1,600 Sermons Later
September 13, 2009 | Central Presbyterian Church
I wish to read for you from Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, the fourth chapter. I’m going to begin to read at the first verse. This is the word of God:
“Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly, we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made His light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” May God bless to us the reading and the hearing of this portion of His holy word.
Pray with me please: “Give me Jesus Lord. Give me Jesus. You can have all the rest. Just give me Jesus. Amen.”
On the second Sunday of September in 1968, I stepped into the pulpit to preach my first sermon in my first church, the First Presbyterian Church of Kilgore, Texas. Between that September, Sunday in 1968 and this second Sunday in September 2009, I have preached 1600 sermons including the 38 I have preached from this pulpit. Now, 1600 sermons later, I would hope that some things have changed. I would hope that I’ve grown deeper and stronger in my faith. I would hope that I have honed, and refined, and developed my spiritual gifts. I would hope that I’m a better preacher now than I was then, but, you know, there is one thing which has not changed through all those years and through all those sermons.
When I stepped for the first time into the pulpit of the First Presbyterian Church of Kilgore, Texas, I carried in my heart a single verse from Scripture, 2 Corinthians 4:5. Today, when I stepped into this pulpit, I carried in my heart that same verse of Scripture, 2 Corinthians 4:5. Paul writes, “We preach not ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord.” Paul says, “We preach.” I think it is no accident that the Bible says that Jesus came preaching. Those are the words you read in the Gospel accounts, “Jesus came preaching.” Preaching was the center of His entire earthly ministry and everything else—His wise teachings, His healing miracles. Everything else radiated out from that center. In fact, Jesus so clearly and capably trained His own disciples in the centrality of preaching that when the church was launched on Pentecost, it was actually triggered by the explosive preaching of one of Jesus disciples, Simon Peter. Long before the church ever had organizations and institutions, the church lived, and grew, and spread by the sheer power of its preaching.
It is safe to say that even for Paul the seeds of his conversion to Christ were planted by the fearless dynamic preaching of a man named Stephen. And when you read Paul’s letters, it is perfectly apparent that preaching was so important to him. He described it as, “A precarious difficult,” even, “scandalous business,” he said. But nevertheless, it was the center of his life and work. He said it himself so clearly, so plainly, so simply. He said, “I preach Christ and Him crucified.” You see right from the very beginning, preaching was the heart and soul of the church’s life and so it has been ever since.
The great writer Herman Melville in his novel Moby Dick actually visualizes the pulpit as being like the prow of a ship. And he goes on to suggest that the pulpit is not only the prow of the church. It is also the prow of all civilization. That is a staggering claim, and yet for many generations it was upheld and affirmed as true. However, in the day in which we now live, you certainly can find those who are quick to suggest that the golden age of preaching lies in the past. Sad to say too many seminaries today do not emphasize preaching in their training of ministers. Instead, they focus on things like marketing techniques, and political adroitness, and advertising skills, and social work, and conflict management, and relationship building, and a whole host of other inferior substitutes. And as a result, too many ministers today deliver what I choose to call sermons which are Saturday night specials.
That is to say, they sit down on Saturday night and craft a few artificially alliterated phrases, spin a joke that they heard at a rotary club, drop in a dollop or two of Scripture, take a quick swipe at current events, and wrap it all up with a touching story they pulled off the internet. Saturday night specials. Dear friends, let me tell you something. That is trivial preaching—and trivial preaching trivializes the church, and what’s worse—trivial preaching trivializes the word of God. I stand four-square against that. 1600 sermons later, it is my deep unwavering conviction that preaching more than any other ministerial activity sets the shape and the direction of the Church of Jesus Christ. Even more, it is my deep unwavering conviction that preaching more than any other ministerial activity is used by Christ to trigger His transformation in human life.
The noted poet James Russell Lowell spent many years sitting under the preaching of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Lowell wrote eloquently of that experience. Among other things, he said this—Listen—”We used to listen to that thrilling voice of his—so charged with subtle meaning and subtle music. We were like shipwrecked men on a raft listening to the hale of a ship that comes to the rescue. Why? Because he put us in touch 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, I think, is what Paul means when he says, “We preach.”
Paul says, “We preach not ourselves.”
Those words from Paul seem really rather strange if you stop to think about the fact that there was very much about Paul’s life that he certainly could have preached about, but he resolutely refused to do that. Paul understood that the proper subject of preaching is Jesus Christ, never any other person even himself. Paul understood that all that had occurred in his life—remarkable though much of it had been—none of it was worthy of preaching to God’s people. Paul understood that preaching exists in spite of—not because of—in spite of the preachers. It was actually president Woodrow Wilson, the son of a Presbyterian minister who once observed the proof of the divinity of the Gospel is all of the preaching it has survived. Paul would’ve said amen to that. Paul knew that in preaching the subject matter is the Gospel of God. The plotline is the life of Jesus Christ. The validation is the power of the Holy Spirit. Preaching is not some recital of the good things that we do or that go on in life. Preaching is a proclamation of what God does for us and for this world. Preaching is not a verbal essay on the subject of some ethereal God. Rather it is nothing less than the power of God at work for the redemption of human beings. Preaching is not an opinion piece on spiritual matters. It is instead nothing less than God’s saving redeeming act in Jesus Christ reenacted right here and right now.
A personal word at this point. I know what this pulpit is. I know that this pulpit standing in this magnificent church on Park Avenue in one of the great cities of the world, I know that this pulpit has profound historical significance. And I know that anyone who stands in this pulpit stands under the burden of that history, and anyone who stands in this pulpit cannot evade the public eye. But you must hear me clearly. I do not take to this pulpit to preach myself—No!—I take to this pulpit simply to preach Jesus Christ. I do not preach myself. I am not here to deliver to you my personal preferences and priorities. I am here only to preach the word of God. I preach a word which, as Jeremiah says it, is like a fire in my mouth. I preach a word which, as the Book of Revelation says, is bitter to my stomach. I preach a word which I may quake to speak more than my listeners may quake to hear. I preach a word which judges me more profoundly than it does any of you. I preach a word which may discomfort you—I know that—I’m sorry, but you must understand, it discomforts me even more. I preach a word which cannot be denied because I am not in control of this pulpit. It is not some secret desire of mine to be cantankerous or controversial, but I am not in control of this pulpit and I am not in control of myself when I stand in this pulpit. This pulpit stands under the direct power and control of the Holy Spirit of God. And when I stand in this pulpit, I am not my own. I think that’s what it means when Paul says, “We preach not ourselves.”
And then Paul says, “We preach not ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord.”
Catch the significance of that last phrase—let me break it apart for you. Jesus—the name Jesus—refers to one single life and ministry which was lived out over a period of a handful of years around the year 30 AD. Jesus—the Carpenter of Nazareth. Christ—the title Christ—declares that this one single life was in fact the fulfilment of all the hopes, and prophecies, and promises of the Bible—that this Jesus is the Christ—the promised Messiah. Lord—the word Lord—has a greater meaning still. The word Lord declares that this one single life was not restricted or relegated to one point in time or one place in the world. It declares that Jesus is supreme over the totality of the human experience and over the totality of the human existence in every time and in every place. It declares that Jesus can be experienced not only back there and then but also right here and now. And therefore, when Paul preached Jesus Christ as Lord, he was not only declaring that Jesus is the climax to all human history, the clue to all human hope, the cure for all human hurt. More than that—Jesus is the sovereign cosmic ruler of the universe—the one and only Savior of the world.
And therefore, anyone who dares to preach Jesus Christ as Lord must always preach for a verdict. Every sermon must be a clear call and challenge to be led by the Spirit of God to make a decision for Jesus Christ in life.
You have to know—I am not here to deliver charismatic blessings or dispense millennial visions. I am not here to influence legislation or to market CDs. I am not here to play democratic or republican political games. I am not here to debate peripheral matters or to speculate on contemporary curiosities. I am here only—but only—only to preach Jesus Christ as Lord—the sovereign cosmic ruler of the universe—the one and only Savior of the world.
And so 1600 sermons later, one thing remains unchanged. In the first sermon I preached, and in the sermon I preach today, and in every sermon I have preached in between, the message has always been the same—I preach Jesus Christ as Lord. So 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. And I plead with you to make my Jesus your Jesus.
Soli Deo gloria.
To God alone be the glory forever and ever.
Amen and amen.