Visiting the Classics

The Lord be with you. I pray all is well with you and your family and that your summer has been more or less relaxing so far. For me, your pastor, a man who pretty much writes a five page paper each week and needs time to refill his mental reservoir in various ways in order to do it, I’ve had the chance to really dig into Paul’s first epistle to Timothy, and at the same time, I’ve managed to visit a little here and there with some of the finer bits of literature from folks like Twain and Dickens.

Twain cultivates insightful observation. Dickens is an artisan of language.

It may sound somewhat trite to say, but the classics are classics for a reason. They have a proven way with words. They communicate so well, and in this, they have become tools for teaching communication. Personally, I think they are gifts to preachers. They emulate ways we might use language for introducing a listener to Jesus.

I know, I know. Someone might already be thinking, “Just preach the text, Thoma, and don’t worry about this kind of stuff.” To that, I say, “Humbug.” I say this not because I don’t want to preach the text. You, the members of this congregation, already know that I do. What I mean is that when you intentionally employ some of the communication tools—things like point-of view, simile, hyperbole, personification, and others—you find yourself capable of communicating in a way that’s less talking about Jesus and more preaching Jesus to the listener. In other words, and by way of example, let’s say you want your son to meet the new child who just moved in down the street. You could tell your son about him, or you could put in the extra, more intense effort and walk him down there and introduce him. With this, you’ve made your son a participant in the event, and in so doing have cultivated for a better chance at friendship.

Care with the language that goes into the sermon—looking at all of the propers, hymns, and the like and finding ways to join them all together with a verbal cadence set on true faithfulness—this takes work, but in the end, it’s well worth it. Additionally, and personally, I think it helps to keep the never ending task of preaching the same texts over and over again somewhat fresh. And I suppose that in a purely human sense, it helps the listener absorb and maintain what’s been preached for a little longer than five minutes.

Of course, preachers can safely admit that in all of this, the Holy Spirit will impact the heart exactly how He sees fit when the Gospel is purely preached. Still, that should never give the preacher license to be lazy with the task and ultimately the words. He’s not putting on a show, but he is doing everything he can to handle the Word of God carefully and to communicate it the best way.

I think that visiting with the classics helps in this effort, and so I do it. And I’m just glad that this summer has afforded some time for the exercise.

Preach the Text

Early this past Sunday morning I posted something on Facebook that stirred a few distant friends to respond by way of Facebook Messenger. The conversations were rather interesting. But before I share the basics of the interactions, let me share with you what I posted. Here it is:

The Last Sunday in the Church Year. That final day of the Church’s calendar when we lean forward in anticipation of the One who comes again in glory to judge both the living and the dead.

I dare say it’s very possible that if ever there was a day your pastor might be bold enough to preach things that bother the tepid and less-interested, it is today. “Go to church!” he might say. “Be fed by Word and Sacrament!” he may call earnestly. “It is by these Gospel means that you will be made ready.” And then he’ll add, “A day is coming when neither reasonable excuse nor deliberate rejection will be tolerated any longer.” Tapping his finger upon the edge of the pulpit and jeopardizing the comfort of your friendship, he may be so daring to say, “The culture’s mythology of a Lord who never judges will have run its futile course.” And then with a posture that reflects the strangest mixture of both human joy and sadness, the truth will be given. “Those who are ready will be welcomed into the marriage feast of heaven. Behind them, the door will shut—never to be opened again.”

Go to church, folks. Listen to the preaching of both Law and Gospel. Divine love is being distributed there; one bit of love so kindly revealing a most desperate need, and the other a supernatural potency for knowing, believing, and confessing Christ—the Ruler of earth and heaven—the One who will return at an hour unknown and say, “Come, blessed of the Father, and receive the inheritance prepared for you from the foundation of the world,” or “Away from me, for I never knew you.”

Go to church. By the power of the Holy Spirit, refill your vessel with oil. Trim your lamp. Be ready for the bridegroom. The day is surely drawing near.

Late yesterday afternoon, I got a few notes from folks about the message. There was one in particular that stood out the most. It was from a fellow pastor who, even as he resonated with the message’s contents, was concerned that I’d overweighed the Law at the expense of the Gospel.

Maybe I did. Maybe I didn’t. For one thing, I’m not all that interested in preaching sermons that follow a particular formula. That is, as I’ve shared with the folks in my Sunday morning adult Bible class, I don’t necessarily make plans to tell of you off for five minutes and then tell you how it’ll be okay for another five. Some guys come to the preaching task thinking of Law and Gospel in that way. I don’t. I’d rather preach the text and let the Law and Gospel chips already inherent to the Scriptures fall where they may. It’s already there. If I preach the text, it will show up in just the right amounts—just as God would have it preached. And I told my friend as much. But what was most interesting about the conversation was that he said, “I wouldn’t have said it the way you did, but I’m more than happy to let you be the one to do it.”

I wasn’t sure what to make of that comment, but my sense is that he thinks that what I wrote was needed, but he just didn’t want to be the one to say it. I think that’s true for a lot of folks. Most often we’d prefer to let others say what needs to be said than actually say it ourselves.

There’s no way to get around it, folks. The core of the Gospel reading for the Last Sunday in the Church is a warning to be ready. And if those who are called to stand in the stead and by the command of Christ won’t preach it, who will?

And why does this matter, anyway? Well, I suppose it’s the same as asking why we would need warnings in general. I can’t help but think that for the most part, warnings are good, not bad. They communicate to us that something is lurking to our detriment, and in kindness, there is the desire that we be given the information we need to avoid it. With that, I don’t necessarily see a warning as unloving—and not necessarily even overly weighting of the Law. Certainly the seriousness of their nature can be hard to iterate and uncomfortable to share. Depending upon the type of warning required, a lot may be risked when you warn someone. Still, when it comes to eternal life, the warning of God’s holy Law is a loving revelation that works in tandem with the Gospel. It doesn’t give the Gospel its power for conversion of the heart, but it certainly sets the stage in a way that allows the Gospel to shine. In other words, if the seriousness of the bad news is excluded, what care is there for the glory of the good news? If I don’t know I’m in danger, what care do I have for the One who came to rescue me?

In the end, I hope that the words I choose to use are effective. Rest assured that I pray before I write anything that is intended to communicate the Word of God in a public way. I ask the Lord to use my fingers as I type, to guide my speech, to put all of the words not just in the right order, but in the best and most powerful order. With that, I often find that the fear that sometimes comes with saying what needs to be said will often dissipate into the atmosphere like raindrops in the summer sun.

God calls for faithfulness. But He only does so when and where He promises to provide all that is necessary to make faithfulness possible. And that makes the job of telling both the harder news and the easier news a little less terrifying.