By Don Henderson
I was waiting for the light to change as I stood on the corner of University and 45th Street. Across the way stood a street preacher, a colorful figure with long curly hair. He held up a sign quoting James 4:7, 8, “Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you.”
The words were imprecisely scrawled on a stark white background. From a distance the sign was difficult to read, but since I was familiar with the passage I could fill in the blurred lines. And, since it began with “Submit” I fully expected him to be a fire and brimstone preacher.
When the light changed I crossed the street with some misgiving. This was not our first trip to Seattle, but it was my first time in this neighborhood. However, my misgiving had little to do with my location and more to do with my expectation. I would soon encounter the street preacher. Would his be an authentic proclamation honoring God or would it be fire and brimstone preaching that polarizes people and demeans the love God has for a lost and hurting world?
I must admit, people like him make me uneasy. In fact, I think it would be safe to say that in most circles street preachers are an affront to the cultural sensibilities in us all. Religion is personal; it’s not street talk—or is it?
My moments of reflection about the street preacher conjured up images from the pages of the Bible. The more I reflected on these images, the more I realized they conflicted with my spiritual sensitivities. And I was reminded that most of the prophets were street preachers. The prophet’s venue was the city streets. There were no civic centers or football stadiums, as we know them, in which to press his message.
I remembered Noah and Nehemiah, Isaiah and Jeremiah, Jonah in Nineveh, and Jesus in Jerusalem. Their words are read in worship every Sunday for millions of people to hear.
In fact, the Sunday previous, our hometown preacher read from the pulpit a passage from John 7, where Jesus is in Jerusalem during a national holiday. Amid streets packed with people Jesus cries out in a loud voice, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink” (v. 37).
Now, from the pulpit these words were nonoffensive. They were church words for good morning worship. But that does not change the reality that Jesus first spoke them on a crowded street corner, crying out in a loud voice no less.
A Word From the Lord
By our standards the prophets of old seemed to lack social graces. Most of God’s servants were unconventional.
Jeremiah was instructed by God to, “Proclaim all these words in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem” (11:6). These were words of condemnation (not a popular message).
God instructed Ezekiel to dig a hole in the wall and carry his household belongings through it, like a tenant trying to beat the landlord out of next month’s rent. Then he was to proclaim in the streets, “This is a sign to you.”
The Bible is replete with examples of eccentric behavior on the part of God’s ambassadors. We have learned to excuse their unusual ways because they were special envoys. They are Bible people. Nonetheless, when they had a word from the Lord they spoke it with conviction and without misgiving. Therein lies the problem.
To be an effective preacher in this era one must have credentials and cultural sensitivity, most of which ancient prophets seemed to lack. From Isaiah the prophet to John the Baptist, they were not politically correct orators.
Maybe this explains my misgivings about the Seattle street preacher. From a distance he was an unsavory character. My perception changed, though, once I got close enough to hear him address his “Nineveh.”
Unlike Jonah, who wanted Ninevites destroyed, this man was calling out blessings to people and gently reminding them that Jesus will return soon. His Jamaican accent and encouraging words put me at ease. I greeted him, and he said to me, “God bless you, brother.”
I looked into his dark eyes. They were bright and clear. He had the look of a man with a clean conscience. My experience with the street preacher was heartwarming. And now I am glad we met.
This street preacher’s image has left an indelible impression on me. In many respects, he was a bright spot on an otherwise gray morning. Placarded by two more signs, one on each side of his body, he was a walking Bible, light unto a dark world. On one side were quotes from Galatians and 1 John, and on the other side, Jeremiah and Matthew.
To this cultural melting pot of university students and preoccupied businesspeople he offered a word of truth, hope, and kindness. This is what I had to grapple with. In spite of his dress, diet, and demeanor, the street preacher spoke the truth. And he did so with both passion and compassion.
The Day of the Lord
My wife and I were in the university neighborhood for a joyous occasion: Our son and his wife were having their first baby. He was born in the Medical Center on the campus of the University of Washington. They named him Malachi. He was born into a world of attending nurses, busy doctors, and gloating grandparents.
Even though Malachi is too young to appreciate all the technological advances that aided his delivery, someday he will. Toys, telephones, and computers await him. It won’t be long until he is knee-deep in techno. All of that does not concern me, though. I am most concerned that he will get the simple message of the street preacher: That God is love and all who call upon him will be reconciled to him.
Of course all Christians can’t become street preachers. Each of us has his own audience, his own approach. What I am most concerned for is the freedom granted the preacher to claim his public venue. It is all too possible that the greatest tyranny will come from people who consider the street preacher an unsavory character, an affront to our social sensitivities. That was me until I met him. Let’s keep the street preacher free.
God closed out the Old Testament with words to Malachi, the street preacher. In the last chapter he instructed the people that one more street preacher would precede the coming of the Lord. “See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and dreadful day of the Lord comes” (Malachi 4:5).
The day of the Lord is to be a time of reconciliation: “He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers” (Malachi 4:6). That’s a message we can stand to have repeated. The day of the Lord, and every day for that matter, is a day of reconciliation born of and grounded in the reality of God’s love.
I hope my little Malachi gets to hear that message.
Don Henderson is a retired minister who lives in Emmett, Idaho.