Clowns and Prophets
Be sober in all things. (2 Timothy 4:5)
Paul, in his last epistle, written shortly before his martyrdom in Rome, gives several exhortations to his son in the faith, Timothy; and this one in particular needs our attention today. Paul’s exhortation to be sober is a present imperative, not referring to freedom from drunkenness but it denotes clarity of mind and sound judgment, not being carried away with folly. This is something Timothy was to do continually, without fail.
The next three exhortations are constative aorist imperatives, meaning these are things Paul is commanding Timothy to begin and continue to do for the rest of his life. He is constantly to endure hardship, constantly to do the work of an evangelist (even if he does not have gifts of evangelism), and he is constantly to carry out his ministry, leaving nothing undone, lacking nothing in his service. The last three imperatives flow from the first one – be sober in all things.
Preaching is such a profound, mysterious exercise that it ought to evoke awe each time we hear it. Romans 10:13ff makes clear that a true preacher, when preaching from the Bible, no matter the level of his expertise or experience, though weak, sinful, and frail in himself, nonetheless speaks the Word of God. Paul says, ‘”Whoever will call upon the name of the Lord will be saved.” How then shall they call upon Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent?’ Paul is equating the Word of God with the words of a preacher. As the Word comes from the preacher’s mouth, his words are a savour of life to some and a savour of death to others. Some embrace it to their soul’s everlasting joy, and some reject it to their everlasting misery. Those who hear the preached Word of God are saved, built up in the faith, strengthened to endure the hardships of this world, equipped to do the work of the ministry, prepared to meet Jesus at their deaths. Those who reject the Word, at their deaths, are plunged into the lake of fire forever. No wonder Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3:5, ‘Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God.’
However, in light of what we commonly see in many churches today, I wonder if preachers really believe the essence of what they do. If preachers are a savour of life unto life and death unto death, if true preaching always yields one of these two responses, then how can we take our task so lightly? How can we spend so little time in sermon preparation, so little time in prayer, so little time asking the hard questions of our own lives which come from the text under our consideration? How can our church members take preaching so casually, give so little attention to it, pray so little for their pastors, so easily skip the preaching of God’s Word? If this is such a vital task, then how can pastors spend so much of their time in relatively trivial issues? How can they approach their task with casualness, even frivolity?
Surely you know of preachers who are more like clowns than prophets. A clown’s job is to entertain, to make the crowd feel good for a while, to help them forget their problems and needs. A prophet, on the other hand, is to bring people face to face with God, to show them their spiritual bankruptcy, to make known their spiritual nakedness, to reveal to them that though they think they are rich and have need of nothing, they actually are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked. He then is to exalt Jesus Christ as the only Saviour of sinners, the One who died and was raised again for their justification. He is to call people to repentance and faith in Jesus. He is not to entertain, not to motivate or inspire to emotional, psychological, or professional well being. He is not merely to inform people of biblical knowledge. He is to bring people face to face with the Holy One of Israel, the One who is a consuming fire, the One who will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, the One with whom we all have to do, the One with the two-edged sword who treads the winepress of the fierce wrath of God the Almighty.
Frivolity and triviality are exceedingly poor mediums for such a message. Life and death issues are not communicated well by clowns. The present worship service in some churches where the preacher enters the pulpit on a motorcycle, in a wheelbarrow, or descending from a high wire (I am not making this up) denies the sober message of the prophet. Reducing the sermon to ten, fifteen, or twenty minutes devoid of biblical exposition, failing to use the S (sin) word or the H (hell) word, failing to speak clearly about the glory of Christ and His person and work, coming across as a motivational speaker or clown, is to impugn the name of Christ and the office of preaching.
For example, let’s say your spouse has been diagnosed with cancer and has six months to live. How would you feel if the doctor delivered the message to you in drama, in song and dance, or in a stand-up comedy routine? Surely you would be insulted? Would you not consider the doctor to be incredibly insensitive, making light of a serious and painful issue? The medium is essential to the message. Doesn’t the sober nature of the message of life and death, heaven and hell, demand a similar form of communication? Words are what the preacher has at his disposal, words under the ministry of the Holy Spirit, words made active by the Spirit who works in both the preacher and congregation. Words will do. We don’t need drama. We don’t need song and dance. We don’t need comedy. We need straightforward words, cutting like a knife into the hearts of the hearers, opening them up to the folly of their own devices, drawing them back to Jesus who alone has the power to save and keep them until that great day.
Would you pray for your preacher, asking God to give him a Holy Spirit anointing in His preparation and delivery of sermons? Would you not begrudge him the time he needs in prayer and study, allowing God to deal with his own soul and heart? Would you release your pastor from attempting to be something he is not? He is not a clown. He is a prophet, called by God to preach the unfathomable riches of Christ for the salvation of souls and sanctification of His blood-bought people. Will you turn him loose, expecting God to speak powerfully and redemptively through him to all who hear his voice?
Rev. Allen M. Baker is Pastor of Christ Community Presbyterian Church in West Hartford, Connecticut.
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