Jeremiah’s Jeremiads – Pulpit Demagoguery

David Stokes
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Posted: Mar 23, 2008 8:29 AM
Jeremiah’s Jeremiads – Pulpit Demagoguery

Though Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s diatribes have been widely condemned, some have sought to dismiss them as episodic rather than chronic; a few isolated statements wrested out of context by those looking for anti-Obama ammunition. Others have tried to defend the Illinois pastor by suggesting that too many Americans don’t understand the black church.

And then there are those who have suggested that Jeremiah Wright is very much like those old Biblical prophets who condemned the sins of ancient Israel. The argument goes something like this:

“Well, Rev. Wright is really more in the mold of the prophetic preacher, called to rebuke the nation. And those Biblical men didn’t pull punches pronouncing their woes on society.”

To this way of thinking, anger is a good thing and indignation is very much part of the sermonic experience.

But does the analogy really work? If some are claiming that the man speaks for God to contemporary America, then it’s only fair that he be held to a Biblical standard. Holy men of God spoke as they were “moved by the Holy Spirit,” and their messages had a “Thus saith the Lord” ring to them.

Is Jeremiah Wright a man who speaks for God – or is he someone so enamored of his own opinions that he has no problem sharing them as from God?

As Holy Week resolves into Easter this year, Christians all around the world are reflecting on the life and work of Jesus Christ, particularly the events surrounding His death, burial, and resurrection. These facts form the essence of the gospel, according to the Apostle Paul, and they are central to the message of the church. They ushered in a new covenant – and a new methodology. The “preaching of the cross” is what the Christian pulpit is supposed to be about.

Paul wrote to the Corinthians that “we do not preach OURSELVES, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as servants for Jesus’ sake.” The Christian pulpit is adulterated and abused when it becomes a vehicle for messages other than those rooted in God’s Word. And, while some of Rev. Jeremiah’s defenders suggest that he uses the Bible and is “faithful to the text,” evidence abounds that he distorts scripture and seeks proof-texts to shore up his bitter and sometimes paranoid arguments.

Israel’s prophets called their nation back to basic principles of faith and holiness, but they were PATRIOTS – they didn’t despise their nation. In a sense their message was quite CONSERVATIVE; they wanted the nation to go BACK to the faith of their fathers. Their agenda was not social change, it was spiritual revival.

The purpose was not to stir up the crowd or incite mass anger, it was to get the hearers to look within to see personal sin - and then to look up to see God in His mercy.

Christians recognize John the Baptist as the last of the Old Testament prophets, the one crying as a “voice in the wilderness” preparing the way of the Lord. He was a very passionate and demonstrative preacher, given to bold denunciations and declamations. But he recognized that he was not the main attraction, and after Jesus began his ministry John would say “He must increase; I must decrease.”

That’s the essence of Christian preaching. The pulpit is not a place for our particular gripes about the state of the world, personal and paranoid conspiracy theories, and contagious anger. It’s a place to talk about Jesus Christ; good preaching makes a bee-line to the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. And not just on Easter.

If someone wants to use the Christian pulpit to confront long-standing problems and perceptions in our nation, then the message should be about how commitment to Christ can bring about lasting and constructive change. Wouldn’t it be refreshing to hear someone like Rev. Jeremiah Wright preach something like this – and have it go viral on You Tube? :

“Yes, we have racial problems in America – but let us resolve today to draw a line in the sand – and FORGIVE. Let us tap into that power of grace that says ‘Father, forgive them…” – let us not wallow in anger or bitterness- that never solves anything. Anger begets anger, rage breeds rage, and resentment keeps the cycle going. Let us break FREE AT LAST. Let us forgive those, past and present, who have hurt us, and let us grow beyond indignation – let us find the healing that comes when we receive and express mercy!”

With this as a liberating starting point, we could very well see some changes in our nation – good ones. Keeping people mad all the time solves nothing. Resentment is a toxic emotion that blinds the eye and binds the heart. Rev. Wright seems to be lost in time. Angry people can’t really appreciate, or even see, good things that happen because they are consumed with bitterness about a problem. People who are irate all the time miss a lot of good stuff.

The pulpit is a powerful medium, even in our age of the Internet and 24/7 News. People look up from the pews and grant its occupant a measure of respect and authority. Those of us who approach it Sunday after Sunday (I have been preaching Sunday sermons as a pastor for more than 30 years), should do so with humility, integrity, deep respect for the Biblical record, and – above all – a desire to proclaim GOOD NEWS to the hearers.

Jeremiah Wright is not a prophet. His words do not ring true. Some may claim the ancient mantle for him, but that dog won’t hunt. He’s a man who has used the pulpit to preach himself – his ideas and opinions. And that’s not healthy; whether from the left or right.

I am conservative in my political opinions – my congregation knows that. But when it comes to the preaching, I do not give forth a steady diet of homilies from National Review, or Townhall.com – my passion is to preach “Christ and Him crucified.” My politics are a reflection of me as a whole person (faith included), but I must be ever on guard not to confuse important things with ULTIMATE issues.

I have no direct line from God as to why bad things happen, nor does any other preacher today – liberal or conservative. When tragedy comes I don’t ask “why?” – I ask “what for?” And I try to find answers in God’s Word – not answers that will help me place blame on this group or that – but answers that will help me find a way to help people through pain. And out of it.

The story is told about the great days of the Victorian preachers in Great Britain – when pulpits were dominated by great men of God who captured the attention of the empire with the message of the gospel. One American visitor found himself in London on the Lord’s Day and was looking forward to hearing some of the finest preaching in the English language. He knew he wanted to hear the famous pastor, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, but he would do that on Sunday evening. In the morning he went to hear another notable pulpiteer of the day.

When later asked to compare the two messages and messengers, he said: “When I came out of church after the Sunday morning message I found myself saying: ‘My, Oh my, what a wonderful preacher!” But when I left Spurgeon’s church Sunday evening all I could say was: “What a wonderful SAVIOR!”

I suspect if more pulpits in America had that kind of impact on people, we would actually be a better nation.