Me and Father Mackenzie

“Father Mackenzie writing the words for a sermon no one will hear.” So sang the Beatles in “Eleanor Rigby.” How often I’ve been able to identify with him. Particularly in the depths of Lent when it seemed liked I had preached this already, or in the dry seasons when sermonizing was torture, or in the interminable Sundays after Pentecost. There isn’t really much encouragement to preach is there? O there’s encouragement to preach dynamically, to preach entertainingly, to preach clearly, to preach somehow, someway, but there’s always and adverb attached. And that qualifier can grind away in my conscience till it has produced a fine gravel that constipates my mind before a blank sheet of paper and palpitates my heart before a glass-eyed congregation. “Is this dynamic?” “Is this entertaining?” “Is this informal?” “Am I being too theological, too preachy, too vague, too…” You know the questions that are really accusations.

That’s why I like the logo on my seminary ring. “Preach the Word,” it says in Greek. It’s part of St. Paul’s admonition to Pastor Timothy. He didn’t say preach the Word dynamically, entertainingly, or even clearly. Now there is of course nothing wrong with doing such; God grant that we all would be dynamic, entertaining, and clear. But that’s not the burden Paul put on Timothy or us. And neither did He put the burden that me and Father Mackenzie struggle with: Is anyone out there? Anyone at all?

That haunting fear will drive you out of the pulpit and into chancel dramas (I was surprised to read Luther suggesting the use of these to illustrate events of the Gospel at certain times of the year.), gimmicks, or showmanship (I’ve been driven to all of these.). Go anywhere you can to recapture the sense that people are out there paying attention. But again that’s not our burden. That to be sure is their burden. Our burden is to preach the Word; their’s is to listen to it. As we must struggle at times to preach, so they must struggle at times to listen. As we could not say to our Lord, “This Word is to too hard to preach; I won’t do it.” So they cannot say, “He is too hard to listen to. He’s boring, lackluster, or muddle-headed.” What they can do is what we do; pray. We pray when we’re up a against a Word we would rather not preach. Our hearers need to pray to become better hearers as we do to become better preachers.

If we take on the responsibility of not only preaching the Word but making our hearers listen, we will become crowd pleasers. We’re not so stupid as to be unaware of what people want to hear. (Well most of us aren’t anyway.) Therefore, we must bind ourselves to what they need to hear, and that is not what we think they should hear but what God says. And St. Paul warned us that this will be foolishness to some minds, a stench to some noses, a weakness to some bodies. Isaiah told us that it would only be “line upon line, line upon line” to some (Is. 28:13), i.e. boring.

But here is the rub: The Word appears that way to me too. It seems foolish to point troubled consciences to Water. It seems weak to set a crucified God over against a roaring Satan. It seems stinky, foolish, and weak to point sinners to Body and Blood in, with, and under bread and wine. But this is the only Word we have for troubled, dying sinners facing the maw of Satan daily.

And this Word is enough. Luther believed that it was the regular sounding forth of the Word of God that kept Satan at bay. It was the Word that sent the demons for cover, hands over their ears, running in a serpentine fashion even as they did from the Incarnate Word. “Leave us alone! Enough already! Have you come to torment us before our time?” Since Easter it is time according to Walther’s Easter hymn “He’s Risen, He’s Risen.” Walther sees the demons in hell on Good Friday shouting and jeering their “victory.” “But short was their triumph, the Savior arose,/ And Death, hell, and Satan He vanquished, His foes.”.

This imagery of the demons fleeing and hunkering down in fear is found in a novel by Frank Peretti This Present Darkness. He vividly portrays the demons cowering and powerless, but in his novel it is due to the prayers of Christians. He comes from the Reform side of things, but Luther would agree. In the Large Catechism Luther writes in the 6th Petition, “But prayer can prevent him [the devil] and drive him back.” And under the 3rd Petition he writes, “Such prayer must be our protection and defense now to repulse and beat down all that the devil, bishops, tyrants, and heretics can do against our Gospel.” Luther agrees with Peretti not because he shares his belief that praying Christians somehow bind Satan by their agreeing together but because he believed that prayer should always be audible. It is that spoken Word, that prayed Word, that preached Word that Satan cannot bear to hear whether it’s the Lord’s Prayer or me and Father Mackenzie’s unentertaining, undynamic, unclear sermons.

Father Mackenzie might have gotten down because sometimes no one heard what he preached, but not me. That’s because Father Mackenzie doesn’t sing A Mighty Fortress; I do. “The Word they still shall let remain/ Nor any thanks have for it.” Father Mackenzie was taught to gauge the reaction of his hearers. Luther has taught me not to. So has

St. Paul for the rest of that quote is, “Preach the Word…in season and out.” Poor Father Mackenzie was in one of those “out” seasons, and no one was there to tell him to go ahead and preach anyways.

About Paul Harris

Pastor Harris retired from congregational ministry after 40 years in office on 31 December 2023. He is now devoting himself to being a husband, father, and grandfather. He still thinks cenobitic monasticism is overrated and cave dwelling under.
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One Response to Me and Father Mackenzie

  1. Paul Siems says:

    Truly Christian prayer does overturn the power of the devil and send him fleeing.

    The reason for this, even as you indicate above, is that true Christian prayer is very simply reliance upon and implimentation of the Word of God, Jesus. True Christian prayer is the response of the Holy Spirit in communion with the spirit of the saint. All the demons of the cosmos are powerless against the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and true prayer is nothing more that trusting the Word of God and calling upon God by the Word. As Jesus plainly says: No one comes to the Father but through Me.

    This is also that which enables the true preacher of the Word to continue against all that bears down upon him. The Word, the Gospel, is the power of God, especially unto salvation. You indicate this and it is worthy of a thundering AMEN!

    Hold fast to the Word for yourself, Pastor. Hear what the Lord says in the text. Wrestle with Him until He blesses you with the name of Israel, that is, Jesus. For Jesus is the one who prevails with God for us. Again, even in seeking to preach the Word, it is the Word that the preacher needs for himself, and then to give to others.

    Thank for sharing your struggles. They are the same struggles of all who seek to preach the Word in Spirit and in Truth. Thank you also for distinguishing between Father Mackenzie and the true preachers of the Word.

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