Growing up in Washington DC exposed me to some of the best preaching a little black woman could handle. The standard was high as the nation’s capital has always had the highest concentration of educated professionals. The same was true with preachers. During that era, it was the rule rather than the exception that preachers were trained formally in their craft. Not only were they seminary graduates, a significant portion of them had earned doctoral degrees. I’m not talking about the garden variety of vanity degrees produced by diploma mills. They had real PhDs or the equivalent which qualified them to teach in academia.
If I was not sitting under the voice of Chocolate City’s own prophets, I also had the privilege to hear the best preaching from around the world at black America’s cathedral, Rankin Chapel on the campus of Howard University. The Washington National Cathedral also provided a platform for the most compelling voices from around the world. I was spoiled rotten and didn’t even know it.
Coming of age on the heels Civil Rights era, there was much to prophesy about. Martin Luther King proclaimed a message that was now bearing fruit. America was still experiencing the growing pains of integration and those long denied finally felt like this was the Promised Land. The people had lots to relate to in God’s deliverance of His children in scripture. However, there was also a warning to be delivered about being too satisfied.
Great sermons are now few and far between. How we got to the present state boggles my mind. It seems to be a direct correlation to the advancement of the institutionalization of faith and the proliferation of media outlets. Are we stretching our preachers too thin? Has proclamation become merely transactional? Do we even care? I cannot count the number of times in my life that I have left a service feeling motivated and amused, yet malnourished. Being the creature of habit that the church counts on us to be, I return without thinking about it.
Upon looking further, I realize this is not a new phenomenon. Writers have noted it through the centuries. As a matter of fact, the problem goes all the way back to prophets of old. In scripture, prophets are not received warmly—to put it mildly—if they foretold something that included rebuke or news unfavorable to the listeners. Tradition holds, and Jesus confirms in Luke 11:47, that they were murdered. Woe to you, because you build tombs for the prophets, and it was your ancestors who killed them.
If it is God’s nature to reveal the disconnects between His people and their Creator, how have preachers become celebrities today? Could it be that a lot of what’s proclaimed is void of prophecy? Jesus’ close followers even complained about the unappealing nature of his teaching. On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” (John 6:60).
The most significant role of a preacher is to stand in the gap between the people and God and say what thus sayeth the Lord. It is not to empathize with the people. Oswald Chambers said “You cannot intercede if you do not believe in the reality of the Redemption; you will turn intercession into futile sympathy with human beings which will only increase their submissive content to being out of touch with God.”
The preacher is just making noise when he or she ceases to speak for God and becomes one of “them.” That is another reason that the character of the preacher is important. Scripture makes it clear that sin separates from God. But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden His face from you so that He does not hear (Isaiah 59:2). If the preacher is living foul, how can he or she hear clearly from God consistently enough to provide righteous leadership? Notice that Jesus never makes way for excuses in his teaching. He keeps the standard for both discipleship and leadership high, while committing his Spirit as our power to be the light of the world.
We as listeners must open ourselves to receive what God is imparting to us through the proclamation of the word and the redemptive purpose for it in our own lives. Not only that, we must also discern and test whether God is saying anything through the individuals to whom we lend our ears. Listen for how the preacher has wrestled with the text with intellectual and spiritual rigor, in addition to how that struggle has manifested itself the preacher’s life. If you keep coming up short, then express it with your feet.