Sinners in the Hands of an Angry Preacher
Is there a place for heat in homiletics?
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I have no better remedy than anger. If I want to write, pray, preach well, then I must be angry. Then my entire blood supply refreshes itself, my mind is made keen, and all temptations depart.-Martin Luther
One time, I nearly broke my iPhone during the second point of my sermon.
That week's sermon, out of Mark 1:14-20, was about kairos time—about how, in our hubris, Americans are constantly tempted to believe we can cram way more into our little earthly lives than God really desires for us to do. Omnipresence, we assume, is a characteristic of human beings. I talked about how the Bible dismisses such arrogance. Humanity is intrinsically bounded by divine boundaries, I argued; boundaries not to be transcended. We aren't God.
But our desire to be like God was in our bones. So we ate the apple.
I reminded the congregation that the first apple represented a fundamental breakdown and disrespect for these intentional boundaries. Humanity, I suggested, sinned by transcending the moral boundaries of Eden by eating whatever they wanted. Humanity hasn't evolved. Railing against our addiction to multi-tasking, I pulled out my iPhone in front of the congregation. And with a homiletical anger I've rarely seen come from within, I yelled:
The first one was an apple that led us astray. And, once again, we find ourselves in a similar position. An apple (my iPhone) has deceived us, causing us to believe we can transcend the boundaries of humanity. We can't! God made the boundaries. Your phone is not an escape from human limitations. It doesn't make you a god. You can't be everywhere! So, friends, put your phone away, for heaven's sake. Sit in God's presence. Enjoy the garden He's already given you. Be present. Repent of your supposed omnipotence.
By sermon's end, I was steaming, sweating with anger—just about ready for the floor to cave into the pits of Hades as it supposedly did during Jonathan Edward's (1703-1758) "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God."
Two things have happened since that sermon. Firstly, because I rarely get angry, people really remember my point. And I'm happy they do. Secondly, however, it's caused me to think critically and constructively about the role anger plays in preaching.
What's the place of anger in preaching?
First, to be clear, anger, even "bitter anger" (Hosea 12:14), is an attribute of God. God is not compulsively or reactively angry, He is "slow to anger" (Jonah 4:2). His anger drips with love and compassion. Anger, it could be said, is an extension of love. Which is why we see the prophets, the apostles, and Jesus himself exhibiting expressions of anger that bring about good for the world and the church. Of course, anger is abused. "Man's anger," writes the apostle James, so rarely "brings about the righteous life that God desires." (James 1:20; see also Colossians 3:1-3) A prime example, of course, is the disciple's "anger" (Gr. embrimaomai) over the woman pouring expensive perfume upon Jesus (Mark 14:4). Although anger is part of God's image, even disciples use anger in inappropriate ways. Any evil, reminds C.S. Lewis, is a vine that grows on the branches of a good tree. Bad anger, like a vine, grows destructively on the good anger of God that bleeds with love for the world.
This leads to an important point: homiletical anger should be proportional. By that, I mean that we should learn to utilize big anger for big things, not big anger for little things. Don't get overly angry about apathy toward the coming potluck if you are unwilling to get viscerally virulent in regards to hunger and moral laxity. If you get angry willy-nilly, it will not only confuse people; it also doesn't show that you recognize your anger is not the full manifestation of God's emotions.
Disproportional anger points to the anger of the preacher, not the grace of God.
And anger should never point to itself. Too often, a preacher's emotions point to the preacher themselves; emotions are the shallow attempts of preachers to draw attention to themselves. But to the degree that we are focused on self, in preaching, we are ceasing to be witnesses to something greater than ourselves. "Witness," writes the great preacher Eugene Peterson, "is never the center but only the person who points to or names what is going on at the center"; namely, Jesus.
Anger that points to the grace of God is holy anger.
Power of emotion
I want to be clear: the greatest preachers knew the power of emotion. For instance, John Wesley, notes Kenneth Collins, devoted a good deal of his attention to the method of preaching; particularly in an effort to undermine what he called the "comfortable" way of preaching. Preaching had the power to awaken a soul, or, lull it to sleep. As an itinerant preacher who spent years travelling from city to city, Wesley believed it was his assignment, before God, to awaken people from their slumber through his preaching ministry. Wesley took exception to one particular group (what he called the "Brethren") who were "more studious to please than to awaken."
Wesley observed this therapeutic method of preaching first hand during a preaching tour through Scotland. His journal reveals a great distaste, for the "Brethren" offered, "… no application, it was likely to do as much good as the singing of a lark … they cannot but see that no sinners are convinced of sin, none converted to God, by this way of preaching."
It is no surprise, then, to learn that Wesley was very quick to use "hell" and "death" as topics to awaken his audience. Anger, he believed, had the power to awaken.
Wesley was an itinerant preacher. I think the use of anger ultimately demands that we do the hard work to know how our congregations need to be awoken. An appropriate use of anger will ultimately demand that we intimately know our congregation. If we are getting angry over something that our people already are angry about, we are not serving them. Thus there demands some level of knowledge of the church. As Flannery O'Connor once wrote:
When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use some more normal means of talking about it; when you have to assume that it does not then you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout …
We cannot separate homiletics from congregational anthropology, our preaching ministry from the ministry of knowing God's people before us. Our sermons can only be strong to the degree our personal knowledge of our people remains equally strong. Pastoring never happens by remote control.
Sometimes, we will go overboard in our anger. It is inevitable. And when we do, our congregations become "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry Preacher." And that can't be good! What can we do when that happens? I believe that repentance, immediate public repentance, is best. Sadly, our struggles with sin will never go on hiatus when we stand up with our Bible's open as the preacher, Bill White reminds us. But we must also recognize that sinlessness will not be our key to good preaching either.
Only sinners can preach. And if a sinner can't preach, I don't know who's left.
A. J. Swoboda is the pastor of Theophilus in Portland, Oregon, a professor at George Fox Evangelical Seminary, and the author of Messy: God Likes It That Way.