Preaching under the smile and the smiting rod

As I write these words, our home has descended into the silence of sleep on a Saturday night, and I am alone in the study. In earlier, more normal days, these were the moments when the Lord’s Day, the pulpit, and the task of preaching were given final reflection. These were the hours in which the sweetness of God’s promise of strength for my weakness and wisdom for my folly were most keenly known, when the responsibility of declaring his counsel was most heavily felt. These were the times when the deep simplicity of Matthew Henry or JC Ryle would course through the notes I had already prepared, lending last light on how a sermon would be framed and phrased. These were the final, painful, joyful, expectant minutes before the busyness of ministry would dawn the next day.

Tonight my sermon rests in a Google datacenter, vaulted in the servers of YouTube, waiting for the click of a mouse to make it ‘Public’ rather than ‘Private’. Its content is now as unalterable as the last sermon I preached. There is, of course, a convenience in this, but it is the resented ease of the microwave button by comparison to the flame of a grill; there is a safety in this, but it is the safety of a wedding practice by comparison to the wedding day.

In sum, these are the strangest days I have ever preached through. Away from the buzz and bustle of camera lenses and upload speeds, away from all of our talk about a ‘new normal’, what can we learn from this period of ministry we are living through? How might we profitably reflect on what it means, or how should we pray? There are two main dangers here – one is a snarky pessimism which only emphasises the limits of online ministry, and the other is an ill-advised cheeriness about new challenges and opportunities. Viewing social media on the issue suggests that preachers are being represented by a committee chaired by Eeyore and minuted by Tigger.

In this post I want to suggest two perspectives we might take on our present silent Sabbaths, on the redundant resonance of our church buildings, on the emptiness of our pulpits:

Preaching under the smiting rod
A good friend and pastoral mentor recently commented that as preachers we are not adequately weighing the significance of the moment that we are in. In the history of global Christianity, there has seldom if ever been a time when the pulpits of the world were silent. We are moving through an era which has worn out the term ‘unprecedented’, and yet these are the most unusual of times. Surely it is no light thing that in real physical terms the voice of preachers across the world have been silenced. Surely we stray into a form of deism if we exclude the possibility that there may be a message for us in the closed mouths of God’s servants.

Could it be that we are experiencing something of God’s rod, something of his disciplining hand at the present time? Our regular routines of preparation and preaching, of planning and programming have meant that our attention has been hard to catch, and our true spiritual affections have been hard to gauge. Now we are in a place where we can’t serve and speak, where we cannot pastor and preach as we once did. Should we be asking God to open our hearts to what he is saying? Should we be taking seriously the fact that the household of God might be the very place where the smiting rod is most smartingly felt in this dark age?

One of God’s singular disciplines in Scripture is to remove his word and his witness from among his people. The revelation-famine threatened in Amos 8 eventually became the lot of God’s people through four centuries of stony silence. Even in the New Testament era, the Saviour who walks among the churches reserves the right to remove a gospel work should it not own its iniquity and default (Revelation 2:5). The church at Ephesus who received these words had tangential and frenetic activity for Christ, but diminishing affection for him – and their Lord threatened them with utter silence and oblivion if their hearts would not turn.

Can we be sure that we ought not to be asking these kinds of deep and uncomfortable questions? For many of us the advent of lockdown in the UK presented us with a problem to be solved, but should it not also show us that there are knees to be bowed? Have we forfeited the opportunity of silence in our pulpits by becoming new heroes of the story in an online realm? Ought we not to have cried out to God to show us what he would have us do in our souls, before we called in technology to show us how to run our services? Have we rushed to solutions when our first note ought to have been sorrow?

These thoughts trouble the fringes of my heart each and every week. They are not (I trust!) the morose musings of a depressive man, but a nagging sense that were God calling to me in this bitter providence, would I hear and heed him? How much would it take to show me that much that has been in my heart, and much that has been in our churches, has not been in accordance with godliness? Shall we leave lockdown more technically competent, and no more spiritually sensitive? Will we allow our online sermons to ring out tomorrow without feeling even a hint of chagrin that this is how things are at the present moment?

Preaching under the smile
All of the above must be kept in tension with a healthy view of God’s sovereignty, grace, and goodness in the midst of our crisis. We have resorted to distorted means and faulty media to maintain our witness at the present time. We are depleted by an increasing sense of awkwardness and insufficiency before the unforgiving eye of a camera lens, and we are at times depressed by the spectre of even less attentive ears to God’s word than at normal times. But with all of this, God is showing his mercy to us. We cannot, and should not, resign ourselves to our present state, but by God’s grace we can content ourselves with it, we can learn like Paul did in Philippians 4 the secret of resting in how God providentially disposes of us.

And are we not sensing his smile behind the present frowning providence? This Saturday evening is another ‘Ebenezer’ in which I can say that the Lord has helped me in spite of my impediments, and that I have sensed his hand and pleasure in the reading and proclamation of the Word during the week. He has led me through the valley of weakness once more, staying me with his staff and counsel, and he now allows me to rest beside still waters. Tomorrow, God will allow his Word to penetrate into areas where the pulpit never could have reached, and to permeate the hearts and minds of people whom I never could have addressed. Reports come to my ears time and again of contact that brother-preachers are receiving from people who are interrogating their own secular worldview afresh, and are considering the claims of Christ. Silent sanctuaries are far from ideal, but the work and will of God march on, and he is still using us as instruments in spite of our curtailments and corruptions.

Conclusion
Ministry at the moment is realised in the paradox of the smile and the smarting rod. I don’t wish to be breezy or sullen in these circumstances, I don’t wish to so accentuate the positive that I lose an opportunity to repent, and I don’t want to so lament the loss of public meeting that I downplay the word of Christ being brought into the marketplace. These may be days to rejoice and to weep, to allow ourselves to cry hot tears in our exile, but to also seek the peace of the city in which we have had to settle (Jeremiah 29:7). These may be days to bear the rod and bow the knee, while lifting up our voices in urgent and heartfelt gospel proclamation. These might be days in which we, repenting, call our world to do the same, days in which we might be refined in our hearts even while we labour with our lips.

The home remains silent as I sign off this post, as silent as a sanctuary, to coin a simile. As I retire to bed with no notes to review, I can offer a prayer that the sermon waiting on a server might speed ahead tomorrow for the glory of God, all the while slowing down my rush in order to cry out to God that he might restore us, not just to our building but to the basics of a simple and primary love for Him.

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