Every Friday night I do one of my favorite things in the world, something that brings me fully alive — I preach a sermon in the company of my friends.
Anyone who has never preached a sermon will think I’m being unnecessarily melodramatic here, but every time I preach I feel like I’m taking my life into my own hands.
I mean, have you ever really thought about what a sermon is? Feeble humans using words to speak unutterable mysteries, finite beings wading out into the infinite, the weekly attempt at saying the ineffable. Preaching is like jumping out of a plane –you’re hoping the parachute opens and the wind carries you safely to the ground.
Pastors, I’m coming to believe, must “live in a different zone” in order to “bring a word from elsewhere.”
Frankly, I don’t trust any pastor who is not regularly daunted by the task of preaching. I’ve gotten a glimpse into why Saint James said, “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” There’s weightiness to proclamation.
Pastors, I’m coming to believe, must “live in a different zone” in order to “bring a word from elsewhere.” (Watch Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann speak on this idea.) Otherwise, preaching can quickly morph into the task of drumming up some theological content.
But here’s the million-dollar question: How does one appropriate a “word from elsewhere” and avoid becoming a weekly theological content creator?
Prayer is the only way I’ve discovered to keep preaching fresh and effervescent. It’s the human interaction with the divine wherein human words get “lifted up,” made more. Prayer is being caught up into the fellowship of the Triune God who, we’re told, is vocal, talkative, inter-personally chatty.
If we read the creation account with any fascination at all, we’ll see that our very existence hinges upon God saying things. “Let there be . . . and there was.” So I’m beginning to imagine prayer as the preacher’s way of “speaking those things that are not as though they were” (Romans 4:17). A sermon must be prayed into existence. And where prayerlessness exists, what some call “preaching” is more accurately called “talking.”
A few years ago I decided I would learn how to beautify my home by doing a few construction projects. Gung-ho, I launched into my first project without any real blueprint. I was just going to figure it out as I went. How hard can it really be?
Very hard, I came to discover. I wasted a lot of time and ended up calling a friend who knew what he was doing to bail me out. When he got there he said, “So you were just going to keep throwing wood at it?” He sketched out plans and showed me the way.
But I’ll never forget that line: “ . . . throwing wood at it.”
When I find that the words I’m searching for are lodged in my heart and head, I get up and go on a walk to pray those words dislodged.
It has since dawned on me that a sermon that has not been prayed into existence is no better than “throwing words at” a congregation. Only one thing is needed: a private and prolonged prayerful conversation before any attempt at a public declaration.
So when I find that the words I’m searching for are lodged in my heart and head, I get up and go on a walk to pray those words dislodged. If I will wait, they will come.
And when I find that the words I’m looking for are buried under the debris of anxiety and distraction and my own double-mindedness, I fall on my face in my office and pray. I’m coming to imagine prayer as the archaeological dig that precedes any great discovery.
And when I find my words are starting to wander, prayer becomes the way that God trains my fledgling little sermon up “in the way it should go.”
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