“Son of man, prophesy against the prophets of Israel, who are prophesying, and say to those who prophesy from their own hearts…” Ezekiel 13:2
What follows this divine introduction is not good. Self-proclaimed prophets have been running about gathering crowds with the ever-popular message, “Peace! Peace!” and God has had enough of it. They speak the speech of prophets, but have only been saying what is in their own hearts to say. They did not hear from the Lord, but validated everything they said with, “thus sayeth the Lord.” And, as has been the case for thousands of years, people followed them in flocks. So it is left up to the one prophet who does not have the ear of the masses, smells a little funny from what God has recently asked him to do, and sticks out from the crowd, to speak the actual word of God.
Don’t fool yourself – the ratio of false to true prophets has probably not changed much. At the very least, the number of prophets/pastors who speak only what is in their hearts and is appealing to the masses for all the wrong reasons, is still great. If a pastor wants to avoid the traps described in Ezekiel (and there are more than one) and learn how to faithfully speak God’s words instead of their own, what should they do? Here are a handful of thoughts from someone who works at this, for better or worse, every week of his life.
Can you eliminate Jesus language from your sermon and sell it from the self-help shelf?
One of the tremendous pressures the modern pastor faces is the need to be relevant to the felt needs of the average non-Christian’s life. It is easy to feel as if the Sunday service needs to touch some kind of soft spot in the lives of people who are not coming to church, and provide enough “practical” advice for people from week to week to keep them “encouraged” and coming back. This is nothing but voluntary subjection to the tyranny of the felt needs of sinful people - the ones inside and outside the church. This is, to be frank, the Old Testament’s false prophet’s favorite sermon, “Peace! Peace!”
Can a sermon be helpful, encouraging, and practical? Of course it can, but how do you get there? Scripture by itself, and expounded well, can very encouraging and practical. Colossians chapter 3, for instance, is all about how to live life in every relationship and every season of life, but it does not begin with the felt needs of people or Hallmark holidays, it begins with the Owner’s Manual written by the Inventor and Creator of human life and relationships. And the message of sin and grace is always valuable.
And what of the passages of Scripture that simply cannot be pigeonholed into “encouraging” categories? You need to preach and teach them. People need to hear them. The Church needs to learn how to hear them.
If you can eliminate all the “Jesus language” from your sermon and sell it from the self-help shelf, you probably need to rewrite it.
Do you read dead Christians?
They just see things differently than we do. Many of them faced opposition that most of us can only imagine, and it clarified the gospel in their writings and sermons. They may preach on good financial stewardship, but it begins and ends with sacrificial giving for the cause of the church and the gospel. They may preach forgiveness and grace, but it is often in the context of the realization of sin and disobedience.
They may be dead, but they are far from irrelevant to our theology. Most Western pastors are, like nearly everyone else around them, steeped in their Western culture to the point where it is hard to see other theological points of view. How might a Syrian Christian talk about Philippians 4:13? We already know how someone who lives a pretty comfortable life talks about it, how about someone who does not? Or someone who lived faithfully in a drastically different world from ours 1000 years ago? Certainly they have just as much claim on the text as we do.
Reading dead and faithful Christians helps fight our chronological snobbery. We gain a larger perspective on how the Word of God makes its impact in the lives of God’s people when we read them.
Do you read Christians you disagree with?
There are plenty of them. It’s almost overwhelming. There must be reasons for that. Just like the faithful Christian who lived centuries ago and absorbed Scripture in ways I could not imagine, these faithful souls are doing the same. So, when they are faithful to the God of Scripture, I need to learn to take them seriously and hear what they have to say before I ignore them and pass on.
This habit is, in fact, an act of humility and open-mindedness, both of which are virtues.
When was the last time you preached through a book of the Bible, verse by verse?
I cannot think of anything more effective for helping me avoid Ezekiel’s trap than being forced to read an entire book of the Bible out loud over time from behind a pulpit. Someone might hear something interesting and ask me later, “Why didn’t you talk about that?”
Does expositional preaching assure faithful preaching? Of course not. The pastor’s heart is still a human heart that wants very much to say what it wants to say. But it at least puts me in a place where I have to begin thinking about preaching the “whole counsel of God” and coming to terms with things I don’t like or understand.
Expositional or not, preaching should begin and end with the Word of God instead of, as we saw with Ezekiel’s warning, what is already in our human hearts.