We are just back from taking a church camp. On the last day there was a time for testimonies. Many shared that my sermons were simple. I was glad. That meant folks understood what I was trying to share. A few understood the amount of hard work that goes into making sermons simple. It is difficult to be simple. But with the help of the Lord I work at this because no matter how good the content of a sermon may be, it only fulfils its purpose if it speaks to the listener.
I remember Dr J I Packer comparing preaching to cooking. The cook works in the kitchen with his or her raw materials. Cooks work their culinary magic and combine the raw materials, cook the dish, and prepare it to be served. When the dish finally gets to the table, it is bite sized, looks and smells good, attracting and inviting those at the table to tuck in and be nourished by what they eat. It would be meaningless to take a slab of meat from the freezer, for example, and toss it at people. They won’t be able to put it in their mouths, much less digest the meat.
Similarly, the preacher works in the study. With the help of the Spirit, he or she grapples with the text trying to find out what the Lord had in mind when He inspired the original writer to write to the original audience. Then there is the hard work of figuring out what the message of the text is saying to a particular audience at a particular time in real time. Then we garnish the sermon with stories and other illustrations that help the listener understand what the Lord is saying through the text and what response the Lord requires of them. Then we serve the sermon from the pulpit, bite sized, inviting, nourishing.
Where possible, however, I prefer to expound on Bible passages. (There is a place for topical sermons. Sometimes we need to bring together in one place all the key Bible teaching on a given subject.) I hope to help the listener understand the logic of the biblical narrative so that the next time he or she returns to the passage he or she will remember how that passage works. If a speaker extracts the three or four main points from a passage but doesn’t let the points arise naturally from the text, the listener is dependent on the speaker to make the points. He or she may not be able to understand the logic of the passage the next time he or she encounters it without the help of the speaker.
I have been preaching for over 30 years now. I still struggle. For example, when I am tired or nervous I speak too fast, which is what happened during the first talk at the recent camp. I try not to beat myself too much. But I am still frustrated. I have made this mistake many times!! I should know better. Aiya. But the Lord reminds me regularly that He is the primary speaker and what He expects of me is faithfulness, to do my best, and to love Him and the people I am addressing. There have been so many times when I thought I had fumbled big time in my preaching, but folks would tell me later how much the sermon spoke to them. God is the main speaker. I am called to do my best to offer up my two fishes and five loaves and let Him do the miracle of spiritual transformation.
Preaching is a very heady activity. You are standing up there speaking for God. It is even more dangerous for the ego when people are blessed by the sermons and tell you so. I need to be faithful to my spiritual disciplines to keep myself rooted. Indeed I now try not to preach every Sunday so that I am not consumed by the role. My primary identify is “child of God”, not “preacher”. And when I get too carried away the Lord has His ways of cutting me down to size.
I still get nervous every time I preach, especially when I am speaking on a difficult topic or when I am sharing with a congregation I am not familiar with. Many don’t believe me when I share this but it is true. And on the whole I think it is a good thing. It keeps me dependent on the Lord. After all, who am I that I should be allowed to preach God’s Word? This too is of grace. So please pray for me, that I continue to preach faithfully, and that I continue to preach simply. For His glory. For the building up of the saints.
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