Returning from church one Sunday evening, the elder, in response to his wife’s question about the sermon, replied, “Well, Jean, I have just three comments. He read it. He read it badly. And it wasn’t worth reading.”
Even if the sermon had been worth reading, the layman’s judgment too often is: when a minister reads his sermon, it’s a sign either that he is not sincere or not prepared or might even be reading somebody else’s sermon. Even Sir James Barrie could write, “When I see a minister read his sermon, I feel like sending him back to college.”
If there is any scriptural authority for the spontaneous utterance, the unread testimony to the Gospel, it could be Mark 13:9-12. Jesus said, “Do not worry beforehand what you will say; but when the time comes, say whatever is given to you to say; for it is not you who will be speaking but the Holy Spirit.”
The context of the Master’s advice is not that of a pastor settled in his charge who must feed “the hungry sheep who look up” week by week. It presupposes a day of persecution when witness must be made. I would hope that any of us, put on trial for our faith before whatever court, would not have recourse to lecture notes on the Atonement, or a script telling how Christ had called us.
The preacher, in his parish, knows that supreme in all the demands made upon him is the service of worship Sunday by Sunday, in which the proclamation of the Word is no less central than the sacraments themselves. Week by week he must witness to the ‘kerygma’ that has touched his life and made him aware that this man Jesus is indeed the Christ, crucified dead and risen.
On the other hand he must teach (didache), building up the faith of the people into the relevance of the Christ event in their personal, social and political involvements.
To fulfill this task demands time set aside in his study, with his Bible and his books, grappling with the great and demanding truths of the Gospel and how these can be made explicit in a world so far removed from the days when Jesus called — and “St. Andrew heard it by the Galilean lake. Turned from home and toil and kindred/Leaving all for His dear sake” — or St. Paul on Mars Hill fenced with the sophisticated minds of Greek philosophy.
These hours in the study are a time when the preacher is aware of the presence of the Holy Spirit as, suddenly, old truths take on a new hue, and facts of which he never was aware, spring to him out of the Scriptures.
One modern preacher tried to test the Lord’s word of Mark 13. During the hymn before the sermon, he bowed his head in prayer: “Lord, thou hast written in your Word that it will be given to thy servant in that hour what to speak. What is your word for me and my people this morning?”
To that came the reply: “Young man, the next time you come into this pulpit, would you have the grace to spend time in preparation over God’s Word for you and your people?”.
Each man must have his own style. For me, I would never dream of going into any pulpit on any occasion without a fully-typed manuscript — even though I may have delivered the sermon several times before. One reason is that I have a poor verbal memory; I could hardly finish “Twinkle twinkle little star.” I have an ideological memory.
However, suppose we risk going into the pulpit without a full manuscript? What about those Sunday mornings when you have a splitting headache? Or someone has said something to you before the service that offends? Or you have heard of the death of a child or a beloved member? Your mind is carried away from the immediate task at hand, as you look out to the upturned faces.
Paradoxically there are those who have too-brilliant verbal memories. One colleague was told, as I was, when at a conference we were preaching on the same platform, that because of tight schedules our sermons must not last more than twenty minutes. But Jim had memorized a thirty-minute sermon, and once he got going, like a train without brakes, he went on to the last syllable exactly thirty minutes! Such inflexibility makes for, at best, wooden preaching.
The essential discipline is spent in the study writing or typing out one’s thoughts, struggling as Stevenson expresses it “for the shade of a word,” pruning the language (as Hemingway or Graham Greene will show) until there emerges out of the vague idea or ideas in your mind a coherent, logical expression of what you wish to say. There is no time in the pulpit to search for a word; that is done in the study. There is no occasion in the pulpit to “put in” a new idea; most “new” ideas are temptations of the Devil to bewilder the message. (If a new idea comes, treasure it — until next Sunday.)
I wonder if one reason why those who “preach from notes” do so is because other distractions have eaten into the time that should be spent in the study — the office, with its myriad phone calls, explanations, greetings, dictation, counseling, the appointments not all of our own making, the demands of the church beyond our parish, until a point is reached which is “ministerial burn-out” or, to put it more specifically, the “loss of identity.” What is my job? Where do I begin?
Perhaps it is the daunting fact that sermon preparation is so difficult. It is not an easy task to sit down week by week, and with two fingers, peck out some 3,500 words, parse these; readjust the structure; gore out half of it; begin again for the third time; throw it all away — and go out and do some hospital visitation!
H. G. Wells, who was no amateur when it came to writing, once was offered the job as an editor of a weekly magazine. After six months he quit, adding “Too much for me.” But how preachers can go on producing sermons week by week is beyond my ken.
The elder said “It was read badly.” And he has a point. Some great sermons are spoiled by the preacher who wrote them; when published, they read well. The fact is that a sermon really only becomes a sermon in the act of delivery. Here we may talk about inspiration by the Spirit. One becomes aware in the heart of a sermon that one is lifted up. Paradoxically some of the great sermons do not read well when published. The touch of the preacher is missing.
On the other hand, one must spend time learning how to read a sermon in the pulpit. The congregation is the focal point, not the manuscript. One is proclaiming, not reading an essay. Time spent in the study also means getting into one’s mind the ‘sweep’ of a page, so that a glance is sufficient to remind one of the movement of the thought. And not least, quotations should be memorized.
My own manuscripts are scarred with underlinings, marginal notes, and up to the last moment, emendations of words.
What happens when you receive a call to another parish and all that you have to show for the ten years of faithful sermon preparation is a large, unedited file of notes: King David; 1. Hunted yet not forsaken. 2. Villain yet called of God. 3. Sinner yet used by God. After the years you recall this was well-received; people commented on it and were helped. Yet what on earth did I really say about David?
And the elder said “It wasn’t worth reading.” … To deal with that is to deal with the basic questions: “What is the Gospel we preach? Who am I who would dare to preach?”

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