Last night, Bernice and I decided that whenever we drive away from a place where we were ministering, e.g. a church where I had just preached, we will play the Mission Impossible theme song on the car CD player and wear black sunglasses. OK, maybe watching Mission Impossible 3 on HBO may have had something to do with our decision. But it had more to do with the fact that I had almost collapsed from the weight of preaching about God at a camp I was taking.
On the evening of Wednesday June 11th, I preached on Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush as recorded in Exodus 3. I had preached on this passage many times before. This time round, in the moments leading upto the sermon, I suddenly felt overwhelmed by the weight of the responsibility of preaching on YHWH. Who was I, sinful and limited, to dare talk about the divine? I can’t explain why this reality didn’t hit me so hard the previous times I had expounded this passage. I just know that two nights ago, the sheer madness of standing and speaking for, and about, God, felt like Mission Impossible.
In fact, I felt that I hadn’t done particularly well during the four sermons I preached for the camp. I had preached this series before. I recalled other occasions when everything fell into place. The delivery was smooth, the connection with the congregation palpable, the jokes went down well, the people were appreciative. This time round, I was struggling for words, I laboured to explain key theological terms. And I even forgot Isaac’s name at a critical point of one of the sermons.
No, I am not imagining things. I have been preaching for a long time now and I roughly know if things are flowing smoothly. Or not. Bernice confirmed that I was struggling at parts and she should know. By now my beloved has heard me preach many times. Ths was not one of my better performances.
You may or may not be surprised to hear that many at the camp reported that God had spoken significantly to them during the sermons. I was dazed, taken aback by the magnitude and depth of the responses to the talks. Fortunately I had been in ministry long enough to recognise what had happened. I believe most of us who preach on a regular basis would have come across this paradox.
There are times when you preach really well. You applied everything you learned in homiletics class. You put all your hard-earned experience on preaching into the mix. And you had preached well. You were happy with the sermon. But nothing much had happened. The sermon fell flat.
In contrast there are times when you felt that you had blown it. Perhaps you had a sore throat and your voice was a hoarse whisper, and nothing the sound engineer did could salvage your delivery. Perhaps it was a tough topic and you were nervous and you spoke at a speed that broke the speed limit. It could be a week where there were just so many unexpected pastoral emergencies that you couldn’t give the sermon the preparation time it deserved. You know you had done a poor job. But then God shows up. And lives are touched. Or a revival breaks out. As a result of your poor sermon.
Those of us in the trade recognize this phenomenon. Once in awhile God does this — choosing not to bless a sermon where we think we have been so clever, and blessing mightily a sermon where we have done poorly — to remind us who is the main partner in the act of preaching.
Unless we are completely mad, preachers understand that preaching is a collaboration between God and man. Preaching is divine-human partnership. It’s just that sometimes, we forget who is the senior partner. Especially when we have gained some reputation as a preacher. The danger is that the preacher feels that preaching is primarily his or her show. And that God is there just to assist him or her. We forget that it is the Almighty who is the primary speaker and that He condescends to speak life to humanity. And that He further condescends to use fallible human beings as His mouthpieces.
Who am I to speak for YHWH? In truth I will never be qualified enough. But preaching, finally, is not about me. It’s about God. When Moses is told that he is to go to Pharaoh to bring the Israelites out of Egypt, this is his response: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” (Exodus 3:11 TNIV) This is God’s reply: “I will be with you.” (Exodus 3:12a TNIV)
Look closely. God didn’t answer Moses’ question. He didn’t try to convince Moses why he had the correct credentials for his calling. Instead, God reminds Moses of the most important thing he needs to know. If he were to obey God’s call, God Himself would be with Him. YHWH, the Creator of heaven and earth will be with Moses to enable him to accomplish his mission. Moses was to trust in God and not in his own abilities. So “Who am I” is the wrong question. The right question is “Who is YHWH,” because our adequacy is in Him, not in ourselves.
So yes, speaking for God is truly mission impossible. But it happens because the Almighty humbles Himself to use fallible, imperfect human beings as His messengers. He chooses to give us His treasures in jars of clay (2 Corinthians 4:7). It is all grace.