Preaching Us Beyond our Comfort Zones
God is placing us in new situations. His unchanging and utterly reliable Word provides our only anchor.
By way of preface, a grammatical observation: usually the verb “to preach” does not have a person as its direct object in our common usage. We preach the message, and we preach it to people as an indirect object. But God moves people as the object of his proclaimed message, and preaching moves us from one location to another in time and in place, in relationship to God as well as in relationship to others. Preaching places preacher and hearer in the presence of our on-the-move God himself, and through the proclamation of Christ, the Holy Spirit moves them into the world into which he has placed us.
We are clearly being pushed or drawn into the future presence of God in 2020. We live in a world experiencing unprecedented rapid change. The whirl of new challenges and experiences creates a dizziness that has us grabbing for the old ways that have brought us this far. But God is placing us in new situations. His unchanging and utterly reliable Word provides our only anchor: some of our comfortable practices that have served him in the past may not continue to serve him as history takes its course through our lives. We can live with that because he has claimed Lordship over all of the twenty-first century. With much of the church’s tradition but with ever-new gifts, we are equipped to deal with this new world, where he is now ready to demonstrate his power even through our weakness if we stop trying to define how we can be strong.
Nonetheless, we look into the future with more foreboding and fear than North American Christians have had in some time. We cultivate phobias of all sorts in reaction to new developments in our culture. We dig in our feet and try not to budge. We turn back to pick up baggage from the way we are used to doing things, security blankets that weigh us down as we follow God’s paths. In the midst of our trepidation, he moves us along as his history unfolds.
Martin Luther devoted no little time when he was preaching to combatting fear in his hearers—fear of death, fear of illness, fear of loss, fear of hell, fear of the wrath of God. His confidence that God chooses to be Immanuel, God present among his people, supplied him with words of comfort in the face of real threats of various kinds. Surveys of contemporary U.S. Americans suggest that fear besets many who sit in church pews in our time. There may be less fears of God’s anger but perhaps more fear of his absence; less fears of hell than fears of loneliness and loss—of losing one’s job or one’s spouse or one’s children—; fears of illness and death. We search for comfort and calm. We long to find satisfaction and contentment. We covet reassurance and relief in the midst of anxiety and insecurity brought on by many factors.
Christ’s perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18). When anxiety over change and decay threaten to determine our feelings and our plans, we may seek to nestle in cozy zones of comfort and not venture any further than the limits imposed by our feeling of safety or security. We lay aside the thought that the One who does not change is abiding with us, even to the end of this scary age. So we invent excuses to stay where we feel comfortable, often ignoring the changes that transform what we thought would provide a safe haven into a lonely side-track that separates us from God’s calling to serve where he has placed us. We invent our own goals that seem pious but send us on pursuits to establish seemingly-pious protective walls on our own terms. But the Lord wants to be the source of our safety and our shelter in times of storm. Christ claims to be the only protector and guardian of his people. And he is always on the move. He assures us that we can with all confidence move with him—as intimidating as that may seem.
Christ claims to be the only protector and guardian of his people. And he is always on the move.
The term “comfort zone” filtered into our language almost a century ago, referring first to the range of temperature tolerance a person had. A zone is a place, and finding a comforting place where we are greeted because everyone knows our name is very important in life. God wants to define the zone in which he calls us to serve him. He knows better where he needs us, where we are to be. We may try to stand still and preserve or retrieve a comfort zone, hoping to hang onto gifts meant for a previous day or today but not for tomorrow. Despite our best efforts to slow it down, God moves history right along whether we like it or not. The football or basketball player who knows better than the coach where he or she should find the proper zone on the field or floor will not last long on the team.
It would not be good if our Creator and Provider awaits us in his 2030 garden and has to call out “where are you?” again because we wanted to turn around and find our way back to the security of the 1930 garden, or the garden of 1980 or 2000, because we have failed to notice that it has turned into a wilderness or a desert—or has vanished in the flood of God’s on-going movement of history.
Luther continually sought to deliver the comfort and consolation of Christ’s forgiveness and his gift of new life in him to guilty, fearful consciences. Christ alone creates lasting comfort zones, and his comfort zones often exist in the midst of profound earthly, temporal discomfort. His cross defeated the devil and all the discomforts he creates in order to lure us into his false havens. His cross comes to us through the proclamation of his kind of reality. Preachers are called to make that cross-framed comfort zone possible for their hearers.
Christ alone creates lasting comfort zones, and his comfort zones often exist in the midst of profound earthly, temporal discomfort.
We cannot deny that there are new risks arising in North American society that threaten to eat out the heart of an orderly world. As we face them, there are risks that our witness will cause us to endure exclusion and mockery. Baptismal water toughens the skin. We do not enjoy or seek rejection by others—it is part of our humanity as God designed it to seek and to enjoy cordial relationships. But in a sinful world it does not always happen. On the other hand, we might be surprised that taking the risk of explaining why we have a peaceful disposition because Christ has died and risen for us comes as a liberating word to those who have mocked us in the past.
We also face the more formidable risk of getting caught up in the cultural values that makes “my rights,” “my ease,” or “my entertainment” more important than the lives and welfare of others. That eats our heart out and condemns us to a restlessness and dissatisfaction that carries us far from Christ’s comfort. We face the threat that we will make our own material security more important that the security of others and obscure the fact that my life is secure in the hands of the providential God who is my Savior. Comfort zones among those who gladly would share with us our society’s infection of materialism and individualism, of “my toys” and “my rights,” anesthetize us quickly and render us unable to follow Jesus’s will and ways.
The preacher faces formidable challenges in making Christ’s presence plausible and practical in a world in which he works through the cross, which is the absence of comfort, his own and ours. Despite these challenges, preaching has the Spirit-given, Spirit-driven power to create a bridge that carries us into a new reality. He carries us out of our comfort zone into what seems like darkness but actually is full of Christ’s light. Our true future is inhabited by God and resounds with his Word. Preaching moves us forward into God’s planned future by assuring us of Christ’s presence in our lives. All our risky places he has visited. In the face of every danger, we know that he has already been there and done that.
We must treasure the gifts he has given to his church and our culture in the past. We should never abandon those that he is still using effectively just for the sake of innovation. But through the proclamation of his Word, the Holy Spirit prepares us to move with the history that he governs. Preaching moves our hearers and us to leave zones that once offered support in order to dwell in our only lasting comfort, the cross and empty tomb of Jesus Christ. Preaching moves God’s people ever again back into the never-ending providing and protecting love of our heavenly Father. There he gives us old gifts and new so that we are his salt and his light in faithfulness and trust today.