Cowardice in the pulpit begets corruption in the pews. This is much more than bumper-sticker theology. It is what George Jones would have called the “cold, hard truth.” Our culture is plagued with ten thousand social ills simply because the Church is at ease in Zion. The problem, then, is the pulpit, or at least the place where the pulpit used to be.
We live in a time when most believers have less understanding of the cultural impact of preaching than did some believers of another era. For example, in his classic work Moby Dick Herman Melville wrote,
What could be more full of meaning?—For the pulpit is ever earth’s foremost part; all the rest comes in its rear; the pulpit leads the world. From thence it is that the storm of God’s quick wrath is first decried, and the bow must bear the earliest brunt. From thence it is that the God of breezes fair or foul is first invoked for favorable winds. Yes, the world’s a chip on its passage out, and not a voyage complete; and the pulpit is its prow.
We may protest, saying that that this might have been true in his day, but in ours the pulpit does not set any cultural direction whatsoever. This is quite true, but beside the point, because it is also true that our culture has no direction whatsoever. Politicians may talk glibly about setting a course for the twenty-first century, but this has about as much directional content as determining to fall down when dropped. All our scholars, statesmen, politicians, bureaucrats, philosophers, musicians, and anchormen haven’t a clue. The trumpet blows indistinctly and gives and uncertain sound and we all think it is a new form of jazz.
Our cultural malaise began in the pulpits of America and is maintained in the pulpits of America. Every Lord’s Day, thousands of temporizing preachers assume their place and begin to speak. But they are not preachers, for the simple reason that they do not preach. They share, and chat, and tell anecdotes, and relate stories from the heart which warm the heart to a comfortable temperature of lukewarm.
A judgment of profound spiritual stupor rests upon our people—but this deep sleep must be understood for what it is. “For the Lord hath poured out upon you the spirit of deep sleep, and hath closed our eyes: the prophets and your rulers, the seers hath he covered” (Is. 29:10). In righteous indignation and wrath, the Lord determined to drive our nation into a covenantal stupor, and His instrument for doing this was to cover the eyes of the Church, the prophets and seers. The Church is asleep because the pulpit is asleep.
Who has given us all these pseudo-men, who caper so prettily on the stage for the televangelistic cameras? The Lord is clearly angry with us. Who was it that decided that churches should start having Super Bowl parties instead of Word and sacraments? This is nothing less than the hand of God upon us. The Lord did promise us that when we ask for bread He will not give us stones. But what happens when we ask for stones? “They soon forgot his works; they waited not for his counsel: but lusted exceedingly in the wilderness, and tempted God in the desert. And he gave them their request; but sent leanness into their soul” (Ps. 106:13-15). Our fists are full of what we wanted, and we have just this kind of leanness of soul. The Lord has done it—He is the one who made the determination that we would be so emaciated, while happily feasting on the bread of idleness.
God has decided to inflict upon us the wasteland that is the American pulpit today. The Lord has brought us into this wilderness. Some might say this is all right because wandering aimlessly in the desert could be called an activity that is seeker friendly. But not all are so enamored with the new foolishness. We still have plenty of traditionalists opponents of all this who would lead us back to the ancient paths by whistling through their noses. God has done all of it, and may God deliver us.
This kind of language has far more hard and sharp edges than we like. We have heard too many smooth sermons from too many pretty boys to tolerate this kind of thing. “Oh,” we say, “God would never do that kind of thing to His people. All our low self-esteem in the pulpit, for that is what the problem really amounts to, just breaks his heart”—as though the Lord were up in heaven wringing His hands over what He could possibly do about those stinkers who preach.
Confronted with the hard evidence of the judicially-imposed stupidity that stands in the pulpit today, we broaden the extent of that stupidity by refusing to honor the Lord who has brought us to this point. We either think that the problem is not a problem, and sing another jovial chorus, or we think that the problem is just happening for no particular reason. Our stupor amounts to a rejection of God and His attributes. we are in love with our own notions of what God has to be instead of loving Him as He has revealed Himself to us. This idol would be very nice if He only existed.
To acknowledge that this is from the Lord is not to accuse Him. When God’s people are hard-hearted their sin does not disappear simply because the Lord wields absolute control over it. “O Lord, why has thou made us to err from thy ways, and harden our heart from thy fear? Return for thy servant’s sake, the tribes of thine inheritance” (Is. 63. 17). The Bible makes it plain as words can say that God remains God regardless of the circumstances, and that when the Church is drifting from one disaster to another, God is not standing helplessly by.
Spurgeon said somewhere that, “Oysters always whistle out of tune,” and we should not be surprised when men cannot accomplish their own salvation. We should not marvel that men cannot restore and reform the Church. How could they? We look to see if a man is asleep by looking to see if his eyes are closed. As we look to see if the Church is asleep, we should do the same. The eyes of the Church are the pulpit and the eyes of the Church are sightless because the Lord has brought this spirit of moronic stupor upon us. The pulpit today is the central problem in the midst of that fin de siecle disaster that we like to call our culture. With our indistinct mutterings, we have “preached” our way into the culture that we deserve. Because we are the problem, we cannot be the solution. “For the Lord is our judge; the Lord is our lawgiver, the Lord is our king; he will save us” (Is. 33:22).
When the Lord turns to deliver us, He will do something according to His Word, which means that He will raise up men, men courageous enough to to preach the Word in season and out of season, whether the people want to hear it or not.