There’s a saying: “Don’t speak until you’re spoken to.”
I’ll get to that. Eventually.
I’ve been a pastor for more than 10 years now. I’ve preached many sermons—and hopefully at least a few of them have been more than adequate. I find that at this point it’s not too difficult to put together a sermon; that is, the process and the rhythms are familiar ones. Of course, this can also be a part of the problem with what I call the “professionalization of faith.” Strange though it may sound, I have found that it’s possible to prepare a message at arm’s length. I do my exegesis, reflect on the meaning of the text, tease out major points to consider, decorate my outline with illustrations both serious and amusing, and make sure that the results are refracted through the gospel. And then tie it up with a neat, pretty bow. Well, maybe not a neat, pretty bow. But I can ensure you’re out by noon.
At the moment, I am also supply preaching at a church not far from my home congregation. They are a tiny church even by rural standards, and preaching whatever message I preached at my home church is all that they have asked of me. So that’s what I do. Since I know the people there, it’s been a blessing to serve there too. I’ve agreed to supply preach until they find a more permanent pastor who can preach in the mornings. Preaching the same message a second time has been an interesting experience; sometimes it goes better the second time! Each week before I leave, they hand me an envelope with a check inside to cover mileage and provide compensation for my service.
There’s something a little off about this. Preaching has become my half of a transaction. The worker deserves his wages, after all.
But is that all? It’s one thing to preach the word; it’s another to receive the word, to feed on the word yourself. Devotional reading. Meditation. Memorization. This is where my own submission to God’s word is perhaps scattershot and inconsistent. While I usually avoid thinking about it, most weeks the only Scripture I study and reflect on is my sermon text. And then almost always for my sermon exclusively. With the constraints of time and energy and life pressing in, I give in to the pressure of thinking that this is enough. Sometimes I actually believe it.
I can remember occasions when the Scriptures were something like a burning fire shut up in my bones. Or at least I can recall when it actually felt like God was at work while I was preaching. I can think of Sunday mornings when I would wake up, excited by what I had to share from God’s word. I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot. Joy spreads. Enthusiasm is contagious. Passion catches. When those of us who are preachers have been genuinely surprised by what God is saying in the Scriptures, our message is more likely to elicit surprise from people in the pews. A few less people check out or fall asleep.
I had this sort of experience recently when preaching on the parable of the Good Samaritan. Something in my study of the text surprised me, took me off guard, and made me realize just how incredible Jesus’ story-telling is. A few people told me they were surprised too. It was just a small example of what God can do when we pay attention, when we willingly receive before we prepare to give. So, like Mary, I have to learn to say more often and more faithfully, Let it be with me according to your word.
I’m thinking that’s where the disciplines involving the Scriptures come in: meditation, memorization, studying. I realize that too often I am doing more talking than listening, more preaching than praying. But the truth is that even though preaching involves a lot of study, I simply do not allow Scripture sufficient space and time to work its way into my heart and mind as I should. I need to ask: is God’s word touching me, moving me, challenging me, encouraging me, directing me? And do I allow the Spirit time to do this before I rush headlong into outlining my message? Do I allow God to say something to me before I open my mouth in the pulpit? If I have not listened to God speak to me through the text, why should I expect the congregation to listen to me? To paraphrase Jesus, Preacher, heal thyself!
Or to put it another way: “Don’t speak until you’re spoken to.”