Not So Minor After All
Not So Minor After All
When I was growing up, I had a nickname, and like many of my nicknames, I did not like it very much. I was called "Little Mitch." I was given that name not because I was so small but because my older brother was so big. He, of course, was "Big Mitch."
In the Old Testament there are a series of books called the Minor Prophets. If these prophets were alive today they might resent that name because they're certainly not of minor significance. They're called that because of their brevity, especially compared to the bigger, longer prophetic books like Isaiah and Jeremiah.
Originally, in the Hebrew Scripture, this band of 12 Minor Prophets came bound together as one book, called The Book of the Twelve. They're called prophets not because they predicted the future, though they did that, but because they spoke the word of God. They were God's mouthpiece. Their message wasn't some kind of crystal ball through which we see into the future, but rather it was God's word to God's people and it had to do with their here and now.
Many preachers overlook the Minor Prophets. Jonah usually gets more than his share of attention because it tells of a man swallowed by a fish. But the rest of the books are often ignored. Occasionally a preacher will cherry-pick a verse or two from one of the Minor Prophets to spice up the sermon. Who hasn't used Micah 6:8 in a sermon on justice? "He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God." Who hasn't turned to Zephaniah 3:17 to remind God's people of his great love? "The Lord your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing."
I know I've been guilty of avoiding the Minor Prophets in my preaching. For instance, I was into the 25th year of preaching in the same church before I took on a series on the Minor Prophets. I'm not sure why I avoided these books, but perhaps it was because I was a bit intimidated of their emotional intensity and I underestimated their relevance.
The relevance of the Minor Prophets is found in their shared passion to restore God's people to a right relationship with God. They believed God had chosen a people for himself, he'd made a covenant with them, given them his law, given them a land, and given them a special city, Jerusalem. In that city there was a temple where God was to be worshipped. These people were the apple of his eye, called to display God's character to a dark world, but they were failing dramatically. Idolatry, injustice, immorality—all these things had sprouted like weeds and eventually taken over God's people. And so, these men stood up and spoke truth that wasn't popular. They called it what it was. The outstanding quality of these men was moral courage. They were the John Wayne's of the Bible. They rode into town and said what nobody wanted to hear. When we faithfully preach the Minor Prophets, we will need this same moral courage to stand against the tide "come what may."
But the Minor Prophets offer more than just bad news. They also look hopefully to a time when God's people, Jew and Gentile, would be regathered; a new King would be enthroned and a new covenant would be established. We live in those days. We have far greater privileges than even the Israelites, but we also have a greater calling. Preaching the Minor Prophets is an opportunity to challenge God's people as to whether or not we are living up to our calling. Many people in America call themselves Christians. Why then are we witnessing the collapse of our civilization? Our politicians are polarized. Few listen to them anymore, much less trust them. Families are increasingly torn apart by infidelity, pornography, abuse, rebellion, and divorce. Drug use, abortion, violence in the home and on the streets. Reality shows and gossip magazines parade all this drivel before us and many of us just sit in a bored stupor and amuse ourselves to death. Preaching the Minor Prophets can wake us up. It was when I realized that there were so many parallels between the challenges God's people faced in the days of the Minor Prophets and the challenges we face today that I decided to preach a series on them.
Remembering the long view
As I dove into preaching the Minor Prophets, I learned a few key principles that are helpful to anyone preaching through this section. First, keep in mind their ministry took place over a long period of time. There were pre-exilic prophets who ministered in the ninth and eighth centuries before Christ. And there were post-exilic prophets who spoke in the fifth century before Christ. Their ministry spanned at least 400 years, longer than the United States has even been a nation! Prior to the Assyrian exile God's people were a divided kingdom between Israel and Judah. Some prophets focused on Israel and others on Judah. It is important for the preacher to give adequate historical background to each book. Where does this book fit into Israel's chronology? What can we learn from the historical books of the Bible about the times in which any given prophet spoke? What does the book itself tells us about the milieu in which they lived?
Organizing your sermon series
There are many different approaches to a preaching series on the Minor Prophets. The most straight-forward approach is to take one of the books and preach through it from start to finish. The challenge of this approach is that many of the books are laid out in such a way that themes reoccur over and over again, making a series such as this quite repetitive. Another approach is to preach a series of thematic sermons on the Minor Prophets. Because various themes present themselves in each book in many different places, we can preach through a book of the Minor Prophets thematically rather than a passage at a time. Finally, try a twelve-week series in which you preach on one of the Minor Prophets each week.
This is the approach I took in my own church in a twelve-week series called, "Taking God Seriously." In this series, we took a largely chronological approach. Covering one book per message:
Malachi: Housecleaning for Advent
Haggai: Renewing Your Reality
Habakkuk: How to Pray When Your World Collapses
Zephaniah: When God Sings
Nahum: Good and Angry
Micah: Time is Ticking
Jonah: Stunning Lengths of Grace and Compassion
Obadiah: Your Brother's Keeper?
Amos: When the Lion Roars
Joel: Return To Me
Hosea: Relentless Love
Conveying prophetic passion
However you go about organizing your material, it will be crucial to convey the strong emotions of the prophet to your congregation. Those emotions are often conveyed through heart wrenching language and vivid imagery. Consider Hosea's despair and heartache over his own broken marriage as a window into how God felt about his wayward bride, "They are unfaithful to the Lord; they give birth to illegitimate children" (Hosea 5:7a). And who can't empathize with Habakkuk as he waits for God's answer to his tormented question regarding his sending the godless Babylonians to judge his people: "I will stand at my watch and station myself on the ramparts; I will look to see what he will say to me, and what answer I am to give to this complaint" (Habakkuk 2:1).
Conveying this emotion is always a stretch for me. I value logic and rationality in my preaching. I cringe when preachers scold their people in anger or seem to shed tears at just the right moment. Preaching the Minor Prophets confronted me time and time again with my own emotional disconnectedness and the need to authentically mirror the emotions each prophet felt. Because they were often just reflecting the emotions of God for his people and for the world.
Connecting to the gospel
Finally, it will be important to connect your messages on the Minor Prophets to the gospel. Nearly every theme in the Minor Prophets is found in the New Testament: repentance, social justice, empty religion, God's faithfulness. For example, Hosea 1:10-2:1 makes this promise:
Yet the Israelites will be like the sand on the seashore, which cannot be measured or counted. In the place where it was said to them, "You are not my people," they will be called "children of the living God." The people of Judah and the people of Israel will come together; they will appoint one leader and will come up out of the land, for great will be the day of Jezreel. Say of your brothers, "My people," and of your sisters, "My loved one."
This is looking forward to this present time. The new, re-gathered Israel is the church. This leader, this King whom Hosea spoke of is the son of David, Jesus Christ. We were not God's people, but now we are. We were not loved, but now we are. Paul writes about how God has chosen us in the book of Romans 9:23-25,
What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory—even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles? As he says in Hosea: "I will call them 'my people' who are not my people; and I will call her 'my loved one' who is not my loved one.'"
In the end God will not give up or walk out on his people. The Minor Prophets give us ample opportunity to tell our people that his love does indeed endure forever. There are many examples from the Minor Prophets besides these two from Nahum and Hosea in which we can make connection to the gospel.
In my sermon on Nahum I had to deal extensively with the judgment and wrath of God—because the text does. But then in my conclusion, I closed with the following (condensed) application:
Secondly, God has delayed the final day of judgment precisely because he doesn't want anyone to perish. (see 2 Peter 3:7-9). So our message now is, yes, judgment is coming, but God's desire isn't to judge but to save. Because of his great love for each of us, his wrath against sin was poured out on his Son, Jesus. His justice was satisfied on the Cross. If you turn from your sin and seek forgiveness at the Cross where he died for you, he'll be your refuge.
No one who turns to God will ever experience his wrath. God only exercises his wrath when we reject his love. There's a way of escape, and it's given here: "He cares for those who take refuge in him." The Cross is your refuge and it's as you stand beneath the Cross that you'll be sheltered from the greatest of all judgments yet to come.
I was talking to [a church member] who told me her father was a jeweler. Her dad used to buy the top-end jewelry for a high-end department store in the Bahamas. When she was a child he used to tell her that a jeweler always shows a diamond to a potential buyer on a black velvet tray because the extreme contrast of the black makes the diamond shine at its brightest. If the jeweler showed it on a white velvet tray, the diamonds' full luster and many facets would never be appreciated because it's the severe contrast that illuminates anything. Her dad would say, "Only as we grow to adore the attribute of God's wrath and justice, the black velvet background, that we'll ever begin to grasp the luster of the diamond of his grace to us. If we silence or mask the truth about his fiery wrath, then grace isn't so amazing, and it too gets masked."
That's the message of Nahum. God is actively engaged in our world and God does judge even now. But God's anger, God's wrath, God's vengeance, God's passion for justice, is merely the backdrop for his goodness and love. What he really wants is for each of us to grasp the luster and the beauty and many facets of his love and goodness and grace. And nowhere did that love and goodness shine as brightly as it did at the cross.
I never did grow as tall as my brother, although I eventually grew to stand just a shade over 6'0". Thankfully, with a few extra inches I also outgrew my identity as "Little Mitch." As preachers, it is our privilege and responsibility to present the Minor Prophets in such a way that they outgrow their identity as "Minor" and take their stand among the biblical witness with a message of powerful relevance for God's people today.
Mark Mitchell is the lead pastor of Central Peninsula Church in Foster City, California.