The culture war is over, and we came out on the losing side—but only for a while. I just finished reading once more through the Book of Revelation, and we are ultimately on the winning team. Reading Revelation brought me back to William Williams’ great hymn, “Guide Me, O Thou Great Redeemer,” through which we pray for God’s guidance as “pilgrim(s) through this barren land.” These words have relevance for our times, because we are indeed pilgrims in a strange place, especially as preachers. Here are five harsh realities for living the preaching life in this barren land.
First, in this barren land we have something to say that no one else will say and that will not be said without us. That is what we are called to do, especially in times such as these. We are called to be agents of truth. Some who most need to hear truth will not readily receive our message. Nonetheless, staying silent is not an option for us: “If the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet, so that the people are not warned, and the sword comes and takes any one of them, that person is taken away in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at the watchman’s hand” (Eze. 33:6).
Second, in this barren land we should expect to be maligned, judged and falsely accused more than ever before. Fear not, however, because it will be a blessing! A generation ago, there were people who believed we lived life on a pedestal of respect. In this new post-Christian America, a massive societal worldview shift has stripped away just about all the respect that once came with the office of minister. Now there is a rejection of any notion of a God who reveals Himself as personal or of that God’s representatives. As His agents, we are now marginalized, considered at best to be past our sell-by date.
A blessing? Indeed, for the Lord we serve directed His strangest blessing specifically to us: “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt. 5:11-12). Prophets are criticized in a barren land. Let’s just expect it!
Third, in this barren land we must be able to see beyond the evening news. Why? Because tomorrow’s news will be different, and any preacher stuck in today soon will become as boring, downcast and ultimately irrelevant as today’s news. Ours is the news of hope beyond today. Paul said, “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:19-22).
Fourth, in this barren land let us take extra care of our personal soul health. What are you doing to take care of your soul? Recently I became fascinated with the emphasis on soul care in the Book of Psalms. This is especially true of David’s psalms. David develops an intimate relationship with his own soul. It is clear that for him soul care is a high priority. He says of the Lord his Shepherd, “He restores my soul” (Ps. 23:3). Later, he effectively becomes a pastor to his own soul, writing first of his soul’s desire, “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God?” He next initiates a conversational relationship with his soul, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God…” (Ps. 42). Without good soul health, our preaching will become anemic, and we eventually will crash and burn.
Fifth, be aware that in this barren land a preacher’s integrity is on the line 24/7/365. “Jesus said, ‘A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and in his own household’” (Matt. 13:57). We will be under observation in every way where we live. May we, as was Paul, be able to say, “Our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake” (1 Thess. 1:5).
Using ethos, the Greek word from which we get our English word ethics, Paul told the Thessalonians that the people could see that their walk and talk were in sync with one another. Elsewhere he wrote about declaring the whole counsel of God in public and from house to house (see Acts 20). Consistency was Paul’s watchword. May it also be ours. Integrity is always important for all who preach God’s Word but ever more so in this barren land.
Leslie Holmes holds the John H. Leith Chair of Theology and Ministry and is dean of the Institute of Reformed Worship at Erskine Theological Seminary. You can reach him at LHolmes@Erskine.edu.