Here's the easiest way to make sure we're preaching love and grace and not emptiness:
Come to Jesus first.
Our church services build toward this culminating moment, usually somewhere near the end of Sunday morning, where the convicted, the contrite, even the faithful come to Jesus. Not just our church services, either. Our church retreats tend to do the same thing. Our denominational rallies. Our youth group events. Our conventions and conferences and seminars. All are designed toward this peak moment, this one emotional moment, when those in attendance respond and "come."
Then the final song is sung, the final prayers are said, and everyone walks out to the parking lot. You come to church for an hour, get three minutes with Jesus near the end (if you so desire them; not everyone comes to Jesus every week), and then scurry on about your life before anything even has time to settle into your heart.
It's because it's far easier for us to bring a man to Christ than to know what to do with him once he gets there. It's the difference, as our week this week started out, between preaching wine and liquor and preaching grace and love. One is far more difficult than the other.
But if you read through the Gospel accounts of Jesus and His ministry, it's very clear that coming to Jesus was never the culminating event in a person's story. It was never the last thing someone did. None of these stories are told and result in masses of people coming to Him. No. The people come first. The men come first. The women come first. And then something holy happens.
And the truth is, if we'd get this right, it's much easier to preach love and grace. If we came into our churches on Sunday morning and the very first thing we all did was come to Jesus, then we'd have the entire rest of the hour to hear Him speak. We wouldn't have to talk about Him any more; we could simply let Him speak. Then we learn about love. We learn about grace. And it all feels very natural. Instead of building toward an emptiness that draws us to the Cross in the closing comments, we begin with our emptiness and build toward something greater. Instead of men walking away not knowing what they understand about God at all, they walk away knowing without a doubt that God is love.
When Jesus came to the hillside to preach, the people were there to hear Him. When the people were there to hear Him, Jesus came to the hillside to preach. When the blind men came out to the streets to call out His name, He passed by. When He passed by, the blind men were standing in the streets calling out His name. Jesus never did anything unless the people were already there, and the people were never there without the expectation that Jesus was going to do something.
Have we lost our expectation?
When was the last time you went to church and expected Jesus not only to do something, but even to be there? My guess is that it's been a long time. A very long time. Because we're trained to believe that once we utter an opening prayer, we have the next hour set aside to figure out if Jesus is going to show up or not and, if He does, if He's going to do something or not.
It's not just church, by the way. It's not just preachers and pastors. It's all of us. We begin our prayer time in our own hearts, rather than in the hearts of God. We start with a "Dear Lord" and wonder if God will show up at all before we get to the "Amen." We sing a worship song when it comes on the radio, and just at the moment that we start to feel the tiniest inkling of God, the chorus is over and a new song has come on. We're talking with our friends, our families, our neighbors, and if God comes up at all, it's because we've run out of other things to talk about. Even in the secular things - we choose our career paths, our timelines, our adventures, our conquests, our investments, our families...you name it, and we only hope that by the end of it all, God will have shown up somewhere. Our entire existence seems to take on the church model: from our first cry to our last breath, we're always building toward some divine moment when, we hope, Jesus might show up.
That's not how any of this works. That's now how life was meant to be. That's not how prayer was meant to be. That's not how church was meant to be. The entire story of Jesus starts with coming. His coming to us, our coming to Him. That's the place where we begin.
The rest...is love and grace.