A sermon is supposed to explain and proclaim God’s whole Word, whether we like it or not. If you like everything the preacher says all the time, the preacher is probably not doing his or her job– and pastors need to be careful about that. They must resist the temptation to be only pleasant in their preaching and overlook God’s hard words. I want to be a nice guy and well-liked by my church members, but that is a dangerous temptation for a preacher. There are too many things in God’s word that are true and must be said, but may not appeal to anyone. Someone once summarized the simplistic message of much modern preaching with these words: “God is nice; we should all try to be nice; isn’t that nice?” Well, I do have to admit, that’s nice; but God’s word has more to say than pleasing thoughts. A preacher has to be careful of being only cheerful and affirming and uplifting, and parishioners have to be careful of expecting that in a preacher. Of course, a sermon should give comfort and hope and forgiveness, and proclaim grace and peace. That is all in God’s Word. But a sermon should also at times irritate and aggravate and challenge, it should at times produce guilt and discomfort, and even the fear of the Lord. That is, unless you think that you are already, completely and fully, the kind of person God wants you to be. I know I am not, and I am sure you aren’t either, so expect that sometimes God’s word will provoke you. Why should anyone assume that God would never have an unpleasant word to say to sinners like us? If you read the Bible, you will encounter God not only as a loving Father, but also as a fierce and demanding Law-giver and judge.
C. S. Lewis’s children’s book The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is a wonderful story, and filled with Christian symbolism. Four normal children from England enter into a magic land called Narnia where animals talk, and where witches and fairies and all sorts of other magical creatures come and go. The Christ-figure in Narnia is the great lion Aslan, who is all-powerful, but must save the people from the evil one by dying for them (spoiler alert: he rises from the dead). Sound familiar? When the children first hear the lion roar they are very afraid, because it made such a loud and frightening sound. They ask one of the animals what that was. Oh, they are told, that was The Great Aslan, a huge lion, the ruler of all of Narnia. “A Lion?,” Lucy, the littlest child asks fearfully, “Is it a tame lion?” Mr. Tumnus, a talking fawn, looked at her incredulously and said, “Aslan? Tame? Of course he’s not tame. He is ferocious. But he is good.” There are seven books in the Narnia Chronicles, and as the story continues the children get to know Aslan very well, and they learn to love him deeply. But they also learn Aslan was not one to be fooled with, and they are not eager to face him when they do wrong. This is a wonderfully Biblical picture of God. For me as a preacher, and for you as listeners, we have to be careful about creating a false image of a tame and manageable God. God is a ferocious God, but he is good. The catechism says we should fear and love God, and that is a good Biblical balance to maintain.
I am reminded of Dr. Stensvaag, a professor I had in seminary. He also was ferocious, but he was good. He was nearing retirement when I was a student. He was a crabby old Norwegian who had, by that time, put up with enough nonsense, pranks, laziness, and excuses by students; and he wasn’t in the mood to put up with anything, anymore. I don’t think he liked dumb kids, and even though we were all graduate students in our middle 20’s, we were all dumb kids to him. And we were afraid of him. We did not go to class late (the door would be locked), we did not turn papers in late (there would be no mercy), and we did not talk, chew gum, or bring coffee into class. Dr. Stensvaag was definitely from the old school, and we feared his wrath. But he did know and love God’s Word, and he wanted us future pastors also to know and love that Word. He could make the Old Testament come alive for us, and taught us much about how to use it in our ministry. He was a great teacher, and I registered for every class I could get from him. He was ferocious, indeed, but he was good.
If we love and trust God, we can believe that even his harsh and ferocious words are intended only for our good. Therefore, hear the Word of the Lord.
Jeremiah 22:29 — O land, land, land, hear the word of the Lord!
Jeremiah 6:10 — To whom can I speak and give warning? Who will listen to me? Their ears are closed so they cannot hear. The word of the Lord is offensive to them; they find no pleasure in it.
Hebrews 12:12-13 — For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.
II Timothy 4:1-4 — In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage– with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.
PRAYER BASED ON THE THIRD COMMANDMENT AND MARTIN LUTHER’S CATECHISM EXPLANATION:
O God, you command us to keep the Lord’s Day holy. May we so fear and love you, that we do not neglect your Word and the preaching of it, but regard it as holy and gladly hear and learn it; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.