“Our seeing then, Lord, will be the vision of you as you are, but this is not granted to us yet.” [Augustine, Confessions]
I am a jockey who for nearly three months has been watching the horses race from the stands. I’ve had a great deal of time to contemplate how I do, or am to do, what I do. That contemplation, which is one of the benefits of sabbatical, is occurring in a world that feels like it is coming undone. It is occurring in a time when people, those who have not written off the value of preachers altogether, are either looking to preachers to tell them how to think or are telling preachers what they must speak.
It is an invigorating and challenging time to be a preacher. I, as most ordinary pastors I know, am a shepherd, not just a preacher. I have sheep I want to guide, people whom I want to help navigate the world’s uncertainty. And as a Christian, I have convictions – political ones that sound like moral ones and moral ones that sound like political ones. I have a strong impulse to give people any biblical guidance I can. As I prepare to return to the pulpit I wonder if I should adjust my preaching to touch more directly upon what people should think about immigration, assault weapons, sexuality, and the like.
But that impulse is tempered by two realities.
First, I’m reminded of the preacher’s calling. Paul’s emphasis is upon the preaching of the cross. In Corinth he resolved to make the cross his primary message (1 Cor 2:2). To the Romans he argued that the hearing of the gospel preached is what would bring faith and consequent reconciliation among people (Rom 10:8-17). His message to the struggling Galatian church was so centered on the cross that John Stott devotes a moving chapter of his book The Cross of Christ to helping us see this. Do 21st century congregations need this message any less? I could argue we need it more.
And though we need it more, we we may find it less. A benefit of sabbatical is that I can visit other churches. As I search for one to attend, I do so as one thirsty and weary and hungry and fearful. I look for a church which will through the preaching and the liturgy bring me to Jesus. I want to hear His voice. I want to know His presence and His comfort. More than ‘want’, I need this. We all do. I’ve had a difficult time finding it.
Considering this sense of calling and need has led me to a certain resolution regarding my own ministry. Yes, I will touch upon the difficult matters of our day when the text upon which I preach demands it. But that will not define my preaching. I have to understand that all who make the effort, the huge and consuming effort, to get up on a Sunday morning to drive to church and then face the trauma of being strangers in a crowded room are, like me, whether they know it or not, in a desperate need to meet and to hear Jesus. They need to hear what He has done for them more than they need to hear what they must do for Him. And it is my calling to make sure, as much as it is in me, that that happens.
I urge my fellow preachers to commit to the same. There are innumerable resources out there for our people to help shape their views on the political issues du jour. There is time for private conversation and classes on those matters. But on Sunday, when I or others come to your church, what we need is Jesus. We need liturgy and word and table linking up in an unbreakable thread to reacquaint us with the savior, with our Lord, with our soul’s desire. These things we can only find in church, and you have the opportunity to shape the service and preaching so that we do.
So, preacher, this is not a small thing for those of us who are sitting before you. We need Jesus. We need a clear, believable, thoughtful, heartfelt, warm, presentation NOT of some position, nor even of some gospel schematic or theological system. We need to see Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith. We need to be brought into the presence of the living God and to hear his welcome. In such glory we will find grace, and on the other side of grace we will long to be sent and to do his will.
Please give this to your people. To us. To me.
UPDATE: A good friend has pointed out to me, justifiably, that the original form of this post was unnecessarily critical of churches in the community I inhabit. I own that. I know these churches are seeking to be faithful to bringing the gospel to a troubled world in a way that world can hear what they have to say. All churches face the same challenge, my own included. My positive appeal – to make sure our worship focuses on Jesus – was clouded under what was unnecessarily negative in my own experience. For this I am sorry, but as well grateful for friends who won’t let me get away with such things.