When Preaching Turns To Meddlin’
By Dr. Philip W. McLarty
Have your ever gone to church and listened to a sermon and everything was going along just fine when, all of a sudden, the preacher said something that really upset you and got you all bent out of shape?
I’ll never forget a sermon I preached in Quinlan, Texas in 1976. The text for the day was from the third chapter of Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, where he says,
“For as many of you as were baptized into Christ
have put on Christ.
There is neither Jew nor Greek,
there is neither slave nor free man,
there is neither male nor female;
for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
I spent the bulk of the sermon talking about various conflicts in the early church and how Paul appealed to the Galatians to rise above their differences. Then I talked about what it means to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ and how Paul had said if anyone was in Christ he was a new creation: “The old things have passed away. Behold, all things have become new.” (2 Corinthians 5:17)
Everything was going along smoothly. The people were smiling and nodding in approval. And then I got to the conclusion. I listed three areas of conflict we were experiencing in the church at the time. I thought it was uncanny how Paul’s word spoke with such relevance to us in our day. Yet, no sooner than the words were out of my mouth, one of the old saints of the church stood up right there in the middle of the congregation and started preaching a sermon of his own.
I kid you not. He ranted and raved for a good five minutes, all the while pointing and wagging his finger at me. Finally, he sat down red-faced and out of breath. I’m not sure just what happened after that. I suppose we stood and sang the closing hymn.
Later in the week, I drove out to visit the man. I asked him, “What happened?” He said, “I’ll tell you exactly what happened, preacher, you went from preaching to meddlin’!”
Since then, I’ve always wondered: Where do you draw the line? When does preaching the gospel become meddling in the personal affairs of those in the congregation? I have a hunch. I’ll share it with you in just a moment.
First, let’s take a closer look at the gospel lesson for today. It’s a classic example of what I’m talking about – of how Jesus went from preaching to meddling, and it almost cost him his life. To get the big picture, let’s set the scene.
Jesus grew up in Nazareth, the son of Joseph and Mary. When he was about thirty years old he went down to the Jordan River to be baptized. Then he went out into the wilderness, where he fasted and prayed and was tempted by Satan. After forty days in the wilderness, he returned to Galilee and began teaching in the local synagogues.
He was an immediate success. Luke says, he was “…being glorified by all.” (4:15) The elders were astonished because he taught with such power and authority. (Luke 4:32)
It was only a matter of time before he went back to Nazareth. You can just imagine the excitement when he did. The folks in Nazareth had every reason to be proud. Here was one of their own.
So, Jesus came to the synagogue on the Sabbath, as was his custom. It was a moment of high drama. A hush fell over the room. All eyes were on Jesus. The clerk handed him the Book of Isaiah. It would’ve been on a scroll. Why Isaiah? We don’t know. Jesus may have requested it. It may have been the prescribed reading for the day. Or it could’ve been a random choice. All we know is that Jesus took the scroll and unfurled it to the sixty-first chapter, where it says,
“The Spirit of the Lord Yahweh is on me;
because Yahweh has anointed me
to preach good news to the humble.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to those who are bound;
to proclaim the year of Yahweh’s favor…”
Luke says when Jesus finished reading from the prophet Isaiah, he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. Then he said, “Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:21) It’s one of the shortest sermons on record. In response, Luke says,
“All testified about him, and wondered
at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth,
and they said, ‘Isn’t this Joseph’s son?'”
Now, had Jesus stopped there and accepted the praise of his elders, the story would have a happy ending. The men would have left with a warm glow and gone home to tell their wives what an amazing young man Jesus turned out to be. For weeks the town would have been abuzz: “Who would’ve thought? The carpenter’s son, a learned rabbi! And from Nazareth! Will wonders never cease? Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Ha! This ought to show ’em!”
No, had Jesus been content to read the scripture and make his comment, everything would’ve been all right. He would’ve been popular and well thought of, and well, chances are he would’ve lived to a ripe old age. It was when his preaching went to meddlin’ that the trouble began.
According to Luke, he sat down – as was the custom of rabbis when they taught – and he brought up two examples of how God pours out his love in ways we don’t appreciate.
The first was the widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17). The other was Naaman, the Syrian (2 Kings 5). Both stories are found in the Old Testament. Both were familiar to the leaders of the synagogue.
The problem is the Jews hated those stories. The widow was a poor, helpless nobody who lived in the land of Sidon, a mostly Gentile area to the north of Galilee. Why should God favor her over the proper Jewish widows of Judea? And then there was Naaman, a Syrian military officer and, on top of that, a leper. There were plenty of lepers among the Jewish people in need of healing. Why would God show mercy to a Gentile?
Jesus used these examples to show just how indiscriminate God can be. And the upshot of it all was this: If God can be so gracious and quick to attend to the needs of a poor helpless widow in Sidon and come to the mercy of an undeserving Gentile in Syria, what gives self-righteous Jewish elders the privilege of saying who belongs in the kingdom and who doesn’t?
Jesus went from preaching to meddling, and it nearly cost him his life. Luke says,
“They were all filled with wrath in the synagogue,
as they heard these things.”
They got up and took him to the brow of a hill outside of town with every intention of throwing him down to his death. Somehow, Jesus escaped. Luke says, “But he, passing through their midst, went his way.” (4:30) It’d be long time before he came back.
Well, Jesus is not the only one who went from preaching to meddlin’. Peter healed a lame man in the temple, and everyone was amazed and rushed to hear what he had to say. But instead of seizing the opportunity for his fifteen minutes of fame, he accused the crowd of helping to crucify Jesus. It caused such a stir that the guards came and put him in jail. (Acts 3-4)
Then there’s the Apostle Paul. In one of his first outings, he preached to the Jews in Antioch of Pisidia and got run out of town. (Acts 13) In Lystra, they dragged him out of the city and stoned him and left him for dead. (Acts 14) In Philippi, he and Silas were thrown into jail. (Acts 16) And in Ephesus, he nearly started a riot and ended up running for his life. (Acts 19)
When preaching turns to meddlin’ all hell breaks loose.
Just ask Martin Luther. The Pope excommunicated him from the church. Or John Calvin. He was forced to leave France and live in exile the latter years of his life. Then there’s Dag Hammarskjöld, the UN Secretary-General. Hammarskjöld was an outspoken advocate of peace, who died mysteriously in a plane crash in Zambia. In India, there was Mahatma Ghandi, the great proponent of non-violence, who was cut down by an assassin’s bullet. And in our own country, we have Martin Luther King, whose birthday we celebrated last week.
They were all guilty of the same fatal flaw – going from preaching to meddling. I tell you, it’s dangerous business.
The question is where do you draw the line? First, I think you have to make a difference between preaching that’s abstract and preaching that’s concrete.
For example, if I were to say, “Brethren, love your neighbor as yourself, I dare say all of you would join Sister Doris in saying, ‘Amen!'” But if I said, “Friends, before you come back next week, go over and introduce yourself to the family who lives in the old Waller house across the street – take them a fresh-baked loaf of bread or an apple pie; love them as you love yourself …” well, you see what I mean.
Preaching turns to meddlin’ when it gets specific and concrete. I preached a sermon in Odessa a few years ago in which I said, “If you’re married, then be faithful to each other – don’t run around; and if you’re single, then live a life of celibacy.” That comes right out of our Book of Order. A couple asked to speak with me after the service. “Does that mean if we want to keep living together, we ought to get married?” I said, “Absolutely. I don’t make the rules, I just pass them on.” They got mad and left. I never saw them in church again.
Preaching also turns to meddling when it exposes your blind spots. Let me ask you: Are there topics of conversation you can’t discuss rationally? For example, if I said, “George Bush is a great President,” would it cause you to see red?
Blind spots generally refer to areas of your life in which you’re in denial. For example, I once preached a sermon in which I described the ultra-liberal voices of the church on the far left and the ultra-conservative voices of the church on the far right and said that our sin was that we always think of ourselves as in the middle. You’d think that was a pretty benign statement. Yet, one of the members dropped by to see me mid-week and said he took offense by what I’d said. He said if he heard me right, then I must think he was pretty far to the right. I asked him where he would put himself on the scale. He said, “Well, I’d say I’m right in the middle.” Bingo! My point, exactly! And, I can tell you, he wasn’t asking for a second opinion.
That’s what we call a blind spot. Whenever you find yourself getting defensive and unable to talk about something objectively, you can be sure there’s something about this area of your life you’re in denial about.
Well, I said I’d tell you what I think, and here it is: I think preaching turns to meddlin’ when the gospel hits home.
More often than not the preacher never knows when that happens or what he may have said to trigger it. Nor does he need to know. All that’s important is that when it happens you turn your discomfort over to God and let God use it to lead you to a deeper faith and a better understanding of yourself.
Donna went to Sunday school one Sunday morning expecting to hear a Bible story and a moral lesson. Instead, she came face-to-face with herself. The lesson was entitled, “Who’s pulling your strings?” It had to do with how our lives are often governed by external forces and not the Spirit of God within us. She came home livid. “No one’s pulling my strings,” she said as she threw her Sunday school lesson down on the coffee table. Later that week she said, “You know, I’ve been making a list of all the different voices I listen to and how much influence they have over me. I can’t think of a thing I’ve said or done lately that was my own idea.” The following Sunday she could hardly wait to get back to class. Over time this one lesson changed her life. Oh, she still listened to what others had to say, but, from that day on, no one was pulling her strings.
Yep, I think preaching turns to meddlin’ when the gospel hits home. If that’s the case, I’d like to think it would encourage you to be bolder about speaking the truth in love – to do a little meddlin’ yourself. And when the shoe is on the foot – when a sermon or a lesson or something someone says hits a hot button in you, I’d like to think you’d be willing to take the message to heart and not kill the messenger!
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Copyright 2007 Dr. Philip W. McLarty. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.