The Real Threat to Our Preaching
Out here in sunny California the church is watching as storm clouds are billowing in Sacramento. I’m sure you’ve all heard about the unsettling bill, AB 2943, being presented in the California State Assembly. If I understand it correctly (and I would be happily corrected), this bill, if it passes, would make sexual orientation change efforts illegal. So that when a person struggling with unwanted same-sex attraction comes to a professional counselor seeking help in overcoming their temptations, the counselor, or perhaps pastor, would be prevented from offering or recommending “conversion therapy” to help the person. Many Christians are worried—perhaps legitimately—that the state is a short step away from turning the Law of God into hate speech and thus silencing the legal preaching of God’s Word.
Though 34 years behind Orwell’s 1984 prophecy, it would seem Big Brother is finally showing up on the scene to keep us in check. In the name of “political correctness” the powers that be (whoever they be) are seeking to control what sort of speech can and cannot be used in our churches. What if this passes? What if Big Brother takes over? What will happen to the preaching of God’s Word if it is deemed illegal?
These are real concerns for many people. But, I wonder, what if Big Brother isn’t the real threat to the church’s proclamation? What if the problem isn’t coming simply from the outside, but from within? I mean, let’s be honest, any pastor worth his weight in salt is not going to take directives from the state on how he ought to preach about anything, no matter the consequences. Any pastor worth his weight in salt is going to be taking his directions from the Word of God itself. He will preach Law and Gospel, repentance and forgiveness, from the pages of Scripture. At least he should. And, that is what has me concerned because the more I hear about the current state of preaching, the more I am convinced that the threat to the preaching of God’s Word isn’t coming from the state or some antichrist, Big Brother, or state bills. The threat is coming from within—from the church itself!
Neil Postman, in his prophetic social-commentary Amusing Ourselves to Death, suggests the book we should be paying close attention to is not Orwell’s 1984 (as important as it is), but rather, Aldous Huxley’s A Brave New World. He says,
“Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity, and history…Orwell feared the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy.”
(To be honest, I have no idea what the “centrifugal bumblepuppy” is, but how could I pass that line up?)
What Postman is suggesting is that the external threat to society is not nearly as dangerous as the internal threat. Ours is a culture more concerned about the trivial and the entertaining than we are about what is true, good, and beautiful. We are driven more by our inner desires which are fed and encouraged by our modern technologies and their ability to deliver immediate gratification than we are driven by what is objectively good or true. Those categories are viewed as hinderances to our happiness.
The church is not immune to this. So that, what sells in Christian bookstores are not books that proclaim Christ in such a way as to produce repentance and faith, but rather, encouraging and self-affirming devotionals aimed at building self-esteem. In our context, Bible verses are no longer seen as either deadly for the proud nor life-giving for the dead, but as words of affirmation focused on your self-fulfillment. They certainly aren’t about Jesus, let alone Jesus crucified and risen for you! The Word of God is twisted into being something it is not and, thus, for all intents and purposes, it is silenced.
This is reflected in (or is it produced by?) the preaching in the church. Sermons are not drawn from the pages of Scripture to be delivered to the saints in particular congregations. Rather, popular societal topics drive the theme and content of the proclamation. Sermon series on relationships, finances, and popular political topics dominate the scene. As opposed to being sermons derived from the pages of scripture, they tend to be sermons in search of a text! The pastors, the hearers, and the culture seem to be setting the agenda these days and not the Word of God!
God warned Israel through the prophet Amos, “’Behold, the days are coming,’ declares the Lord God, ‘when I will send a famine on the land—not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord.’” (Amos 8:11). My fear is that this famine is unwittingly being self-imposed by the church on herself. We’d rather focus on trivialities, our immediate felt needs, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy than on the riches of God’s grace. No Big Brother is keeping this from us, but why would he need to? We are keeping the riches locked up quite well on our own!
Instead of allowing the pressing cultural issues to define our preaching, our preaching ought to confront the culture with the Law and Gospel of our Lord Himself. Do we know what we are keeping from ourselves? The almighty and holy God over all of creation—the One who made the heavens and the earth, the One who pours out His terrifying wrath on His enemies and mocks the raging of the nations—has looked upon you and me in our wicked, selfish, sinful state with mercy in His eyes. He has given His divine Son in the flesh to live a perfect life in our place, to take the credit for our sins on the cross, to bleed and die as a sacrifice for us, and then to credit us with His righteousness! He then rose from the dead to pronounce victory over all that is evil, corrupt, and dying in this world. He gives that victory to you in the forgiveness of your sins.
That forgiveness—which was first delivered to you in baptism—is yours to have every time you gather and hear it preached into your ears. It is promised every time you take and eat and drink the body and blood of Jesus at the altar. Your sins are forgiven! This changes everything!
These are the marvelous gifts Christ purchased for you with His blood. This is the news He wants preached into your ears and sung from your lips to the ends of the earth! No matter what laws California—or any government for that matter—seeks to impose, they cannot silence that message! So, why, for heaven’s sake, is the church so comfortable doing that to herself? Lord, have mercy.
Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. Penguin Books, New York. 2006. pg. xix