By Bob Hiller –
If you are a regular reader of The Jagged Word then you know that the bloggers who occupy this place have great concern over the state of preaching. The consensus seems to be that, for whatever reason, preaching is suffering in our current church culture. I don’t think I am speaking out of turn when I say that the men who write for this blog, and the dear Mrs. Koch who seems to revel in putting us in our place, desire to see a restoration of good preaching. A restoration, not so your church going experience makes you happier (though, something tells me I would find myself in Joel’s church if the synodocrats ever find me out and defrock me), nor for the sake of making the church larger (though, sometimes good preaching does these things), but because faith comes through hearing Jesus (Romans 10:17) and a famine of the Word means the death of faith and the wrath of God (Amos 8:11). Bad preaching damns.
The question must then become: What constitutes good preaching verses bad preaching? Simply put: good preaching is preaching that gives Jesus to sinners. To use Gerhard Forde’s language, it does God to you. True, good preaching must pursue and attack the old sinner, but that is only so he stops running. Good preaching is Jesus finding that beaten up old man on the side of the road, picking Him up and placing him on His donkey, and paying for His new life. Good preaching finds shamed, broken prostitutes accused by everything that surrounds them, and dresses them up as beautiful brides adorned for the Bridegroom.
Good preaching graces the ears of death-bound sinners with promises of forgiveness and life. Good preaching delivers Jesus as a gift to you.
Bad preaching has no Jesus to give, or refuses to give Him. Bad preaching, however, it is not all that easily discerned. Bad preaching comes dressed as an angel of light. It comes talking about good things: correctives to society’s ills, moral directives, the Bible, and, yes, even Jesus. Oh yes, bad preaching talks a lot about Jesus. But this talking about Jesus amounts to putting Him in a cage, holding Him up on a pedestal, and parading Him around for everyone to gawk at. It may even tell you about the cool tricks He can do like turn water into wine or increase your bank account. But bad preaching will never open the cage and let Him at you. It just talks about how wonderful He could be for you if you would only give your heart, pray more, try harder, be more faithful to your confession, be more excited about your mission, or whatever else we want to add to Jesus. It will give you all kinds of wonderful and challenging lines. See, bad preaching looks good and may be exciting and engaging. But it isn’t even preaching. It is theological rhetoric in service of someone’s agenda. It just won’t give you Jesus.
I write about sports and theology on this blog, so I thought it might prove helpful to draw an analogy from the sports world. Tuesday this week marked the beginning of NFL free agency. In an effort to improve their Super Bowl chances, NFL teams are setting out to sign new players who will improve their roster. Inordinate amounts of money will be spent on players at nearly every position. It will look good. Teams will look like they are doing what is necessary to win. There is only one problem. None of it matters. As Fox Sports writer, Clay Travis, points out, unless you have a top-tier quarterback, you aren’t winning the Super Bowl. With the way the game is played these days, only those teams with future Hall-of-Fame quarterbacks will win big. All this work at improving the other positions means nothing if you don’t have someone who can throw touchdowns.
So, the work done by a team in the off-season that doesn’t focus on getting a quarterback may look good in the paper, but it amounts to a huge waste of time. That work isn’t helping you win; it’s helping you look good…or busy. Granted, the analogy is a bit ham-fisted, but all the work done by preachers to be insightful, funny, inspiring, engaging, challenging and clever may look good to the congregation. But it all amounts to nothing if Jesus isn’t there. You can do an incredible amount of work to prepare a wonderfully orthodox, confessionally sound lecture on a Biblical text. However, if you aren’t giving Jesus directly to anyone, you aren’t preaching. You’re just sounding smart…and mostly just to yourself.
This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a place for humor or insight or challenge in preaching. All these tools must either point to or flow from the delivery of our crucified Lord. To be sure, preaching, by its very nature, is a rhetorical act. It can freely make use of particular rhetorical devices. But if the strategies of rhetoric take center stage, they simply become keys locking Jesus in his cage, safely away from the people, where He can be used by the preacher to make himself look better. It is time we did something completely radical and dangerous as preachers: let Jesus out of the cage.
As Steven Paulsen has suggested, there are only two ways to preach: you either preach Christ or not-Christ. If the sermon you preach or hear does not let the crucified and risen Jesus out of His cage to have His sin-killing and life-giving way with you, then it’s not Christ and we are above all people to be most pitied.