then to realize our dependence completely on the Holy Spirit.
For the Deceiver subtly shifts our wanting to do God’s will and our understanding of what is good and good for us and what is evil and self-destructive for our being to reliance upon our own obedience to God and away from our Lord Himself.
Are we convinced of the reality of the incarnate Son of God, the baby of Bethlehem? Are we convinced of the reality, adequacy, effectiveness of His dying and rising to accomplish the burial of our sins and the restoration of what makes us right in relationship to our Creator? The story is pretty absurd, God becoming a Jewish baby in little Bethlehem. Are we convinced that trusting in Him does not have to do with a place to go after death but with a sense of who I really am today which gives a more balanced, steady grasp on life with all its twists and turns, ups and downs, reverses and collapses? He lives, risen above death itself and above all the deceptions Satan throws at us. He intervenes in our lives as He did in Peter’s trapped in prison, in Jonah’s trapped in the fish, and in Noah’s when confronted by natural catastrophe.
Are we convinced of the providential guidance and accompaniment of our heavenly Father through every valley of the shadow? Do we find comfort and calming of our fears from the presence of our loving Creator daily in every nook and cranny of life? He who accompanied Moses through wildernesses both physical and spiritual, and who did not desert Paul in shipwreck and the attacks of mobs and public officials, stands by us today, in defiance of Satan’s attempts to have the last word.
The crosses of daily life are both tests of God and of our trust in God. Against our confidence in our Lord stands Satan’s deceptive suggestion that our suffering and tribulation reveals God is not anywhere near. In this situation, it is not so abstruse to wonder if it is worth taking up our hearers’ time this week again. But this is nothing other than Satan’s deceptive suggestion. The Holy Spirit places in our hand His sword in the form of His promise to be with us to the end of the age. He places the truth around our middles to keep us fit. He gives us the body armor of His gift of our identity as newborn children of God. He equips us with boots of peace which give us calm amid attacks of every kind. He teaches us to ward off the fiery arrows of Satan’s lies and murderous attacks (Ephesians 6:13-17). He takes our words which we may think are badly aimed and brings them to their bullseye.
The message the Holy Spirit serves up to us in our preaching texts have the power to save and to edify, even as they call to repentance and extend the promise of life, as they pronounce forgiveness and instruct in godly living. We must strain ourselves to be listening to our hearers and hearing how Satan is challenging them and how the Lord is speaking to them—or how He best can speak to them in ways they are so far unable to hear. Then our preaching will not return empty but will accomplish what is pleasing to God and it will succeed in reaching the goal for which He is broadcasting His message for our people (Isaiah 55:11).