1,500 Sermons Later
September 11, 2005 | PROVIDENCE Presbyterian Church | II Corinthians 4:1-6
On September 8, 1968, I stood to preach my first sermon in my first church, the First Presbyterian Church of Kilgore, Texas. Ever since on the second Sunday of September each year, I always do two things. I always have the congregation sing the hymn with which that first service began—Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken—and I always preach a sermon which is a bit more personal in nature. Today I continue that personal tradition. Since that first sermon in September of 1968, I have preached 1500 sermons including the 80 sermons which I have preached from this pulpit. Now I certainly hope that 1500 sermons later some things have changed. I hope that I have grown deeper and stronger in my faith. I hope that I have honed, refined, and developed my spiritual gifts. I hope that I am a better preacher now than I was then. However, there is one thing which has not changed in all those years and through all those sermons. When I stepped into the pulpit of the First Presbyterian Church of Kilgore, Texas for the very first time, I carried in my heart a single verse from Scripture: 2 Corinthians 4 verse 5. Now 1500 sermons later, that has not changed. I step into this pulpit today carrying that same verse in my heart. 2 Corinthians 4 verse 5 — “We preach not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord.”
It is no accident, I think, that the Gospels specifically state that Jesus “came preaching.” Preaching was the center of His entire earthly ministry and from that center radiated both His wise teachings and His healing miracles. In fact, Jesus so well trained His first followers in the centrality of preaching that the launching of the church at Pentecost was actually triggered by that explosive preaching. Long before Christianity had any institutions or organizations, it lived and grew by the sheer power of its preaching. In fact, it may well be stated that the seeds of conversion were planted in Paul himself by the fearless preaching of Stephen. Certainly you cannot read Paul’s letters without realizing that, while he regarded preaching as a precarious, difficult, even scandalous business, nevertheless it remained central to his life and work. He declared so clearly, “I preach Christ and Him crucified.” You see, right from the very beginning the preaching of God’s Word has been the heart and soul of the church’s life.
The great writer, Herman Melville, in his classic novel, Moby Dick, went so far as to visualize the pulpit as both the prow of the church and the prow of all civilization as well. Now that’s a staggering claim. Yet for many generations, it was considered to be absolutely true. However, today it is all too easy to find those who say that the golden age of preaching lies in the past. Many of our seminaries these days de-emphasize preaching in the training of ministers. Too few pastors today are building their ministries around the centrality of preaching. Instead the emphasis is being placed almost entirely on promotional techniques, advertising skills, political adroitness, social work, relationship building and a host of other inferior substitutes.
Consequently, too often these days in the face of these circumstances, preachers resort to the kinds of sermons that I call “Saturday-night specials.” They sit down on Saturday night, string together some artificially alliterated phrases, fold in a few morality pieces drawn from the Reader’s Digest, spin a joke they heard at the Rotary Club, drop in a dollop of Scripture, take in a quick swipe at current events, and conclude it all with a touching story from Guideposts—“Saturday night specials.” Dear friends, that is trivial preaching, and trivial preaching trivializes the whole ministry of the church. What’s worse, trivial preaching trivializes the Word of God.
I stand against that tide. Fifteen Hundred sermons later, it is my unwavering conviction that preaching more than any other ministerial activity sets the tone for the life of the church. It is my unwavering conviction that preaching more than any other ministerial activity transforms human life. The great poet, James Russell Lowell, sat for a long time under the preaching of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Lowell then wrote eloquently of that experience. Among other things, he said, “We used to listen to that thrilling voice of his, so charged with subtle meaning and subtle music like shipwrecked men on a raft listening to the hail of a ship that comes to the rescue. Why? Because he put us in communication with a higher power. He gave us ravishing glimpses of an ideal. He set us free from the shackles of our own shortcomings. In short, he brought us life.” That’s what it means, I think, to say, “We preach.”
“We preach not ourselves.”
That seems strange when you stop to think about it coming from one who, in fact, had so much about himself of which he could have preached. Yet Paul steadfastly refused to do that. He knew that the proper subject matter of the Gospel could never be any person—even himself. He knew that nothing he had done, as remarkable as much of it had been, was worthy of preaching to God’s people. He knew that true preaching exists in spite of—not because of—its preachers. It was President Woodrow Wilson, the son of a Presbyterian minister, who observed, “The proof of the divinity of the Gospel is all the preaching it has survived.” Yes, Paul would have said “Amen” to that. For the subject matter of the Gospel is God. The plot line is the story of Jesus. The validation is the power of the Holy Spirit. Preaching is not a recital of what we have done for God but of what God has done for us. Preaching is not merely a verbal essay about the power of God. It is, quite literally, the power of God at work for human redemption. The sermon is not an informed opinion on spiritual matters; it is nothing less than God’s saving act in Jesus Christ reenacted right here and right now. A personal word at this point—I know that this pulpit is very visible, and I know that any preacher who stands here is also quite visible. But I know what this pulpit truly is and, even though when I stand here I cannot escape the public eye, nevertheless I am not here to preach myself. I do not wish to have curious people to come here in search of some pulpit personality. I do most earnestly wish for needy people to come here in search of their Savior. Therefore I do not preach my preferences or my priorities. Rather I preach a word that Jeremiah says is “a fire in my mouth,” and a word that Revelation says is “bitter to my stomach.” It is a word that I quake to speak as much as my listeners quake to hear. It is a word that judges me more severely than it does anyone else. It is a word which, at times, may discomfort you—I’m sorry for that—but you must understand that it discomforts me even more. It is a word which cannot be denied—not because I want to be cantankerous or controversial but because, quite simply, I am not in control of this pulpit. Furthermore I am not in control of myself when I stand in this pulpit. This pulpit is under the direct control of the Holy Spirit of God, and when I stand here I am not my own. I think that’s what Paul means when he says, “We preach not ourselves.”
“We preach not ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord.”
Catch the significance of that please. “Jesus Christ as Lord.” The name “Jesus” points to a specific life and ministry lived out in Paul’s time for a few short years around 30 AD—Jesus, the carpenter of Nazareth. The title “Christ” declares that that specific life and ministry fulfilled all of the hopes and prophecies articulated on the pages of the Bible—Christ, the Messiah. But the appellation of “Lord” is greater still. That means that this one specific life and ministry was not limited to one place or one time. Rather it declares the supremacy of this Jesus over the totality of the human experience and the totality of the human existence in every age. It declares that the power of that life is experienced, not only back there and then, but also right here and now. So for Paul to preach Jesus Christ as Lord was to declare that his Savior was not only the climax to all human history, not only the clue to all human hope, not only the comfort for all human hurt, but He is nothing less than the sovereign cosmic Ruler of the universe, the one and only Savior of the world, and the constant controlling center of your life and mine. That is why every preacher who dares to preach Jesus Christ as Lord must always preach for a verdict. That is why every sermon must be a clear call and challenge to make a decision for Jesus Christ in life. Dear friends, you must know that I am not here to deliver charismatic blessings and to dispense millennial visions. I am not here to influence legislation or to sell tapes and CDs. I am not here play democratic or republican political games. I am not here to debate peripheral questions or to speculate on contemporary curiosities. I am here only to preach Jesus Christ as Lord.
Fifteen Hundred sermons later, one thing remains unchanged. In the first sermon I preached, in the sermon I preach today, and in all of the sermons I preached in between the message has been the same. I preach Jesus Christ as Lord. Therefore, I do not ask you to like me. I do not ask you to like my style. I do ask you to love my Jesus.
Soli Deo Gloria—To God alone be the glory. Amen.