How Not to Blaspheme God in the Pulpit

H. I. Hester Lectureship on Preaching | Kansas City, Missouri

I have a real tentative theory about the relationship between the twentieth century and the twenty-first century. It’s very tentative; I’m not claiming any kind of authority for this idea. But here it is: I see the twentieth century, at least in the West, and at least in its latter half, as being the century of the self, or the century of the therapeutic, or the century of psychology — however you want to articulate it in those categories. In 1966, Philip Rieff wrote a book, The Triumph of the Therapeutic. If it was so thirty years ago, it’s ten times so today.

And my theory is that in the twenty-first century, this triumph is going to give way to the triumph of astronomy or physics. Isn’t that a crazy idea? But what’s behind it, whether it’s true or not, is this. The world of the therapeutic, the world of secular psychology, the world of the self, is small — tragically small. The human soul was not designed to dwell upon the self in its various states and esteems and values. It was designed not to think primarily about its self and the selves of others, and how to fix the self, and how to help the self be more adjusted, and like itself better. The self was not designed for that. The self was designed to dwell upon God, and the majesty of God, and the glory of God.

Therefore, it is an infinite shrinking of the world of the self to preoccupy itself with itself, which is what it has done now for these five or six or seven decades, mainly. It has been a tragic shrinking of the world. It has resulted in manifold maladies in the world.

Therapeutic Culture

Let me read you, from this month’s First Things, from this article called “Faith and Therapy,” the last paragraphs, which so gripped me when I read this a few days ago, to illustrate this.

The twentieth century has seen many attacks on Christianity, but the frontal attacks of militant atheists, Marxists, and Nazis have not resulted in as much lost ground for Christians as the more insidious attacks of the therapeutic culture. The sense of guilt, the sense of sin, the sense of the sacred, the sense that there is another order of authority by which we are judged — these have not disappeared entirely from Christian culture, but they have been eroded. If this is difficult to see, it is because of the fog that the culture of therapy emits — an empathic fog which surrounds us and confuses us and prevents us from seeing life clearly. We wander around in this fog thinking our enemy is our friend because he is so exquisitely concerned with our health.

The only thing powerful enough to cut through this fog is the light of revelation. Revelation reminds us that physical and emotional health is not the Alpha and Omega of existence. The Gospels tell us that if our hand offends us we should cut it off, it being better to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into Hell. Likewise, it may be better to enter the kingdom of Heaven with a repressed psyche than to enter the other place brimming with self-assertiveness. There is no ultimate consolation to be found in the theories propounded by psychologists. Psychology has very little to say to the majority of suffering people in this world, and absolutely nothing to say to the fact that all of us must one day die. The therapeutic culture’s well-adjusted person, for all his serene sense of self, has one overwhelming problem: he is blinded to the beatific vision.

Which I take to mean: if you live within this world of the self, the therapeutic world — the world where you’re always thinking about how to get the state of the self remedied — you are missing what you were made for, and that is God: the seeing of God and his glory and his majesty.

Billions of Galaxies

Now, what in the world did you mean when you said this is going to give way to the triumph of astronomy? Or physics? What I mean is: I do not know if a great revival is coming in the West. I am not a prophet. I do not have nearly the confidence that some people do to the effect that we are going to have a massive awaking to the glory and reality and majesty of God and his Son in the way of his salvation; I don’t know if that’s going to happen.

I do know from the Bible that it’s not going to happen to everybody, and that as lawlessness is multiplied, the love of many will grow cold, and they will hand over many to destruction and to persecution, and you will be hated by all the nation’s for Christ’s namesake. I know that’s going to happen. But given the fact that the human heart is designed for God, and given the likelihood that the mass of humanity will not yet give heed to God, still the human heart will not go on being satisfied with the tiny world of the self. It will have to have a better substitute than therapy.

It must have a better substitute, and the substitute is going to be, perhaps, articles like this from Newsweek magazine, where you read about what the Hubble telescope is sending back. It just absolutely takes your breath away when you read things like that say we thought there were maybe a million other galaxies — galaxies, not stars. And now the radio waves are coming back from galaxies, perhaps as far away as twelve billion light years, and that there may be as many as fifty billion other galaxies. That’s what we are made for. Help me preach this. According to Psalm 19:1, this article, and the Hubble telescope, and those fifty billion galaxies are meant to declare what? The glory of God. It should not trouble you in the least that there is probably one teeny-weeny little speck called Earth in this universe where there is humanity.

I do believe that: there is one teeny-weeny little speck where this human beings designed to relate to the Creator. And everything is flannelgraph — to teach childlike people: this is what he’s like. That’s not an excessive expenditure on God’s part. The only people who stumble over this, and think, “This is all wasted on a little, teeny-weeny human reality,” they’re not getting it. It’s not about us! Get it? It’s not about us. It’s about the Maker — so that this little teeny-weeny speck of human being in his image would wake up out of the world of the therapeutic into the magnificent reality that God is. That’s the point of the Hubble telescope.

Or maybe you open your newspaper. Oh, I love these sections in the newspaper because there’s no section on God in my newspaper. So the next best thing is the section on science. Not psychology, but astronomy. You read about this star that’s called Eta Carinae. Eta Carinae is the brightest or the biggest object in the sky that is visible to the human eye. It’s a star in our galaxy, and it is probably the biggest star in our galaxy, and is (now get these numbers), four or five million times brighter than our sun. If it were as close as the nearest star besides our sun, we’d be able to read by its light — and that’s twelve million light years away, not 93 million miles away like our sun. Now, when you read about these things, you can see why people worship. I tell you, if I didn’t have a Bible, I would worship Eta Caranae; I would.

Is This About God?

Now, let me relate this to preaching, and let me do it through Albert Einstein. Albert Einstein died at the middle of this century in 1955. He had a few things to say about the church and about preaching, did you know that? Let me read you a paragraph written about him by a scientific specialist in general relativity theory. He said,

I do see the design of the universe as essentially a religious question. That is, one should have some kind of respect and awe for the whole business. It’s very magnificent and shouldn’t be taken for granted. In fact, I believe that is why Einstein had so little use for organized religion although he strikes me as a basically very religious man.

Then this is the sentence that scared me:

He must have looked at what their preachers said about God and felt that they were blaspheming. He had seen much more Majesty than they had ever imagined and they were just not talking about the real thing.

I tell you, when I read that, as a preacher, my whole passion for what my life exists for was doubled in its intensity. Oh, God, if you would give me life, if you would give me breath, if you would keep my mind working a little bit longer, I will bend every effort to try to spread a passion for your supremacy in preaching, for the joy of all peoples, everywhere you let me. Because I don’t want scientists to look at the preaching in your churches, and say, “They’re blaspheming.” I know what glory is. I’ve got a telescope. They don’t have a clue with their daily pep talks about how to get their little psyches fixed, and how to get their little marriages working better, and how to get themselves fixed with their kids, and how to get along better at work, and how to, how to, how to, how to, how to. You sit there wondering, is this supposed to be about God?

There are plenty of books on how to get marriages working, and how to get kids working, and how to get your psyche working, and how to feel good about yourself. But there aren’t many preachers and many pulpits where the one thing needful, the thing for which the soul is created, the thing for which we’re dying in our small, little, insignificant lives, where is anybody telling the people about a great, glorious, majestic God, something on the par of Eta Carinae? Well, there aren’t many around, and my goal here in these three talks is to help you get a vision for devoting yourself to doing that.

What Scientists Know

You see, scientists know things. They know these kinds of facts. They know about the numbers of stars — a 100,000 light years across our little galaxy called the Milky Way, with how many millions and millions of stars in those galaxies, and they know that our little teeny star called the sun, which burns at about 6,000 degrees centigrade on the cooler surface, is sailing through the universe at about 150 miles a second, and will, if God tarries, finish its first circuit around the Milky Way in 200 million years. Scientists know these things.

And then they come to church, and maybe they hear this text. Isaiah got it. Get ready to teach Isaiah.

To whom then will you compare me,
     that I should be like him? says the Holy One.
Lift up your eyes on high and see:
     who created these?
He who brings out their host by number,
     calling them all by name;
by the greatness of his might,
     and because he is strong in power,
     not one is missing. (Isaiah 40:25–26)

God calls the stars by name: Jim, Mary, Martha, Eta Carinae. Every one of them, billions upon billions upon billions, do his bidding. By name he knows them, and I don’t think he uses numbers. By the greatness of his might, and because he is strong in power, not one of them is missing. Why is one not missing? Because God said, “Stay there. Stay there until I’m done.”

Now, Einstein knew these things, and Isaiah knew these things. We have a Bible, and we have telescopes, and we should know these things. And it is frightening to know that there are people who come to our churches, thoughtful people, who say, “If what I have seen in the night sky without a telescope, and the feelings I have felt of awe and reverence and wonder, before the sheer existence of reality is what it is, then this church is blaspheming.”

Why We Need the Supremacy of God in Our Pulpits

So maybe what I could do this morning is ask why we should hold up the supremacy of God in preaching, and then ask how. Let me give a brief answer to why. Why should the supremacy of God, the glory of God, the greatness of God, the majesty of God, the reality of God, all the Godness of God be the substance of every sermon?

Please don’t misunderstand me. If you read my little teeny book on preaching, you know I believe this and I say this. You should preach about marriage, and divorce, and drugs, and eating disorders, and how to get along in the workplace. But the difference is this: Everybody else is doing that too. What unique thing do you bring to bear here? What unique thing do you bring to bear? The answer is: you bring to bear God. You don’t bring God down and say, “He’s relevant.” You take these things up and let them get consumed up there in God. You try to help a poor housewife, who’s just at her wit’s end with all these kids and all this work, and a husband who doesn’t get it — you try to help her not just figure out little routines to make it better; you try to fill her up with God: you try to show her something that just catches her up out of that, into God, and then send her like a missionary back into those five kids to say, “Show them God. Unleash on this world five human beings that are ravished with the glory of God.”

There’s a difference here. The reason why we should preach that way and make God central is because God is central in the Bible, and God is central in God’s own affection and purposes. I learned this from Jonathan Edwards and the Bible. That most recent book, God’s Passion for His Glory is my tribute to what I owe to Jonathan Edwards and his book The End for Which God Created the World, which is the glory of God. God created the world for the glory of God. God is passionately committed to God and his glory. For example,

For my name’s sake I defer my anger;
     for the sake of my praise I restrain it for you,
     that I may not cut you off.
Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver;
     I have tried you in the furnace of affliction.
For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it,
     for how should my name be profaned?
     My glory I will not give to another. (Isaiah 48:9–11)

You can hear in that text God’s passion for God. So the reason you should have a passion for God in preaching is because God’s got a passion for God. You should be like God in your preaching and try to get your heart up into God and his passion for God.

Give thanks to the Lord,
     call upon his name,
make known his deeds among the peoples,
     proclaim that his name is exalted. (Isaiah 12:3)

What are you to proclaim? That his name is exulted.

Oh sing to the Lord a new song;
     sing to the Lord, all the earth!
Sing to the Lord, bless his name;
     tell of his salvation from day to day.
Declare his glory among the nations,
     his marvelous works among all the peoples!
For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised;
     he is to be feared above all gods.
For all the gods of the peoples are worthless idols,
     but the Lord made the heavens. (Psalm 96:1–5)

Isn’t that clear what our mission is? Declare God is great! Tell me: Who else in the world is doing it besides preachers? I mean, if there were ten thousand other occupations that gave themselves to this, I might come here and say, “Just write how-to books, preachers.” I might say that. But nobody’s doing this! This is our job. This is why we exist.

May all who seek you
     rejoice and be glad in you;
may those who love your salvation
     say continually, “Great is the Lord!” (Psalm 40:16)

Great is the Lord — not great is your salvation! That’s true, but those who love the salvation of God know that they are saved for God. Salvation is an overcoming of our sin by the blood of Jesus that we might be freed to come to God! Jesus is our access to God, and so we say, “Great is the Lord! The Lord be magnified!” That’s our vocation.

So my answer to question, Why should we preach this way? is because God is this way. God made us for himself. God is for himself.

How to Show God Supreme from the Pulpit

Now let me ask the question, finally, How? How shall we preach like this? I want to give you a model from the book of Acts. In Acts 13, we find a sermon preached by the apostle in Antioch city by Paul, in a synagogue filled with unbelievers. Some of them are God fearers, and some of them Jews, who knew and did not know, who saw and did not see, who heard and did not hear. How would he do it? I am going to walk you through this sermon because it just overwhelmed me when I did this for myself, and maybe it’ll have the same effect on you. So we’re going to start at verse 17, and I want to give you this as a model — not of how you preach every sermon; I don’t think there is a model for how to preach every sermon, except that God should be in every sermon, and big.

But here we have one sample sermon, and I want you to get a flavor for the place of God in this sermon. It’s a history of redemption kind of sermon. I’m just going to point out God as we walk through it, and then draw from closing observations.

  • Verse 17: It was God who chose Israel from all the peoples of the earth.

  • Verse 17: It was God who made the people great in Egypt. That wasn’t just natural Jewish fertility. It says that God made them grow. God made them great.

  • Verse 17: God led them out of Egypt with an uplifted arm. Why ten plagues, and not just one? Why the drowning in the Red Sea? Answer: “Because I will make known to Pharaoh and to the nations my glory! (Exodus 9:16). It’s very clear; over and over again it’s stated in those passages. So here, God does it.

  • Verse 18: God bore with Israel in the wilderness, or God carried Israel like a father carries a child — guide, sustainer, father.

  • Verse 19: It was God who destroyed the seven nations in the land of Canaan; it was his pervasive hand. Oh sure, they swung the sword. But Proverbs 21:31 says, “The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but the victory belongs to the Lord.” So if you’re preaching about the battle, you preach about what? The Lord! Others can talk about the swords and what they’re made of and so on. But you can talk about who wins battles. Get the other perspective elsewhere; come to this pulpit if you want to hear about why they won the battle, who won the battle because that will make all the difference in how you get up on Monday morning and go about fighting your battles, and whether you feel confidence in God.

  • Verse 19: It was God who gave Israel the land of Canaan. He owned it. Those nations didn’t own it; God owned it. He gave it to whom he pleased.

  • Verse 20: God gave Israel judges. They didn’t just pop up. God gave Israel judges.

  • Verse 21: God gave to Israel her first king, Saul.

  • Verse 22: God removed Saul. God did that. We’ve read about that in Daniel, haven’t we? “He changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings.” So he gave Saul, and he removed Saul. That wasn’t just a political maneuvering. That wasn’t just Samuel’s savvy. God did this. God gave us President Clinton, and God ordained that vote — though I would have voted differently. My vote is absolutely irrelevant in running the universe. God has his sovereign saving good purposes for this land and your good in letting that man serve out that term. If you don’t believe that, I don’t know how you can stay a Christian. God raises up kings and puts up kings. God runs this world. Daniel 4:32: “The Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will.” God governed that vote — sin and all.

  • Verse 22: God raised up David, the son of Jesse. God chose him — a young nobody, slingshot in hand, harp, killers of bears and lions, writer of poems. God chose him. He was a very unlikely candidate for a king. But God is God, and he chooses whom he pleases to be king.

  • Verse 23: It was God who brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus. God brought to Israel a Savior. It wasn’t some impersonal force that made the time ripe. God saw the time was ripe, and he did it. It says “as he promised.” Do you see that little phrase? This was not an afterthought. Way back then, God thought of it, he planned it, he promised it, and now he’s doing it because he said he was going to do it So not only is he doing it, he planned to do it. This is a fulfillment of promise. He set things up for it and spoke it.

  • Verses 24–25: We meet John the Baptist. Of all the things that could be said now about John the Baptist, what’s he going to say? “I am not he. No, but behold, after me one is coming, the sandals of whose feet I am not worthy to untie.” Now think of this. Why those words? Jesus said there’s no greater prophet than John the Baptist — “Among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist.” And when he comes on the scene, he says, “I am not worthy to tie the shoes of this man Jesus.” Do you see the connection there? Here’s the greatest man that’s been born of women. That man says, “Here’s a man, and I don’t dare touch his feet.” Get the message? The message is: Jesus is the center here, not John the Baptist. Jesus is big. Jesus the Son of God is the center of this story now, as he comes incarnate.

  • Verse 26: Paul says, “To us has been sent the message of salvation.” Who’s the person behind the passive verb “has been sent”? The answer is: God. To us has been sent the message. So God didn’t just do everything in the Old Testament, he didn’t just do everything in the incarnation. He’s now doing everything in evangelization. God sends this message. God is sending this message. You may commission a missionary. You may ordain a pastor. But God is sending this message. God is doing this. “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). So God planned it, God accomplished it, God sends it.

  • Verse 27: Paul goes out of his way to show that even those that do not know God are doing what God planned. This is an amazing way to word this. It says, “For those who live in Jerusalem and their rulers, because they did not recognize him nor understand the utterances of the prophets, which are read every Sabbath, fulfilled them by condemning him.” What in the world does that mean? You didn’t mean to say that, Paul. You meant to say, “They recognized, and they read, and they knew in the prophets what was supposed to happen, so that they joined their wills with his will to bring about his purposes. That’s what you meant to say. That’s not what he said. He said, “They didn’t recognize him. They didn’t understand his utterances of the prophets, and in that ignorance they fulfilled prophecy.” So question: Who’s doing it? God’s doing it. There’s nobody left. The people that are fulfilling the prophecies don’t know the prophecies. They’re blind to the prophecies, and they’re doing them to the letter! Get it? This sermon in Acts 13 has got a point! God is the point. God is doing this thing called history of redemption. That’s the point of telling us that those who fulfill the promises didn’t know what they were doing!

  • Verse 29: “When they had carried out all that was written of him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb.” Everything written of him. Everything was written — by whom? By God, through inspiration. And they were just fulfilling God’s designs as Acts 2:23 puts it: “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.”

  • Verse 30: It says, “God raised him from the dead.” God raised him from the dead, and gave him life.

So now step back from that sermon, would you, and just think about it. What’s the point? When you narrate something that happens in your life — pick out any ten days or any ten years, and tell the story of your life. Do you say, “God did, God did, God did, God did, God did, God did, God did, God did?” You don’t usually talk like that. If you were to choose to talk like that, what would be the point? The point would be to help your listeners catch on to the fact that God is the central actor here. God is ruling, God is running, and God means to be known. God means to be known through preaching, like this. God wants to be known for who he is, for what he’s done. That’s why Paul preached like this, and that’s why you should preach like this.

Supreme in All Things

My mission statement is, I exist, and Bethlehem Baptist Church exists to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples. That includes everything. When I pray for my boys, (my little girl’s not in school yet). I pray, “O God, whether it’s at Bethel College, or the University of Minnesota, or Moody Bible Institute, or Wheaton College, or South High, or Roosevelt High, or Bethany Academy, or wherever they have been or are now — God, I pray that my boys would see you in every subject. Would they understand that it’s coming from you, is designed by you? It’s for you, from you, through you, to you, as are all things. Math and physical education. English and geometry and history and anthropology and spelling..”

Some cynic says, “Right, spelling. There’s a Christian spelling. God is in spelling. Tell me about it. That’s the way non-God-centered cynics always respond to that kind of talk. I say, “Yeah, spelling.” I have a son (he’s changed now); he was a rebel. He would ask, “Why do I have to spell like everybody else spells?” I would say, “Benjamin, because if you don’t spell like everybody else spells, there’ll be a hindrance to your communication, your writing with other people. You’ll put obstacles in the way.” Now, I think every secular teacher would respond like that — who didn’t believe in God. So far we have a godless answer.

Next question: Why should I care if there are obstacles in the way I communicate? Kids do talk like this. They talk themselves right into corners. But now at this point, there’s a division in the house between the God answer and the secular answer. The secular answer would go, “Look, Ben, if you don’t communicate your ideas clearly, you probably won’t get a good job, and won’t be able to make money, and support your family. You probably will be looked down upon, and probably your self-esteem will be badly damaged.”

Another answer might be: “Ben, you’re created in the image of God, who is a great communicator. Not to care about communicating is not to care about reflecting the glory of God.” Answer number two: “Ben, you claim to be a Christian, and Christians love God and love people. You have some glorious truth inside of you. If you don’t care about how that truth gets communicated to people, you’re not acting lovingly, and that’s a dishonor to your Father in heaven. Third: “Benjamin, God sent his Son into the world and called him the Word of God. ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God’ (John 1:1) The Word was important. God spoke the Word, and he meant to speak clearly. Be like your Father in heaven. That’s another kind of answer.

If you don’t understand that God should be supreme in spelling, you’re not going to get this message. You’re probably going to go back to your pulpit and say, “That sounded nice, but back to business as usual.” But if you understand that God is to be supreme in everything, including how your kids spell and why they spell the way they spell, then you might get it. Then God might make his way into your preaching with such centrality and such passion and such supremacy that your congregation would be transformed into radical, God-saturated, God-oriented people, so that the city would reverberate from their presence.