“And a timely word-how good it is.” (Proverbs 15:23)

The scene was set on one particular Sabbath for something beyond the ordinary to occur when Jesus went to His hometown synagogue in Nazareth. What happened that day was more than just coincidental when Jesus was asked to read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. After He had read the brief passage (Isaiah 61:1-2), a certain timeliness became evident in His post-reading proclamation: “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). His hearers marveled at His words (see Mark 4:22).

Today’s hearers do not always marvel at the words of their preacher. However, such can happen when the preacher’s sermon is a timely word in their hearts and lives. What preacher has not had the experience of one or more hearers mentioning how timely the sermon just heard was—yet the preacher may have had no clue about anything in the situation of the hearer or hearers! What in a sermon and worship service may enhance the experience of timeliness by those present?

Timeliness in preaching and worship can be more than a surprising, accidental occurrence or the consequence of some catastrophic event in the lives of preachers, worshipers and their communities and families. Let’s explore how biblical exposition, Spirit-led sermon development (with Spirit-empowered delivery) and pastoral preaching can connect with worship to result in timely preaching and worship. The first priority, however, is to remember the importance of the Holy Spirit in what happens in and through preaching and worship.

The Importance of the Holy Spirit
John A. Broadus said, “the ultimate requisite for the effective preacher is complete dependence upon the Holy Spirit” (Broadus and Stanfield 1979, 16). Stephen and David Olford noted, “one thing is certain: No preacher can fulfill his ministry, in terms of his life and work, without the lordship and leading of the Holy Spirit” (Olford and Olford 1998, 30). Similarly, Spurgeon wrote that “to us, as ministers, the Holy Spirit is absolutely essential” (Spurgeon 1970, 186).

In summary, the Holy Spirit “calls the preacher…guides him in Bible study, in the selection of texts and in the choice and preparation of material,” as well as “empowers his preaching” (Broadus and Stanfield, 16). This is why, as Dennis Kinlaw said, “a Christian minister needs the presence and power of the Holy Spirit” (Kinlaw 1985, 95).

Segler and Bradley underscored the importance of the Holy Spirit in worship by saying, “the Holy Spirit is the One who ultimately communicates God’s Pesence to us in worship” (Segler and Bradley 2006, 55). They added:

“There may be a variety of forms in worship; however, the church is always dependent on the Holy Spirit for the expression of its worship…The Holy Spirit must create in the minds of the congregation the consciousness of God. Genuine worship takes place only when God is worshiped for God’s sake. This experience is made possible only by the creative work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of individuals and in the entire body, the church” (Ibid.).

In essence, worship “is a spiritual experience; it is entering into spiritual communion with the Lord Most High” (Stanfield 1965, 15). According to Dan Kimball, worship “is about worshiping God with all our hearts, minds and bodies in ways that resonate and connect with how we communicate and express our love for Him culturally today” (Pinson 2009, 298-299).

As a worshiper enters into the experience of worship, “the Holy Spirit gives illumination to the mind of the worshiper” through God’s Word and His messenger (Broadus and Stanfield 1979, 311). In this way, the Holy Spirit makes preaching and worship trialogical in nature and experience.

Sometimes worship and preaching are thought to be dialogical in nature and experience. That is, worship is considered to be a dialogical encounter between a worshiper and God, whereas preaching is a verbal-nonverbal communication (or dialogue of sorts) between the preacher and hearers individually (yet collectively). Because “God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth,” as Jesus taught (John 4:24), then the work of the Holy Spirit in the worship encounter and in the preaching communication is important in a trialogical sense. As a result of such work, timeliness in worship and preaching is possible, even likely.

Enhancing the Experience of Timeliness
“And a timely word-how good it is ” (Proverbs 15:23). Such is certainly true in preaching, especially if that word comes in the context of worship.

Such was true one Sunday when this person went to preach in a morning worship service at a church where he had been serving for approximately five months as the interim pastor. What happened on that day in the service went something like this:

The sermon text was John 21:1-23, and the sermon title was “A Second Chance.” The exegetical truth was: “After his denials of Jesus, Peter needed a second chance.” The expositional truth was: “Sometimes we just need a second chance.” Following the sermon’s conclusion, a man came to the pulpit area steps to pray during the invitation, as did others. He remained kneeling and crying after the service had ended, joined by a lady also kneeling behind him with her left hand on his right shoulder. Meeting with them and a church staff member, I learned the somber woman was the crying man’s wife, who had caught her husband in an immoral involvement with another woman only a few days prior to Sunday. For that wife and her husband, the service and sermon proved to be very timely—and eventually led to their reconciliation as he contritely asked his wife for a second chance.

Had a different sermon text and truth been used on that fateful Sunday, perhaps the preaching and worship would not have been so timely. However, in this preacher’s reflection, Spirit-led biblical exposition, sermon preparation (with Spirit-empowered delivery) and pastoral preaching enhanced the experience of timeliness for that husband and wife—and has done so in the lives of other people in other places and times.

Biblical Exposition
“The Word of God faithfully preached brings condemnation to some…[and] life to others” (Crotts 2010, 71). This happens because “the Spirit works in concert with the Word and brings illumination,” enabling some to hear and understand spiritually (Ibid., 71-72). Preachers who desire to preach timely sermons in timely worship services must recognize “the dynamic relationship of interdependence” shared by the Word of God and the Spirit of God (Heisler 2007, 61).

As the instrument of the Spirit, “the Word activates the Spirit, and the Spirit authenticates the Word,” with the Word being “the written witness” and the Spirit being “the inward witness” (Ibid., 62). Thus, a ministry of exposition has the potential to be more timely when the preacher follows a Spirit-led approach to preaching, because “the same Holy Spirit who inspired the biblical text will minister through the same text” in the hearts and lives of the hearers (Ibid., 22). However, the question is: Which approach should the preacher follow in preparing to preach?

In preparing to preach, the preacher must decide, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, whether to do new preparation, adaptive preparation or review preparation. New prep involves starting with a prayerfully selected biblical text from which a sermon will be developed through study and reflection on the sermon text and hearers. Adaptive prep consists of starting with a sermon and study notes already developed. However, in this case the preacher adds to the already developed sermon study notes by doing more study, which should lead to a revision of the previously preached sermon due to the additional study and reflection on the upcoming preaching situation.

Review prep involves the prayerful selection of a previously prepared sermon to preach, which unlike adaptive prep does not involve additional study (only reflection) or revision of the sermon. In comparison, review prep may be used in preparing to preach a revival sermon, whereas new prep would be used when preparing an expository sermon series as a pastor. Adaptive prep can be helpful when a pastor is new to a church and somewhat limited in time and in knowledge of the congregation.

Spirit-led Sermon Preparation
Whether a preacher does new prep, adaptive prep or review prep, it is vital for the preacher to be Spirit-led in text selection and sermon preparation. The following situation illustrates why such is vital:

“Some time ago I went to supply preach for the first time at a church with two campuses. When I arrived at the off-site campus, a staff member took me aside and said, ‘I need to tell you something.’ I said, ‘OK.’ He informed me the main campus had voted to disband the smaller campus. I asked him when that announcement would be made, perhaps after I had preached? He replied, ‘No, before.’ I exclaimed, ‘Really?’ He nodded. Then I told him, ‘You don’t know what I’m preaching.’ He said, ‘No, you didn’t send it to us for the worship guide.’ I shared that the sermon text was Matthew 14:22-23, in which Peter incredibly had ‘walked on the water to go to Jesus’ in the storm (Matthew 14:29), and the sermon title was ‘Your Next Step.’ Needless to say, quite a few people came to the altar to pray or to seek counsel after I had preached. The same results happened at the main campus later that morning. Once again, I was amazed at the timeliness of the sermon. [Postscript: The off-site campus was not disbanded, and within a year the off-site campus became a mission church supported by the main campus.
“Further reflection on what happened at the off-site and main campuses underscored how important Spirit-led sermon preparation and Spirit-empowered delivery are in timely preaching and worship. The two campuses had worship services with different worship styles, components, and content—the one constant in both was the preaching of the same sermon (which was the result of review prep, in this case).”

Greg Heisler believes “Spirit-led preaching captures well the dynamic relationship between the preacher, the Spirit and the Word” (Heisler 2007, 5). His “conviction is that the Spirit of God and Word of God come together in the heart and mind of the preacher to produce substantive and compelling sermons that transform the lives of listeners” (Ibid., 10).

Thus, the Holy Spirit becomes the preacher’s Teacher in Spirit-led sermon preparation (Edwards 2009, 80). Because “only the Holy Spirit is privy to the deep things of God,” the preacher who has completed a grammatical-historical study of a text also must do the following:

“Enter the solitude of your closet and mediate and pray about what God is saying. Beg the Holy Spirit to illuminate your heart and mind. Ask for the mind of Christ, that you might be filled with all spiritual wisdom. Ask that the Spirit would allow you to grasp the grandeur of God’s Word so powerfully and personally that when you preach, people would hear the words of God, see the face of God, feel the Presence of God and gladly surrender their wills to God. Ask Him to help you preach deep sermons” (Ibid., 160).

When the Spirit leads the preacher to prepare deep sermons, the preacher also likely will be preparing timely, Spirit-anointed sermons. Vines and Shaddix declared, “Spirit-anointed preaching does something to the preacher and people. The anointing keeps the preacher aware of a power not his own…He becomes a channel used by the Holy Spirit. At the same time the people are gripped, moved, convicted” (Vines and Shaddix 1999, 21). Such can be true in the preaching of one sermon or of a series of sermons.

Planned Pastoral Preaching
Pastoral preaching essentially is shepherding through sermons and, in effect, extends the pastor’s ministry through preaching. Because pastoral preaching can accomplish pastoral care through preaching, such preaching can produce timely sermons which address situations and the needs of people through the “four historic functions of pastoral care: healing, sustaining, guiding and reconciling” (Willimon 1979, 31).

While pastoral preaching may be carried out through general exposition (i.e., the exposition of Bible passages randomly selected and not necessarily consecutive) and may produce timely sermons, systematic exposition also may result in timely preaching. Pastoral preaching by systematic exposition is the exposition of Bible passages from a Bible book in consecutive order or passages selected intentionally according to a theme, Scripture subject or a collection of biblical characters.

Pastoral preaching by systematic exposition or planned pastoral preaching may proceed by plan as a scheduled series of sermons or as an unscheduled sermon series. For example, in a scheduled sermon series based on a Bible book, sermon texts (and probably titles) may be calendared for a month, quarter or even a year in advance of the preparation and preaching of the sermons in the series. In an unscheduled sermon series on a Bible book, the preacher proceeds to preach through the book, going from one passage or text to the next in consecutive but unscheduled order on a week-by-week basis in sermon preparation or proclamation.

The experience of timeliness in planned pastoral preaching can sometimes be startling for the preacher and the people, whether the preacher is following a scheduled or unscheduled plan of preaching. The following incident illustrates how startling planned pastoral preaching can be:

“Having been the pastor of a church for a few years, I felt led to preach an unscheduled series of sermons from 1 Corinthians. Beginning with the first chapter, I had completed a series of sermons through chapter four. Early in the week following the sermon from 1 Corinthians 4, news spread through the church and community of the immoral involvement of one church member with the spouse of another church member. Some members noted I was preaching through 1 Corinthians and wondered if I would continue with chapter five on the next Sunday (the passage in which Paul addressed the report of similar immorality in the Corinthian church). To be honest, so did I. However, after much prayer and study, I did. Following the sermon on 1 Corinthians 5, the two people involved came forward in the invitation to ask publicly for forgiveness.”

This incidence illustrates that when a preacher “speaks from a Bible text to the world and life of the listeners, we can expect to hear the Word of God” (Van Harn 2005, 115) and hear it in a timely occurrence. The incidence also indicates why a preacher must follow the leading of the Holy Spirit, not only in text selection and sermon development, but in sermon planning, as well.

Only the Spirit, who knows the mind of God, also knows the moments ahead in the lives of people and how the Word of God can intersect with a particular situation at a particular time in particular hearers’ lives through a particular text and sermon. Yes, “our sermon preparation and sermon delivery must be intentionally and prayerfully carried out under the leadership and power of the Holy Spirit” (Heisler 2007, 4), but so must sermon planning in the systematic exposition of pastoral preaching.

Preachers do not always foresee or know when hearers have experienced a sense of timeliness from the preaching done in the context of worship; but how rewarding (and yet humbling) it is for proclaimers of God’s Word to be a part of timely preaching and worship in the lives of people.

Isaiah wrote, “The Lord God has given Me the tongue of the learned that I should know how to speak a word in season to him who is weary” (Isaiah 50:4). This person contends that knowing “how to speak a word in season” can be more than an accidental occurrence, if preachers will seek to be Spirit-led in biblical exposition, sermon preparation and planned pastoral preaching.

“If our preaching, be it written or extemporaneous, is not Spirit led, then it is not offering the diet of truth so needed in the life of every Christian” (Lybrand 2008, 132). Furthermore, it’s not likely to enhance the experience of timeliness by those in worship who hear such preaching.

While worship may be timely for worshipers due to the meaning of the service or the movement of the Spirit in their hearts and lives, so often a key component in the experience of timeliness in worship is Spirit-led preaching, which can impact the hearts and lives of worshipers in a timely manner.

In such preaching, “God accomplishes His purposes in the [worshiper’s] life by two instruments: the Word and the Spirit” (Akin, Allen and Mathews 2010, 60). Therefore, “Spirit-called preachers should maintain a proper balance of diligent study of the Scripture and a desperate reliance upon the Spirit,” because “both elements are critical for seeing lives changed and God glorified” (Merida 2009, 59).

As proclaimers of a timeless yet timely Word, may “we…raise our sails of faith and obedience and look to the wind of the Spirit to carry us where He wants us to go” (Harvey 2008, 191). May then the result be timely preaching in timely worship.

Works Cited
Akin, Daniel L., David L. Allen, and Ned L Mathews, eds. Text-Driven Preaching: God’s Word at the Heart of Every Sermon. Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010.

Broadus, John A. On the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons. Revised by Vernon L. Stanfield. New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1979.

Crotts, Jeffrey. Illuminated Preaching: The Holy Spirit’s Vital Role in Unveiling His Word, the Bible. Leominster, England: Day One Publications, 2010.

Edwards, J. Kent. Deep Preaching: Creating Sermons that Go Beyond the Superficial. Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009.

Harvey, John D. Anointed with the Spirit and Power: The Holy Spirit’s Empowering Presence. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2008.

Heisler, Greg. Spirit-Led Preaching: The Holy Spirit’s Role in Sermon Preparation and Delivery. Nashville: B&H Academic, 2007.

Kinlaw, Dennis F. Preaching in the Spirit. Grand Rapids: Francis Asbury Press, 1985.

Lybrand, Fred R. Preaching on Your Feet: Connecting God and the Audience in the Preachable Moment. Nashville: B& H Academic, 2008.

Merida, Tony. Faithful Preaching: Declaring Scripture with Responsibility, Passion and Authenticity. Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009.

Olford, Stephen F., and David L. Olford. Anointed Expository Preaching. Nashville: B&H Publishing, 1998.

Pinson, J. Matthew, ed. Perspectives on Christian Worship. Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009.

Segler, Franklin M., and Randall Bradley. Christian Worship: Its Theology and Practice. 3d ed. Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2006.

Spurgeon, C.H. Lectures to My Students. Reprint. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1970.

Stanfield, V.L. The Christian Worshiping. Nashville: Convention Press, 1965.

Van Harn, Roger E. Preacher, Can You Hear Us Listening? Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005.

Vines, Jerry, and Jim Shaddix. Power in the Pulpit: How to Prepare and Deliver Expository Sermons. Chicago Moody Press, 1999.

Willmon, William H. Worship as Pastoral Care. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1979.

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