A great lord is that, and a healer, and it is a thing passing strange to me that the healing hand should also wield the sword. It is one of my favorite quotes from Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.
Coming only weeks after hearing Jesus say He had come not to bring peace to the world but a sword, I was reminded of that sweet line in the Return of the King. It reminds of how both Paul and Hebrews describe the Word as the Sword of the Lord, a two edged sword to kill and to heal. It is far too easy a thing to make this sword into something fake, a rubber sword that can do nothing at all. We have in many ways done this in an effort to take offense away from the Gospel (as if that can ever be done and still be the Gospel!).
I listened in on a discussion of preaching in which one Lutheran described hearing about Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer on Christmas Eve in God's House and another complain about a funeral sermon that offered the half-baked promise of an end to suffering without the beginning of a new flesh in the resurrection. I have wiggled in the pew when I heard the same kind of weak word which spoke little of sin and Christ's work of atonement but everything about getting ahead in life or achieving what wanted or being a better person along the way.
Dulling the edge of the Sword of the Word does nothing to render it more plausible or less shocking but it does keep it from offering us real hope and real healing. That is the conundrum. What we think we are doing to help the Gospel become more winsome only empties that very same Gospel of its promise and redemption.
Though some suggest it is a preaching problem, I wonder if it is not a faith problem. Do we really believe the Word will not return empty and do we really believe it will accomplish God's purpose in sending it forth? We have treated God's Word as something weak and fragile to be protected and defended. But the Word of the Lord does need or expect gatekeepers or defenders. It asks only for hearts to trust and voices to proclaim. The promise lies not in us but in the Word -- the Word with its sharpness as well as its shine. God did not enter the Virgin's womb to be admired or respected or even to win over the skeptics. No, indeed, He entered flesh and blood to save the sinner weak and powerless to save himself and to be the one and only Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He is not the giver of peace but He is our peace. He does not speak about forgiveness but addresses us with the absolving voice that speaks and sins fall away. He does not call us to improve ourselves in order to win His affection but His love refuses to leave us as we were. He cleanses us by His blood and clothes us with His righteousness and creates in us new and clean hearts.
I seldom struggle to make sermons memorable or noteworthy in any way but I do struggle to make sure that the text is preached and faithfully preached. I expect that I am like most Lutheran pastors in this way (at least I hope so). We as preachers can certainly get in the way of the Word and omit the Gospel from our proclamation but the Word remains the Lord's and the outcome is His as well. It is given to us to preach that Word, faithfully, and God will plant the seed and bring it forth to bear His own appointed fruit. That said, like most Lutheran pastors I know, I do take it personally when folks fall away, when the cares of this life steal their faith or rob them of their hope, and I nearly always assume I could have or should have done something to prevent it. That is not a bad thing -- it only means pastors care. But it is not about me. The Word goes forth to accomplish His purpose. It is His Word and He is the speaker even when it comes from my mouth. It will cut and kill with the force of the Law those whose pride refuses to bend and it will lift up, heal, and restore those weighed down with sin and sorrowful with repentance.
We had better not work to make the Word less offensive because if we do it will also fail to heal. Yet we had better not work to make the Word more offensive or to cause offense to draw away from that Word. As Luther once said,