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Jeremiah

The Real Preacher's Task

It's hard do try to do the right thing.  There's always an easier way that calls to us like a siren's song causing us to want to justify a different course of action than the one that we know to be the right one.  This is true in all instances where people are given the choice to do the "right" thing or the "easy" thing - no matter what kind of situation or career a person finds himself in - but it is especially true of preachers. Preachers get a weird reputation.  In some places, they are highly respected for their office, serving as a sort of de-facto leader for the community (although not really anyone's friend).  In some places they are treated almost like medicine men from some jungle tribe; as soon as someone finds out she's talking to a preacher, she starts telling him all of her ailments, what kinds of medications she's on, what x-rays have shown - all as if the poor minister went to med school instead of seminary.  But in nearly every place, preachers are thought of as those guys who don't do very much work.  Most people think that their job is a social one, made up of house-calls, hospital visits, and golf with the rich folks in the church.  And, for the most part, there are a lot of preachers who fit that description pretty well.

In fact, that's a pretty successful way to grow a church in today's culture.  If a preacher just spends his time coddling the people in his church who would gripe and complain if he didn't, he can avoid a lot of stress.  If he takes a lot of time out to hobnob with the elites in his church, he can make sure they're always on his side and that they will continue giving to the church's budget.  If he spends all his time with his social calls, he won't have very much time left to prepare a deep and thoughtful message from God's Word, and his people will like him better for it.  "Our preacher isn't very good, but he's short" reads one church sign in our county this week.  "Sermons are like biscuits, they are better with shortening" read another one near my old house in Louisville, Kentucky.  Folks who don't care much for the Bible don't want to hear about it for very long, and therefore, the preacher who takes the easy way out can actually be encouraged by a positive response from his work.

The problem is that this wasn't what Christ's ministers were commanded to do.  When you look at what God expects out of those who are His spokesmen, you see that He commands them to "Feed my sheep" (John 21:17).  He tells them to "Preach the Word" (2 Timothy 4:2).  In Acts 6, the apostles couldn't even bother serving tables for a few minutes each day because they were so busy in "prayer and the ministry of the Word" (Acts 6:4).  This is far different from what many preachers are spending their time on today.  And for good reason: preaching the Word gets a preacher in trouble.

A pastor will never hear as many complaints from his congregation as when he really tries to feed them from the Word.  "I don't want to be taught!" says one.  "We want to hear salvation sermons!" say some others.  "This is too far over our heads!  You're not preaching with enough passion!"  This whole attitude, which is just a part of the fallen human nature, has been further agitated by sometimes years of preaching from those who have taken the easy (read: disobedient) way out.  And so, the preacher who tries to do as he has been commanded will often experience a lack of success.  He gets complaints from every side.  He sees the attendence numbers drop as some run off to seek entertainment elsewhere.  It can be quite depressing.

But the Bible is on the side of the faithful preacher.  Everywhere you turn in Scripture you find the same song sung about the woes of the faithful spokesman of God.  Nowhere do you find the tales of the glittering social butterfly who is welcomed by all his hearers except in the stories about false prophets.  So for those who might sometimes feel like the negative pressure is a sign that they are doing something wrong, I will leave us with the words of God, spoken to the prophet Jeremiah:

If you utter what is precious, and not what is worthless, you shall be as my mouth.  They shall turn to you, but you shall not turn to them.  And I will make you to this people a fortified wall of bronze; they will fight against you, but they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you to save and deliver you, declares Yahweh. (Jeremiah 15:19-20)

A Crime of Comparison

There are a few comparisons that should be obvious.  Sodom and Gomorrah must have been more wicked than first-century Capernaum - they were destroyed by a rain of fire and sulfur after all.  The apostle Paul must have been less of a sinner than someone like Adolf Hitler.  And for anyone who has read the Old Testament, the Southern Kingdom of Judah must have been a far more righteous place than the Northern Kingdom of Israel.  For one thing, the Southern Kingdom at least had a few good kings, whereas the Northern Kingdom was completely spiritually and morally bankrupt from the day of its secession to the day it went into captivity to Assyria. But if these comparisons are true, then why in the world does the Bible state that the opposite is the case in each of these three examples?

And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you. (Matthew 11:23-24)

The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. (Paul speaking in 1 Timothy 1:15)

And the LORD said to me, "Faithless Israel has shown herself more righteous than treacherous Judah. (Jeremiah 3:11)

What we miss when we make the opposite assumption is that the offense of sin gets greater the closer a person or a people walk with God.  Those who flagrantly transgress the laws of God when they have never heard them are not nearly as culpable as those who flagrantly indulge in what they have heard forbidden.  And to go deeper: those who sin in full knowledge of their wrong out of a hatred for God are still less culpable than those who love God and His Law and yet continue to offend Him.

It's just like that Biblical adage, "But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating. Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more" (Luke 12:48).  Paul didn't just think he was the chief of sinners, he knew that he was because he had been entrusted with so much more than really anyone else at the time, and yet he continued to sin.

That's why I can't ever make myself feel better about my own sin by comparing my life to someone else's.  If I compare myself to someone whose heart has not been changed by the Holy Spirit, then my sin will always be more grievous because I have been entrusted with far more than that person.  If I compare myself to someone who I feel like is far greater than me spiritually, it doesn't really help to think that their lesser sins are more grievous to God.  That thought doesn't stroke my fleshly confidence.  "Haha!  He is better than me, so that means he's in bigger trouble!"  Nope.  No good.  Especially since it's those kinds of people that we want to become more and more like.

So who can we look to when we feel like a failure that will make us feel better?  Well, that should be easy.  We should look to Christ - not to compare ourselves to Him - but rather to see Him who is our righteousness.  Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:30, "And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption."  Ultimately, I don't have to compare my righteousness to anyone else's, because my own righteousness is not ever what counts.  I have a stand-in.  Christ became my righteousness, so my righteousness is perfection Himself.  Praise be to God!