Preaching in Public
November 22, 2017
Updated March 1, 2018
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Chewed up, spit up, barfed out. Not a few preachers would tell you this is how it feels sometimes after preaching a sermon (and most particularly after enduring various comments at the church door afterwards). Not every week. I hope not. But now and then. This is something preachers know well, which is why I was immediately bowled over by my Google Image search of “pulpit.” The image (seen in the blog below) is the one that knocked me between the eyes. This is actually a Baroque era pulpit from around 1750 in the Church of Saint Hedwig in Dobroszow, Poland. It is a reference to the biblical story of Jonah, of course, and in this case it refers to Jonah’s being spit out of the whale SO THAT he could finally go preach to Nineveh. But as I said, preachers today might have that sense of being spit out AFTER preaching now and again too.
If I had to guess, a lot of my colleagues feel like they are preaching from inside the mouth of a beast quite often just now. And if they are lucky they will only get spit out now and then. Other times the maw may just snap shut on them.
Earlier this year I had a blog on prayer. I mentioned how perilous it can be to pray for public figures and events in these divisive and partisan days. Pray for the President to be wise and some will lob the accusation that the preacher must think Trump is a fool. Pray for the plight of immigrants and people will hear a defense of DACA.
But honestly, what is a preacher to do? We preach in our churches but in the larger sense we are always preaching in public. We cannot bracket out the larger world when we preach. We ought not preach “timeless” sermons in the worst sense of the word in terms of being disconnected from this historical and cultural moment. Yes, great caution and tremendous prudence is called for when applying God’s holy Word to any given crisis, event, situation, era. The wise preacher is the one who will say on a semi-regular basis “I am not sure what God’s Word says about Situation X.”
True enough. But we are living in a moment when the world could be on the brink of a catastrophic war that could leave the Korean peninsula a smoldering ember. How can we not lament this in our preaching and plead for peace? We are living in a moment when an allegation of a 32-year-old man fondling a 14-year-old girl is met by a blasphemous appropriation of no less than the parents of our Lord Jesus Christ. How can we not call this out? We are living in a moment — and in politics perhaps there have been few moments when this was not true to some degree — when easily exposed lies are dripping from the lips of officials at the highest level, including on a nearly daily basis by the President himself. How can we not stand up for truth in front of our children and in our churches? We are living in a moment when easy access to guns leads to horrific killings even inside the house of the Lord. How can we not engage this when we gather before the Lord’s face?
Yes, I fear that all of it will land preachers in various places in hot water. The whale’s mouth will snap closed around them to varying degrees. And yes, some of my peers will say “Easy for him” as I have not been in a regular pulpit ministry for a dozen years now. But we either have a prophetic voice in the church today or we allow our proclamation to be squelched by the partisan fix we’re in just now. If the church fails to be a counter-witness to truth in the face of deception — and if the reason is because we fear those who are choosing partisanship over morality and even over the Gospel — then our public witness comes to an end. A whimper and not a bang at that.
Again and with all due provisos: this cannot be done too quickly, too thoughtlessly, or itself in some manifestly partisan way from the other side. Sometimes those of us who preach deserve the push-back we get. Fair enough. But as our world and as our society seem imperiled on multiple levels in late 2017, seldom has there been a time when the need for prophetic proclamation in public has been more urgent.
No one likes preaching from the mouth of the beast. But put in historical perspective, there probably has never actually been any other way to preach. It’s just that sometimes we notice the beast’s teeth a bit more than at other moments.
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Cool use of the Jonah story. But what of those among us who more readily identify with Hosea than with Jonah? When God calls us into peculiar life circumstances to make a point? When it is not so much about our prophetic words as about our prophetic lives?
I believe that the bigger challenge for today's prophets is knowing when God actually tells us to speak out on His behalf. Today, God's voice, embedded as it is within the pages of our Bible, does not offer the kind of clarity individual prophets received, presumably directly from God, in the course of history. To have one "prophet" tell a number of "prophet" wannabes what to say does not a prophecy make. Is it possible that God today is less interested in addressing the worldly powers that be, than He is in speaking, with a still small voice, to individual hearts, about love, and justice, in our own, albeit small, world of personal relationships, in our own small, and seemingly insignificant communities? Just because something is on the nightly news doesn't mean God demands an answer. Sometimes it just means that we should turn off the TV.
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