By John Piper
Earnestness is the demeanor that corresponds to the weight of the subject matter of preaching. The opposite of earnest is not joyful but trivial, flippant, frivolous, chipper.
It is possible to be earnest and have elements of humor. But there is a vast difference between humor and levity—between robust laughter that grows up out of the realities of life and the silliness that constantly angles for a clever line and savvy turn of phrase.
Spurgeon had a way with words, for example, that caused some foolish things to look ludicrous. “Live on the substantial doctrines of grace, and you will outlive and out-work those who delight in the pastry and syllabubs of ‘modern thought.’”
Now “syllabubs” is an extraordinary word! I don’t know how many of his people knew it. It means “a sweetened drink or topping made of milk or cream beaten with wine or liquor and sometimes further thickened with gelatin and served as a dessert.”
It is a funny-sounding word. But he probably did not smile, and I doubt there was a calculated pause for the laughter to register. He is earnest but not so solemn in his earnestness that he cannot experience human folly as both sad and comical.
Unbroken seriousness of a melodramatic or somber kind will inevitably communicate a sickness of soul to the great mass of people. This is partly because life as God created it is not like that.
There are, for example, little babies in the world who are not the least impressed with or in need of our passion and zeal and earnest looks. They are cooing and smiling and calling for their daddies to get down and play with them.
The daddy who cannot do this will not understand the true seriousness of sin because he is not capable of enjoying what God has preserved from its ravages. He is really a sick man and unfit to lead others to health. He is in the end earnest about being earnest, not earnest about being joyful.
The real battle in life is to be as happy in God as we can be, and that takes a very special kind of earnestness, since God threatens terrible things if we will not be happy.
As far as I can remember in my years as a pastor, I have never told a joke in a sermon. Don’t feel picked on. My father, whom I esteem as high as any man, started every sermon with a joke.
But joke, or no joke, our people laugh with uninhibited joy when humorous things happen, and I laugh with them. For example, once I was comparing the dolphin with the jellyfish.
The dolphin swims where he wills. He is free and can cut against the current. But the jellyfish floats with the tide in bondage to every current that comes along. You can tell where I am going.
So I looked out over the people and said with a loud voice, “Who in the world would want to be a jellyfish?” And a little girl in the second or third row said loud enough for all to hear and full of joy: “I would!”
The place erupted in laughter. As it should.
There are hundreds of such things in life. And only the sick soul fails to laugh. But we live in a day when, it seems to me, few pastors are falling off their horse on the side of excessive seriousness.
The trend is all in the other direction—toward the flippant, casual, clever, hip feel of entertainment. The main problem with this is that it is out of sync with the subject matter of the Bible and diminishes our people’s capacities to discern and feel the weight of glorious truth.
The difference between an entertainment-oriented preacher and a Bible-oriented preacher is whether there is a manifest connection between the preacher’s words and the Bible as what authorizes what he says.
The entertainment-oriented preacher gives the impression that he is not tethered to an authoritative book in what he says. What he says doesn’t seem to be shaped and constrained by an authority outside himself.
He gives the impression that what he says has significance for reasons other than that it manifestly expresses the meaning and significance of the Bible. So he seems untethered to objective authority.
The entertainment-oriented preacher seems to be at ease talking about many things that are not drawn out of the Bible. In his message he seems to enjoy talking about other things more than he enjoys talking about what the Bible teaches.
His words seem to have a selfstanding worth as interesting or fun. They are entertaining. But they don’t give the impression that this man stands as the representative of God before God’s people to deliver God’s message.
The Bible-oriented preacher, on the other hand, does see himself that way—“I am God’s representative sent to God’s people to deliver a message from God.” He knows that the only way a man can dare to assume such a position is with a trembling sense of unworthy servanthood under the authority of the Bible.
He knows that the only way he can deliver God’s message to God’s people is by being rooted in it and by saturating his sermon with God’s own revelation in the Bible. The Bible-oriented preacher wants the congregation to know that his words, if they have any abiding worth, are in accord with God’s words. He wants this to be obvious to them.
That is part of his humility and his authority. Therefore, he constantly tries to show the people that his ideas are coming from the Bible. He is hesitant to go too far toward points that are not demonstrable from the Bible.
His stories and illustrations are constrained and reined in by his hesitancy to lead the consciousness of his hearers away from the sense that this message is based on and expressive of what the Bible says.
A sense of submission to the Bible and a sense that the Bible alone has words of true and lasting significance mark the Bible-oriented preacher but not the entertainment-oriented preacher.
People leave the preaching of the Bible-oriented preacher with a sense that the Bible is supremely authoritative and important and wonderfully good news. They feel less entertained than struck at the greatness of God and the weighty power of His Word.
Entertainment is not what our people need. It is not what the nation or the world needs.
John is the founder and teacher of Desiring God and the chancellor of Bethlehem College and Seminary.
Excerpted with permission from Brothers, We Are Not Professionals by John Piper. Copyright 2013, B&H Publishing Group.