Its been four years since I last taught a course on preaching. I will be teaching one again starting this week. Preparing for the course, I took the opportunity to visit some bookstores to check out the new books on preaching. I wasn’t surprised that most of them were “how-to” books — “how to preach more dynamic sermons”, “how to preach in a television age”, “how to preach more theological sermons” etc…
This makes sense. After all preaching is a verb, something that you do. And whatever resources that helps preachers do their job better is to be welcomed! We have all being blessed by good sermons and endured bad ones!
However, when I turn to the Scriptures, I find little teaching on the actual act of preaching. Maybe this shouldn’t surprise us considering that the early church consisted of small house churches. I seriously doubt that there was a John Stott type for each of them!
The bible does know of some who are specially gifted for the task of preaching (Romans 12:6-8). Yet if house churches were the norm, we can understand why the focus is on all Christians teaching one another (Colossians 3:16), with elders having special responsibility to teach the truth (1 Timothy 3:2)
However I return to the fact that there is little teaching on the “how tos” of preaching, apart from the understandable exhortation to interpret Scriptures correctly ( 2Timothy 2:15 ).
Instead of focussing on sermon delivery, the bible appears to focus primarily on the nature of the – message, the Word itself. For Paul, the Word was a treasure contained in the earthly vessels of human speakers (2Corinthians 4:7). It is transcendent power. Pulsating with a divine life of its own it can hardly be contained in the earthen vessels of human preachers. For Jeremiah, the Word was fire in his bones, something alive, burning, visceral(Jeremiah 20:9). Although preaching the Word had cost him so much, he could not stop. The Word was alive. It had to come out.
Maybe we have put too much focus on the preaching act. And have forgotten that the real marvel is the very Word we are permitted to expound.
Perhaps our constant search for more skilful preachers has put us on the wrong track. Maybe what we should be doing is helping our preachers, indeed all of us, recover a fresh reverence for the Word we preach.
Preachers and teachers of the Word are often afflicted with one occupational hazard. Because we handle the Word all the time, preparing for the many talks and sermons we need to give each week, we soon develop a dangerous overfamiliarity with the Scriptures.
After awhile the Scriptures become reduced to data that we manipulate as part of our daily work. We soon forget that it is the Word of God. And that the Living God speaks through them. God forgive us.
God’s word for preachers may be His word to Moses four thousand years ago: “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” (Exodus 3:5) We take special care when we handle sharp knives. Or fire. We need to remember afresh that when we handle the Word, we are also handling dangerous material. Handle it carelessly and we run the risk of getting burned. But if we approach the Word correctly, hearts bowed in awe and submission, just maybe the Holy Fire will be gracious and shine through the cracks of our imperfect lives.
Does that mean I won’t be teaching sermon preparation and sermon delivery to my homiletics class? On the contrary, I will encourage my colleagues in the class to do their best to prepare and deliver their sermons. The best product does warrant the best packaging!
However, I hope that the class will help all of us recover a fresh reverence for the Word itself. I figure that if a preacher understands that he has been allowed to “speak the very words of God” (1Peter 4:11), how can he not work at doing his best to deliver it? But would you trust a preacher who gives no evidence that he has singed by the fire he claims to carry in his bones?
Your brother, Soo-Inn Tan
Dental Horror Stories ———————
I want to thank those of you who wrote in in response to last week’s ecommentary, “Treating Teeth Or Treating People?”, to tell me about the horrendous experiences you have had with dentists. In response I say the following: 1. May you find it in your heart to forgive them. 2. May the Lord lead you to gentler dentists. 3. May He heal your memories. Sigh! I wish you had met Hee Ling, my late wife. Now there was one gentle dentist!