There’s generally a direct connection between a preacher’s popularity and how little he talks about Jesus. The most famous preacher in the world today, Joel Osteen, preaches about what you can do to “Live Your Best Life Now,” “Become a Better You,” and even make “Every Day a Friday.” What you never hear from him is anything about Christ crucified for sinners.
This sort of preaching is popular because it’s practical and it’s relevant—meaning it’s all about me. But when sermons and church services are mostly concerned with telling how you to live, how to vote, or how to do anything, for that matter, they aren’t Christian, no matter how religious they sound. Christianity isn’t about what you do, but about Christ and what He has done for you.
Preaching that’s mostly concerned with telling you what to do isn’t only unchristian, it’s antichrist. We might call this “Dr. Phil preaching.” Dr. Phil preaching assumes that you’re able to do the good things you’re supposed to do. Joel Osteen might believe in the inherent goodness of humanity, but bitter sufferings and death of Christ tell a different story.
The Christian faith isn’t about being a good person. It’s about repenting of the fact that you aren’t a good person, that you’ve done bad things, and believing that you desperately need a Savior. St. Paul says that we have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.[i] Far from saying we’re good people, he describes our bodies as agents of death in need of rescue by Christ.[ii]
If you’re a good person, then Jesus is a liar for calling you to repentance and a fool for dying on the cross. Good people don’t need a Savior. The Christian faith isn’t about what we do, but about what Christ has done to get us out of the mess we’ve made.
I don’t need to tell you that there’s something terribly wrong with the world in which we live. The suffering you experience in this world preaches that to you on a daily basis, and it can be overwhelming. Our days are filled with anxieties and pain—physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
And that’s why you need to hear the Gospel again and again. The only sort of news the world can give you is bad news, and apart from the Gospel, that constant barrage of darkness can only lead to despair. The only comfort and peace you’ll ever find in this world is in Christ, period. Everything else dies or goes away. Not Christ, not His Word. That endures forever, as do all who trust in it.
There’s nothing you need more desperately in this life than to hear the preaching of the Gospel, what Christ is doing to fix this mess. And it has nothing to do with politics, the environmental movement, or saving the whales, as important as those things may be.
God alone can bring life into this dying world, and He’s begun doing just that by the death of His Son. Death was crucified, died and was buried with Christ on the cross. Christ rose again on the Third Day, but death stayed in the grave.
The Christian faith isn’t about what you can do, but about what Christ has done for you. And until His work of redemption is complete until the Last Day, He sustains you with His life-giving, Spirit-filled gifts of Word and Sacrament.
That’s what Pentecost is all about. This is where, according to Christ’s promise, the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the disciples. You know the story: the Spirit’s coming was accompanied by tongue-shaped flames on their heads, a sound of rushing wind, and speaking in foreign languages.
These miraculous signs are usually the things we focus on, but to do this is to miss the point. Like all signs, they point to something else. The Holy Spirit doesn’t go about His work of creating faith via divine pyrotechnics; He does this through preaching and the Sacraments. And so it was on the first Pentecost: Peter preached, sinners repented, believed, and were baptized. That’s where the Holy Spirit does His work.
Just yesterday I visited with a member in the hospital, and we talked about how discouraging it can be to look around. He hears no mighty rushing wind or sees no tongues of fire, just the four walls of a hospital room. No mighty Pentecost-like miracles for him. Just a bunch of IVs and some rice pudding.
But that’s just the problem. If you are looking for peace and joy in this world, it will let you down every single time. Maybe not right away, but sooner or later, it will fail you.
This is the opposite of faith. Faith doesn’t look for the Holy Spirit in the miraculous or in the things of this world, but in those very ordinary-looking places He has promised to be. The Holy Spirit is just as present today in the preaching of the Gospel as He was on the first Pentecost. Where you find a baptismal font, a pulpit, and an altar, there the Holy Spirit is at work.
Jesus once told Nicodemus that you can’t see the Holy Spirit, but like the wind, you can hear Him. Wherever Christians are hearing the story of Jesus, being baptized, and are communing together, there is the Holy Spirit. The Father does His work through the Word, the Son does His work on the cross, and the Holy Spirit does His work in the Church. Trying to have the Holy Spirit apart from His work in the Church is like trying to have a Savior apart from Christ’s death on the cross.
Jesus described the Holy Spirit as a preacher when He said the Helper would bring to remembrance all that He has said. The Holy Spirit is a preacher of Christ. He has spoken by the prophets and gathers God’s children together in the one holy, Christian and apostolic Church. He does this so that together we might hear God’s Word, receive His gifts, and proclaim the praises of Him who called us out of darkness into His marvelous light. In this way, you, like the Word of Christ, will endure forever.
[i] Romans 7:18
[ii] Romans 7:2
Soli Deo Gloria