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Reflections on Preaching
by Robert J. Young

Fredrick Buechner, in his little book, Telling the Truth, writes in part:
"The sermon hymn comes to a close with a somewhat unsteady "amen" and the preacher climbs the steps to the pulpit with his sermon in hand. His mouth is a little dry. He cut himself shaving. He feels as if he has swallowed an anchor.
"In the front pews an old man turns up his hearing aid while a young mother slips her 6-year-old a lifesaver and Magic Marker. A college sophomore home for vacation, there because he was dragged there, slumps forward, chin in his hands. The vice-president of the bank, who twice that week seriously contemplated suicide, places his hymnal in the rack. A pregnant teen-age girl feels life stir within her body; a high school math teacher, keeping his homosexuality a secret, creases the bulletin down the center with his thumbnail and tucks it under his knee."
"The stakes have never been higher. Two minutes from now the preacher may have lost his listeners completely to their own thoughts, but at this moment, the silence is deafening. Everyone knows the kinds of things he has told them before, but who knows what this time, out of this silence, he will tell them."

Such is the mystery, the challenge, the elasticity, the anticipation of preaching. Preaching is unique. It defies explanation. Stott calls it bridge-building. It must bring the Word of God to the world of God. It must be relevant, applicable, up-to-date, biblical, interesting--not necessarily in that order. It must fulfill all of Paul's admonitions in 2 Tim. 4:2.
Preaching is unique. For two years, I ministered as a college graduate to a logging town while I took graduate courses; for another two years I ministered to CPAs and professionals without pursuing formal studies; for another two years I ministered to a upwardly mobile group trying a bus program; for almost a dozen years I ministered to a university crowd of PhDs in a congregation also filled with many with a minimum of academic training. The high points were the low points and the low points were the high points.
It is a good thing God didn't put me on his Preacher Placement Committee. I'd not have sent rustic Amos to the court of kings; I'd not have sent Saul, Hebrew of the Hebrews, to be a missionary and apostle to the Gentiles. I might have put Titus on Crete, but I might not have. I'd have helped Paul avoid Malta, and I'd have Jesus preach to elite more than the everyday crowd.

This all brings me to my point. I am talking about preaching; but I am talking about you. If God has called you to preach, who you are, what you are, where you are is part of God's plan. You do not act in spite of it, but because of it.
We seem to have forgotten what preaching is. Phillips Brooks said it eloquently: "Preaching is communicating divine truth through human personality. The divine truth never changes; the human personality constantly changes--and this is what makes the message new and unique."

Allow me some observations about preaching, based, as I always think they should be, upon a text of Scripture. These are my statement of all I would want preaching to be, of what kind of preacher I seek to be.

I. A preacher who preaches.
I draw this conclusion from Luke's account of Paul's statement in Acts 20:24-27. I have made an intensive study of the Greek verbs used in the New Testament to describe communicating God's word. Three of the more important ones are euaggelizomai; kerusso, and martureo. We are to tell the good news with the authority of a royal herald, but the message is a part of our lives.
God prepares men, not messages. Martin Luther is credited with observing that prayer, meditation, and temptation make a preacher. Prayer and meditation will give a sermon; temptation--the daily rigors of living--gives life to the sermon to make it a message. The difference is the difference between a recipe and roast, between the cookbook and courses of the meal.
I want to speak God's Word of Scripture in the language and rhythms of the people I know. I am given an honored and protected time each week to do that. Pulpits are great gifts--I want to use the one given me well.
I have no interest in only delivering a sermon, nor in giving bright, inspiring messages, nor in challenging my hearers to face another day. I want to be drenched in Scripture, immersed in Bible study, reflective, personally struggling. I want those who come to worship to hear the Word preached so that they cannot doubt its distinctiveness and authority as God's Word. That is more shown than said. Forgive me when I do not establish 2 Tim. 3:16-17 in every sermon. I want my hearers to know that life is being addressed on their territory.
I want tor ally others to righteousness, to call them to commitment, to cheerlead to conquest, but in my more sober moments, I am aware that my commitment is deeper. I want to challenge to Christ.

II. A preacher who prays.
When I read Acts 20:36-38, I see the heart of a preacher. The experiences of preachers are not accidents, but appointments. They do not interrupt us, they are us. God wants us to be witnesses as well as heralds. Look at what God is doing, has done, and will do for us. Reread Acts 4:20 and 22:15.
I want to speak from my experience, to cultivate and deepen my relationship with God. I want life to be intimate with the God who made, directs, and loves me. I want to awaken others to the nature and centrality of prayer. I want to be a person in the community to whom others come without hesitation to receive direction in prayer and praying. I want us to be that as a congregation, as a church.
I want to deepen conversation with the God who has revealed himself to me and knows and addresses me by name. I want to report and witness out of my own experience. It takes time to develop that--disciplined, deliberate time. I am afraid I do not take enough of it. I cannot be distracted and pray; there must be a disciplined detachment from daily details. The deafening din of the day must be silenced. If I am not careful, I will end up spending more time paying attention to people than to God. The order is opposite--God first, people second.

III. A preacher for people.
I am going to preach, not organize church programs. I am called to preach. It is difficult to preach to those you do not know. The best preaching is to those you know, day in and day out. It is accurate, accountable. The visiting evangelist may say something in new and different ways and stir up excitement, but Christianity is live din the trenches. The local church is "where it's at." I am afraid of what we are teaching our children and our adults--Christianity is not only at workshops, camps, and retreats. Christianity is every day.
Great preaching is relevant preaching--meeting people in need with care and help. Thousands of great sermons are preached every Sunday. God is calling us to be his and to preach the way we are, the way we do it.
I want to listen--to let others know that at least one other person in this world has an inkling of what they are feeling and experiencing. Listening is in short supply today. I want to be a preacher who cries, so I can laugh. I want to be serving, humble, personal, people-oriented. I want to know God and help others know God.

The essence of what I am saying is this: You must know yourself, accept yourself, be yourself, and develop yourself--your best self--if Christianity is to be an exciting part of your life. There are no Christian clones. Obstacles may turn out to be opportunities. Stay long enough to discover who you are, what kind of ministry God has given you, and how he plans to train you for the future. God is always preparing us for what he has prepared for us--if we let him.
Be God's person in God's place and do your best. Secure refuge is in the thought: God put me here and I will stay until he lets me go. It is always too soon to quit. Never, never, never, never give up. God help the preacher, or Christian, who abandons these ideals. God pity the preacher who is so idealistic he cannot be realistic. A realist is an idealist who has gone through the fire and been purified. A skeptic is an idealist who has gone through the fire and been burned. There is a difference.
Be realistic as you assess your life for him. Preaching and Christianity is not what we do; it is what we are. God wants to make a preacher, so he makes a person, because the work we do is not isolated from who we are. Know you are God's person, in God's place, to accomplish God's purpose. Sufficient encouragement is there to weather the storm and do our be very best. God knows us better than we know ourselves. He would never put us where he could not use us and build us.

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Last updated May 19, 2006