Some mysterious Spirit-initiated transformation happened inside me. The transformation was sparked rather suddenly around age 19 when I first began to hear the Living God speaking to me through the sermons of Pastor David Johnson of Church of the Open Door. Notice: I had been hearing sermons my whole life in church. But suddenly I was hearing the Living God through the sermon. Big difference. When that happens, everything begins to change.
By what seems to me to be some hilarious cosmic joke shared among the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity, I’m now a pastor (!) and now I have the terrifying task of preaching the Word. By God’s grace the Holy Spirit sometimes chooses to speak through my sloppy sermons. Only preachers can really understand the sense of holy fear and burden we carry as we walk up to the pulpit to expound on a text from God’s Word. (By the way, I urge all of you to consider praying for your pastor as they get up to preach each Sunday. Even if they’ve been it doing for 30 years and look comfortable, they’re probably still shuddering at this awesome responsibility.)
Well, that was a long introduction to an otherwise different point I wanted to make in introducing Eugene Peterson’s thoughts on preaching. But first a confession: I’m often guilty of preaching a “moralizing” message that merely urges people to buck up and follow Jesus’ (often) difficult teachings on living a Kingdom-ethic. The problem lies NOT in urging people to obey Jesus and live out his teachings. The problem is that apart from a supernatural intervention and infilling of the Holy Spirit a person is unable to live this New Way. To the hearer who has not been born again, and who has not experienced this same mysterious, Spirit-initiated transformation that happened to me, my “moralizing” message is Law that kills. It is religion that demands something a person can’t possible give. It is a heavy burden that crushes a person. It is Bad News — not the Good News Jesus’ brings.
But to the Spirit-filled believer who has tasted of the gift and is regenerated (and being sanctified day by day), the very same message is a summons to discipleship and an invitation to take up our cross daily and follow a crucified Lord. It is life of bearing fruit by the Spirit. It is abiding in Christ, and living intimately connected to the Vine that is Christ. As Paul puts it: “For it is God who is producing in you both the desire and the ability to do what pleases him” (Phil 2:13).
My passion is inviting casual Sunday pew-sitters to become active disciples living out Jesus’ radical Kingdom-ethic. My dilemma is that many who I’m inviting to live the Kingdom life do not have the capacity to respond — unless God draws them. This is a life that only God can produce in us, as we cooperate with the work of the Holy Spirit.
Think about this as you listen to Eugene Peterson’s thoughts and warnings against “moralizing” from the pulpit, and the exciting moment when the Living God shows up to do his heart-transforming work in the unsuspecting listener. (Here’s another good thought-provoking piece on preaching by Tim Spivey.)