Preaching in a Crisis

One of my former students recently asked me how I thought the COVID-19 crisis was affecting pastoral ministry and preaching in particular. How do you preach in an environment like this? The simple answer is that you do the best you can, given the circumstances. Preaching is challenging enough under ordinary conditions. The nature of the current crisis has completely upended our normal patterns of meeting and communicating. Preachers are speaking to empty seats and recording their messages for broadcast over social media. As one popular meme observes, we are all televangelists now.

The answer to my student’s question involves more than the medium, though much could be said about that as well. The medium of delivery matters, but the content of the message is always primary. Whether we preach live or by means of a video, we are still saying something. What should we say? The Sunday school answer to this question, of course, is that we should preach the gospel. There is a sense in which preachers only have one message to deliver. Our determination, like the apostle Paul’s, is to know nothing except Jesus Christ and Him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2). Yet as true as this may be, to put it this way in answer to this particular question seems like and oversimplification. It is not.

Preaching More than the Facts

The gospel offers hope for the present life as well as for the future. It is about living as much as it is about dying. Living the Christian life is more than a matter of willpower and information. The Christian life is Spirit-driven and grace enabled. It is a life that is lived not only in response to the gospel but through the power of the gospel. Paul’s letters are proof that the saints do not need to hear a different gospel after they have believed than the one that was preached to them prior to faith. The apostle was just as eager to preach the gospel to the saints at Rome as he was to proclaim it those who had never heard Christ named (cf. Romans 1:15 with 15:20). While the saints do not need a different gospel, they do need a gospel which is explicated in terms of their experience.

This means that preaching the gospel to the saints during this season of COVID-19 demands that we do more than state the facts of the gospel. What is especially needed is gospel preaching that demonstrates priestly sensitivity. In the Old Testament priests, like prophets, exercised a ministry of God’s word (Leviticus 10:11). The priest, however, differed from the prophet because he shouldered an additional burden, serving as the people’s advocate. Priests were not only “selected from among men” but were “appointed to represent them” (Hebrews 5:1). Preachers, like the priests of the Old Testament, do not stand apart from those who hear them. The default disposition of every sermon is one of sympathy. Priestly sympathy is not pandering but a compassionate ministry that is born of shared experience. Priestly advocacy should not be confused with trite slogans, pat answers, or simplistic explanations. Unfortunately, our culture’s bent toward pragmatism makes us especially vulnerable in this area. We are too eager to come to God’s defense–too quick to fill in the silences God leaves behind and attempt to explain what he himself has not explained.

Similarly, it can be tempting for preachers to use a crisis like this to leverage their favorite rebuke. If the posts I see from pastors on social media are an indication of what we are saying in our sermons, not a few of us have seized the opportunity afforded by the pandemic to teach the church a lesson about our favorite cultural or congregational irritation. We are saying that this crisis has come upon us because of abortion or that it is God’s judgment because of homosexuality. Some suggest that God sent it to show us that we are spoiled or that He allowed the churches to be shut down because we took worship for granted. Some are saying that God has forced us out of the building so that the church could be the church. The intent of these assertions, I think, is to be prophetic. Unfortunately, such varied explanations merely gives the impression that God cannot make up His mind about why He is angry with us. He is just mad. I am not saying that God would never deal out judgment on a national or even global scale. The Scriptures show that He has done so in the past and will do so again. What troubles me is the underlying note of smugness that seems to attend so many of these kinds of statements. Perhaps before we try to call down woes upon the nation like the prophet Jeremiah, we ought to learn how to weep like him first.

Some of this comes from the pressure we feel to exonerate God. Like many others, I have had more than one person ask me what I thought God was up to by allowing such a devastating pandemic to occur. In our effort to provide an answer, we may overreach. We can make the mistake of thinking that since we speak for God, we may also speak as God. Like Moses at the rock, we speak rashly or out of spite (Numbers 20:10). We jump to conclusions about God’s intent. We make statements about God’s motives and reasoning that sound like certainties but are really only speculations. It is not wrong to address the questions that people ask. One of the preacher’s most important responsibilities is that of leading the congregation in the collective practice of theological reflection about the questions and challenges which are peculiar to their context. But they must do this with what I describe as priestly advocacy.

The key to priestly advocacy is identification (Hebrews 2:17). This means that the preacher functions as a kind of mediator, standing between the text and the congregation and listening to the word of God on their behalf. Because we stand in the place of our listeners, we ask the questions they would ask. Some of these questions are obvious. Many are mundane. If we are to be true advocates for them, we must also ask the questions our listeners would like to ask but dare not. We can give voice to the questions that plague our listeners, but we cannot always answer them. Our priestly role demands that we speak the truth, and the truth is: God does not always explain himself. Part of the priestly responsibility of preaching is to give voice to the congregation’s unspoken questions and then listen with them to the awkward silence that sometimes ensues once the words have been spoken. It is not our job to answer all the congregation’s questions. When we try to say what God has not said, we inevitably replace God’s judgment with our own.

What We Can Say

What, then, can we say? We can affirm the congregation’s questions and fears. To admit that we don’t know what God is doing is not the same as saying that God is doing nothing. To acknowledge fear, grief, or uncertainty can itself be a great relief in times like these. Of course, it is crucial that we not stop here. More needs to be said. We do not want to only point at the problem. But if preaching aims to facilitate an encounter with God,  a precondition must be that we face God as we truly are, with all our doubts, fears, and questions in plain sight.

If our aim in preaching really is to help our listeners meet God through His word, then the second thing we can do in the sermon is to speak of God. More particularly, we can speak of God as He has revealed Himself to us through the person and work of His Son Jesus Christ. This may sound too simple, so let me make clear what I do not mean. I am not talking about hawking God as a product by selling the audience an airbrushed version of the Christian life. Such sermons try to resolve every serious problem within a matter of minutes, much like the television dramas and commercials that so often provide contemporary pastors with their themes. This “airbrushed” portrayal of Christianity is not preaching at all but a form of sentimentalism that trivializes the gospel. Trivialized preaching is triumphalistic. Triumphalism is a perspective that grows out of our evangelical heritage of revivalism. The revival tradition of preaching emphasizes the transforming moment, when the listener’s life is forever changed. Certainly this is true of the gospel. We are forgiven in a moment. But the redemptive process takes much longer. Triumphalistic sermons give the impression that every problem can be solved in a matter of moments simply by leaving it at the altar. Undoubtedly there have been remarkable instances where this has been the case. Sinners plagued by long standing habits leave the sermon miraculously freed from bondage. Yet for many others–perhaps even most others–the experience is different. For them transformation is progressive rather than instantaneous. These believers do not skip along the pilgrim path but “toil along the winding way, with painful steps and slow.”

Directing our listeners to hope in Christ is not a platitude. 

Preachers who do not acknowledge this resort instead to clichés and platitudes. Their sermon themes are flaccid and the remedies they offer mere placebos. Such sermons are unable to provide any real help to those who hear. How can they, when truism stands in the place of truth? In order to be true to our audience’s experience, preaching must reflect the reality of living in a post–Eden world in anticipation of a new heavens and earth that have not yet come to pass. Times like these, where not only our congregation but the entire globe must deal with the collateral damage that sin has wreaked upon us, are uniquely suited to such a task. Never has Paul’s statement that creation itself is in bondage to decay as a consequence of Adam’s sin been made more vivid (cf. Romans 8:21).

Directing our listeners to hope in Christ is not a platitude. The root of our fear in this current crisis is the fear of sickness and death. Some would like to promise that Jesus will protect us from all such threats. But this is not the hope that the Bible offers us. The message of the gospel is not only the story that Jesus died and rose again. It is the good news that Jesus suffered death “so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone” (Hebrews 2:9). The gospel does not assure us that we will be able to avoid the experience of physical death. It tells us that Christ will meet us on the other side. This promise is no small hope.

A Distanced Congregation is Still the Church

A third thing that we can say, especially at a time when our normal community life has been so disrupted, is to remind the church that they are still a church. Some Christians seem to feel a kind of glee over the fact that the church cannot meet together during this season of social distancing. “At last,” they seem to say, “the church can finally be the church.” I find this reasoning odd. The language that the Bible uses to speak of the church implies proximity. This aspect of the church’s nature is best expressed by the phrase Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 11:18, “when you come together as a church.” The fact that the church comes together is not a weakness. It is not an indulgence. The church is, by its nature, an assembly.

I find it ironic that while some Christians seem to be celebrating the fact that the church cannot meet, the rest of the world recognizes the need for a sense connection. Nearly every commercial I see on television that mentions the pandemic also says, “We are in this together.” They assure me that “We will get through this.” What surprises me the most is how moved I am by such assurances. Those who record their sermons while preaching to empty seats need to remind the congregation that the bond they share with one another in Jesus Christ has not been diminished by physical separation. They really are in this together. The church will survive, and one day we will come together again as a church. But even though we are now separated, we continue to be “members of one body” (Ephesians 4:25).

The scope of the COVID-19 pandemic may be unusual but the experiences of fear and uncertainty are not. If you doubt this, just take note of how many times God tells His people not to be afraid in the Scriptures. Those who preach often speak to people in crisis. While not as massive as a pandemic, each individual crisis a listener faces under ordinary circumstances can be just as shattering. Pastors and teachers were not an invention of the church. Ephesians 4:11–12 says that they are Christ’s gift to God’s people. The church needs its preachers. What is true during this singular time of crisis will still be true when things return to normal. How should you preach during this season of the coronavirus? You should preach like someone whose hope is cast upon the word of God. Speak the truth with priestly sensitivity. Point your listeners to Jesus Christ. Do the best you can. You can do no more.  

If you want to learn more about preaching, check out John’s books Folly, Grace, & Power: The Mysterious Act of Preaching and The Moody Handbook of Preaching. To see several short videos about preaching, click on the Tips for Preaching tab on John’s website.

When Faith Fails

Dale and Nancy had just started dating when someone who claimed to be speaking on God’s behalf told them that their relationship would “flow like a river.” They took it as a sign and got married. It didn’t take long for things to unravel. Dale was controlling and abusive. He went back to some of the habits of his pre-Christian days. Drugs, pornography, and threats of violence turned the beautiful promise they had heard into a nightmare. If you had asked Dale and Nancy why they married so quickly, I’m pretty sure they would have said that it was a simple act of faith. They believed they were supposed to be together.

People make decisions like this all the time. Someone hears a sermon about the unreached masses and quits his job to go into the ministry. An older couple decides to adopt after their own kids are grown and gone because they believe it’s what God wants. But faith decisions don’t have to be big. Sometimes they’re small. We say something to a stranger because we feel the prompting of the Spirit. We give money to a panhandler we pass on the street. Sometimes things work out. Sometimes, like Dale and Nancy, the wheels come off, and we’re left wondering whether we got it wrong. Maybe it wasn’t God’s voice after all.

Simple or Simplistic Faith?

When I was a new believer, we used to talk a lot about having a simple “childlike” faith. But looking back on some of the things we did, what we practiced was not faith but naiveté. Our faith wasn’t simple; it was simplistic. At times, maybe even childish. One Saturday night a bunch of us piled into a car and drove down into the city of Detroit. We had no real destination in mind. We expected to be “led” by the Holy Spirit, stopping to pray at every intersection before deciding which way to turn. We ended up in a bad part of town, where we stumbled on a drunken man lying in a doorway. “He must be the reason God sent us here,” Ron said. Ron, a shifty-eyed prophet with a receding hairline and a penchant for falling into the folding chairs whenever the Spirit came upon him, was one of the self-appointed leaders of our little group. Ron thought we should take the stranger with us, but the man only wanted a few dollars to buy another drink. Despite his protests, we pulled him to his feet, bundled him into the car, and drove back to the suburbs.

Our faith wasn’t simple; it was simplistic. At times, maybe even childish.

The next day Ron brought our new friend to church and asked the pastor to take a special offering. The pastor politely declined. Maybe the pastor was suspicious. Perhaps he didn’t think it was the best way to help the man. Whatever the reason, Ron didn’t take the refusal well. He stood up in the church service, and in a prophetic tone declared, “I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.” Then he and the stranger walked out, followed by several chagrined church members who offered him money.

In a day or two, the stranger disappeared. Ron didn’t know where he had gone. Some hinted that he might not have been a man at all but an angel that we had entertained “unawares.” But I suspected that the poor fellow had made his way back to the doorway where we first found him. The whole affair bothered me. Was it really God who had guided us? Or had we merely gone downtown on a whim? Was ours a bold act of faith or a naive exercise of middle-class guilt? It is tempting to think that the answer these questions is in the outcome. If God had been in it, the man would have stayed, and his life would have turned around. But the stranger might have gone back to his old ways, even if God had prompted us to rescue him. Would things have been any different for my friends Dale and Nancy, if they had waited longer and gone through a traditional courtship? Perhaps. But there are plenty of people who have taken the long path only to call it quits in the end. Joshua Harris comes to mind.

Sincerity Instead of Faith

Sometimes, what we think of as faith is merely sincerity. We are convinced that we are doing the right thing. We think we are acting in God’s interest and at His prompting, but we are mistaken. Not only do we misunderstand what God wants from us, we misinterpret our motives. Like James and John, who wanted to call down fire upon the Samaritan village that refused to welcome Jesus, we think we are doing God’s will (Luke 9:51-56). In reality, we don’t know what kind of spirit we are of. James and John had sincerity enough to spare. What they lacked was self-awareness

In the past few months, we have seen a flurry of notable church leaders turn their back on the things they once believed. We want to know how such a thing can happen. How can people whose faith once seemed so prominent suddenly throw it away? Many conclude that such people were never really Christians to begin with. They “went out from us” because “were not of us” (1 John 2:19). Perhaps this is true. The Bible has many warnings about those who profess the faith but are imposters (1 Tim. 4:1).

But I wonder if some of those who have walked away believe that it is God who has broken faith.  They have turned their backs because the Christianity they embraced did not deliver on its promise. In most cases, as far as I can tell from the outside, it was not the gospel promise itself that has disappointed them but something else. It is more a vision of what their lives would be like if they only believed that has failed them. They are like those that Linda Kay Klein profiles in her book Pure, a blistering critique of the purity movement of the 1980s. Many in the movement seemed to believe that if they followed the rules and pursued sexual purity with a passion, they would live happily ever after.  Klein describes the reaction of Muriel, one of the subjects she interviewed, this way: “How could she believe anything evangelicalism taught her if the one thing they said was most important–remain pure before marriage and you will have a blissful sexual life after marriage and be supported by the larger community–wasn’t true.”

The Game is Rigged

Of course, it doesn’t have to be sex. The promise we believe might be something else. Maybe it is the expectation that the church’s leaders will behave like shepherds and care for the church. Maybe it is the conviction that if I put Jesus first, I will succeed. I’ll get the job I want. My ministry will grow and expand. Life will go the way I want. Sometimes the things that shake the foundations of our faith are embarrassingly small, but the basic reasoning is always the same. I have believed, so why aren’t things working out better for me? I am following Jesus, so why isn’t He doing more for me? Why aren’t things easier?

I am following Jesus, so why isn’t He doing more for me? Why aren’t things easier?

These kinds of questions aren’t asked just by apostates and people who have been taken in by the prosperity gospel. They are more common among people of genuine faith than you might think. This is the sort of questioning the Psalmist describes in Psalm 73: “Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart. But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold. For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked” (Psalm 73:1-3). The Old Testament patriarch Job also had questions for God. Job’s questions are the obverse of Asaph’s. Job doesn’t ask, “Why do the wicked prosper?” but instead “Why do the righteous suffer?” In each of these cases, the frame is a narrow one. The circumstances that cause us to question God’s goodness, and sometimes even our faith, are not always as noble as theirs. Our disappointments aren’t great disappointments like those of Asaph or Job. Too often, they are petty and self-absorbed. But for some reason that doesn’t make them easier for us to bear.

To the person who struggles with such questions there only seems to be two possible answers. Either there is something wrong with us, or there is something wrong with God. Of course, anyone who has spent time in the realm of faith knows that the latter possibility is not really on the table. The game is rigged, and the odds always favor the house. God is never wrong. The problem is always us. But the thing that is wrong with us may not be what we think. We thought the problem was in our execution. We weren’t playing the game the right way. If we just tried a little harder–if we followed the rules–we could make it work for us. When it doesn’t, we are tempted to give up not only on ourselves but on God. We are tempted to give up on God so the fault won’t be with us.

We are tempted to give up on God so the fault won’t be with us.

When my oldest son was about to graduate from high school, I had one of those parental conversations with him about adulthood, duty, and the necessity of doing things one doesn’t really want to do. When I was finished, he said, “So what you’re telling me is that life basically sucks.” That wasn’t what I was telling him, but I could see why he thought it was. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that you think I’m saying something similar about God. Does it seem to you that God’s primary agenda is to disappoint you? Perhaps you think I am saying that the “chief end of man” is to suck it up and lower your expectations. If God intends to leave us disappointed, His goal is that we would be disappointed with ourselves and the simplistic, bargaining faith to which we are so addicted. Like a doctor who must break a bone to set it, God shatters our misaligned expectations, so that faith will have room to grow in the right direction. He does not do this lightly but carefully. And often, I think, with tears.

The Danger of Smugness

What are we to make of the defections from the faith of so many prominent Christians? I think we ought to be careful not to be smug in our rush to judgment about them. It may be true that they were never “of us” to begin with. But we too are guilty of naïve faith and unreasonable expectations of the Christian life. We shouldn’t shrug off their repudiation of the foundational truths of the Christian faith. Their defection is a sin, and their loss is a tragedy. They are responsible to God for the decision they have made. However, some of the comments I have seen about their departure from the faith sound too much like gloating to me. Besides, we don’t yet know how their story will end.

Several years after my friends Dale and Nancy divorced, I talked with Nancy on the phone. She told me how terrible the experience had been for her and how, after the divorce, she had walked away from the church and from God. The promise had failed. She spent years feeling like damaged goods. She believed that God no longer had a purpose for her life. Then one day she realized that what she had believed about herself was a lie. Not only was God waiting, He was welcoming. At the time she and I spoke, Dale was still far from God. In a way, their story is a kind of parable. Some who have renounced their faith will discover that what they have rejected is not God or the gospel but a counterfeit. Others will continue to live in a way which suggests that “they were not of us” to begin with. But either way, God will be waiting.

John’s latest book Practicing the Present: The Neglected Art of Living in the Now (Moody Publishers) is now available. Order your copy today.

Clean

According to family legend, my great grandfather was the first one to drive the twenty-mule team out of Death Valley loaded with borax. I have no idea whether this is actually true or not. Like most family legends, I suspect that it is a work of fiction. But I liked to recount this story to my friends when I was growing up since the twenty-mule team was featured in commercials on the popular television show Death Valley Days. It made me feel just short of famous.

Borax is a “detergent booster.” Apparently, it is used in a lot of other things too. Fertilizer, rocket fuel, and automobile windshields, just to name a few. But I always thought of it as soap. The same people who made Borax also made Boraxo, the hand detergent that promised to make hands “soft, smooth, and really clean.”

Looking back on it, cleanliness seemed to be the driving concern of most of the commercials we watched in those days. They fretted about clean clothes, clean floors, and clear complexions. What did this say about us as a culture? Were we especially dirty? Maybe we were just fastidious. Perhaps it was a little of both.

At points, the Bible seems similarly obsessed. The Old Testament, in particular, appears to be especially concerned about matters of cleanness and uncleanness with its detailed regulations about food, clothing, and its peculiar stipulations regarding spots and blemishes. When we read through these laws we do not get the impression that what is at issue is primarily a matter of hygiene. Indeed, some of the measures prescribed do not seem hygienic at all, especially when the “cleansing” agent is blood. Something else is going on.

The New Testament writer of Hebrews admits as much by calling such measures a “shadow” that can never perfect those who repeat them year after year. Instead of being a remedy, they were a reminder of sin (Hebrews 10:1-3). In a way, so is Jesus’ sixth beatitude: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (Matthew 5:8). The Greek word that is translated “pure” means clean. No other assertion shatters our illusion that these beatitudes are some kind of moral yardstick quite like this one.

What Jesus describes is a cleanness that originates on the inside and works its way out. Every other kind of cleansing with which we are familiar works the other way around. Jesus is not talking about getting clean but being clean. When we read his statement, we know instinctively that this is not what we are. If we do not know this, it can only be because we do not really know ourselves. We cannot hear Jesus’ assertion without wondering how it is possible for anyone to see God.

Like the others that precede it, we must take this beatitude as a promise. What Jesus gives us here is not a rod by which to measure our lives but a final portrait of what those lives will look like when Christ is finished with them. Purity of heart is not the condition we must meet in order to gain access into the Kingdom of God.  Instead, it is the final destination for those who enter that kingdom through the gate of Christ. He is the only hope we have of being pure in heart. “You can start trying to clean your heart, but at the end of your life it will be as black as it was at the beginning, perhaps blacker” Martyn Lloyd-Jones warns. “No! It is God alone who can do it, and, thank God, He has promised to do it.” Only the blessed can be pure in heart. They will see God.

Empty is Enough

I have reached the age where a large percentage of the articles that show up on my social media feed offer suggestions about retirement. They appeal to a combination of greed and fear. Apparently, your retirement savings need to be at least a million (if not more). Social security won’t be enough to cover your expenses. You need a steady stream of income from stocks or bonds or annuities, which are luckily being sold by whoever has posted the article in the first place. No matter the source, the message is almost always the same. Whatever you have, it probably isn’t enough. The aim is to make me nervous. It often works.

For people like me who by nature and long experience have learned to want more, Jesus’ blessing in Matthew 5:3 seems jarring and maybe even nonsensical: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Nobody really believes that less is more, least of all the poor. Those who want to view this remarkable saying as a statement about the genteel virtues of poverty are really saying that Jesus was merely a sentimentalist and of the worst possible sort. They imply that He was a naïve sentimentalist. “We should not think that Jesus merely wanted to give us a few maxims of practical wisdom, that he merely intended to talk about the blessing of suffering and poverty and console us by telling us that suffering would make us more mature” theologian Helmut Thielicke warns. “Jesus knew all too well that it can turn out just the opposite, that a man can break down under suffering, that it can drive us into cursing instead of prayer, and that its ultimate effect will perhaps be bitter complaining and accusing of God for his injustice.”

Yet the qualifying phrase “in spirit” hardly removes the scandal of Jesus’ pronounced blessing. In Christ’s day as in our own, one’s spiritual standing was considered to be a function of accumulated merits. This is true of all salvation systems save one. The world’s religions all operate on the same basic economy that we employ with our finances. More is always better. You can never have enough. And if you want to acquire it, you’ve got to earn it. There is no other way.

Jesus’ words are a diagnosis as much as they are a promise. Only the poor in spirit can be blessed because there is no other category for us when it comes to righteousness. This is what sets Jesus’ message apart from all others. Those who look to their own reserves to calculate whether they have enough holiness to find acceptance with God will inevitably come up short. If you want it, you must take it as a gift or not at all. This is what the Bible calls grace. Where grace is concerned, only empty is enough.

But this rule only makes sense in light of the second half of Jesus’ beatitude. His point isn’t about the inherent virtue of poverty, whether it is economic or spiritual. It is about access. According to Jesus, emptiness is the necessary precondition to entering what He calls “the kingdom.” Actually, Jesus doesn’t employ the language of entering here, even though He does elsewhere. Jesus uses the language of ownership. The kingdom of heaven belongs to the empty. Only they can claim it as their own because they alone know that they cannot buy it. They do not obtain it by natural right or by personal effort. If they are to receive the kingdom it must be delivered over to them by Christ Himself.

This is the first principle for any who wish to experience the blessedness that Jesus describes in the beatitudes. You must come to Christ as you are. You must come to Him empty and without anything to recommend you. All that you need will be given to you upon entry into His realm. You cannot store it up in advance. You cannot bring it with you as you cross the threshold. You can only come to Christ as a beggar and receive. There is no other way.