Not the goal of preaching …
The goal of preaching …
“… pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ … that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak.” (Colossians 4:3-4)
I first put this on the wall of my study almost thirty years ago–sometime during the first week of October, 1987. I had run across the quote several years before and decided it was descriptive of the preaching I wished to offer and the life I wished to lead. It was before the days of personal computers and desktop publishing, so I asked my dear wife, Julie, if she would lend her skillful hand and write this out for me. I framed it and on a fall day in Wisconsin in 1987 drove a nail in the wall of my study and posted it where I would see it often . That was my first week as a full time pastor, of being crushed under the weight of submitting myself week-in and week-out to the Word of God and to the God of the Word and then seeking, somehow, by His grace, to speak it faithfully to those He put before me. It has hung there before me every day, ever since.
I’ve spent many moments contemplating that second sentence. I have come to read it in three ways:
So when I look up and see this on the wall before me, I am reminded that the fabric of a preaching-life is woven of these threads: my life (#1) offered up to Jesus in such a way that I become the conduit through which His life (#2) is made known to others, and this, lived out over the course of my entire lifetime (#3), is my great hope that one day I might “truly preach.”
And since I am sitting here typing for you in my study on a Saturday morning, you’ll excuse me as I turn my attention back to Philippians 3:17-4:1 (the Scripture portion for tomorrow’s word) and give myself again to the labors of preaching, in hope that perhaps tomorrow will be the great day when God finally allows me to “truly preach.”
“I have not run away from being your shepherd, nor have I desired the day of sickness.” (Jeremiah 17:16a)
Jeremiah is a fascinating man and the book of prophecy he has left us is an equally absorbing array of material. At once he rails judgment then suddenly we find him weeping intimate tears of personal petition and remorse. The emotional pendulum swing often is sudden and severe. As jarring as it can be to read through, imagine what it was to like to live through?
One of the more intimate confessions of this tear-stained prophet is found in 17:14-18. John MacKay has appropriately placed over this section the placard: “When Nothing Happens” (Jeremiah: A Mentor Commentary, 1:521). It is appropriate precisely because it appeared to Jeremiah that God was not backing His prophet’s words with appropriate fulfillment. His preaching appeared to be having zero consequence.
Continuing to preach the same message to the same dismissive people when there seems to be no effect is a crushing responsibility. Everything within you yearns to run away. Surely there are more fruitful fields! Surely there are folk more ready to listen, receive and change! When preaching-your-heart-out becomes a colossal non-event, it is nearly impossible not to give way to cynicism, self-doubt and even despair.
Jeremiah was broken by the message: “Heal me, O LORD, and I shall be healed; save me, and I shall be saved, for you are my praise” (v.14).
Jeremiah was badgered by the masses: “Behold, they say to me, ‘Where is the word of the LORD? Let it come!’” (v.15).
Jeremiah was bound by the mission: “I have not run away from being your shepherd, nor have I desired the day of sickness” (v.16a).
Jeremiah was bewildered by the Master: “Be not a terror to me; you are my refuge in the day of disaster” (v.17).
Preaching—truly preaching—can be a slow death. Yet Jeremiah did not flee from it. He did not relish the message he was given, the prophet-breaking process by which he was made fit to receive it, nor the heart-breaking process of delivering it. But he did not quit; he did not fail to deliver the message of the Lord. “You know what came out of my lips; it was before your face” (v.16b).
And is that not the key?
It was, of necessity, spoken to the people, but spiritually, inwardly “it was before [the Lord’s] face.” That is to say, the message, the preaching of it, the after-effect (or apparent non-effect) was presented to the Lord as worship even as it was presented to the people in preaching.
Preaching as an act of worship is fundamental to faithfulness in preaching. Apart from preaching as worship, cynicism takes over, other offers become too alluring, the impetus to quit becomes too strong. Not fruitfulness, nor effect, but worship—this must be our foundational motivation. For there will never be enough effect to counter-balance the weight of preaching’s burden. But making preaching fundamentally an expression of worship to God transforms it into a warm, personal, intimate relationship. Only He—not it—makes faithfulness worth it all.
“A preacher had better stop in his tracks if he finds himself moving from the apostolic to the mechanistic stage; he had better do something radical then and there. He had better drop everything and get into the woods with his Bible and read until he has a new Bible and pray until he has a new prayer, and come back a new man with a new message. A lot of churches think they need a new preacher when they simply need the same preacher renewed. Many a preacher thinks he needs a new pastorate when he needs to be renewed in the same pastorate. Robertson of Brighton wanted to resign from the ministry, but God impressed him that what he needed was to have his commissioned re-signed.
Not every preacher loses out because he went into false doctrine or had a moral breakdown. Some leave their first love in a round of church duties. Perhaps more leave it that way than in any other, for it is so deceptive: they are not aware of getting over it. They work at it harder than ever, but the harder they work, the farther they get from the thing they started to do.” (Vance Havner, “You’ll Get Over it!” in Jesus Only, p;.38-39)
“I wonder how far Moses would have gone if he’d taken a poll in Egypt? . . . What would Jesus Christ have preached if he’d taken a poll in Israel? . . . It isn’t polls or public opinion of the moment that counts. It’s right and wrong.” — President Harry S. Truman (Truman, David McCullough, 914-915)