Cutting Corners in the Pulpit
Preaching was at the heart of the Reformation; not preaching as a concept, but preaching Christ, preaching justification, preaching doctrine, and preaching Law & Gospel. Preaching was one of the most effective ways to reach the people, to combat false teaching, and to give people Jesus. This is part of the reason the Lutheran Confessions refer to the Office of the Holy Ministry as the “Preaching Office.”
To speak of the Office of the Holy Ministry this way emphasizes preaching and teaching, but also invites a contrast with the Roman Catholic position, which conflates the man and the Office. Of this error, Lutherans have been rightfully critical. There is the man and there is the Office—the former occupying the latter.
This has rescued us from some of the pitfalls of sacerdotalism, and we ought to be grateful for that. Nevertheless, it appears that we may now be suffering some unanticipated effects of this correction, or misunderstandings of the correction, in one of the worst areas possible: our preaching.
In too many congregations, where the pastor is ever conscious to avoid confusing himself with the Office into which God has placed him, it seems the favored solution is to distance himself from that Office, lest he appear too authoritative or domineering. The result? In an ironic and quite accidental usurpation, the man has increased and the Office has decreased. For this reason an audible and palpable sense of timidity has begun to emanate from the pulpit.
"Aw Shucks, I'm Just the Preacher"
Precisely at the moment when the man is most obviously called to exercise the Office, to wield its authority (which is Christ’s authority) for the sake of his congregation, what is commonly heard can be described as an “aw shucks” approach to preaching. “I’m just a sinner like you.” or some variation of that expression, is now a necessary qualifier to make the congregation comfortable and remind them that they’re not being preached to by anyone with real authority. Along the way, that preaching is riddled with other qualifications, and bit-by-bit, the Word is quieted to the point of near silence.
This goes beyond the popular polemic of “you” preaching vs. “we” preaching. There is a time for both; though a survey of the New Testament presents a clear preference for the former in both Law & Gospel. The issue I’m more concerned with is preaching that softens the Law by ignoring the way in which the text preaches it.
At times (really, most of the time), the Law accuses in an obvious way. It strikes the hearer directly between the eyes, convicting him of sin. “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.” (Acts 7:51-53). Because pastors live and die by the voters’ assembly, and don’t want to end up like Stephen, there is a temptation to avoid this approach.
Other times in Scripture the law is instructive, provides warning, and is even didactic. “Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law.” (Galatians 5:2-3) Pastors don’t want to be bossy, or force folks to a point of choosing one thing or another, lest they choose the other. For this reason, this way of preaching Law is often side-stepped.
Another, though far less frequent way the Law occurs in Scripture is the Law as “experienced;” as “life under the Law.” In homiletics courses at one of our seminaries this type of Law is spoken of as the “Mirror of Existence.” A funeral is an example of an occasion where this is obviously in play. In this preaching, the pastor will demonstrate the effects of a world broken by sin, and how this affects us in our lives. We suffer, we die, people hate us (the Church), etc. There are not only occasions for this, but some pericopes call for it uniquely.
The Problem: A Very Narrow Application of the Law
The problem occurs when, regardless of the Law’s character in the text, the Law is somehow morphed into the Law as a “Mirror of Existence.” What’s so tempting is that this preaching of the Law allows, maybe even requires, that the pastor be consoling, tender, and understanding. For good reason, this is something every pastor strives to be. But, at the moment when the pastor is to proclaim to a man that he has broken God’s Law, and that for this transgression he deserves death and hell—for he has crucified the Lord of glory—the proclamation comes out as a limp and toothless interrogative: “Man, do you ever feel like that? The Christian life is really hard.” “St. Paul knows just how you feel.”
Strangely, this occurs even at gatherings of pastors. Though in a room of men who are spiritually mature hearers, the man called to preach, opts to punt. Instead of calling brother pastors to repent of sloth, lack of zeal, fear, and unfaithfulness in their office (Ezekiel 34), and to exhort them to fulfill their calling (2 Timothy 4), the man shares stories about how difficult it is to be a pastor, and isn’t it good to know that Jesus finds a way through our weakness.
The Way Out? Preach the Word.
What’s the way out of this? Biblical preaching. You know how to do it. You say what Jesus says. If Jesus has compassion on those sheep without a shepherd and so feeds them and teaches them (Mirror of Existence), then preach that. If the next week Jesus says that we’re too focused on what we can get out of all this (a free meal of some sort), and that we’re not really seeking Him as we say (John 6:22-35), then you preach that. If Jesus warns about the penalty for those who would cause one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, then you tell the adults doing so (and you have them), that it would be better for them if a great millstone were hung around their necks and they were thrown into the sea. (Mark 9:42)
As a brief aside, this should give you no pleasure. The preaching of the Law and its condemnation is God’s “alien work.” (Is 28:21) Even He does not prefer it or revel in it, and so neither should you. Even if this is the perfect text to preach against the old ladies spreading rumors and lying about you, any satisfaction you feel is dangerous.
All of this is actually not for the sake of the Law, but for the sake of the Gospel. A weakened, defanged Law, gives no room for the Gospel to work. The Gospel is to console terrified and wounded consciences. For this reason, the Gospel you preach ought to correspond to the Law preached. Or, put differently, the Gospel must be preached and proclaimed as the solution to the Law. This requires careful analysis of the pericope(s).
You may need to reach outside of the text to do this. Not every pericope contains clear, distinct, Law & Gospel. But don’t just go anywhere. First, remember that all of Scripture is hyperlinked, so to speak. But if those links aren’t obvious (though the lectionary has done a brilliant job of making this easy) reach near before you reach far:
sentence -> paragraph -> section -> book -> Bible.
All this helps ensure that preaching remains not only clear, but also Biblical and contextual.
Sometimes this will make you unpopular. But this isn’t about you. Jesus Himself was rejected, and a servant is not above his Master. If they crucified Him, do not expect that you will be adored. Be deaf also to the praises of men. Remember the gravity of your task, routine as it may be: “So that we may obtain this faith, the ministry of teaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments was instituted. Through the Word an Sacraments, as through instruments, the Holy Spirit is given (John 20:22).” AC V, 1-2
I can’t say this any better than a dear professor did on the last day of seminary. “Gentlemen, if you step into that pulpit thinking those people ought to listen to you because you are smart or well trained, or if you’re rhetorically gifted, or a powerful speaker, then you are one arrogant <expletive deleted>. You are in the Office of the Holy Ministry. You are the living mouthpiece of the living God, there to speak the Word that kills and makes alive. That is why they ought to hear you. Anything less than that is your vanity.”
Pastor James Hopkins—Lutheran Church of the Way—Raynham, MA