Near the beginning of Moby Dick, we encounter a rather odd pulpit. It’s high and lofty, as many old pulpits were, but the preacher enters this one by a unique method: not by steps but by a rope ladder, like those used on ships.

Father Mapple climbs hand over hand up this rope ladder with the dexterity of the whaler he once was, swings his leg into the pulpit, and pulls the ladder up behind him. There he’ll be until he decides it’s time to wrap the sermon up and descend the ladder.

This was Herman Melville’s scenario. The preacher decides when to leave the pulpit. But I have another idea. Mine is inspired not by Moby Dick but by a story the theologian Stanley Hauerwas relates.

Some years ago, while lecturing in Scotland, Hauerwas was asked to preach at the Cathedral of Edinburgh. The sexton of the cathedral had a surprise for Hauerwas, however, when he entered the pulpit that day. As he closed the door, Hauerwas heard a key turn behind him. And the sexton informed him that it was the church’s tradition, one dating all the way back to the Reformation, to lock the preacher into the pulpit, and keep him there, until he had preached the Gospel.

Now there’s an idea I can get behind.

Not Pontificating Moralists or Motivational Speakers

Preachers who don’t preach the Gospel are a rather strange breed, from a purely vocational perspective. Imagine a chef who won’t cook. A doctor who won’t doctor. A teacher who refuses to teach. I suppose such oddballs are out there, but I daresay they’re rare.

But preachers who don’t preach the Gospel are not rare. In fact, at least in my experience, they’re frighteningly common. Nor are they corralled in one particular denomination. I’ve heard them from Lutheran pulpits, Baptist pulpits, Catholic pulpits, Reformed pulpits. You name it. Now, sure, much might be said about the Bible, discipleship, tithing, praying, avoiding evil, keeping to the straight and narrow, and all sorts of other “spiritual issues,” but somehow Jesus and his work for us gets lost in the shuffle.

The same basic sermon could be preached in a Jewish synagogue or a Muslim mosque and no one would bat an eye. And, if that’s the case, it’s not a Christian sermon.

If Jesus is lost in the shuffle, that loss is something for which these preachers should rightly be ashamed—and repent. Because their job is to forgive sins by the Gospel. Their calling is to give the goods of Jesus to his people. The Spirit did not plant preachers in the pulpit to be pontificating moralists or political hacks or spiritualizing psychologists or wannabe Moseses or motivational speakers.

Preachers are, like John the Baptist, “a voice.” A voice to proclaim Christ and him crucified and risen for us. Yes, they diagnose evil. Expose wrongs. Call to repentance. Instruct, admonish, and warn. They must do that, by divine imperative. But most vitally, they preach the Gospel.

And until they do, keep the door of the pulpit locked.

Tongues of Liberation

They are in the pulpit to use their tongues as a key to liberate those who sit in front of them.

They liberate those who came to church that day because it’s about the only place in their lives where they feel safe. No one’s yelling at them. No one’s telling them they’re stupid, ugly, fat, idiotic, and unlovable. But they carry the burden of all those hateful words swirling around in their heads, like sharp metal debris caught up in a tornado. And they need from the preacher a far different word—one that tells them they are Christ’s beloved, part of his spotless bride, his dearest treasure in the world, and the ones for whom he would give every last drop of his blood to call them his own.

Preachers liberate those who came to church that day because their lives are falling apart. They just found out their husband is stepping out on them. Their son is on meth. Their daughter won’t speak to them. Or their mom just discovered a lump in her breast. And they’re scared. Everything that once seemed stable is coming apart at the seams. And God, well, he seems absent, silent, and unhelpful. And they need to hear from the preacher the good news of Jesus in all its unabashed and unlimited grace. No, it won’t untangle all the knots in their lives, but it will provide an anchor in the storm. Something to hold them secure until the current chaos subsides.

The preachers liberate people who come to church for all sorts of reasons, some good, some not-so-good, most in between. These people—we!—need to be lifted out of their own stories and placed into the grand story of how God brought about a new creation in Jesus. A kingdom of peace for those fighting demons. A kingdom of grace for those weighed down by guilt. The preacher is there to free them from captivity to their own spoiled, selfish, stained, and sordid stories, and to plant them firmly in the story of how “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son….”

Once that is proclaimed and planted in the ears and hearts of the people, okay, then we can let the preachers out with great thanksgiving, indeed, with shouts of joy. They’ve done their job. Swing wide the door. And together, we and they, will sing to the Lord, whose greatest delight is in giving good gifts to his children.