“Unprecedented.” There is a word I hope to never hear again after this last year. In 2020, “unprecedented” became a cultural shibboleth, “We are living in unprecedented times.” The whole idea was troubling on a number of levels. First, it demonstrated a great lack of historical grounding. Sure, our generation has not faced a global pandemic in a time of political unrest as such. But this is not the first pandemic our country has faced. Nor is political unrest something new. These times are not all that different from times past, and, perhaps, if we stop, take a breath, and look to our forefathers, we might find some useful tools to help navigate these strange days.
Such a tempered attitude is not very useful for those who want to push new ideas and agendas. If we are living in “unprecedented” times, then, it would seem, there is no “precedented” course of action to learn from. We can, no, we must try anything and everything possible to handle the days ahead because we cannot be certain of what will work. Any course of action can be justified in a time of crisis if such a crisis is deemed “unprecedented.” Unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures. You get the idea.
All of this fosters a culture of fear and uncertainty. Who knows what those with power will do with such unprecedented license? Who knows if the vaccine will work? Who knows if we can trust the election process? Who knows what tomorrow will bring? The ground we once stood on seems so shaky as the fears we are experiencing seem so new, so unprecedented. All control and certainty seem to be lost. Where are we to turn for certainty? How do we handle the days ahead if we don’t know what those days hold?
God gives the gift of a message to grant certainty to faith in a world where none is to be found.
Very quickly, these questions get turned on God. What is he up to in all of this? Has he lost control? Is he angry? Is he sleeping? Does he care? As we look at our circumstances, watching the old structures—which we thought granted us so much stability—crumble, we begin to demand answers from God. Sometimes these demands come in the form of sorrowful, but faithful, lamentation. Other times, they come from fear and a loss of faith. More than likely it is a mix of both. Either way, faith, when it is under attack like this, needs something to cling to, something certain.
God does answer these questions, and he does give something solid to stand on. But, he does it in the strangest of ways: by means of a preacher. He gives the gift of a message to grant certainty to faith in a world where none is to be found. But, shockingly, it comes on the lips of a person you may not be all that certain about. Fear not, God’s concern is not the person delivering the message to you; he just needs a mouth to preach his word into your ears and heart. He both puts that mouth in a pulpit and gives you ears to hear.
It is most crucial, then, what this preacher has to say. What must be emphasized is that the preacher is not there to give a morality lecture with recommendations on how to face unprecedented situations. He is there to deliver a gift. Sermons deliver Jesus as a gift from God. We must work hard to save the idea of preaching from the all-too-common caricature of a Sunday-morning tongue lashing that harps on your failures. In the New Testament, preaching produces repentance and faith by delivering God’s law and gospel, not shame, for the purposes of manipulating behavior. Faith comes through hearing the message of Christ, says St. Paul (Rom 10:17). Thus, the preacher has one job in these days of collective uncertainty: to fix your eyes on Jesus, the author, and finisher of your faith (Heb 12:2). He is to stand in the stead of Christ, by the command of Christ (that is because Jesus put him there), to herald the good news of Jesus Christ that is certain: the Crucified One is Lord, and you are forgiven.
Now, getting this gift into your ears may take some doing on the preacher’s part. After all, when anxieties rise, and the TV runs a 24-hour news cycle, our eyes are filled with anything and everything but Christ. Fixated on our idols, we look to shout down our enemies, and we expect our preachers to do the same. Everything is political, we are told from both sides of the aisle, so the preacher better pick my…er… a side and let them have it.
Fixated on our idols, we look to shout down our enemies, and we expect our preachers to do the same.
But, with such loveless hearts, Jesus must give the preacher something to say that will crush that ear-plugging idol. Though you will not want to hear it, it must be preached if you are going to hear the Good News. Christ Jesus has the preacher there to tell you that your idols are crushing your soul and ruining your ability to love your neighbor. That is, your idol of political righteousness, which is causing you so much uncertainty because of the constant threats you are told it faces, is stealing your faith. Christ has a gift to preach into your ears, but you’ve plugged them up with political pundits pretending to preach. God must use his preacher to rip out your sinful earbuds and placard Christ before you again. The only thing that will give you hope and confidence in this world is Jesus Christ.
There’s a wonderful scene in the Nativity movie that came out a little over a decade ago. The magi are arriving at the manger right after Christ is born. As they see the star shining on the Christ child’s head, one of the magi says to the other (who had been doubting the purpose of their journey the whole time), “How is your faith now?” It wasn’t until he received Jesus that his faith existed at all.
Preachers have been given to shine that light on Christ Jesus before your very ears. What is needed for these uncertain days is the certainty of faith. This will not come by demanding faith or promoting political reform. It will come only by proclaiming Jesus Christ as crucified and risen. Certainty is found only in this promise: in a truly unprecedented way, Christ Jesus put on your flesh to fulfill God’s will by dying for your sins and rising to declare you forgiven and death defeated. In this world, you will have trouble, but in this way, Christ has overcome the world for you. Your forgiveness means you are in God’s favor, and no matter what tomorrow brings, God’s face is shining upon you, and he is gracious to you. Whether you live or you die, you belong to the Lord.
That is the gift the preacher has to give. God has placed it in the pulpit for you. This is most certainly true.