Preaching Like a Prophet
Think about the basic human emotions we get to preach on: joy, sadness, comfort, anger, and serenity. Now think about the prophets—which emotion most often characterizes them?
A few examples:
"Hear this word, you cows of Bashan on Mount Samaria, you women who oppress the poor and crush the needy and say to your husbands, 'Bring us some drinks'" (Amos 4:1).
"Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. I cannot bear your evil assemblies" (Isaiah 1:13).
"Should you not know justice, you who hate good and love evil; who tear the skin from my people and the flesh from their bones; who eat my people's flesh, strip off their skin, break their bones in pieces, chop them up like meat for the pan?" (Micah 3:1b-3).
Don't the prophets strike you as kind of cranky? Not only do they use angry words, prophets resort to shock tactics that often look downright bizarre:
—Hosea marries a prostitute to show how unfaithful the people have become;
—Ezekiel eats food cooked over excrement to show people how defiled they've become,
—Jeremiah digs up a filthy, buried, unwashed undergarment to show people how repulsive their behavior was.
The prophets are filled with this stuff. No wonder those of us who preach often avoid them. Our listeners don't always like it. We don't like it. (Does anyone really want to encourage such prophet-like behavior in their congregation?)
We like happy books. In most of our churches, it is easier to preach comfort rather than judgment, mercy rather than justice, because by the standards of God's justice, who can ever measure up?
On the other hand, these passages are in the Bible. In fact, the prophets directly account for 250 of the 1,189 chapters in the Bible. Can you really be a biblical preacher and not address what the prophets have to say?
Why we must preach on justice
More than that, there is a reason why we need to preach on justice. There is a reason for the anger of the prophets, and why we need to submit ourselves to the discipline of regularly sitting under and preaching their words.
Imagine you're listening to someone sing. They are singing off-key, badly off-key, and they're singing loud. If you are musically insensitive—have a tin ear—it doesn't bother you much. If you are musically insensitive and the singer is your grandchild, it may actually make you very pleased.
But if you have perfect pitch—it's a different story. You know what the song could be, should be. You know how far it's off. You look at tin-ear grandma and wonder, How can she stand to listen to this?
This is painful. You're in agony.
We read the prophets and think: What's the big deal? What are they getting all heated up about?
To us, the world is not so bad. Most of us are pretty happy. Things are going okay—at least for me.
I know there's violence in the world. It's regrettable, but as long as it doesn't touch my life, I would prefer not to think much about it. Certainly that's not connected to my anger, self-centeredness, lack of love.
John Ortberg is editor at large of Leadership Journal and pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in California.