Listen, people. You demanded that your minister be servant of the Word; you shook him loose from trivialities, and you vowed to hear and heed him when he came before you with only God’s Word to speak. Behold him now approaching your pulpit—back from long counsel, torn from prayer’s vigil and worn with study but his eyes aflame with a fire. He goes down on his knees, rises, and mounts the pulpit. He opens the Bible on the sacred desk. The air is charged with suspense. This man has been with God, and now he is before you, and he is not alone: dare you listen?

A suspicion touches every heart; this man may become disagreeable, he may rebuke the slovenly thinker, expose the self-righteous, offer divine love to those afraid to admit their need of it, and leave all breathless before the excruciating exactness of the Word’s application to their lives. Will this man have the effrontery to preach the piercing Word of the holy God to the sin-ridden hearts of this comfortable people? Nothing about him suggests that he will offer easy steps to peace of mind, or that he will hand out sermonic tranquilizers. Indeed, he stands before all as one who holds his mind apart; he bears the mien of one intent on being faithful, not to this world but to God alone.

He comes as one resolved to fire a fusilade against falsehood and to ignite a rocket for righteousness. Listen!—human words, refined in the fire of the Holy Word, and searing already the soul of their speaker, are poised to flame against your ears. Listen!—a mind that has dived through this world’s dark perplexities to rest at last on the bright Word of God, unclouded and unconfused, commandeers your minds to reason’s counsel before God. You asked for him and now you have him and it is too late to look for the exits. Listen, people, listen!

This strange, new minister in your refurbished pulpit raises arms against the air and speaks: “In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” At this audacity a hush grips the congregation. Folk once prepared for a light trip through the airy regions of psychology, sociology, case studies, literature, and the “best sellers” realize that no flippant side-trips will be made this hour, no ears will be titilated, and no emotions tickled. Each hearer senses that he and his condition are to be brought up short against the will of the living God.

Many begin to wish they had not summoned this man to preach. Most are uneasy because they did not leave their foibles, follies, prejudices, and presuppositions with their coats in the cloak room. Some blush already, fully expecting their words at the bridge table, their temper tantrums in the home, their shady business deals, and their indecent ambitions to be broadcast from the pulpit, laid out plain before all, and the owners identified by name. This man, speaking in God’s name, will indeed proclaim God’s judgment in the House of God; the hearers may take it as wrath, but the preacher will say it in love. Listen, people, listen!

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This man in the pulpit will tell you that Christ is not concerned to make you better, but to make you new, not to help you but to heal you, not to accept you but to convert you. He will tell you that Christ wants your words and your deeds, but first He wants you. He will tell you that although you are rich in this world’s goods, you are a spiritual pauper and a financial incompetent until Christ enters your life and requisitions your possessions. He will tell you that all your subtle claims to status are filthy rags before God. He will tell you that before you can work you must worship, before you can speak for Christ you must hear from Christ, and before you can serve Christ you must be transformed by Christ. He will tell you that until you have followed close by Christ in relation to wife and husband, family, business associates, play partners, and casual contacts on the street, across the highway and in the air, you have not followed him, but deserted him and shamed him. He will tell you that what you hear, read and say here, there and everywhere, are not necessarily truths, and never will be truth until brought into captivity to Jesus Christ, the Truth. He will tell you that until your love for all around you is broad and deep, a compulsive reflection of God’s love for you, it is a sham and a fake. He will tell you that unless you are born again by the grace of God in Christ you have not lived, and indeed, that you will never live until Christ lives in you. He will tell you that until the Holy Spirit cauterizes your heart it will not be free from the fatal infection of self-love. He will tell you that decisions and attitudes must be structured to centered loyalty in Jesus Christ, or you will continue to live in broken frustration, macerated cross-purposes, and in futility’s busy despair. This man calls you to surrender to the love that has conquered all, and will conquer all. He pleads with reason’s calm and passion’s thrill for your allegiance to the things of the Kingdom.

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The pleasantries of human expression are unknown to this man who speaks God’s Word. He calls sin sin, and fears not to drag it out from under the robes of the upright and from beneath the hats of the highly praised. When the situation calls for the brutally plain or the lovingly redemptive, this man of the Word says precisely that. Listen, people, listen to this Word!

If a man makes an idol of his self-indulgence, the Word shows him in his pig pen. If the woman is caught in adultery, the Word calls it adultery, and the Word dares anyone without sin to throw the first stone at her. If the conceited materialist boasts of his bigger bars, the Word shows him damned in the night when God requires his life. If the grain rots in the bins and the overweight owners are deliberately deaf to the starving enemies’ groans, the Word shouts: feed them! If the self-righteous man recites his virtues before man and God, the Word portrays the wretched sinner beating his breast beside him and going down to his house justified, and the self-righteous floundering in the quagmire of self-adulation. If society’s pillars make public ritual of the money they give to the church which should have gone to needy fathers and mothers, the Word says a stuffy propriety has voided God’s law. When those who rule come, possessing all, the Word says: give all. If the sensitive man, hurt by the jibes of others, refuses to forgive, the Word says God will not forgive him. If case-hardened sinners scorn the Word, that very Word says they have judged themselves fit for the hell they desired. If nations rattle their nuclear sabers and ideological spears at each other in the world’s mad, rat-race for power, the Word says that those who take the sword shall perish by the sword. If injustice rages across the land, leaving a wreckage of broken hopes, unfulfilled lives, decaying bodies, jobless men, unwanted oldsters and neglected children, the Word demands to know where are the upholders of the justice of God, and where are those redeemed to bear the burdens of the afflicted and to lift up the fallen. If wild and self-centered racing down the highways strews out 30,000 dead bodies in its wake each year, the Word cries: You are your brother’s keeper. If vice strides through the nation, adorning every bookstand, enriching every syndicate, winning every Oscar, and piercing the young and the weak with its filth-tipped dagger, the Word states: Woe to those who cause these little ones to stumble. If lies go abroad, neatly packaged and steeled with weighty arguments, the Word says: Test the spirits. If Christ’s people rest at ease in Zion, doling out pennies to gospel the ungospeled, while merchants of evil unload billions for exploitation, the Word, with a vision of countless souls harmed by our neglect, declares that we have not been our brother’s helper but his destroyer. If the gossip mongers and the hate spreaders run to and fro with their choice morsels and their calculated insinuations, the Word says you shall not bear false witness. If many come casually seeking an easy way and a cheap salvation, the Word shall visit them with a vision of a thorn-crowned Christ and a death-bought glory, and the words with the vision are, “No one comes to the Father, but by me”; and that way runs hard by Calvary yet, and that salvation still comes sealed by costly grace. And when the sinner flees to the throne of grace, begging mercy, the Word, flaunting our social standards, states: Come home, forgiven, a father waits to love you. Will the sinner find a mind of Christ, a truth in love, and a joy in pardon in your midst? Listen, people, listen and ponder!

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This prophet in your pulpit will catch you unawares and slam the redemptive Word against the quick of your unguarded souls. He will admit that this two-edged Word cuts him deeper than he can make it cut you, that he needs its redeeming thrust equally as much as you. He hopes that a holy Flame will speed his words, scorched though they be, and that some of the burn will light on your hearts. Recall that it is by your insistence and assistance that this man seeks unswerving fidelity to the Commander’s command: “And preach as you go!” Remember that he preaches from the terrible conviction that he must one day give account for your souls before God. Your man is vulnerable and he will fail miserably in this world’s eyes and he will also fail in the eyes of the faithful unless, by God’s grace and your loyalty, you give him your prayers, your ears, your minds, and your hearts; for, until the final assize, God has provided no other way to salvation than through the faith imparted and continuously startled by the preaching of Christ.

When your minister comes down from the pulpit, and when you and he know that Christ has spoken his Word through your minister’s words, hoard them all on memory’s tablets and force them through the redactors of your hearts; and, when explosive power erupts, trigger its application to all of life by the thoughts of your minds, the words of your speech, and the deeds of your hands.

And woe to him who cries “Hold!” when the countdown is finished!

Samuel M. Shoemaker is the author of a number of popular books and the gifted Rector of Calvary Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh. He is known for his effective leadership of laymen and his deeply spiritual approach to all vital issues.

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