In Season and Out of Season
Y2K has not always been on everyone’s lips, but it will be. For years, those who had taken the responsibility of warning others were pretty lonely. Now that we have little time left, we have mounting awareness—and mounting consternation.
In the midst of this, many pastors are wondering about their duty to their people. A few pastors have attempted an extreme solution, trying (sometimes successfully) to get their people to run for the tall grass. Sadly, many others have remained relatively complacent, and probably will remain so until the secular media give them reason to be respectably concerned, followed soon after by the panic of the unprepared. But increasingly, many pastors want to know how to be biblically responsible right where they are. And even though this is America, we have no constitutional right to easy answers.
When the center of a culture gives way, as it has in ours, we must learn to look past the obvious. For example, modern Americans tend to think that if God were to show His displeasure, it would be only through plagues, earthquakes, military disasters, or whatever. Or at least we think we know this. If asked about it, we would perhaps mutter something about biblical judgments and the four horsemen.
But another, lesser-known biblical judgment should be kept in mind. God says that He can make the heart of a people so fearful that they flee from a windblown leaf (Lev. 26:36). They run though no one pursues (Lev. 26:37). They are filled with suspense and dread (Deut. 28:66), and terror reigns within their homes (Deut. 32:25). Because of the turmoil, confusion, madness, and a despairing heart are common (Deut. 28:20, 28, 65). All these are indications that God’s hand is upon a people, and not for blessing.
Now it is crucial that we distinguish between scriptural injunctions not to panic (Phil. 4:6; 1 Peter 5:7) and the humanistic soothing that says we should not worry because nothing is wrong. Actually, plenty is wrong, but the teaching of the Bible here is that the chaos of panic is not a response to chastisement but is part of the chastisement itself. For the believer it is wrong to give way to fear, because a sovereign God is controlling all the details for His own glorious purposes.
In light of this, what should a pastor do to prepare his people? The rule of thumb is that our duties do not change with the seasons; we should begin doing all those things we should have been doing anyway. In what follows, we should hope that we find nothing drastically new.
First, the pastor must be well-informed; he should not be provincial in his reading. Too many pastors get caught up in the day-to-day administration of their churches, focused only on getting through the next Lord’s Day. But the duty of pastors in times of disorientation is to preach the Word in season and out of season. In order to do this, the pastor has to have some awareness of the nature of the disorientation. But in his political and cultural reading, he must remember that theology always comes out our fingertips. Social calamities, therefore, must not be understood as “random bad things”—our God is a God who keeps covenant, and this necessarily includes covenant blessings and curses. And this cannot be understood apart from a diligent study of Scripture and church history, up to the present. How many pastors are like the men of Issachar, who understood the times and knew what Israel should do (1 Chron. 12:32)?
Second, a man’s preaching does not have to be “relevant” to be relevant. When current events appear with great frequency in the pulpit, along with multiple clippings from the major news magazines, something is seriously wrong. A pastor has a duty to have the pulse of the culture in which he preaches, but when he preaches, he ascends the pulpit in order to preach the Word. But what aspects of the Word? Which topics? Which books of the Bible? In times of social distress, the most appropriate thing a pastor could do would be to cease being a “whispering Calvinist.” If there is disaster, did not the Lord do it (Amos 3:6)? In times of cultural disintegration, the best gift the people can receive is that of scriptural understanding. But if God is not completely in control, such understanding is impossible. And such understanding does not happen unless … how will they hear without a preacher? In the face of a looming Y2K crisis, the pulpit should not be filled with the looming Y2K crisis, but rather with the majesty, glory, sovereignty, goodness, severity, and mercy of almighty God.
In times of complacency, pastors too often are tempted to avoid anything that might excite “controversy.” But this is to heal the wounds of the people lightly, saying “Peace, peace” when there isn’t any. Samuel Johnson once commented that being hanged in a fortnight has a good side—it concentrates the mind wonderfully. In the same way, a social crisis like Y2K may have the salutary benefit of getting many pastors to discharge their office.
Lastly, through God’s grace, a pastor should labor to establish covenant community within the congregation. In too many modern churches, the parishoners have the same ties to one another that fellow shoppers at Sears do, which is to say, next to none. But a church should be a place where trust, knowledge, and commitment are all cultivated. The church at Jerusalem in the first century had been told that the city would be leveled. In the face of this disaster, the records show that they truly loved one another (Acts 4:33–34).
Let us hope God grants us the same gift, and that great grace will be upon us all.