Preaching health, health when there is no health

I was listening to a sermon podcast today. The preacher used an illustration to make a point about preaching with moral courage.

He described the cancer doctor who — fearful of upsetting his patient — told him time and again that he was fine and should not worry about the pains and soreness he was feeling. It is nothing, the doctor said. It will go away on its own.

Of course, the patient died. The soothing words of the doctor had no effect on the cancer.

The illustration is pretty clear in its application for preachers of the gospel.

It drives home a qualm that often troubles me. So much of what we do in the church only makes sense if their is no cancer.

But there is.

We are all under sentence of death. We need a radical cure, and sooner rather than later.

But would you know that by listening to my preaching? Would you know that by looking at my life?

Fitting word to need

In his sermon “Scriptural Christianity,” John Wesley describes the way the message of the gospel needs to be fitted to the particular condition of the people hearing it.

They endeavoured herein to speak to every man severally as he had need. To the careless, to those who lay unconcerned in darkness and in the shadow of death, they thundered, “Awake thou that sleepest; arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light.” But to those who were already awakened out of sleep, and groaning under a sense of the wrath of God, their language was, “We have an Advocate with the Father; he is the propitiation for our sins.” Meantime, those who had believed, they provoked to love and to good works; to patient continuance in well-doing; and to abound more and more in that holiness without which no man can see the Lord.

In general, scholarship and writing about Wesley appears to me to miss this aspect of Wesley’s methods. A a student of rhetoric at Oxford, he would have been steeped in the ancient traditions, including the notion that the speech needs to be suited to the audience. I’ve long thought that much of the hay made in academic circles about the “late” Wesley contradicting the “early” Wesley is a misunderstanding. The late Wesley still heartily endorsed the sermons of the early Wesley, even as he wrote sermons aimed at and fitted to the needs of a Methodist movement that was growing and changing.

We can see this acute awareness even in his earlier works. In “Scriptural Christianity,” he notes that the first Christians fitted their message to the audience.

To those who walked in unconcerned darkness, Wesley claimed, they preached “Awake!” To those who were groaning under the weight of their sin, they preached “You have an advocate with the Father.” To those who believed, they preached patient endurance and offered encouragement to continue in love and good works as they expected and anticipated being transformed into the likeness of Christ.

Wesley’s example — in this sermon and elsewhere — chastens me to consider how well I know the spiritual state of those to whom I preach. Do I fit the emphasis of my preaching to the needs of the congregation before me, or do I preach what strikes me as interesting or helpful in the texts I study? Am I preaching “Awake!” too much to congregations in need of encouragement to continue on in holiness, or, more likely, am I offering encouragement to those who are yet asleep?

With sword, basin, and towel

There are times when a “hard word” must be preached, even to God’s people. However, the church and the individual believer do not grow by daily helpings of “hard words,” but by being nourished and encouraged by the full counsel of God. The greatest catalyst for spiritual maturity in the truly converted is a greater revelation of the love of God in Christ. Another thing that “budding prophets” need to understand is that a preacher carries a Sword, a basin, and a towel. He is quick to use the basin and towel with great joy. But he is slow to use the sword, and he always does so with tears and fear and scarred knees.

– Paul Washer, in an interview with Tim Challies

Tearing ‘em to pieces

In a letter to a Methodist preacher in 1750, John Wesley cautioned Joseph Cownley against preaching nothing but God’s love and thereby neglecting the law. Here are Wesley’s words:

Let the Law always prepare for the Gospel. I scare ever spoke more earnestly here of the love of God in Christ than last night: But it was after I had been tearing the unawakened to pieces. Go thou and do likewise.

Remember, Wesley preached in many churches once, but far fewer twice.

It is true, the love of God in Christ alone feeds his children; but even they are to be guided as well as fed; yea, and often physicked too: And the bulk of our hearers must be purged before they are fed; else we only feed the disease. Beware of all honey. It is the best extreme; but it is an extreme.

I really wrestle with how to follow this advice of Wesley. It is hard to preach the law, especially in congregations where few people are bold and open sinners and most believe themselves to be good, earnest Christians. The specter of hypocrisy and legalism hovers over my shoulder whenever I try to do this. I never come close to tearing them to pieces.

Just last week, I was preaching on Matthew 10:24-39. It was not a Law text, really. It was about the apostles getting abused in word and body and about not being worthy of Jesus if they did not love Jesus more than family and did not take up there cross.

It was a tough sermon for me to preach. I was determined not to preach it in a way that rounded off the hard edges of that text, but I’m sure my distress over the text showed in the preaching — as well as not managing my week terribly well and not leaving myself enough time to work on it. Thank you lectionary for forcing me to attempt it.

Wesley writes in this letter — and elsewhere — that he too finds the preaching of Gospel pleasing. He suggests that he preached Law because it was necessary to the salvation of his hearers.

His insistence on these points stands as a challenge to me. Do I need more Law in my preaching? Am I tearing the unawakened to pieces?

 

Watching on the wall

But if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet to warn the people and the sword comes and takes someone’s life, that person’s life will be taken because of their sin, but I will hold the watchman accountable for their blood. (Ezekiel 33:6, NIV)

Here is what I worry about. I worry that God really means what he said to Ezekiel and that we pastors are bathing in the blood of those we do not warn.

I guess in question form to my readers, this worry goes something like this: What are the stakes of what we do as pastors?

I get the impression sometimes that the stakes are not very high. What we do might make people’s live a little easier or even help them cope with serious problems. But, in the end, God will sort it all out, and, hey, he’s a loving God so no worries.

And then I read John Wesley or Peter Cartwright or watch this video of Paul Washer — who despite being a Southern Baptists talks about repentance, justification, and assurance in exactly the ways Wesley did — and I hear men who take the warning of Ezekiel with deadly seriousness. It is interesting to note that all three men are/were itinerants.

I read Eugene Peterson’s wonderful books on being a pastor, and I struggle to find a place where he speaks about the gravity of the work. There is something winsome about everything he writes and, it seems, being a pastor is a winsome thing as well. No blood crying out against us that I can find.

I read Adam Hamilton’s books on how preaching the gospel is like selling shoes and I wonder how heavy he feels the burden of those who do not buy it all? I read his book on the Bible, and wish he had written about this passage in Ezekiel — or the others in Scripture. I wonder what he thinks about the warnings.

I read all these books and think of the pastors I have admired, and I wonder how heavily they feel the burden that God placed on Ezekiel or the admonishment of James that teachers will be judged more strictly.

I think of even casual encounters I have with people with spiritual questions. Do I take them too lightly? Do I let me desire to be likeable get in the way of my calling? Do I even know what to say — how to sound the proper warning?

These questions get to the nature of the pastoral vocation. And for me the starting question is this: What are the stakes in what we are doing as pastors?

Law, pardon, law

John Wesley in his June 1742 journal recounts a question from a woman that caught him by surprise. She asked:

Ought not a Minister of Christ to do three things: First, To preach his Law, in order to convince of sin; Then, To offer free pardon, through faith in his blood, to all convinced sinners; And, in the Third place, To preach his Law again, as a rule for those that believe? I think, if one does otherwise, he is no true Minister of Christ. He divides what God has joined, and cannot be said to preach the whole Gospel.

Wesley’s surprise, I assume, was that she asked one of those questions that completely confirmed what he believed and practiced.