How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? (Romans 1:14)
One of the strange mysteries of the Christian faith is that God calls weak, sinful, erring, sometimes boastful and vain, vacillating and vulnerable, often pompous, pretencious and even mendacious humans — like you and me — to be the principal carriers of so precious a cargo as that incalculable love which God has incarnated in Jesus Christ: Stewards of A Divine Mystery.
The fact that the Apostle Paul shared these misgivings is a part of why he cries out to the Corinthians: “It pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.” And yet it is that same Apostle Paul who suggests in the text from Romans that the people shall not hear and believe without a preacher. For the Apostle is convinced that preaching “is the power of God unto salvation.”
It is just a downright mystery, a puzzling proposition. For preaching is a “presumptuous business” at best; and, yet, God entrusts the treasure of the gospel in pots of earthenware that crack so easily, that amount to so little. Cheap clay trying to carry the costly. The frail and fragile containing the steady and sturdy and steadfast. Vessels that leak and crack and sometimes break. It is a mystery that God intends to accomplish a divine purpose through mortals like us preaching the eternal verities of a holy and loving God: to tell of the divine transaction which was finished where the last drop of blood needed to be spilled was shed at Calvary’s mountain. The last tear that was needed to express divine pity and pathos ploughed the pleading face of a crucified Christ.
We wonder: where is the wisdom in this foolishness? We wonder why a wise and knowing God chooses and calls creatures like you and me, men and women whose talents are adequate but not brilliant, whose persons are steady but not scintillating, whose egos reach out to Christ, and yet so often veer off on self-serving errands to be the proclaimers of such unsearchable riches? Where is the wisdom in the choice to make us stewards of the divine mystery, to make us custodians of the chronicles of Calvary. To try to declare the mystery of the eternal Word taking residence in human flesh so full of grace and truth that it saves to the uttermost.
My own black forebears in the ministry rose to loftiness of speech and soared to magnificent heights as they pondered this puzzling question. And I think they may have touched on the heart of the matter. In their own way, and with picturesque language and flights of consecrated imagination they declared: “God might have found so many other ways to spread the Gospel of the love of God. He might have written his love on the leaves of the trees and blowing winds would have sent out the news of deliverance and redemption far and wide. God might have written his love in the skies and in the rising sun so that people looking upward could have read the message: ‘God so loved the world that he gave!’ He might have made the ocean sing his love and nightingales chant his praise. But none of these, not even angels could ever preach, however and say: ‘I’ve been redeemed.'” [Quoted in Gardner C. Taylor, How Shall They Preach? (Elgin, Illinois: Progressive Baptist Publishing House, 1977), p. 45.]
So this gospel is a gospel for sinners saved by grace and only saved sinners can preach. This gospel is the proclamation that God draws straight with crooked lines. This gospel is the preaching that says at Calvary God took the inevitability out of history. This gospel is a word to us and to our people that Capitol Hill is high, but there is a hill far away, but much higher than Capitol Hill, and the name of that hill is Calvary. This gospel is the witness of those who have found a great Savior, who looks beyond our faults and sees our needs.
This gospel is a word of judgment and grace, not just for the high and mighty. Not just for those who have come from good homes and from fine social upbringing. Not just for those who do not sit in the seat of the scornful. But also a word for the untouchables and the poor, the lame, the forgotten and the marginalized, the unloved and unlovely, the mother and father who have given up on their children, and the children who have given up on their parents and their parents’ society, the cocaine addict, the violent gang members, the hard of heart and those who prey on prejudices and old bigotry. This word is a word to a nation that fouls its nests with the feculence and filth of racism, and the exploitation and neglect of the poor, a nation that destroys the Lord’s earth and pollutes the air with hate and anarchy and dissembling one with another.
It is a word to the preacher as well as to the congregation and society. For the declarer of the word stands under the same judgment and in need of the same grace as those to whom that word is declared. And lest we become smug in our preaching, self-righteous in our demeanor, and pompous in our proclamation: the same sins that our congregations are guilty of, we too, are guilty. The same temptations to which other people often yield, we do, too, and more often than we confess without “getting caught.” We stand convicted of the same derelictions and delinquencies as the communities to whom we preach. We are given no moral advantage, no particular immunity to sin because we have been called to the ministry.
It is a word that Christ died that all may be set free — free from sin and its social consequences; free from guilt and the weight of guilt; free from the shackles of shame and disgrace. The “whole counsel of God” is a condemnation of corporate as well as personal sin; the sin of the Board Room as well as the sin of the bedroom. It is a word to those who live in the penthouse and those who dine on filet mignon and caviar, and a word to those who live and wallow in the social swine pen, eating from the pig trough that which is neither healthy nor holy. It is, as one great witness has said it: “guilty ones telling guilty ones of the judgment of God upon them, but also telling them about a grace and mercy that is kinder and wider than the judgment, and therefore more devastating.”
It is a word of judgment and grace. It is a word that the sins and the cravenness of an idolatrous nation whose priorities are selfish and self-serving — a stench in the nostrils of God. But it is also that word of tender mercy and everlasting hope: “Israel shall be redeemed!” It is a word that to be prodigal is to be a squanderer of precious gifts, but worst, to be prodigal is to be lost. But it is also a word that the lost boy can be restored to the family, the lost coin can be returned to the family budget, the lost sheep can be restored to the fold.
God has chosen this way to get that word out — through the foolishness of preaching. It is this avenue that God has chosen to get the word out: to call men and women; to ask of men and women over and over again: “Whom shall I send? and who will go for me?” It is they who humbly answer, “Here am I, Lord; send me” who become the stewards of this divine mystery. It is they who say: “I don’t have much, but take what I have, and use it to your glory, and take who I am, and make of me what you want me to be.” It is they who say, in the paraphrased words of D.T. Niles: “I’m just a beggar willing to tell another beggar where I found bread.” Even though “I cannot preach like Peter, and I cannot pray like Paul, I will tell the love of Jesus and say he died for all.”
We are not called to be merchants of escapism, nor are we to be those who offer grace at economical rates. You can’t sell what is free, not even at cheap and bargain basement prices. Grace is free, but it is not cheap. To consciously accept God’s grace is to be freed from sin and the weight of sin, but it is also to have a divine imperative laid upon our lives. It is being freed by being imprisoned. Our response is gratitude for a gift received without merit or achievement, but it is also a response of obligation to the One who gave it. To receive God’s grace through the divine mystery of the incarnation is to humbly and gratefully respond with “much obliged” rather than to glibly and habitually react with “Thank you, Jesus!” It is the difference between giving a nonchalant answer, and responding in faithful service; between discipleship and membership. It is the difference between merely being a follower of Jesus and becoming a dedicated disciple of the Risen Lord.
We dare not transform this revolutionary and freeing ethic of Jesus into some kind of inoffensive prudential morality. We dare not see it as picnic evangelism without the cross while gloating and boasting of the numbers who have come without conviction or commitment. This love that comes to us in Christ is so amazing, and so divine that it demands our souls, our lives, our all. Not just an occasional confession, a quick nod, or even offering our legal tithes and offering, but giving our all. It is, in the words of the old gospel hymn: “I surrender all. I give myself to Thee.”
Then may we tell it wherever we go: in high city steepled churches and old country clapboard chapels; on the mountain, in the low-country, over the hills and in the valley and everywhere. May we who are on this errand for God and who have had necessity laid upon us say, as the old black gospel song writer said it:
Use me, Lord, in thy service;
Draw me nearer, every day
For I’m willing, Lord, to run all the way.
If I falter while I’m trying,
Please, don’t be angry with me, Lord,
Just let me stay,
For I’m willing, Lord to run all the way.
The people who gather around the Word and the sacrament come each time we gather in God’s name seeking for the witness of that Word. They do not come because we are so good and they are so bad. They do not come to hear of our academic achievements or how well traveled we are, or what “cute” stories we can tell, or how erudite we can be in speech or profound in thought. Nor do they require that we jump off the pinnacle or try to bring legions of angels to bear the Lord Christ down. They come with a singular question of the preacher: “Is there any word from the Lord?” What of the divine mystery can you break open that we can share and celebrate together today?
A few years ago I was invited to go to Bergestgarden, West Germany, to conduct a clinic on preaching and lead a retreat for military chaplains and spouses serving in Europe. So my spouse was invited to accompany me there. Having never been to that part of Europe before, we took the opportunity to travel on the expertly-run trains and to take a room to tour other parts of Germany and countries nearby: Austria, Switzerland and France. As we traveled from one nation to the other, and as we approached another country and prepared to cross the border from one country to another, I noticed that no matter what time it was, whether you were sleeping or awake, the conductor and the immigration officer came through to ask each person one particular question: “Do you have anything to declare?”
The people gather each Sunday with that same question of the preacher, the proclaimer of the word of God, the preacher of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the tender shepherd, the steward of a divine mystery: “Do you have anything to declare?”
The old black, unlettered but not necessarily unlearned preacher, in his simple and yet profound manner of speech, and with his own brand of wisdom, eloquence and consecrated imagination, answered the question this way: “Heifers couldn’t do it; bullocks couldn’t do it; the blood of doves couldn’t do — but up in heaven, for thousands and thousands of years, the Son was saying to the Father, ‘Put up a soul, put up a soul. Prepare me a body, and I will go down and meet Justice on Calvary’s brow!'” [Quoted in Albert J. Raboteau, Slave Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), p. 235.]
Surely our response to the question: “Do you have anything to declare” must be something like:
He breaks the power of canceled sin;
He sets the prisoner free.
His blood can make the foulest clean;
His blood availed for me.
Jesus the Name that calms our fears,
That bids our sorrows cease;
‘Tis music in the sinner’s ears,
It’s life and health and peace.
But “how shall the people believe on Him in whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?” (Romans 1:14).