Pastors are human. Except for the one who said, “I Am the Good Pastor” (John 10:11; the word shepherd is the same as pastor), every pastor is a sinner.
Pastors have strengths and weaknesses. They have talents and faults. Because they are sinful humans, pastors can be lazy, become discouraged or bitter, complain about people, lose their patience, be overly harsh or judging, compromise their confession in a desire for approval, and struggle with doubt or unbelief. They may be slow to say they are sorry, and too slow to forgive.
People see the frailties of their pastors. They are tempted to concentrate on the failings of the pastor, to be bored with his sermons, to fault him for the church’s failure to grow, be dissatisfied with him, or act offended when the pastor overlooks something or speaks or acts wrongly. They may contribute to the culture of criticism and blame that sometimes characterizes the visible church.
But God sends the pastor. The divine call of a pastor means God has called and sent that pastor to serve these people, and it is His will for the pastor to preach and teach His Word and for the people to gladly hear and learn it.
If we were in the divine throne room and both saw and heard the Lord Himself calling and sending our pastor, wouldn’t we see the situation the right way?
Isaiah 6 actually shows this!
ISAIAH 6:1-4 (Read the entire section from your Bible, or sing ELH #40, verse 1!)
Isaiah is a visually oriented prophet. Typically Isaiah does not only hear the Word of the Lord; he sees it: “The word [or the vision] that Isaiah saw…” But this time, Isaiah says, “I saw the Lord!”
Whom exactly did Isaiah see? In John 12:41, after quoting Isaiah 6, the author of the fourth gospel says by divine inspiration, “These things Isaiah said when he saw His glory and spoke of Him.” St. John is speaking about Christ. He says that Isaiah saw Christ. This is one reason the great Bible translator St. Jerome said, “It seemed to me that Isaiah uttered not a prophecy but a gospel.”
Isaiah saw the only true God, the one God in three Persons, who appeared to Moses in the burning bush (Exodus 3:14; John 8:58). A few verses later, this God will ask, “Whom shall I [the one God] send, And who will go for Us [Three Persons]?”
Isaiah was being called by God Himself, by Christ who “ascended on high and gave gifts to men… some to be apostles, some prophets, some pastors…” (Ephesians 4:8, 11). Isaiah goes on to say that the Lord was revealed in a form that included wearing a robe.
This is a preview of the human nature of Christ. “Yet He whom heav’ns cannot contain, Chose to abide on earth with men…” (ELH #211 v. 2).
What happens when a pastor is called? The pastor who is being called, and the congregation issuing the call, stand in the presence of Christ.
ISAIAH 6:5-8 (Read the entire section from your Bible.)
After Isaiah receives a demonstration of God’s power and majesty and sees the holy angels with their pure lips chanting holy praise, he repents. “So I said: Woe is me, for I am undone, because I am a man of unclean lips …” He confesses his sinfulness — something a congregation is blessed to hear its pastor say. A pastor should lead the way in repentance.
An angel is sent to Isaiah with a burning coal from the heavenly altar, and the fire of God’s love (a sign of the Holy Spirit) cleanses Isaiah by purifying his lips. So there would be no misunderstanding, the angel “gospels” Isaiah: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your iniquity is taken away, and your sin is purged.”
Even though God calls pastors who are sinners, and who sin, He also cleanses them. Pastors need to confess their sins, too. Pastors need to hear the Gospel of forgiveness, too. Every pastor, like Isaiah, feels unqualified to speak to another about his sin and uncleanness, when he has so much of it! Every pastor, like Isaiah, is in danger of speaking the Gospel at people and not to them, to be in delivery mode but not in receiving mode.
It is important for a pastor to have a pastor, too. Like Isaiah, a pastor needs to be put in receiving mode, to receive forgiveness of his sins and a good conscience. This helps protect the pastor against despair and feeling isolated in the office of the ministry. It helps protect a pastor from thinking more highly of himself than he ought to think and over-spiritualizing what he is called to do. It helps him to humble himself by the Word. It is the only way a pastor can daily respond like Isaiah, “Here am I! Send me!”
The job of a pastor is to forgive sins. It is hard to do that when the pastor himself has a bad conscience. But God does not just teach that He calls sinners into the preaching office and forgives their sins. Here in Isaiah 6, He shows the preacher being cleansed and forgiven with visible means! The forgiveness of sins comes from the presence of God, from His throne room, to the preacher (and from the preacher to the people). It is a throne of grace!
ISAIAH 6:9-13 (Read the entire section from your Bible.)
People do not always repent. People do not always listen. Sometimes they stay home from church in droves. This makes the job of a pastor difficult and sometimes discouraging.
God speaks to Isaiah about this. The time of King Uzziah was a time of prosperity and peace. Such times can lead people to ignore God. Evangelism is difficult because people who have everything take a ho-hum attitude toward their spiritual danger. Luther said, “When, because of God’s blessings, men become obstinate, it is not easy to help them.”
This “hearing-but-not-understanding” language is quoted by Jesus in Matthew 13:10-17. Even Jesus met with this response! The Holy Spirit creates faith in those who hear the Gospel, but many resist the Holy Spirit and do not believe. The voice of an anguished pastor is heard in Isaiah’s question, “Lord, how long?” The answer is that many will perish — even though God wants all to be saved — but a remnant “will return.”
The preacher is to keep preaching. Pastors and their people are not to evaluate by results — which often will discourage them — but keep delivering the pure teaching of the Word. Even pastors have to be told to trust the means of grace! They do what God has called them to do and trust Him for blessed results.
God promises, first to Isaiah to encourage the preacher and then through Isaiah to teach the people, that His Word “that goes forth from My mouth” through the called preacher “shall not return to Me void, but it shall accomplish what I please, and it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:11).
Reverend Jerry Gernander
Bethany Lutheran Church