It is one of my favorite sermons ever. Someday, when I grow up, I want to preach one just like it in a Baptist church somewhere as my last sermon. I say “last sermon” because when I preach this sermon it will likely be my last!
The prophet Amos began so well as he preached to the northern 10 tribes, known as Israel. He spoke of the sin of the nations around Israel and the judgment God would bring on them. First, he addressed the sins of Damascus (modern-day Syria). God said through him, “For three sins of Damascus, even for four, I will not turn back my wrath.” And the people’s ears perked up. God was angry at Damascus, one of Israel’s enemies. This was good news. Hooray!
Then, Amos turned his attention to Gaza, another foe. “For three sins of Gaza, even for four, I will not turn back my wrath.” More good news and the crowd was engaged. They were so tired of the prophets telling them how sinful they were. Prophet after prophet came out of the wilderness, or up from the southern kingdom of Judah, to warn Israel of God’s wrath against their idolatry, greed, and immorality. Amos was blasting their neighbors, their enemies, and they could listen to that all day. He moved on to the sins of Tyre and Edom and Ammon. He identified the sins of Moab and promised the judgment of God on them. “For three sins of Moab, even for four, I will not turn back my wrath.”
I imagine you could hear a chorus of amens swelling throughout Amos’ congregation. God was angry at their enemies and His judgment would fall on them. No one in the northern kingdom could remember enjoying a sermon by one of the prophets of Yahweh like this one.
It kept getting better. “For three sins of Judah, even for four, I will not turn back my wrath.” God was even mad at the southern kingdom of Judah. These were Israel’s blood relatives, but they were also fierce rivals. Since the time the northern ten tribes had split off from Judah because of Rehoboam’s folly, there had been bad blood between the nations. At times, it was just mild competition. At other times, it was open war. Now, God was angry at Judah and Israel rejoiced. Amos’ was about to be nominated as “Prophet of the Year.”
With a few simple words, everything came crashing down. “For three sins of Israel, even for four, I will not turn back my wrath.” It was all a setup. This was not going to be a fun sermon where they could sit in smug judgment on the wicked nations but now the prophetic guns were trained on them. The preacher had stopped preaching and started meddling. They were more than happy to hear what God had against other nations, but no one wanted to hear what Amos had to say about their own sins.
People love to hear sermons about OPS – Other People’s Sins. Long ago, in my college days, a friend gave me a cassette of a sermon by a preacher who would later become a household name in American Christianity. He told me, “He is so courageous. He preaches about sin without fear.” The preacher went down a laundry list of society’s evils. He confronted communism (it was the 70’s, folks). He lambasted Hollywood and homosexuals and pornographers and abortionists and liberals of every kind.
My friend was right. This preacher dealt with sin. But I am not sure there was anything particularly courageous about what he said. How much courage did it take to preach against communism in a conservative Baptist church in the 70s? About as much as it would take to appear before the Democratic National Committee and lampoon Donald Trump. Were there any purveyors of pornography at church that day? I doubt it. If there was a liberal in the crowd, it was probably someone who wandered in by accident.
It takes little courage to preach against OPS. In fact, it is a great tactic to build a preacher’s popularity. If I want to get a lot of positive encouragement next Sunday, that is exactly what I should do. I should confront the sins of the drug addicts, the prostitutes, the liberals, the pornographers or any of the public sins of our society. People love to hear the sins of others condemned. Perhaps I can identify some theological group within Christianity as the “them” and lay all our problems at their door. All I have to do is identify “them” as the problem, blame society’s (or the church’s or the denomination’s) ills on “them” and pronounce God’s judgment on “them” and the average church members will applaud loudly (in their hearts, at least – we don’t do loud at our church!). Of course, confronting evil in society is a true work of the pastor, but it can also be a manipulative tool, a selfish exercise in fixing blame and gaining popularity.
I need to confess sin here. Yesterday, I watched a few minutes of the Jerry Springer show. Is that a ministry-disqualifying sin? At the end of the show, after the losers competed for the title of “Loser of the Day,” the audience members had a chance to ask questions and make comments. What they did mostly was heap insults on the “guests.” Is it possible that the purpose of the Jerry Springer show is to make people feel that no matter how bad they are, no matter how dysfunctional their lives are, they are better than Loseronius and Loseronica on Jerry? Is it possible that our focus on the sins of others serves the same purpose? If the preacher rails against the liberals and the homosexuals and the Muslims and the other societal or theological enemies, we can leave feeling that we are the good folks on the right side, filled with a righteous disdain for “them.”
It takes the same amount of courage for me to stand in the pulpit of my church and preach against homosexuality as it does for a parent to chase monsters from their child’s bedroom closet. Your child might be afraid, but you know no one is going to be afraid. I can preach against Al-Qaeda and ISIS, Hollywood, liberals (political, theological – pretty much any kind) and I will get nothing but support and encouragement. We love OPS preaching. It gives us a chance to look at the problems of others and feel good about ourselves. Oh, those terrible, awful people. Glad we aren’t like them!
Does that sound familiar to anyone?
The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. Luke 18:11
If you are looking to swell the ranks of the pastoral unemployed, spend more time on UPS – not the delivery service but “Us People’s Sins.” Talk about the sins that your people commit every day. Talk about gossip. Talk about selfishness. Talk about pride. Talk about greed, the great American sin. People do not like it when you talk about Us People’s Sins.
A pastor I knew described preaching at a state pastors’ conference back in the 70s and confronting the prevalent discrimination, racism, and segregation that dominated SBC life, for which we’ve since apologized. When he finished there was stone silence. Anger. How dare he? These were preachers, men of God! He should have preached against Hollywood and liberals – stick to the script! But instead of going for OPS he went after UPS, and he was very unpopular that day. He received a corporate cold shoulder for preaching what we would now consider righteous truth.
The popular preacher will do two things. He might avoid sin completely. He will say, “This is the greatest church ever,” inflating his people with ecclesiological SELF-esteem and ignoring their true spiritual condition. Or, he will point the guns of scripture outward, uniting the people in self-righteous anger against “them” – those sinners out there who are messing everything up. He will get pats on the back, raises, and have great job security. But he the applause he hears from his people will be the only applause he gets. Heaven will be silent.
The man of God will preach truth and the truth is that our hearts are “deceitful above all things and desperately wicked.” We are sinners and need constant correction, constant conforming to Christ. I need to be confronted about MY sin and you need to be confronted about yours. Preaching UPS is counter to church growth today. If you are looking to be the pastor of the biggest church in town, listen to those who tell you to preach “positive and encouraging messages” – in contrast to the prophets, to Jesus, to the Apostles, to God in the Ten Commandments, and to just about everything in Scripture. A significant group of people will not stick around and listen to a preacher who confronts their sinful hearts when the preacher down the road is telling them that they are great and the problem is “them over there.” The only applause you may hear is from above. Even God’s people, even pastors, tend to get upset when our true spiritual condition is shown. It’s painful and uncomfortable.
My dad had a long ministry and he made one bargain with the Lord when he started. “Lord, I will trust you to take care of me and my family and I will preach your word without fear of getting fired.” He never backed off. He never got fired – he had plenty of people who wanted to fire him, but they never succeeded. If you preach the bold truth of God you will be called all sorts of things, by the church! But you will also have an eternally significant ministry with the people who listen. Those who hear the truth and open their hearts will experience change and growth and spiritual transformation. Your ministry may not be broad but it will be deep.
The OPS preacher must settle for the applause of man because God’s “well done” will never be his. He may build huge churches and get large paychecks and be immensely popular. But pleasing man and pleasing God are not the same.
Two things must be said here. I am not saying that all big church preachers are OPS and all small church preachers are courageous UPS preachers. Not at all. God gifts us in different ways. However, there is a fleshly way to build large churches that should be rejected. I’ve seen it in my last two communities (not SBC). Stop preaching anything but positive, feel-good messages. Fill people with the idea that “we are the cool church.” Put millions into state-of-the-art facilities, technology, and such things. Downplay truth. Soft-peddle the gospel. It works, if big is the goal. What it tends to do, though, is make people content with a watered-down faith. Big is not bad, but neither is bigger necessarily better.
There is also a danger that a UPS preacher might become judgmental as if he were the Spirit. We see this among bloggers – those who confront others often are the likeliest to take offense at being confronted. The solution is simple. The preacher must continue to yield himself to the word and the correction of the Spirit. He must practice what he preaches.
But the simple fact is, “they” are not the problem in my church. I am. My deacons are. My team leaders are. My members are. We need more of God, more of the Spirit, more of Christ. We need to be confronted by God’s word, conformed to Christ, filled with the Spirit and consumed with the task of ministry. We don’t need our egos pumped or our prejudices fanned. We need to be broken before the Cross and rebuilt by the Spirit of God – new creations to do new work God’s way.
OPS preaching will never accomplish that. We must be men of God in the pulpit, seeking the only applause that matters, that which comes from above.