If I had it to do over again, the next thing I would change about my preaching would be the most difficult – at least for me. If I had it to do over I would stop worrying about what everyone thought about me, quit playing it safe, and dare to be the prophet speaking the word of God. I call this prophetic preaching, not because we are inspired but because our call is to listen for God’s word to this place and this time. We are called to dwell in the Word with an eye to the local, national, and international news – aware of what is happening in our culture. Most of all, we are called to preach without fear – the very thought scares me stone cold.
I’ve always been a people pleaser. No surprise that I would do everything I could to get people to like me, including preaching about everything except what mattered. Forget not rocking the boat; I’d never get boat out of the harbor. I’d like to blame our practice of local churches paying their preachers without the protection of a contract with stipulations for release. But honestly, even a three-year contract worth five million dollars (I like to dream) would not have changed me.
Before providing an example, two caveats demand clarity. First, prophetic preaching is not a license for poorly prepared, irresponsible sermons. Second, until we love the church before us with all our heart, we have not earned the right to preach prophetically. Unless the church knows how much we love them, all they will hear is an angry young preacher shouting at them. So what do I mean by prophetic preaching? An example is worth a thousand descriptions:
For years politicians have batted the phrase “refugee problem” back and forth as if it were a volleyball they dare not let hit the ground. But the past year has brought the refugee crisis out of the headlines and into my backyard (a significant International Rescue Committee operates in Abilene, TX). Please understand, I am not here to tell you which political party to support. This is not my commission. My commission is to speak plainly from Scripture, and to explore God’s heart as best I can. Consequently, I would be derelict in my duty if I played it safe and said nothing. So, what should I say?
To begin, Scripture speaks plainly about our treatment of the poor, nicely summarized in Deuteronomy:
Poor persons will never disappear from the earth. That’s why I’m giving you this command: you must open your hand generously to your fellow Israelites, to the needy among you, and to the poor who live with you in your land. (Deut 15:11 CEB)
The text identifies two different groups: 1) poor and needy Israelites living among them, and 2) the poor who live with them in their land (non-citizens). Leviticus makes a similar statement:
When immigrants live in your land with you, you must not cheat them. Any immigrant who lives with you must be treated as if they were one of your citizens. You must love them as yourself, because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God. (Lev 19:33-34)
The foundation for both laws is the same: God commands the people to act in ways consistent with God’s heart. In other words, God does not draw up laws just because they sound good. Biblical law reflects God's heart, God’s way, God’s nature. Why open your hand to the needy? Because God does. Why love immigrants as yourself? Because God loves them.
Years ago it was brought to my attention that these texts do not discuss what to do about illegal immigrants, those who have broken laws by the way they entered the United States. And the objection is correct. These texts do not make that distinction. In fact, I am unable to find a text that distinguishes legal from illegal immigrants with one possible exception: the case of an escaped slave. In this law, if an escaped slave comes to you, then you are not to return the slave to their owner (presumably outside of Israel). They broke the law (escaping and running to Israel). Nonetheless, Israel is to extend sanctuary and allow the ex-slave to live where they wish. And God gives Israel a strict order, “Don’t oppress them” (Deut 23:15-16).
Curiosity, albeit about to kill the cat again, kept me wondering why there is no distinction between legal and illegal immigrants in Israel. The text consistently refers to the land as “your land” and borders may not be as precise as today, but borders clearly existed. Why no distinction regarding those who enter the land? One law provides the key clue. Israelites are not permitted to permanently sell their land to another person. All “sales” functioned as “leases” until the year of Jubilee, at which time the land would revert back to the original owner. But why? Here’s the clue:
The land must not be permanently sold because the land is mine. You are just immigrants and foreign guests of mine. (Lev 25:23, emphasis mine)
Israel didn’t own her land. God owned the land. No matter how many times the text may say “your land” (referring to Israel), the theological reality is that God owned the land. Consequently, they had no distinction between legal and illegal immigrants, because everyone was an immigrant in God’s land. (Elsewhere we find that God has also “given land” to Ammon, Edom, Moab, Philistia, and Aram – in other words all of the other nations; see Deut 2 and Amos 9:7.) Some may object on the basis of New Testament texts that call us to be subject to the laws of the land. The same texts and commands, however, are present in the Old Testament. God always calls the people to obedience. Believers with good faith will disagree on what the text and principles mean for today.
This would be a day that I would use my full twenty-five minutes to make sure the church understood what the texts say and don’t say. Behind the law regarding the escaped slave and other laws regarding love for the sojourners and aliens in the land (love them as a fellow Israelite; Lev 19:33-34) is the theological claim that God owns the land – all the land (Lev 25:23). More could and should be said on the topic. My example, however, has accomplished its purpose.
The call to preach brings with it the responsibility to hold current events up to the light of Scripture. Preachers – this is our job, our calling! We dare not shirk it for the safety of silence.
Until we meet again,