I believe it was Oswald Chambers who said that if you leave a worship service with the thought that the preacher almost preached a good sermon, the problem with the sermon was with you. The listener is the participant in the worship of God. I don’t know if I would go as far as Oswald Chambers, but once I actually said, “Reverend, you almost preached a good sermon.” I was wrong in saying that. The preacher laughed and then shrugged toward my wife for some help. She had no idea what I was talking about. She shrugged back at him.
What I was hearing, almost, in the preacher’s sermon was an old-fashioned “fire and brimstone” sermon. He ran the water up to a boil at least three times during the sermon, and then, sensing that the old fuddy-duddies with thick wallets were getting offended, he told a joke and spoiled the atmosphere. Each time he would work up to the crescendo, I would edge closer to the edge of the pew. I would wet my lips in anticipation. I would be thinking that you have me. I am a sinner. I need to hear those words, “Repent, Heathen, or you are going to Hell!” Of course, I was, and still am, saved, but I am cursed with the “eternal good boy gene.” The reprobate knows that he is a sinner, but the “eternal good boy”, whether genetic, environmental, or other, can become self-righteous. The “eternal good boy” needs a swift kick in the bottom on occasion. Not every Sunday, but occasionally.
But let’s get back to the sermon. There I was yearning to hear the word, “Repent”, but instead I hear “The rabbi, the Catholic priest, and the Presbyterian minister were out fishing.” My mind would scream, “NO!” I would slouch against the back of the pew and sulk. Then, once his joke was over, he would get back on topic. He would attack the sin in our lives from a different angle, using the side door if you will. I would sit up straighter. I would lean forward to catch every word, and then he would tell another joke. Again, my mind would scream, “NO!”
I thought telling him that he almost preached a good sermon was much better than saying how he had screwed up a beautiful sermon. Yes, I never have learned when to keep it to myself.
Why do the mainstream denominations avoid “fire and brimstone” sermons? Okay, the southern Baptist may have the tendency of preaching too many, but the “frozen chosen” and many of their cousins seem to be afraid of the topic. The bottom line to this issue is the traditional bottom line. A. W. Tozer writes a lot about the evangelical churches of 80 years ago. They were watering down the Gospel in order to draw bigger numbers. The churches grew as a result, but the Gospel was ‘follow Jesus and He’ll leave the back door of the candy store open all of the time.’ The prosperity Gospel peddlers went a step further off the track. Believe in Jesus and all of your wishes will come true. Then, when they don’t, you don’t have enough faith, or you haven’t given enough to the church. Once you lose everything, you are left with empty pockets and a no-god (as Eugene Peterson says in The Message) instead of the real Jesus. Both may be called Jesus, both converts may be called Christians. But the “God” is different. The Jesus of scriptures says “take up your cross,” and when He says “ask and receive”, He’s referring to getting your life and goals in alignment with God and His Will beforehand. Then when you ask, you are really asking for God’s Will to be done, not receiving a spare key to the candy store. It is up to God who actually gets the candy store.
It has been a long time since I have heard a “fire and brimstone” sermon. The last one that I can remember was a Sunday in the late 60s in Mississippi. There had been an ice storm that froze everything Saturday night. The roads were totally impassable, and we lived ten miles from town. My mother and I were the only ones at home. She insisted that we listen to the local radio station. Our church was part of the rotation to broadcast, but this Sunday, the radio transmitter was set up in a small Baptist church. I really loved the guy’s sermon, but I can only remember how it ended. The preacher got carried away nailing the conviction of sins and the wages of sin down. He was about to go into his big finish when someone must have given him the signal that he would be off the air in a few seconds. The preacher quickly screamed into the microphone, “If you don’t have Jesus, you will burn in Hell, until next week.” And then there was silence. In his panic, he threw in the invitation to come back next week, but it didn’t sound that way.
Okay, there was silence over the radio, because they were automatically switching the signal back to the station. But at our house, for a brief period that added to the tension, there was silence there also. I have written before how my mother was always stone-faced. She never smiled. She never laughed. But that was her public persona. She did smile and laugh at home, but it looked like she was in intense pain when it happened. When the radio shut off – somehow the station wasn’t ready or they were confused by the preacher, I looked at my mother and she looked at me. I started to grin. Her lips were curling in every direction except into a smile. She started getting red in the face. Redder… Redder… Redder…
Then the dam burst, tears were flowing down her cheeks, and she doubled over laughing. At this point, I figured it was safe for me to let go. So, instead of going down for a virtual altar call, we were rolling in the virtual aisles.
For those who might agree with the preacher’s hasty exit from the radio airwaves, Hell is permanent. It doesn’t last a week and then you get another chance.
But why do I yearn for “fire and brimstone” sermons? A. W. Tozer has the answer. In Rut, Rot, or Revival, he talks about self-righteous people judging others and that judgment leads to havoc in the local church community. He also says, “Self-righteousness also leads to complacency. Complacency is a great sin. . . Some have the attitude, ‘Lord, I’m satisfied with my spiritual condition. I hope one of these days You will come, I will be taken up to meet You in the air and I will rule over five cities.’ These people cannot rule over their own houses and families, but they expect to rule over five cities. They pray spottily and sparsely, rarely attend prayer meeting, but they read their Bibles and expect to go zooming off into the blue yonder and join the Lord in the triumph of the victorious saints.”
Since Tozer died about 50 years ago, fewer and fewer churches have prayer meetings, and the Bibles in the homes have been collecting dust for nearly that entire time.
I don’t want that epithet. I want to have my complacency rocked to the core. It wasn’t until my retirement that I started this blog. I could have started years before, but I was complacent, settling on simply teaching an adult Sunday school class.
I heard a wonderful sermon not long ago about a road less travelled, a road where we walk with God, having the Holy Spirit fill us along the way. I have glimpses of that road when I am writing. The feeling that I have after a long writing session is indescribable, even when I read what I wrote two days later and find the article lacking. After the preacher gave that message, I had to comment that my writer’s block is rare. When it happens, I’ll take things written in the past and edit them. Then the next day or day after, something will happen in my reading, praying, current events, etc. The guidance from God comes in waves. I am instantly behind schedule, too many ideas and not enough time.
You don’t get the Holy Spirit dunking you into the dunk tank of His guidance unless you are seeking Him and spending time in Bible study.
If you have to be politically correct, let me know and I’ll listen to someone else’s sermon. To rock a self-righteous person out of complacency, you have to offend them on occasion. You have to present them with the Truth. The Truth convicts us of our wrong doing or wrong thinking. The wise among the complacent, self-righteous will be grateful for having the doors and windows of our house rocked a bit.
Maybe a better thing to say to a preacher on your way out of the sanctuary, and what the brave preacher is looking for, is a different kind of compliment, “Well, preacher, you went a little beyond preaching today, and started meddling. And I will pray that I am now a better person for it.”