The preaching life is a life of temptations and dangers, not the least of which is the temptation to think you’re more important than you really are. None of us is irreplaceable. It’s the message that’s essential, not the messenger. As long as the preacher remains a servant of the Word of God, he’ll be blessed. If, however, his ministry becomes a vehicle for his own self-aggrandizement, he’s got a big problem.
That’s why the preacher needs to remember another preacher (and sometime jailbird) named Paul. As we conclude the letter to the Ephesians, we take one last look at its writer. He’s not tapping out a sermon on Microsoft Word, a cup of good coffee within reach. He’s chained to a Roman guard, a prisoner of the state. Yet Paul is free. They may have chained his wrist, but they haven’t taped his mouth shut. All he wants to do is speak a message clear and bold. He doesn’t ask the people to pray for his release. He doesn’t ask them to pray he’d be treated well. He only asks that they ask God to let him preach Jesus.
Please pray for the Preacher. He has a charge to keep. He has an assignment. His task is not to entertain. It is not to dazzle, wow, and otherwise electrify a crowd. He is not charged to display his cleverness nor his profound knowledge. His assignment is to speak a word from God. He is to do what Paul and every preacher who has made a difference in people’s lives has done: tell, warn, and encourage with clarity, simplicity, and sincerity.
The simplest job description I can give for the preacher is this: He’s a sign. What do signs do? They inform, of course: SPEED LIMIT 55. They warn: HIGH VOLTAGE-KEEP OFF. They also cheer and relieve. Whose heart hasn’t leapt at the mere sight of RESTROOMS?
What don’t signs do? Imagine you’re driving along and you see this: SPEED LIMIT 55-AND DID YOU HEAR THE ONE ABOUT THE MAN WHO WAS FOLLOWING A TRUCKLOAD OF PIGS . . . You’d be doing 55 all right-across the yellow line and smack into an oncoming truck! Signs don’t decorate important messages.
So, why should I tell jokes or stories? Hopefully, they’ll serve to illustrate. They’re like raisins in your oatmeal. The raisins make it tastier, but it’s the oatmeal that has the vitamins. Pray that, if the preacher tells stories, uses illustrations, that they make his message more understandable. It’s the message that has the vitamins. It’s the message that’s important. Pray, then, that the preacher would be clear.
Pray, too, that he would be bold. Paul awaited an audience with Caesar, who held Paul’s life in his hands. I wonder if Paul was afraid. I wonder if Paul was tempted to compromise a bit, highlight the fact that he was guilty of no crime and downplay this strange message he’d proclaimed. What if he were to tell Caesar that Jesus, and not Caesar, was Lord? What if he were to point out the sins and shortcomings of the emperor, the need for repentance. Such talk might tend to have a rather negative effect on the judge’s judgment!
Paul asks for prayer for boldness. So do I. It’s not easy to tell people the truth in or out of the pulpit. I’ve never been imprisoned, but I have known people to get mad. That’s because truth is not always a comfortable fit. It’s not always soothing to hear. Sometimes it gets people mad. I don’t want people to be mad at me. I want people to like me. The only problem with that is, it’s not my job to get people to like me. It’s my job to tell the truth.
I need not beat you with a hammer, but I dare not tell you less than the truth. And not only must I tell the truth because you need to hear it. I must tell the truth because you’re not the only ones listening!
Hugh Latimer was a Protestant martyr who was condemned as a heretic and burned at the stake by “Bloody Mary,” queen of England in 1555. In a sermon before the royal court, he once said, “Latimer, thou art going to speak before the high and mighty king, Henry VII, who is able if he think fit, to take thy life away. Be careful what thou sayest. But Latimer, remember also that thou art about to speak before the King of kings and Lord of heaven. Take heed that thou does not displease him.”
Look at Paul again. See him moving his pen across the page. Hear the rattle of the chain he wears.
We may never have been imprisoned, but preachers do feel “chained” sometimes. One of the chains we chafe under is made up of many links called expectations. Everybody and his dog has a job description for the pastor: He’s a rancher, he’s a shepherd. He’s an administrator, he’s a scholar. He’s the Manager, he’s an employee. He’s a preacher, he’s a teacher. He’s the vision caster, he’s the hand holder. He’s in the office 9 hours a day and evangelizing 10. He’s a political activist. He’s a social critic. He’s two-two-two mints in one!
Let me tell you what I am. I am a preacher. I hesitate to use the term in the current cultural climate. The world doesn’t have much use for a preacher. That’s nothing new. What is new is that the church doesn’t seem to have much use for a preacher either. It has use for a corporate CEO, a marketing expert, a therapist, but not a preacher. Believe me, I have searched for another title to designate my work. I keep coming back to “preacher.” The term best defines who I am and what I do.
So, all I do is preach? No. As a matter of fact, it is because I’m a preacher that I do things besides preaching. I get into people’s homes. I make the nursing homes and the hospitals. It’s important that you understand why. I don’t do these things because somebody here thinks I ought to. I do these things because I’m a preacher. I do them because of the primacy of the Word of God. I visit people because in His Word, Jesus tells me to help the hurting and share the gospel with the unbelieving. I also do these things because I can’t preach this Word and really see it penetrate your life without sharing my life with you.
The closest we get in the New Testament to a ministerial handbook are the “pastoral letters” – Timothy and Titus. I have searched for a biblical job description for a man in my position. I’ve gone back to these letters again and again, hoping to find something different. Every time, I find the same thing. Paul is ready to leave this life. He is being poured out as a drink offering. After he’s gone, it’s up to Timothy and whomever Timothy appoints to carry on. What are Paul’s instructions to these men? What are they to do?
Preach the Word. Live the Word. That’s it.
In the end, the preacher has but two things to offer. No matter how talented he is, how big his church, he has just two things to offer – the Word he speaks and the life he lives. Here and now I renew a solemn pledge: As long as God grants me breath, strength, and opportunity, I will strive to deliver a word from God and a life inhabited by that word. This I pledge on the sure and certain knowledge that He is here right now.
The older I get, the less I chafe at the chain of men’s expectations. I wish I could say the same about the other chain. It’s not a chain I wear. It’s the chain bound round others – the chain of unbelief.
A woman in Kentucky tells this story: “After directory assistance gave me my boyfriend’s new telephone number, I dialed him and got a woman.
“Is Mike there?” I asked.
“He’s in the shower,” she responded.
“Please tell him his girlfriend phoned,” I said and hung up.
When he didn’t call back, I dialed again.
This time a man answered. “This is Mike.”
“You’re not my boyfriend!” I exclaimed.
“I know” he replied, “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell my wife for the past half-hour.”
I often feel like that guy on the phone, dealing with unbelief. Some people will not darken these doors no matter what we do or say. Some people are sitting here who will not confess the Lordship of Christ and follow Him. Some people who’ve confessed the Lordship of Christ and been baptized have disappeared. It’s hard to see how they can get very far, hobbled as they are by this heavy, rusty, log chain, the chain of unbelief. There are people who come here Sunday after Sunday. It’s hard to see how they make it up the stairs, bound as they are by the same chain.
Try as they might, preachers cannot break this chain. I know. I’ve tried. For an instant, I saw it. I reached out with both hands to grab it and break it. But my hands clasped empty air. The chain is invisible, inscrutable, rattling along the dark labyrinth of the human heart. It is a spiritual battle we are engaged in, beloved. The weapons of our warfare are spiritual. We have but two: the word of God and prayer.
I’ve told you of the preacher’s Charge, his Chains. Let me tell you of the preacher’s Church. It’s a praying church.
I wonder what would happen if at say, 9 p.m., Saturday night every one of us wherever we were would stop whatever we were doing and pray for God to move in this house on Sunday morning? Prayed for the teachers, for the worship leaders, and for the preacher?
You’ve heard of the “Purpose Driven Church.” What if our purpose was to be God-driven, God-directed, and God-inhabited?
Tell you what, next Saturday evening, wherever we are, let’s all stop what we’re doing . . . and find out. Matter of fact, let’s stop what we’re doing right now and pray.
Gary D. Robinson is Preaching Minister at Conneautville Church of Christ in Conneautville, PA.