A Gospel Word from the Preacher of Vanities

It is fitting that this Gospel Word should come from a preacher (Ecc. 1:1).  He says, “What is lacking cannot be counted” (Ecc. 1:15).  Take it from one who has spent a ministry counting what was lacking: it is fruitless, painful, and unfaithful.It works like this.  You don’t regard the handful of people you have at a Bible class, i.e. you don’t count them.  O no, you count all the people who are not there.  You don’t count the people in Divine Service; you count the number not there.  You wives of pastors know this insanity well.  Your husband looks right past the grateful sheep feeding on his ministry and focuses on the goats, old or not, who gruffly ignore it.  When he does this call him Haman.

Haman is the man who started the pogrom against the Jews during the time of Esther.  His star was ascending in the king’s palace.  He had prestige, power, and wealth.  The one thing he did not have was the respect and reverence of Mordecai. 

We read in Esther 5: 9-13, “Then Haman went out that day glad and pleased of heart; but when Haman saw Mordecai in the king’s gate and that he did not stand up or tremble before him, Haman was filled with anger against Mordecai. Haman controlled himself, however, went to his house and sent for his friends and his wife Zeresh. Then Haman recounted to them the glory of his riches, and the number of his sons, and every instance where the king had magnified him and how he had promoted him above the princes and servants of the king. Haman also said, ‘Even Esther the queen let no one but me come with the king to the banquet which she had prepared; and tomorrow also I am invited by her with the king.’ Yet all of this does not satisfy me every time I see Mordecai the Jew sitting at the king’s gate.”

When we count what is not there, when it ruins our day, (And how many pastors have ruined the rest of their family’s Sunday by counting as something that which was nothing?) we are being as childish, as churlish, as middle school girlish as Haman.  So much grace, so much glory, so much privilege is ours as stewards of the ministries of God, and it amounts to so much rubbish because this one, that one, or these folks were not there or so few were there compared to the many who weren’t.

I have one caveat, one excuse for Hamanish husbands.  It’s called Synod bureaucrats.  They have taught your husband to do what the Preacher says can’t be done.  They have taught him to count what is lacking.  At least annually, they tell him that the average church only confirms one adult.  Rather than focusing on that one found, lost sheep that the angels in heaven rejoice over, they focus him on the 99 he didn’t find, indeed couldn’t find because they weren’t “lost.”

However, don’t let him off.  You may sympathize but don’t wallow with your Haman.  Do like Haman’s wife; tell him to build a gallows.  Not to hang the Mordecais who are not there; you can’t hang what is lacking anymore than you can count it.  No, the gallows is for him.  He is the one who needs to die.  And you don’t need for him to build a gallows to die on.  Just push him back into his Baptism.  There his old adam will drown with all sins, evil desires, and the insanity of counting what is lacking.

There is probably some higher math (Anything above Algebra II would be higher for me.) that allows you to count what is not there, assign value to what is not present, count zero as 1, but it is theological insanity, and we who do it should be treated like Haman is in the Jewish feast of Purim.  When his name is mentioned, people hiss, boo, and heckle. 

When your husband comes home with that dower, defeated, depressed look for all that was not, for all who were not, hiss, boo, and heckle him for most truly that is not the man you married.  That is not the man who came out of the font.  That is certainly not the man who just celebrated Communion with angels, archangels and all the company of heaven.

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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2 Responses to A Gospel Word from the Preacher of Vanities

  1. Giving credit where credit is due, this comes from Rev. Carl Roth.

    “It is folly for the servants of the Word to cast about how to reach men’s hearts, how to fill the pews, how to bring people to the fear of the Lord; it is folly to suppose they must discover new power, find a new content for their sermons or try this or that new method. The hammer that breaks the rock in pieces has not been cast aside, it needs only servants to carry it among men.”

    M. Reu, Homiletics (Chicago: Wartburg Publishing House, 1924), 48.

  2. Pastor Harris,

    This is a rich and comforting piece for a young pastor to read. It brought to mind a few other things.

    1) In 1 Corinthians 1:4-9 Paul says concerning his divided, dysfunctional (and small) congregation at Corinth: “I am thanking my God always concerning y’all because of the grace of God which has been given to y’all in Christ Jesus, because in every way y’all were made rich in Him” (my Texan translation). The thanksgiving is for what God has done and is doing in Christ for the Corinthians. Paul seems utterly unconcerned with numbers, and utterly concerned with placing Christ crucified before his congregation’s eyes.

    2) The “Prayer of thanksgiving for the congregation committed to the pastor’s care” on page xxv of the CPH Pastoral Care Companion, in which the pastor prays: “Give me Your Holy Spirit that I may at all times see the good things in this congregation and praise and thank you for them.”

    3) An article in LOGIA 11-1 (Epiphany 2002) by Kevin D. Vogts reviewing a book by David Boyle, “The Sum of Our Discontent: Why Numbers Make Us Irrational,” (New York: Texere, 2001). This is an article worth rereading because it offers a great critique of the numbers mindset in the church, and exposes how church bureaucrats are prone to recycling secular business models years after they have gone out of style in the business world and passing them off as “the latest trends.” One fine quote from the article:

    “If there is any territory that should be foreign to modern man’s obsession with the numbers, quantification, and statistics that Boyle decries, it is the Christian church. Over and over again, the New Testament makes clear that success is not to be determined by numbers. In the Parables of the Sower (Mt 13:1–5;Mk 4:1–12; Lk 8:4–10) and the Growing Seed (Mk 4:26–29), the sower is downright haphazard in scattering the seed, but God produces results. “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how” (Mk 4:26–27). St. Paul takes the same attitude in 1 Corinthians 3:6–7: “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.” Boyle’s work sheds a new light on the old adage that pastors are not called to be successful, but rather faithful.”

    Thanks for the great post!

    Rev. Carl Roth

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