He came into the pastor’s office sheepishly and pulled up a chair. Placing his hands nervously on his knees, he said, “Pastor, I just can’t bear to hear anyone else preach. Does that mean God is calling me into the ministry?” A similar soul said he looked up at the clouds and saw what appeared to be a formation that looked like the letters P and C. He said he thought it meant he was called to “Preach Christ.” His preacher said, “Maybe it means you should Plant Corn!” When I think about those old stories I am reminded of the seminary student who told me he was going into the ministry, “because my Mom said it would make her very proud of me.”
Why are you a preacher?
Hear the word of God: “Then the LORD put forth His hand and touched my mouth, and the LORD said to me: ‘Behold, I have put My words in your mouth. See, I have this day set you over the nations and over the kingdoms, To root out and to pull down, To destroy and to throw down, To build and to plant’” (Jeremiah 1:9-10).
A church’s ministry will die or live more through preaching than any one other thing. Most of the time it is preaching that people first come to hear when they are looking for a new church home. Jeremiah’s life was transformed that day the Lord touched his mouth and it seems that his is a good model for us all. Once we have sensed that divine touch upon our lips we shall never again be the same person.
Isaiah’s life was transformed in a similar way: “Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a live coal which he had taken with the tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth with it, and said: ‘Behold, this has touched your lips; Your iniquity is taken away, And your sin purged.’ Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying: ‘Whom shall I send, And who will go for Us?’ Then I said, ‘Here am I! Send me’” (Isaiah 6:6-8).
There’s a lot that’s called preaching today that in fact is nothing more than a well-intended Rotary Club chat. It has lost its fire, if it ever had any. Where the pulpit has lost its passion it is as useless as the proverbial one-armed paperhanger in a windstorm. The people are starved to death. Preaching from touched lips will always be alive. It will arouse, alarm, challenge, correct, rebuke, and encourage. It will set souls on fire because the same Spirit who ignites the preacher will stir up souls in the congregation. Like Jeremiah and Isaiah, if we are to fulfill our calling we must be constantly on the alert, constantly under the authority of God’s Spirit, and constantly looking for new ways to proclaim the old message.
You do know, don’t you, that if you are called to preach, you are less than mentally sharp? That, at least, was Winston Churchill’s opinion. Churchill said that any man who believed he could address essentially the same audience about essentially the same subject every week and hold their attention was a fool. Whether we agree with him or not, we can be grateful that at least that Churchill did not try to be something he did not hold in high esteem. He had the good sense not to pursue preaching. But I wonder if Churchill ever realized he was speaking prophetically when he said that for, “God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe” (1 Corinthians 1:21). The strength of good preaching is not in the preacher but in the message he preaches.
A preacher whose lips have felt the Lord’s touch will be no more able to stay silent with God’s message than the ocean can be dry. Such a one will never want for a message, nor lose pulpit power. Would that we had more preaching like that today but, tragically, there’s a dearth of holy boldness in our pulpits. Twice in the course of my ministry pastoral oversight bodies have contacted me because another preacher had been under investigation for allegedly preaching my published sermons. On the one hand, I suppose I might feel honored. On the other, (while I’m not willing under such circumstances to be a party to the prosecution of another minister) I find myself asking if plagiarizing a sermon is the best someone can, do what makes them feel called to preach? Warmed-over sermons from somebody else are hardly likely to do great things for God. Having recently relocated to a new setting I have resisted the temptation to “reheat” even my own messages for this new congregation. To be sure, time is pushed but I will try to save it in other areas if I must rather than in pulpit preparation. Some of the texts I have preached before and some of the illustrations too but to simply warm over what was served before would be like trying to shoot already used bullets! I am convinced that the number one reason so many of our mainline churches are losing ground in gospel advancement is because we have deemphasized the importance of being alive in the pulpit. Preaching must, of necessity, be fresh and new to be alive. What’s more, the preparation to preach is one of the things that keeps the preacher’s own soul alive. When the pulpit is alive the church will be alive.
So what to do about it? Alexander Whyte once said: “Though you had the whole Bodleian Library and did not know yourself, you would not preach a sermon worth hearing.” This is true! Even more true is that a preacher who would bear fruit must also know God. If your preaching is not where it needs to be, plagiarizing another preacher’s sermons will not bring life to it. Time alone with God will. There is no discount, fast-track way to do that. Only a heartfelt re-examination of your reasons for being in the ministry and a recommitment of your own heart to this mighty thing the world calls foolish will take you there!
Robert Leslie Holmes is pastor of Saxe Gotha Presbyterian Church, in Lexington, SC, and a contributing editor to Preaching. His newest book When Good Enough Just Isn’t Good Enough (Ambassador-Emerald Intl.) is available now. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org