The first person to hear the sermon is the preacher himself, in bits and pieces often long before its various parts coalesce into a message to be shared. This initial rehearsal of at least large parts of most sermons has run through our minds many times. These parts have stewed and simmered for some time, only to be ignited by the text or a situation in world, neighborhood, or congregation. Sometimes a wisp of an idea flashes into our minds and invites us to follow it into real life. Sometimes an entire sermon seems to take shape out of nowhere or as we encounter a dilemma or blessing. Whatever the seedbed, the development of the sermon demands some time to blossom and ripen before we experience the joy of being able to share the text with the congregation.
We are often afraid to reflect our own struggles in a sermon. Sometimes this deprives our hearers of the kind of insight which comes from our negative experiences. In other instances, we need to remember the pulpit is not a counselor’s couch or a gossip columnist’s podium. It is not the place to resolve our own doubts and fears, or to carry on about our frustrations. But reports on the blessings God has given us and the relief He has poured into our hearts in the face of the Devil’s deviltry can indeed be salutary if it calls attention to the Giver rather than the one receiving.
Sermons begin with an audience of one, me. Preaching to oneself is always dangerous. Applying the Word of God to ourselves always risks an unpleasant confrontation with our own flawed wishes and presuppositions. Sometimes those flaws can be quickly placed in repentance and renounced. Sometimes they are deeply embedded in our beings just like a chronic illness with which we have grown accustomed to living. Yet, preaching to ourselves is also inevitable because no text permits itself to be held at arm’s length from our own thinking about the heart of the faith. Seeing the text through our own eyes and integrating it into our own experiences enlivens this particular word from God for us personally. That tends to make it more vigorous and real for our hearers, even if their experiences and circumstances differ from ours. Furthermore, preaching to ourselves can also be deeply satisfying, fulfilling, and settling because God intends to be speaking to preachers just as much as any other worshipper and because the delight of savoring God’s Word in our personal situation at any moment creates a special joy.
When our proclamation in the chambers of our own heart has ripened, perhaps only somewhat, we still may wake up on a Sunday morning or pause over supper on a Wednesday evening and ask ourselves whether we could not find another activity that would be of more relevance and use to ourselves and our hearers than proclaiming what we have put together for them to hear this day. Of course, it is not what we have put together we are delivering. Inside the clay vessels and dry husks of our nicely constructed sentences lies the power of God for the restoration of true human life. It will assert itself, sometimes through, sometimes despite, our formulations.
Inside the clay vessels and dry husks of our nicely constructed sentences lies the power of God for the restoration of true human life.
In every case, assuming responsibility for our words which are God’s words is an awesome thing. We should quake before entering the pulpit—so great and awesome is the task and so formidable the challenge of bringing God’s Word to His people. Handling God’s inspired message for human beings is playing with dynamite. For His Word has the power to deconstruct idols and enemies and to reconstruct lives that were broken before they entered the sanctuary.
Therefore, we can in all confidence with a spring in our step, take text in hand and move from preaching to ourselves, to preaching to our people. We put our hand in the hand of the Holy Spirit and mount the pulpit to look members square in the eye and proceed to tell it like it is, whatever we have to deliver on this day. We can have at the task with abandon, uninhibited by the challenge, ignoring the restraints of our own inadequacies. They may be real, but we are only part of the team bringing the message to our hearers.
Sometimes our unease with the text which has chosen us as its vehicle for a particular service stems from uncertainty about what it means for our day and age. I often complain to myself when I first survey the pericopes for a week how the text is either too obscure or distant to be meaningful to my hearers or that the text is so well-known and basic there is nothing new I have to say out of it. It does require a bit of chewing on both the hard texts and the familiar ones, but connections to life around us emerge. Recently John 3:16 was part of the reading for the day. I said to myself, “What can I say that they do not know already?” So, I simply enjoyed mulling over the text with the hearers. My sermon contained nothing new, but its words addressed specifically to the hearers in that service fell on receptive ears. They rejoiced to hear they are part of the world for which God sent His only Son.
Sometimes our unease about a text or what we have smithed together concerning it arises out of our doubt that our hearers will not find it fitting into their lives. Sometimes we will be asking ourselves why God’s words in these passages do not make a greater impact on our own consciousness. We may think that if we had only been there when they crucified our Lord, it would be easier to talk about it. Some days it is simply hard to tremble at the thought of Christ’s crying, “Why have you forsaken me?” although what could make us tremble if that does not. If we had only been there to hear the rumble of the stone, if we had only been blinded by the light of His exploding back into life. Well, no, we might have been able to recover from the trembling faster than we would like to imagine. We have Moses and the prophets (Luke 16:29-31) plus the evangelists and apostles on top of them. What more do we really need?
The Holy Spirit wants to sit down with us before work proceeds on each sermon to say that this text has met the real-life situations of real-life people before, and it can do it again. Sometimes what a text needs is its immediate context: The context back then requires reading the whole chapter to spark ideas that a pericope in and of itself does not. Furthermore, the practice of dwelling in the Word, reading the same passage a considerable number of times, uncovers ever more riches in almost every chapter of the Bible. The context now requires imaginative meditation on what our particular hearers are experiencing in these days. Their context is not ours in many ways.
The Holy Spirit wants to sit down with us before work proceeds on each sermon to say that this text has met the real-life situations of real-life people before, and it can do it again.
How do we bridge the gap? One hundred years ago an evangelist was trying to bring a factory worker back into the church that had systematically neglected factory workers for a generation. After his best efforts, the worker replied, “On your desk in your quiet study lie your Bible and all your books that strengthen your faith, and then you stand Sunday in the pulpit and speak only to people who breath the same air. But go in the morning to my factory. You are an honest man. Come to us in the factory, and I guarantee you, in one year you will join the [Social Democratic] party, in two years you will renounce membership in the church, and in three years you will be an atheist.” Perhaps, if that pastor had gone into the factory, the workers might have indeed realized Jesus Christ had much to say to their weariness, hopelessness, discouragement, and despair.
Our hearers challenge us to imagine their worlds with problems that shape their thinking and threaten their well-being, and then to make sense of the presence of God in their situation. The gap can be closed only partially on any given encounter with the Gospel, and the bridge over the cavity between those caught in this disrupted and disrupting world and its Creator is constructed through much listening and imaginative meditation and prayer. Such is the joy and satisfaction of proclaimers as they explore the worlds to which God has called them to serve and His expressions of love and concern for them as they come from the cross and the empty tomb. For Jesus has come back from death and all the disappointments and disasters of this life into life that engages Satan’s lies and his inflicting slow death upon all sinners. His presence as the person who stands by His people and leads them into true life and genuine victory over accumulated evils pierces through the barriers of the Devil’s deception through what the preacher proclaims. From the initial encounter as we preach to ourselves to the mullings and musings of our hearers for days and perhaps weeks to come, the Holy Spirit is active in completing work on the sermon which began with the sprouting of an insight into His Word.