Have you ever heard a preacher talk about hell, divine election or holy war as if they were talking about riding a bike or watching a game on TV? They appear to have no sense of the gravity or the offensiveness of what they are talking about. It’s as if the preacher lives in a different world from their listeners—unaware or uninterested in the humanity and situation of their hearers. It’s as if they haven’t realised that their congregants are 21st century Australians who have loved ones and work colleagues who are not Christians.
When preachers fail in this way, they abandon their hearers and make it harder for them to keep listening … they fail in their task of mediating the text.
When preachers fail in this way, they abandon their hearers and make it harder for them to keep listening. In short, they fail in their task of mediating the text. Now, clearly, we must never blur the truth that there is one mediator between God and man and that is the man Jesus Christ (1Tim 2:5).
And yet there is a sense in which preachers and teachers of God’s are mediators with a small ‘m’. They act as go-betweens: bringing together the Word of God and human beings. They are there to help human beings are people with doubts, struggles, misconceptions and disbelief. Preachers speak to people of a particular context; a time and culture with its own sensibilities and its own plausibility structures (to use Peter Berger’s term).
We also know that, theologically, our thoughts are not God thoughts and our ways are not God ways. There is both a cultural and theological disconnect between God and humans.
If we fail to consider these gaps, we are likely to—not just fail to help people understand God’s word—we are likely to increase the distance between the preacher and congregation, and worse, between the Word and the listener.
Their Questions as well as Ours
We preachers should come to the text with, not just our own questions, but those of the congregation. What I find disruptive in the Bible is not necessarily what members of my congregation find disruptive. Hence sermon preparation must include listening to others—both believers and unbelievers—and hearing what they find jarring; what is it about this text that is offensive, dismissive, irrelevant, obscure and simply unjust.
Sermon preparation must include listening to others—both believers and unbelievers—and hearing what they find jarring
This is especially the case for those of us who have been reading the Bible for a long time. For us, because we are used to them, the shocking or ‘unbelievable’ supernatural elements of the Bible no longer seem difficult (there is nothing like reading a liberal commentary to remind you how difficult it is to say accept the signs and wonders of the Bible).
At some point, then, we need to name, and give expression to, those places where our world is especially out of kilter with the word. I think we might even—though I say it carefully and cautiously—need to demonstrate some degree of sympathy or even empathy with our hearers.
This is what I mean about being mediators. We need to work to reconcile Scripture with the first-impressions of our congregation—not altering the Bible to fit the prejudices of this age, but presenting its truths in a way that those who live in this age can understand and accept God’s word.
Consider, by way of example, the existence of Hell as eternal torment in which the lost are shut out forever from the presence of God. Does it not feel as if the punishment is greater than the crime?
Or consider God’s unconditional election in salvation in choosing some and not all before the creation of the world. I know the right response is to praise God for his sovereign grace—that he has the right to have mercy on whom he has mercy. But surely there a real part of me that feels as if it’s unfair. God does not feel very Australian where we like to give everyone a ‘fair go’.
I was recently reading the holy war and I found myself shocked by its extent … I too am a man living in a particular moment in history.
I was recently reading the holy war commended by God in 2 Samuel and I found myself shocked by its extent—by the way it reaches down to children. Wow! This is a hard pill to swallow. If I’m honest, I too feel at times that God is unfair to choose some and not all. I too feel that when it comes to hell that the punishment outstrips the crime.
So I too am a man living in a particular moment in history. I know my struggles may not have been felt in another era and I am also aware that I come to Scripture prejudiced by a sinful nature and a value system that has no authority but there it is. I am who I am and where I am.
Representing Both Sides
Preaching must be about aligning our thoughts with God’s word—not the other way round.
But mediators don’t represent one party but two. To lean too heavily into the human side of the story is to do profound damage. At the end of the day our task must be to side unapologetically with the true and living God. Only his truth can set us free.
I remember when I first read the Bible as an adult with an open mind I discovered I could not massage the truth. I told myself, “Ray Galea, you and God think very differently, one of you will have to change!” Repentance means me changing and learning to think God’s thoughts.
So too, preaching must be about aligning our thoughts with God’s word—not the other way round. I have to strive to show that …
… yes, Hell may seem as if the punishment is greater than the crime, but that only goes to show how little I understand the seriousness of sin and the holiness of God.
… yes, it might seem unreasonable that God shouldn’t choose everyone, but fairness would damn all of us.
… yes, God’s judgement might make him appear a monster to modern humans, but the sacrifice of Jesus shows us that that assessment must be wrong.
A Priestly Ministry
The mediatorial ministry of the preacher is, of course, simply a more intensified version of the ministry that all believers are called to. All of us together are,
… a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light. (1Pet 2:9)
Similarly, all of us are called to be,
… prepared to make a defence to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect. (1Pet 3:15)
Ministers have a more serious responsibility … If we get it wrong, it is far more likely that they will fail too.
But those of us who are ministers have a more serious responsibility. We are to help equip the rest of God’s people in these acts of service and communication (Eph 4:11-12). If we get it wrong, it is far more likely that they will fail too.
Thank God that we have a far greater priest and mediator to help us in this: that our Master crossed infinite distances to bring God’s word to sinners like us; that his example shows us the way:
So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offence to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved. Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. (1Cor 10:31-11:1)