In 81 B.C., Roman General Pompey conquered a region in Africa on behalf of the Romans. In a display of bravado and pompous power, the young Pompey celebrated what the Romans called a triumph, a victory parade to celebrate their power, pride and victorious conquest. Pompey decided to ride into Rome in grand fashion, riding gloriously in a chariot pulled by four elephants. However, he failed to measure the size of the Roman city gates and the plan was thwarted because the elephants were too large to fit through the city gates.
Pompey’s foiled plan was an effort to reinforce Roman power, the Latin concept of subjugation, and to remind all who would see the elephants of Rome’s power to harness, yoke and subjugate its opponents. Just as a square peg will not fit through a round hole, large elephant heads with flapping ears do not fit through a small gate. Pompey’s plan faltered in a stumbling and humbling display of embarrassment, a kind of agony.
When it comes to preaching in the 21st century, the agony of preaching creates similar feelings for the preacher: The square peg/round hole sermon that does not fit the needs of hearers; the schematic, perfect outline of elephants’ heads, not quite fitting through the ear-gates of hearers; the boastful-bravado sermon fading as a Fourth of July firecracker fizzling out and leaving nothing but embarrassment. In a word, preachers are finding preaching a more difficult task than ever before. Some describe it as agonizing. Why?
Consider the story of Preacher Pompey, a young gun aiming to swagger into the pulpit and display his bravado of sermon expertise, fitted nicely in neatly packaged words with stories interesting enough to keep your attention, similar to watching elephant tricks at the circus. Except suddenly, Pastor Pompey wakes up and realizes the challenge—the agony of preaching.
If preaching is kerux, proclamation of God’s Word and the good news of the gospel decorated with the goodness of Christ, then the crux of the matter becomes preaching powerfully the tenets of Christ. Except something strange happened after years of preaching—Pastor Pompey waltzed into a different world, one captivated by cell phone texts; Hollywood celebrities; updated social statuses; stay-at-home-in-bed-I’ll-podcast-a-sermon-this-week; and a generation of parents leading their horses to sports, but not teaching their horses to drink of living water.
Forgive my shifting metaphor from elephants to horses and likening children to horses; but, Houston we have a problem. Gaining the attention of hearers who are not tuned in, not present to hear the biblical text, or those who do so wishing not for a sermon on the family from
Pastor Pompey knew he was in trouble as a preacher when one Monday morning he mentioned to a church member having missed him the previous Sunday only to receive the reply: “I don’t go to worship anymore. I podcast 30 preachers a week, my favorite ones, when I am on the road.” In the midst of embarrassment and humility, Pastor Pompey’s preaching bravado gave way to humility. Still, there was an elephant in the room and he aimed to search Scripture for an answer.
Preaching as a Struggle with God
For starters, the writer of
Paul acknowledged to the Philippians that preaching Christ might result in suffering for Christ’s sake and might bear an internal conflict of sorts, agony (
Preaching, for all it’s worth, means struggling with God as Abraham (God’s call to the unknown), Moses (the burning bush and wilderness), David (writing psalms in caves and on the run), Jeremiah (weeping all the way), Jonah (in the middle of saltwater, seaweed and spit), and the apostle Paul (in perils often) did.
Fred Craddock in Preaching reminds the preacher that part of the struggle requires staying in the study with the biblical text: “Study is an act of obedience” (p. 70). He says, “…study is a homiletical act: the confidence born of study (not the pseudo-confidence of personality of bravado) releases the powers of communication” (p. 71). Craddock (Reflections on My Call to Preach: Connecting the Dots, p. 114) realizes the struggle of preaching when he says, “…I must confess that at times I could have earnestly prayed John Donne’s prayer:
“Batter my heart, three-personed God; for you
As yet, knock, breathe, shine and seek to mend.”
The agony of preaching often seems to be a battering blow to the heart, yet keep knocking on heaven’s door and ask God to shine and mend wounded souls, including yours. Struggling with God in reality provides fresh faith, real-world truth and the humility necessary to speak a word for God. Agony may at times cause you to feel overwhelmed with the task of preaching, but it is a part of God’s plan for equipping the preacher to trust in the Lord (
Struggle with the Biblical Text
If podcasting your favorite preacher is as easy as driving through McDonald’s to order a Big Mac and fries, preaching to an instant-gratification society is as hard as riding an elephant through a narrow gate. However, as a preacher the temptation to find Internet sermons and shortcut sermon preparation poses a real challenge. After all, what pastor-preacher does not have an overloaded brain circuit, a full calendar and a host of people-needs calling for counsel, hospital visits or have another funeral sermon waiting? Insurance companies consider preachers a high risk, and for good reason. Shortcuts in preparation seem inevitable.
An instant-gratification society always looks for shortcuts, but in preaching those will extinguish the flame and power of preaching. Preachers must struggle with the biblical text: What is God saying, to whom and why? Preachers must struggle with the language of the text, the context of the text and the message of the text in an effort to report it in preaching, as well as make application for people struggling through life.
The poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) in his book The Poet’s Guide to Life adds value here. He calls for four things: (1) “Life and living: How good life is.” (2) “Art: The work of art is adjustment, balance, reassurance.” (3) “Faith.” (4) “Love: To love is: to shine with inexhaustible oil.” Struggle with the biblical text in an effort to draw out Christ’s life for your hearers’ lives; to create a sermon as a work of art that’ interesting and Christ-challenging; to laser-focus faith in life and death in struggle and hope; and to shine Christ’s inexhaustible oil as freshness in a weary world.
Rilke helps the preacher in two ways. First he speaks of the “sovereign rhythm”—that is, the fixed rhythm of life moving toward death and extracting that rhythm out of (in this case) the biblical text in such a way as to provide meaning, hope and “to understand our being here” on earth (pp. 120, 123). The biblical text, properly exposed, deals with life and death, pain and longing, meaning and eternity, Christ’s rhythm in our lives providing rhythm to life itself. Preaching supplies Christ’s peace to help people adjust and find a healthy balance and rhythm for life.
Second, Rilke speaks of poetry and the “soul’s interiority” (p. 129). This assists the preacher in struggling with the biblical text because the text’s soul interiority speaks of God’s plan, power and providence. The preacher’s task in struggling with the text involves helping individuals struggle with the interiority of their own souls and wedding them to Christ’s Word and Spirit, as well as God’s plan, power and providence in their own lives.
Struggle with the World and the Congregation
Every preacher has faced the challenge of the cosmos, preaching in a culture fast becoming anti-Christian, competing with distraction and shortened attention spans. David Ulin in The Lost Art of Reading says the average American takes in about 12 hours a day of words via the Internet, Twitter, blogs, etc., amounting to several hundred pages if you were reading a book. People are processing more information than ever before—some of it empty talk and some of it necessary—meaning people have shorter attention spans, the brain is being rewired for shallow thinking, and the quality of relationships suffers by creating over-occupied minds and technology overload that causes social isolation (pp. 79-82).
Struggle with the world always has been a part of preaching. Today’s consumerism impacts the church and preaching. Evil, from injustice in places such as Syria to pornography that comes into a home through a family member’s computer, to every sin imaginable and unimaginable diminishes the light of the gospel and the potential for receiving that light.
In writing to the Colossian Christians, Paul discussed the philosophical meanderings of the first century, the lack of peace, reconciliation, the wicked works, enemies of the cross and the domination of the flesh. Similar issues abound today. Paul answered such a discussion by focusing on preaching, warning and teaching each person to be complete in Christ (
Paul strung together two words, emphasizing the spiritual battle of preaching: (1) labor that breeds heavy perspiration like sweating as you mow the yard on a hot, Texas, summer day; (2) agony, the agonizing work of preaching with energy in the hope of the dynamic Holy Spirit’s work in people’s hearts. Preaching requires perspiration and inspiration, a laborious struggle in communicating to the world.
Every preacher feels the angst and anxiety of balancing the Word and the world, preaching Christ’s gospel while not surrendering to consumer-driven wishes. I often have wondered if our niche-church approach today—the traditional worship service, the contemporary service, the Cowboy church, the Gen-X church, high church, low church and every church in between—if our effort to create a niche church for every need actually undermines the power of the gospel. After all, Paul told the church the strong should bear the weaknesses of the weak (
All told, Paul’s challenge to Timothy in a time when faith waned, hypocrisy increased, conscience diminished and foundations crumbled (
Ultimately, the struggle of preaching is the preacher’s struggle with what the world is doing to his or her listeners. The struggle of stress, job loss, parenting, temptation, sickness, pain, marriage and self-destruction makes preaching vital—to supply a Word from God to the people as an answer of hope to them in their personal agonies and daily struggles. Calvin Miller’s wise word about listeners proves helpful: “They are pew sitters, trying to remain anonymous, while crying out to the sermonizer, ‘Hey look! I’m here! I’m bleeding!'” (Preaching: The Art of Narrative Exposition). Bleeding souls heal best with a simple Word.
Struggle with the Self
Any preacher who struggles with God, the biblical text, the world and the congregation knows the personal struggle with his or her own self. One preacher called it the joy and embarrassment of preaching. Another called preaching the “sweet torture” of Sunday morning. James Earl Massey described preaching as the “burdensome joy.”
Today preaching can be discouraging, confusing and one voice among competing voices. Today preachers face the challenge of preaching, and the thought of quitting crosses his or her mind. Today preachers agonize regarding personal issues, family crises and emotional burnout.
Remember Christ, the power source for preaching. Reclaim faith in the gospel. Rediscover joy in Jesus. Jesus said, “Strive (agonize) to enter at the narrow gate: for many will seek to enter and shall not be able” (
Occasionally in preaching, you may feel embarrassed, humiliated and despondent—a bravado-clad, chariot-driving Roman general trying to guide four elephants through a narrow gate. If such a humiliating moment in preaching leads you to Christ-like humility, you might find you preach not with bravado but bravery; not with angst, but with agony for souls; not with selfish motives, but in the Spirit’s power in the joy and hope of Christ.
Occasionally, you might feel like a fool in the agony of preaching; but rest easy because through the foolishness of preaching God chooses to save some (