Whenever I have the opportunity to teach a course on homiletics, I usually show the class this clip. It’s one that shows excerpts from Martin Luther King Jr.’s last speech. He would be assassinated the next day, April 4th, 1968, at the age of 39. (You can read the text of the full speech here) I show this clip because it captures some key elements of good preaching, elements I try to incorporate into my own preaching.
First, the sermon is timely. It is speaking to real people about a pressing issue. Preaching must be based on the Word. There are times Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) uses biblical imagery to move the hearts of his audience in ways that are not based on the original meaning of the text. We needn’t and mustn’t do that. The Word of God is God’s special and authoritative revelation to us and has to be interpreted properly. But a sermon must speak to a given situation. In preparing a sermon, a preacher must ask: what does the Lord want to say to this audience at this time with this Bible passage(s)?
Even when a church is committed to expository preaching and has a passage assigned per sermon, the preacher must still grapple with how the Lord wants to use that passage to speak to a particular congregation in real time. There is an important place for people to learn the whole counsel of God and a church’s curriculum should systematically go through the whole Bible. But there should be times when the teaching goes beyond learning general biblical principles to hearing the voice of God speaking specifically and personally. Preaching must go beyond exegesis and take the risk of Spirit-led hermeneutics.
Secondly, MLK’s speech is honest. He tells his audience, “Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead.” He tells them he is not sure if he will be around when they have achieved their goals. He is honest. He has to be. Some in the audience would have suffered at the hands of those who were trying to crush the civil rights movement — attacked by dogs, beaten by truncheons, hosed with water, sprayed with mace, imprisoned. There was no way that MLK could hide the cost of what he is urging them to do and he does not.
Jesus Himself tells us to count the cost (Luke 14:28–33) of following Him. He tells us we need to carry our crosses daily (Luke 9:23). Preaching cannot hide the cost of discipleship. In a day when people are suspicious of what leaders say and where so many leaders have shown themselves to be false, a preacher has credibility only when he or she tells the truth. The truth must include the resources the Lord has given us for our sojourn on earth and the joy of participating in the Lord’s eventual victory. But it cannot gloss over unknowns, ambiguities, and difficulties. Indeed, in a world that is saturated with slick messages and fake news, preachers must be honest to a fault.
Thirdly, MLK preaches not just with his mouth but with his life. The next day he would give his life for the truths he espoused. Preaching cannot be reduced to something we prepare in our air-conditioned studies and deliver in our orchestrated services. We must be willing to live by and to die for the truths we preach. Otherwise why should anyone take us seriously? The sermons of our mouths must be congruent with the sermons of our lives. In 2 Timothy 3:10, Paul tells Timothy to remember his teaching and his way of life. One illustrates the other. He would later warn that all who want to live godly lives will be persecuted (2 Timothy 3:12). But he speaks with the authority of one who has suffered terribly for the gospel himself (2 Timothy 3:10–11). We must live out what we preach.
When MLK says…
Now, let me say as I move to my conclusion that we’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis. We’ve got to see it through. And when we have our march, you need to be there. If it means leaving work, if it means leaving school—be there. Be concerned about your brother. You may not be on strike. But either we go up together, or we go down together.
…you know he will be there marching side by side with the people. We cannot see the world changed for Christ with powerful rhetoric alone. It needs people and communities who will flesh out God’s truth in sweat and blood.
In the movie Dark Knight (2008) the Harvey Dent character says: “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” If MLK had lived a long life would he have continued to be the champion of civil rights or would his story have veered into less happy territory? We will never know. On April 4, 1968, he was cruelly cut down by an assassin’s bullet. We will always remember him as the person in this video clip, wanting to do God’s will and challenging others to do the same. Listening to the clip again, I am challenged afresh to do God’s will even if it costs me. This is the fruit of good preaching.