During this holy season, I find myself reflecting on what it means for us as followers of Jesus in a world with little awareness of God’s presence: past, present, or future. Bloggers and podcasts warn us that we are preaching to people who do not listen to us; that we are answering questions no one is asking. That may be true. But if it’s true today, then it’s the same truth God revealed to Isaiah following his prophetic call.
I’ve always felt some partiality to Isaiah 6:1-8. It was the text preached by the late Rev. Mr. Durant Driggers in early October, 1967, at King Memorial Lectures on the Emmanuel College campus. At the close of his message, I responded to the call to preach the Gospel.
This photo is of the Bible I was using that night. It was given to me as a high school graduation gift earlier that year by Rev. John W. Swails and the congregation of the Franklin Springs Pentecostal Holiness Church.
I have marked early October this year to remember the 50th anniversary of God’s call. I’ve taken that old Bible off the shelf and begun reading notes written in those days. That Bible is very worn and falling apart, but its message is eternally true.
What I didn’t come to know until later was that Isaiah’s experience, after his glorious call, was quite challenging. The prophet’s ministry would be basically what contemporary pundits are telling us today. God told Isaiah:
“Go and tell this people: Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’ Make the heart of this people dull, And their ears heavy, And shut their eyes; Lest they see with their eyes, And hear with their ears, And understand with their heart, And return and be healed.” Then I said, “Lord, how long?” (Isaiah 6:9-11a).
I’m not sure how I would have responded if Rev. Driggers had told me that I, along with you, would minister in a time much like Isaiah’s. Perhaps he was wise to get me into the game and let me discover the harsh reality of a culture of hardened hearts, cynical leaders and people with no awareness of the need for repentance.
So perhaps this Easter weekend, we and Isaiah are not that far removed.
John Swails used to preach that the Gospel is the panacea, or the cure, for what ails humankind. But if the preacher does not diagnose correctly, how can the proper cure be administered?
If the patient refuses to accept the reality of the condition and rejects the only medicine that will cure, what can the doctor do?
What if the questions “they” are asking are the wrong questions? What duty do I have to proclaim the truth of the condition and its cure? Is Ezekiel talking to me and you when God spoke to him of “watchmen” (Ezekiel 3:17; 33:1-7)?
John Wesley preached to thousands of people in the 1700s. As the diminutive preacher proclaimed the truth in fields across England, opponents heckled him, threw rocks and tomatoes at him and did all they could to keep the message from being preached and heard. But Wesley knew the truth of the crowd’s condition, and he knew the truth of the only cure.
From the pulpit of St. Mary’s Church in Oxford, England, on June 18, 1738, Wesley preached his now famous “Salvation by Faith” sermon from Ephesians 2:8: “By grace are ye saved by faith.” He carefully laid out the truth of our sinful condition and the truth of God’s merciful antidote.
Wesley’s message, as recorded in John Wesley’s Forty-four Sermons (Epworth Press), included these words:
The Christian faith “acknowledges His (Jesus) death as the only sufficient means of redeeming man from death eternal, and His resurrection as the restoration of us all to life and immortality; inasmuch as He ‘was delivered for our sins, and rose again for our justification.’
Christian faith is then, not only an assent to the whole Gospel of Christ, but also a full reliance on the blood of Christ; a trust in the merits of His life, death, and resurrection; a recumbency upon Him as our atonement and our life, as given for us, and living in us; and, in consequence hereof, a closing with Him, and cleaving to Him, as our ‘wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption,’ or, in one word, our salvation.”
If the world’s questions to the church are like this: How can I be successful? How can I be happy? How can I be fulfilled? How much can I disobey and still be acceptable to God? Then our answers must not fail to confront the foolishness of such questions with truth.
But if the questions are: How can I be saved? Is there any hope for me? How can I inherit eternal life? Then our answers must echo John Wesley as we preach, and personally testify of God’s grace toward us in Jesus Christ.
So, this Easter, I find myself returning to the “old, old story.” Good Friday and Easter morning do not need my psychological or sociological reinterpretation, or my demythologizing, or my puny efforts at relevance. They need my prayerful and faithful re-telling with confidence that the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead, will touch the ears, eyes and dull hearts of us all.
This article was published in the April 2017 issue of Encourage.