It is difficult to imagine a pastor who does not thrill to preaching; yet there are some who claim to dread sermon preparation. Hopefully, they are in the minority, for one of the sheer delights of the ministry is proclaiming God’s Word faithfully from His pulpit to a waiting people.
With that said, it must be quickly added that when sermons are preached well, hard work mixed with an expected frustration is usually the chemistry involved. Walter J. Burghardt, a well-known Catholic priest recognized highly for his exceptional sermons, has revealed that he has
a love-hate relationship with each homily. To see me in action [in sermon preparation] is to shake your head in wonder…. I wrestle with words…. You do not tell God’s story or your own story lounging on pink clouds. Such creativity involves agony of spirit — hour after hour, sometimes deep into the night…. I like it, I revel in it, this kingdom of the imagination. But for all its fascination, for all its delight, there is a recurring insecurity. It’s like walking on the moon; you’re never quite sure what lies ahead.1
The forces of interruption are at work to destroy the sermon: phones ringing, parishioners stopping by the study to chat, hospital emergency calls, pressures of community obligations, one’s own tendency to procrastinate, weary imaginations, church committee meetings clogging the schedule, minutia of administrative detail begging for attention, thoughtless criticisms, lack of parishioners’ cooperation — even one’s own personal sluggishness, boredom with the job or spiritual depressions.
Yet the Word must get out. Sunday is coming. We stand under divine mandate as well as judgment. We are commissioned to see that “man’s blind eyes and deaf ears [are] opened, that he may be permitted to do and to hear God’s work ….”2 Yet in that are rhythms of pleasure and pain.
It is not often that the pastor will open up so as to tell of this side of the call. Usually he keeps these secrets to himself. Yet if we confessed our humanity more freely with trusted colleagues, we might find rest in the release. We would also discover that the burden has been common to preachers all along.
F. B. Meyer of another era wrote that “it is a beautiful privilege to work along with Christ, but we shall not serve in that blessed apprenticeship long without learning this lesson, that He has no pleasure in service rendered to Himself or others, that does not cost us blood!”3
Crucial to that toil is the research and ongoing study necessary to master our doctrinal grasp of the Scriptures; in other words, we must perfect our theological instruments in order to have our “sermons come out right.”
Theology is Foundational
If it is true that “the only man who really can understand the history of the world is a Christian,”4 then it follows that the preacher must be one of the precisioned minds who gives a lifetime to that understanding, specializing in the theological perspective. It is the minister’s duty to thrive on “the knowledge beyond the bounds of life,” as Robert Frost phrased the quest for meaning.
Some, however, do not want to be bothered. They consider the gospel message too simple to be cluttered with theology; or they pride themselves on having other gifts more charismatic. Still others plead that there really is no time for such a sideline, claiming they can make up for the gap in some other way. Is it that some regard theology as for stooges, eggheads or those in the ivory towers who cannot make it in the church’s marketplace?
For these clergypersons, they pay a high price for neglecting their theological moorings. Usually a shallow, superficial religion is the result. After a while, its cheapness shows.
The great preachers have been self-starters when it comes to the lifetime of theological precisioning. For instance, of Charles Spurgeon it was noted “that he was, above everything, a theologian. He had given thought to the great doctrine of the Bible from the time he had begun to read, and from that point he had been steadily building in his mind and heart a knowledge of the vast system of theology that is revealed in Scripture.”5
Naturally, the preacher does not give forth theological treatises from the pulpit any more than a doctor reads from medical journals when conversing with a patient. Yet would one want to trust a physician who did not study those medical journals?
Sermon carver Burghardt puts it clearly when he writes: “True enough, it is not theology I preach; for the pulpit is not a classroom. But without theology I risk preaching platitudes….”6 How many preachers could profit from such advice derived from personal experience? How many of our sermons are stuffed with worn cliches, code terms only known to the in-group and buzz words foreign to the novices? Do we resort to such trampled turf because of our shabby theology?
Our subject matter as ministers presumes our study of deity; consequently, such delvings presume theological research. As Paul Tillich has set forth theology’s definition by writing that “the object of theology is what concerns us ultimately,”7 then the spiritual leader called pastor is bound ethically to devote his thinking abilities to theology — God, the Ultimate. Being theologically aware is to be humanly sensitive to mankind’s need, “having experienced the tragic ambiguities of our historical existence and having totally questioned the meaning of existence”8 so as to discover the meaning of the Kingdom of God.
Therefore, let us once and for all discard the false conclusion that “theology is … a department of life, confined to musty seminaries and a few people who happen to have a fascination for that sort of thing. It is life.”9
As if baiting us to God’s merry-go-round, Tillich lures the preacher into theological adventure with this swirl:
Symbolically speaking, God answers man’s questions, and under the impact of God’s answers man asks them. Theology formulates the questions implied in human existence, and theology formulates the answers implied in divine self-manifestation under the guidance of the questions implied in human existence. This is a circle which drives man to a point where question and answer are not separated.10
The creative challenge, then, comes in getting off the carousel long enough to relate the divine dazzle to exuberance, hurt, hope, desperation, longings, coping and death. As Karl Barth has stated: “Any theology which would not even consider the necessity to respond to God personally could only be false theology.”11 True theology grasps the Lord’s revealings in order to couple them to the wandering heart.
Is it not exciting to think about God? That is theology. “Evangelical theology is concerned with Immanuel, God with us! Having this God for its object, it can be nothing else but the most thankful and happy science!”12
Manufacturing the Words
Moving from the necessary theological enterprise, the parish leader is called upon weekly to manufacture the words which will relate his study to life for those who show up for the sermons. This is what we refer to as sermon preparation.
The exercise of molding the message could be regarded as one shivering street person sharing a candle with another, both coming into the warmth of mercy. Barth reminds us that “the question of practical theology is how the Word of God may be served by human words.”13 Those words then are to lift, inspire and draw near so as to come into the presence of God Himself — the Light.
Realizing that “speculative theology” (as Dwight L. Moody spoke of nothing other than opinionated discourse from a pulpit) has no lasting place in the Christian sermon, the preacher bases his message on the Bible’s authority. “Churches are half empty and … millions never darken a church door. People are not fed. They are hungering and thirsting for the pure Gospel and they get pulpit essays and discussions of questions. They go away … disgusted and then they stay away”14 when the Scriptures are ignored.
Authority is what magnetized people to Jesus; “He taught them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes” (Matthew 7:29, RSV). The Christian speaker’s conviction, then, is based on that of Jesus: “‘… I do nothing on my own authority but speak thus as the Father taught me … I always do what is pleasing to Him'” (John 8:28-29, RSV). So it was that Jesus was known as “… a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people …” (Luke 24:19, RSV).
It is from the divine revelations as set forth in the Word that we so “… uncover and interpret what God has said, what God says now.”15 When preachers are tempted to doodle with passing theological fads, they should go back to the bedrock truth of Hebrews 4:12: “The Word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrew 4:12, NASB). With this, “the Bible gives preachers a place to stand”16 that will prove steadfast even when this life has been lost in the winds of eternity: “I will keep thy law continually, for ever and ever …” (Psalm 119:44, RSV).
Where then do we go from there? With the Word as our power-base, in what direction should the preacher go in getting that sermon up for Sunday? That is the frustration that hammerlocks some pastors. So it is that they feel as if the more talented fly above them with superior wings while they flip and flop in dustballs.
Samuel M. Shoemaker, highly respected Episcopal rector, put such anguish into verse:
I live in a sea of words,
Where the nouns and adjectives flow;
And the verbs speak of action that never takes place,
And the scenes come and go.17
Confessing our total reliance upon the Creator, we await His materials, His illumination. Without His hand upon ours, the clay cracks and the contents spill in every direction.
Sermon preparation forms within the context of prayer. This is not just the opening prayer for a new day nor for the research time in the pastor’s study. It is God-consciousness. Through all the world’s noise, it is that prayer that keeps on listening with the inner ear of the soul pressed up against the Father’s chest so as to hear the beat of His eternal heart. It is reasonable to conclude with Dag Hammarskjold that “only he who listens can speak.”18
It is in that to-and-fro of listening and responding that God honors our individualities. He prizes our personal uniquenesses. In understanding this, the preacher can find a real rest juxtaposed with the toil of sermon preparation. The rest comes in realizing God prizes what we are able to accomplish with the abilities He has planted within us.
This relieves each pastor of having to imitate another. There is no need to parrot someone else’s style. We can learn from one another but that is far different from being in bondage to an inferiority complex which dictates that we must mimic some other divine.
Glen C. Knecht encourages us by saying that “the call to originality is a call to the minister to be himself — joyously, thankfully, and creatively.”19
Could it have been that part of Charles Wesley’s bashful streak was due to his looming preacher brother, John? Yet Charles was his own person. He had that special personality blessed by God to do what God wanted done as only Charles could see it through. Yet with his “shy and retiring side … he had to force himself to stand before the ten thousand people who came to Moorfields on July 8, 1730, to hear him preach on the text, ‘Thou shalt call his name Jesus; for he shall save his people from their sins’.”20
The obvious question, however, must come to mind: Why was it that Charles could not see that if ten thousand appeared to hear him preach, there must have been something distinct about his preaching that drew them?
Yet this feeling of inadequacy persisted with Charles. He confided to George Whitefield in a letter dated August 10 that:
I am continually tempted to leave off preaching, and hide myself…. Do not reckon on me, my brother, in the work God is doing: for I cannot expect he should long employ one who is ever longing and murmuring to be discharged.21
Relax, preacher friend. God loves you in your own redeemed self whether you be extrovert or introvert, bombastic or sedate, hilarious or serious. It is when we strap ourselves into some artificial personality type that we stifle God’s gift of originality. It hurts not only us but the sharing of the gospel. After all, God does need all kinds to get out the message for there are all kinds out there to hear it.
I am unique before the Father, blessed with intricate designs which He has made within my thinking, my expression and reaching out to the souls under my care. I also have been given a lifetime in which to explore this God-given originality. With all the books out telling preachers how to preach, none of them can do it perfectly; there is always that margin for individuality. The authors may share their insights but all of them must provide me with my own space for developing God’s special challenges just for me.
“Look ahead to next Sunday’s sermon not as a chore but as a chance, not an obligation but an opportunity. The faithful in front of you do not expect you to reduce the national budget or bring peace to Nicaragua;”22 most of them will be quite pleased to hear a kind word from the Lord spoken through your lips. The truth is that for the six days preceding Sunday, most of those in the pew have not heard many kind words from anyone and they are becoming anxious.
Look then at the coming message from the pulpit as “an offering in which everything is placed before the living God”23 for His forming and blessing. Surprises may then abound whereas the desert spaces previously threatened.
Casting the Crucible
The more we learn to listen to the heartbeat of the Father and the more we yield to the freedom He has granted us in our own uniquenesses, the more we will discover varying sermon themes and styles of delivery provided by the Spirit.
Picture the preachers of Christ standing behind their sacred desks. Some are stout; others are thin. Some have bushy hair and still others are bald. There are the young and old, the ones who project loudly and others who speak in moderate tones. Some have been at the job since their early twenties; others are career-changers. Some have dark skin while others have light. Some speak slowly; others rattle on quite speedily.
Yet with all the God-ordained variety, there are certain constants which are bestowed by the Spirit. One is a graciousness about the man or woman who dares to interpret the eternal communication.
When that gospel-teller is filled with the presence of Jesus, he or she is overcome with the Word who dared to indwell flesh (John 1:14). Jesus appears again and again in His called-out pastors. The Word takes on flesh — stout, thin, dark, light, handsome, homely.
And when Jesus shows His face in ours, it is gracious — “full of grace” (John 1:14). Whether the preacher be a country bumpkin or a Harvard scholar, when Jesus comes upon him in the breaking of the bread, there is a grace-filled power in the blessed room.
In our culture’s accent on slick, fast performers who have been taught in the trade of manipulation, it may be somewhat difficult to come upon graciousness in the pulpit. A whole crop of speakers has been taught otherwise: the quick-fix, the mimicking, the playing to the masses and the pressing of the flesh in order to spotlight human egocentricity. Nevertheless, one cannot get away from the pull of Jesus’ grace; our primary role model is the Savior.
Secondly, God’s messengers will not only reveal Christ’s grace-filled presence but also His truth. When Jesus went about His ministry He was overcome with truth (John 14:1; “… full of … truth”). He spoke of eternal verities which simply cannot change because they originate in the changeless Creator.
With the Bible intelligently researched and conscientiously delivered, the Christian preacher stands by heaven’s revealed truth. As Carl Gustav Jung observed, “our world is so exceedingly rich in delusions that a truth is priceless.”
Thirdly, there will be the glory. It was recorded of Jesus, namely, that He was “full of … glory … as … from the Father” (John 1:14). Not the glory of today’s strutted arrogance, even among the so-called religious celebrities. Not the glory of hype nor hip, Madison Avenue nor Madonna; but the glory that shown around Him as He stooped to pick up a wet towel from a borrowed basin. It is the glory that pressed its soft but certain glow into the corners of Judas’ and Peter’s hearts as He washed their dusty soles. That is glory so foreign to this world’s definition of fame. That is glory so strange to this age’s mistaking caricature for character, not able to distinguish posing from poise.
The glory of the Lord is always serving, whether in providing a Garden of Eden for Adam and Eve or climbing atop a Roman cross. The world thinks of glory as Hollywood while God defines it as holiness. Broadway knows it in terms of popularity while heaven recognizes it as purity. It is a sanctified spilling out from riches to rags in order to lift the repentant ones from rags to riches.
Nevertheless, there is still a chance that the weary world may hear the message. We have that opportunity each Lord’s Day morning. Every seven days, Golgotha’s representatives stand before the waiting people. We may abdicate the chance by begging for more money in order to purchase still more condos for ourselves. Or we may miss it by parading some denominational power play, appearing more like Wall Street business brokers than cross-broken preachers.
Yet if we will witness with towel and basin in hand, one by one the tired folk in front of us will sense the presence of the Kingdom as they watch us wash their dusty souls.
1. Walter J. Burghardt, Preaching: The Art and the Craft (New York: Paulist Press, 1987), 87, 188.
2. Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology: An Introduction (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1960), 169.
3. F. B. Meyer, five “Musts” of the Christian Life (Chicago: Moody Press, 1927), 112.
4. D. Martyn-Lloyd Jones, I Am Not Ashamed (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1986), 180.
5. Armond Dallimore, Spurgeon (Chicago: Moody Press, 1984), 64.
6. Burghardt, 59.
7. Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, Vol. 1 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), 12.
8. Ibid, 62.
9. Daniel D. Walker, Enemy in the Pew? (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), 40.
10. Tillich, 61.
11. Barth, 165.
12. Ibid, 12.
13. Ibid, 182.
14. J. G. Pollock, Moody: A Biographical Portrait of the Pacesetter in Modern Mass Evangelism (New York: Macmillan, 1963), 301.
15. Burghardt, 59.
16. James Montgomery Boice, Standing on the Rock (Wheaton, Illinois: Living Studies, Tyndale, 1984), 17.
17. Samuel M. Shoemaker, Revive Thy Church, Beginning with Me (New York: Harper & Row, 1948), 45.
18. Dag Hammarskjold, Markings (London: Faber and Faber, 1964), 35.
19. Samuel T. Logan, Jr., Ed., The Preacher and Preaching (New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1986), 281.
20. John R. Tyson, Charles Wesley on Sanctification (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Frances Asbury Press/Zondervan, 1986), 15 as taken from Charles Wesley’s Journal, vol. 1, 157.
21. Ibid, 15-16.
22. Burghardt, 66.
23. Barth, 166.

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