Last night in class, one of my students asked me how many sermons I have preached over the course of 35 years. A brief calculation suggests approximately 1400 sermons. How many times I have spoken is another matter, given I typically preached 2-5 times per week. That’s a lot of sermonizing—a lot of my life–a lot of accountability before God! Scary. But it raised other questions, ones far more important, ones I will get to if you stay with me.
If truth be told, I have always had a love/hate relationship with preaching. I typically invested 23-27 hours per week in preparation for one sermon, and in the course of each sermonic journey, it has always been a wild ride. Theological knots to untie, strange words, mystifying statements. Working with “otherworldly” material and hoping to discern the heart and mind of God has to be one of the most thrilling, yet unnerving tasks.
Part of the reason I initially vowed I would never be a pastor was that growing up and attending church, I was exposed to a swampland of mediocrity in the pulpit. (This is a generous statement). There were exceptions for sure, but preaching for me was often synonymous with boredom and irrelevancy—“doing time in the pew.” Who would want to do this to people?
Ironically, by the time I graduated from seminary, I could not imagine doing anything else. But I determined I would try to get it right. I would aim to exegete both Scripture and culture. Still, I almost always approached the pulpit a desperate man. Like someone going to the gallows. Will I come out alive? Will I bore these people to tears, get them so angry they walk out, or leave parishioners confused? Will anyone care?
I remember an offended woman who once left me a note with the words, “I came this close to marching up to the pulpit and demanding you repent on the spot!” On another occasion, another guest screamed curses at me as she departed and vowed she would never come back. She didn’t Three of my elders once demanded I be disciplined for preaching a particular Old Testament book. Who signed up for this?
I would always come back, in part because I was called. In part, because there were those who would say, “Because of your faithfulness to the text, I heard God’s voice today. Thank you.” That’s all I need. All any preacher needs.
There are great preachers today, but in too many pulpits, there is not greatness. Certainly not excellence. There are too many words—and too few that edify and reach the soul. In her book, When God is Silent, Barbara Brown Taylor describes many sermons as “filler words,” words that have been chewed up so many times there are no nutrients left in them.
So what is missing? What can change our sermonic recession? What should those who listen to sermons expect? Here’s what I tell my students—at the end of your labor, and time on your knees, make sure you have worked through this checklist—
1-Text—have I been faithful to mine out everything I can get to, and let the text speak for itself? It is the word of God with its own power. Unpack, and then get out of the way. Or am I simply using this passage as a launch pad to preach my own agenda?
2-God—every text tells us something about God. Yes, God is a Person so vast our thoughts are lost in His immensity. But shouldn’t we all come to hear, and walk out with a greater sense of a transcendent God? A deeper realization He is good, wise, and omnipotent in everything He does? Here’s when I am moved–when I leave a sermon thinking, “God, I think I know you better now.”
3-Myself—I believe God’s word is always revealing something about things in my life I need to come to terms with. My insecurity, my self-centeredness, my envy—my brokenness, as well as my need for healing and rescue. Sermons should be like mirrors, revealing that which is far deeper than a face.
4-Jesus—every text is pointing to the larger context, the story from Genesis to Revelation, that God has made our salvation possible through His Son. He alone can undue sin’s guilt and damage, bringing forgiveness and reconciliation.
5-Flourishing—ultimately, God has made us to thrive, grow, and blossom. If this be true, and it is, what am I saying that confirms that our lives can live at another level? Have people caught the vision of an expanded life, life as God intended, in a world that often is set on constricting and deadening it?