Why prophetic preachers are far more than the gunslingers of the church

We get our mental pictures of preaching from different places in the Bible. There’s Paul on Mars Hill reasoning for the faith. And there he is preaching in a synagogue laying open gospel doctrine with his finger on an Old Testament text. Over there, on the hillside, is Jesus preaching to the multitudes with crowd-quieting authority and insight (“You have heard it said … but I say … “). Follow him awhile and we’ll hear him turn a conversation toward a parable, compact and elegant. Then there is Peter on the Day of Pentecost preaching his heart out in the first full-bodied evangelistic sermon. Next thing you know, three thousand are baptized.

But there is another kind of preaching that watches Nathan with his finger in David’s face (“You are the man!”); that watches Jeremiah whose words and heart cracked flint-like against Israel’s hard hearts till the sparks flew. This is preaching that takes its cues from Elijah and Isaiah and all their major and minor colleagues, right down to John the Baptist hammering away with “repent.” “Sledgehammers of truth beating on the iron hearts of sin,” as James Weldon Johnson put it in God’s Trombones.

This is prophetic preaching.

Non-preachers who hear that phrase often think we mean preaching about the end times. We’ll get to that, but to me prophetic preaching is pointed preaching about fundamental issues with a life-or-death urgency. But I confess it also seems to bark to the preacher, “Wipe that silly grin off your face. Ditch the cute illustration about the little girl in Sunday school, and don’t even think about using that movie clip. This is serious.” It is like being the cop in people’s rearview mirror. I think of prophetic preaching as squeezing people’s cheeks till their teeth show, the way your mother did when you were a wiggly kid in church as she hissed in a stage whisper, “Behave or else!”

We cannot just tell people to be good or else. We’ve got to preach from the right mountain. Not Mount Sinai, but Mount Zion.

Prophetic preachers can seem like the church’s gunslingers, the Clint Eastwoods of the pulpit. “Go ahead, make my day.” But that’s the problem. Me, I relate more to Clara Barton. She started the Red Cross.

We know that prophetic preaching is not all hard-edged and flinty, but it is heavy, like stone tablets, and has the urgency of “no tomorrow,” even when tomorrow is the point. It doesn’t usually scratch where people itch so much as it finds ignored infections and applies holy medicine that stings.

All preaching should be prophetic in one sense, I suppose. But usually the phrase is more focused. Prophetic preaching is a voice crying in the wilderness, or beautiful feet running with good news on a desert road. It is preaching stripped down to essentials, like John the Baptist with nothing but his camel’s hair tunic. God is holy. Christ died and rose again. Repent. Live righteously. Hell and heaven. Like that.

Our models have fiery eyes, hoarse throats, and they don’t always dress well. They have had it up to here with excuses and have no time for pleasantries. They are preachers who have paid a heavy price and are not about to get sidetracked into talking about leadership strategies or growing Sunday schools. They cry when they preach, and pound the pulpit, if not their chests. They would not have been invited to pastors’ conferences—no sense of humor, and they would not likely stick to the conference theme.

Awkward!

But this kind of in-your-face preaching poses something of a challenge for gospel preachers. How do you get up and preach, “Shape up or ship out,” when the congregation has just sung, “Jesus Paid It All”? Prophetic preaching so often seems to go to the dark heart of bad behavior just when our people have gotten used to hearing about “grace that is greater than all our sins.” Prophetic preaching for us must be law tuned to grace.

One thing is for sure: our prophetic preaching cannot be mere moralism. We cannot just tell people to be good or else. We’ve got to preach from the right mountain. Not Mount Sinai, but Mount Zion. Once we’re at that grace place, where we stand with “Jesus the mediator of a new covenant,” then the prophet can preach, “See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks” (Hebrews 12:18–25).

In a strange twist (call it “the foolishness of God”), the potency of New Testament prophetic preaching is not in scaring the hell out of people. There is the urgency of must in prophetic sermons, but grace adds the beautiful countermelody of able. In Christ, you can do what God demands. Our preaching must be one way God fulfills his new covenant promise to write his law on hearts rather than stone. And grace is his pen.

Prophetic grace, however, is not only about forgiveness. Grace has backbone. So prophetic preaching outfits God’s people with grace. Preaching alive with grace wrenches the remote control from people’s hands, snaps off the computer and the coffee, and pushes them out the door to live like Jesus in this glassy-eyed world. Grace is what we’re sent out to offer, without price, not just what we are forever taking. In prophetic preaching, we insist that God’s people carry grace.

Stilts

Prophets, for all their differences, have some things in common. For one, you always get the feeling that God himself has come up on the platform and grabbed the microphone out of the preacher’s hand. You can almost hear the feedback in the sound system. “This is what the Lord says,” says the prophet, and we forget about him in order to hear God speak. I would hope that God is speaking in all our sermons, but there are times when a sermon seems to have another voice, when it almost feels like there is a Ventriloquist moving our lips, and we have nothing to say about it.

Prophetic preaching also seems often to be intrusive, bluntly barging into the discrete silence of polite society. The Old Testament prophets, at God’s insistence, said, “We’re going to talk about this whether you like it or not. The silence is killing you. This sin is not acceptable even if you’re used to it. You cannot ignore the people I care about any longer.”

The prophets, too, always had a faraway look in their eyes. Recently, I came across the art of Cody F. Wilson, who has an uncanny knack for capturing biblical characters in quirky, insightful paintings (www.codyfmiller.com). Three of the prophets he painted—Isaiah, Jeremiah and Jonah—are all on stilts, seeing the world from a different vantage point than everyone else. His Isaiah also has a magnifying glass.

Most importantly, those prophetic preachers saw the bright form of Jesus Christ, far off in the distance. Peter tells us that they “spoke of the grace” (there it is—grace) “that was to come to you.” Peter says that “the Spirit of Christ in them … predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow” (1 Peter 1:10–11). So to be prophetic, our preaching must stir a yearning for Christ and a vision of Christ. Peter challenges us in v.12, “It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things.” We ought to preach about Christ in such a way that the old prophets would whisper, “Of course!” and the watching angels would be wide-eyed.

Future-telling

From their high stilts, prophetic preachers insist that people absorbed with the present refocus on the future God has promised. In some circles, eschatology has gotten a bad name. It is good and noble to explore the perichoresis of the Trinity but you better steer clear of “rapture” or “tribulation” or “the Rider on the white horse.” It can come off as the trailer trash of theology, all lurid speculation, the Bible’s “olde curiosity shop.” But prophets, while certainly not having the end figured out, “searched intently and with the greatest care” in trying to understand the future God promised in Christ. Our prophetic preaching should make room for some searching with great care. We do them a disservice if we pay less attention to their visions than they did. We will certainly not understand all the mysteries of Daniel, Zechariah, or Revelation, but how is it that some preachers have never preached any of them?

Prophetic preaching today needs to stand on stilts sometimes and look off into the future to the Second Coming, to the new heavens and new earth, and, yes, to hell. The future God has promised sounds a unique warning to complacent or sinful people who might not hear any other alarm.

But even more important than the warning to the complacent is the hope God’s saints so sorely need. Christians—at least young Christians—may not think all that much about heaven, but God’s people need to know all that God says about the future he has planned for us. They need biblical details, not just a sanctified version of ‘pie in the sky by and by.’ Prophetic preaching gives God’s people an ear for the voice of the archangel and the trumpet call of God. It gives anxious disciples Jesus’ word, “Do not let your hearts be troubled … . I am going to prepare a place for you.” Prophetic preaching takes Christians fixated on the week ahead to a high place from which they can see, with John, “a new heaven and a new earth,” and hear the voice that says, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people … . There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

All of this is what makes preaching prophetic. While some “prophetic preachers” are really just irritable or angry—they’re venting, like pulpit vigilantes, taking the law into their own hands—true prophets in the pulpit have “prayed through,” as folks used to say. God has warmed their hearts and words. Something is different. Whereas on other Sundays these good preachers came with the Lord’s medicine or a watering can or bread, on this Sunday God has given them a searchlight and a bullhorn. They clear their throats and discover they have “a voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.'”