Good News in a Breaking News World

By Bob Hiller

I doubt Eugene Peterson tweets. But, thank God, somebody has set up a Twitter account to share his genius with us every day! The other day, the Peterson tweeter sent out this thought provoking gem: “It is not difficult in such a world to get a person interested in…the gospel; it is terrifically difficult to sustain the interest.” Now every preacher of Christ’s Good News knows how true this is. It is not uncommon for pastors who emphasize grace to hear from a very well intentioned parishioner, “You know, preacher, we get that Jesus died to forgive our sins. But what now? Don’t you have something for us to do?” Peterson is right, it doesn’t take long for boredom with the gospel to set in.

But, before I sound like I’m picking on those rare saints who, in this world of sin, still diligently listen to preaching, it is important to point out that we preachers are among those who seem to be losing interest in the Gospel as well. Every week we are called to proclaim the same Good News to Christ’s sheep. Sure, they may grumble about having to eat the same blasted manna every morning, but there are times when we get tired of serving the same meal. The news starts to sound less “good” the more we preach it. If we are honest, we preachers are getting bored and we are tempted to break in with something else, some new law, some pious guidance that is not Jesus. Boredom with the Gospel is as much a sin for preachers as it is for the hearers.

I suppose there are a lot of reasons why our interest waxes and wanes. The devil tries to convince us there is something better worth talking about. Our sinful nature would rather hear about its own guilt or duty than Christ’s blood, just so long as it is the center of attention. The world is also hard at work trying to sell us other messages that distract us from listening to the Gospel. Just think about the news cycle in our society. It seems to train us to move on from one news story to the next as quickly as we possibly can. We live in a world plagued by “breaking news.”

As I was driving home from work listening to sports talk radio, it struck me that preachers are fighting an up hill battle in trying to preach the old, old story of Jesus and His love. I was reveling in the February California sun, when the radio proclaimed those joyful words “Pitcher and catchers report.” This is that marvelous phrase from our Americana liturgy which announces Spring Training has begun and Opening Day for Major League Baseball is just around the corner. Then, in the midst of my joy, I heard one of the strangest advertisements I could imagine. The radio said, “We will be reporting live from Spring Training for all your breaking news!” Breaking news from Spring Training? What could possibly be that important in baseball’s training camp that it would constitute being called breaking news? Is some double A catcher’s shot at playing with a triple A pitcher news at all? There are hardly any stories worth pursuing that come out of Spring Training, let alone stories that could be considered “breaking news.”

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“Breaking news” used to be news that was so important that it required television stations to interrupt regularly scheduled programming with a dire report. Breaking news used to be what happened when Good Morning America was interrupted to show a plane flying into the twin towers. Now, it would seem, “breaking news” just means the top story for the night. Or worse,  it is a phrase used to describe a report on the number of pitches Clayton Kershaw threw in three innings of work.

If you read my blog at all, you know that I am growing more and more cynical about the way media influences our culture and shapes our thinking. The media recognizes that if they want to grab and keep your attention, they need to make every story matter immensely, every report has to have massive consequences. The same old story won’t keep the ratings going. You need new, breaking stories to get the viewers interested. And once a story has lost interest it is time to break in with a new, more interesting story.

It is hard to preach into a context where our attention span has been trained to expect something new and exciting every time we turn on the news or we get bored. The same old story doesn’t excite our bellies like the new salacious detail coming out of Hollywood. Think about the media’s relationship with Trump. I actually think that the media loves our new president as every time he talks he provides fodder for a new, shocking story. He’s even made the media itself a story! How many “breaking” Trump stories have you seen on the MSN homepage just in the last three hours?

Those who preach and those who listen to sermons must both fight and pray against our lust for breaking news. We don’t need new and exciting sermons. We need Christ and His bloody cross put in our ears every single week. I don’t care how bored you are with preaching it and how bored people are with hearing it, pastor! The Lord has you under strict orders to deliver the same message this week!  As dull and boring as it may sound, we all sinned again this week. A lot. And, as redundant as it might be, the Lord Jesus calls us all, again, to repent and believe the same old Good News: He forgives you for Christ’s sake! It is this same news that the Spirit uses to break into your sinful story of a life and set you free. I know, I know, you’ve heard it all before. But, it is my prayer, that you will hear it all again…and again…and again…unto life everlasting.

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8 thoughts on “Good News in a Breaking News World

  1. Just read this Peterson quote this week that really stood out to me. It came at the beginning of a chapter titled, “Discovering Sacred Time” from a book on observing the church calendar-Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, etc.).

    “When we submit our lives to what we read in Scripture, we find that we are not being led to see God in our stories, but our stories in God’s. God is the largest context and plot in which our stories find themselves.”

    I continuously need this reminder.

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  2. Good News!

    For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

    “But what now? Don’t you have something for us to do?” Sure! It doesn’t stop. You have purpose.

    For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

    So, fortified and fed, we go in peace to love and serve the Lord. See you same time, next week – I promise i’ll be there weakened, drained, sinful and starving.

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    1. Thanks, Hlewis…

      It is worth noting, I think, that even Ephesians 2:10 makes no command and gives no law. Paul writes of being created for good works in the indicitive, not the imperative. Even this verse is gospel!

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      1. Definitely! Third Use of the Law is still Law. But, I would argue that we are left with an uncompromising command to love one another and that love is described by the Law. By itself, the Law cannot empower such living. But the Gospel is power for life, gives purpose, here and now. Only God can use the Law for love. Only a sanctified life in Christ can be used for that purpose. After all, the sum of the Law is love, is it not? The Gospel frees and enables us to love, to use the Law that we would otherwise fear.

        I believe that the Law read, heard, or lived as witness, in vocation, all testify to God’s righteousness and calls to repentance. Even the third use lived can serve as the second use seen. God does not work at a distance but through us in contact with the world.

        I have found several recent discussions of Law very stimulating, this one, included. thank you!

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  3. Hey Bob,

    Just curious, what are your thoughts on preaching the “third use” of the law? I know this is an extremely contentious topic in Lutheran circles. Some say that we cannot “use” God’s law, but that we only preach Law then Gospel. It’s the Holy Spirit that applies it.

    I certainly agree with Walther that Law & Gospel are not properly distinguished unless the Gospel predominates. At same time, however, Paul’s epistles seem to follow the pattern of 2nd use, Gospel, 3rd use.

    Obviously, we don’t want to preach 3rd use as if it is somehow a condition for obtaining or maintaining our justification, but is there some sense in which preaching 3rd use is appropriate? When listening to Pastor Wolfmueller read Luther’s sermons, it seems that Luther often preached 3rd use. Should that have any influence on the preaching style of contemporary Lutherans?

    Your post, maybe I’m misreading, seems to disparage what could be called preaching the 3rd use of the Law, so I’m curious what your take is on this. It’s something I’ve thought about a lot, and I’m still not sure how to understand this issue.

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    1. Thanks, Ken!

      My thoughts are that I deny the third use completely.

      Ok, that was a joke…

      I completely believe the law has three uses, or does three things. But, I think Scott Keith is right when he says we don’t decide what it does. I think luther’s sermons are helpful here. Have you ever noticed how condemning he can be when preaching on the Christian life? Is he preaching second or third use? I say neither. He’s preaching the law. It’s going to convict and guide or even both.

      Or this, when Scott posted on the uses of the law this week, someone responded with verses that call Christians to be full of joy. Some may say Paul did not intend these to convict sinners. But, every pastor knows that few verses make the saints fear more than the encouragement to be joyful.

      I think my biggest frustration with the whole third use discussion is that it all takes place in the abstract. If you could give an example of “third use” preaching, it would help me get at your question better.

      I think the call I have as a pastor is to preach law and gospel. I think it’s risky to our sentiments to let Christ and His work dominate our preaching, but that is what the New Testament commands us to do. I don’t know what use that is, I just know it’s commanded.

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      1. Thanks for your response, Bob. I appreciate it.

        Here is an example of what I’m talking about. In terms of preaching, a sermon outline could go something like this:

        – Christ commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves. This includes caring for the physical and spiritual needs of our neighbors, most especially those who are closest to us (2nd use).

        – We all fail to do this, but Christ always loved others perfectly, and His righteousness is ours by faith (gospel).

        – Therefore, brothers and sisters, love one another by supporting members in need and praying for them (3rd use).

        – When you fail to do this adequately, as you always will, repent and believe the gospel, knowing that if we confess our sins God will forgive us (gospel).

        In this way, the gospel is still clear, the Christian has goals to strive towards, but his striving is always done from a place of security in Christ, and not from a need to gain or even prove his righteousness. This would avoid the extremes of “there’s no need to strive for holiness,” on the one hand, and various forms of legalism on the other hand.

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