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2,000 Sermons Later

November 16, 2014 | Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church | II Corinthians 4:1-6

I wish to read for you these words from the second letter that Paul wrote to the Corinthians. 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’s 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 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.

For 48 years now, it has been my high honor and my great joy to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. During those 48 years, I now have preached 2,000 sermons including the 60 sermons which I have preached here. Now, surely, 2,000 sermons later, some things must have changed. I certainly would hope that I have 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 when I preached that first sermon. So 2,000 sermons later, some things have changed, I hope. Ah, but 2,000 sermons later, there is one thing which has not changed. When I stepped for the first time into the pulpit, I carried in my heart a single verse, 2 Corinthians 4:5. Today, 2,000 sermons later, I step into this pulpit with that same verse in my heart—2 Corinthians 4:5. There, Paul writes, “We preach not ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord.”

Paul says, “We preach.”

It is no accident, I think, that the Gospels clearly state that Jesus came preaching. Those are the words used. Jesus came preaching. Preaching was the central reality of His life and His earthly ministry. And from that center, there radiated all of His wise teachings and His healing miracles. In fact, Jesus so forcefully and effectively trained His first followers in the centrality of preaching, that at the launch of the church at Pentecost, that launch was triggered by nothing less than explosive Christ-centered preaching.

Long before Christianity had institutions and organizations, Christianity lived and grew and spread by the sheer power of its preaching. I think it’s even safe to say that in Paul’s case, the seeds of his conversion were planted in his heart by the fearless preaching of Stephen. And then once Paul came to Christ, preaching became the central reality of his life and work. He said it himself. “I preach Christ, and Him crucified.” And so you see right from the very beginning, preaching 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 being not only the prow of the church, but in addition, the prow of all civilization as a whole. A staggering claim, to be sure. And yet, for generations, it was regarded as being absolutely true. Not so much today. It’s easy to find those today who would quickly say that the golden age of preaching lies in its past. Many seminaries today do not emphasize preaching in the training of ministers. Too many pastors today are building their ministries not on the centrality of preaching, but rather on things like promotional techniques and advertising skills and political adroitness and social work and relationship building and a whole host of other inferior substitutes. The result is that today, there are many ministers who deliver in their sermons what I choose to call Saturday Night Specials.

That is to say, they sit down on Saturday night, scratch out some artificially alliterated phrases, spin a jolt that they heard at the Rotary Club, toss in a tiny little dollop of Scripture, take a quick swipe at the current events of the day, and conclude it all with a touching story they pulled from the internet. That’s what I call Saturday Night Specials. And let me tell you, that kind of preaching is trivial preaching. And trivial preaching trivializes the whole ministry of the church. What’s worse. Trivial preaching trivializes the Word of Almighty God. I stand against that tide.

2,000 sermons later, it is my unwavering conviction that preaching more than any other ministerial activity sets the tone for the life of the church. Preaching more than any other ministerial activity transforms human life by the power of Almighty God. And that is why preaching right from the very beginning has been the heart and soul of the church’s life.

James Russell Lowell, the great poet, sat for a long time under the preaching of Ralph Waldo Emerson. He wrote later on eloquently of that experience. Among a number of things that he said were these words. Listen. “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 of a 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.” Dear friends, I think that’s what Paul means when he says, “We preach.”

And then Paul says, “We preach not ourselves.”

When you stop to think about it, that’s actually a rather strange thing for Paul to say, given the fact that there was so much about his life of which he could preach. But Paul steadfastly refused to do so. You see, Paul understood that he was the chief of sinners. Paul understood that there was nothing in his life, however remarkable some of it may have been—there was nothing in his life worthy of preaching to God’s people. Paul understood that true preaching exists in spite of, not because of, its preachers.

It was President Woodrow Wilson, the son of a Presbyterian minister, who on one occasion said, “The proof of the divinity of the Gospel is all the preaching it has survived.” Ha! Oh, Paul would have said “Amen” to that. Because you see, Paul knew that the subject matter of the Gospel is God. Paul knew that the plotline of the Gospel is the story of Jesus. Paul knew that the validation of the Gospel is the power of the Holy Spirit.

And so the sermon is not a recital of the things that we have done for God. It is a proclamation of what God has done for us. The sermon is not a verbal essay on spiritual matters. It is, actually, God’s redeeming act in Jesus Christ reenacted right here and right now. That’s why preaching has been from the beginning, the heart and soul of the church’s life.

A word from my heart, please. Preaching is strenuous. It demands everything you have. Everything in your mind, everything in your heart, everything in your body. Preaching must be authentic. The people must know that it comes flowing straight out of the agony of your own struggle in the faith. Preaching must be authoritative. The people must know that you are confronting them. Not with some preachers’ words but with God’s Word. Preaching must be passionate. I mean, when you are delivering the most energizing, the most engaging, the most exciting message the world has ever heard, how could you treat that as just another day at the office? You can’t.

And therefore, all through the week in preparation, you work as hard as you can. Your weekends become the time when your stomach is filled with butterflies and your nerves are set on a ragged edge. Sunday morning, you’re up long before the sun, the S-U-N, in order to study and hone your mind razor-sharp in order to pray and focus your heart upon the son, the S-O-N. And then in the uplifting context of worship, you pour everything you have, everything you are, into the act of preaching so that when it is finished, you are finished. You feel used and used up. You’re spent. There’s nothing left. My beloved professor, James Stewart of Scotland used to say, “Every sermon well-preached will cause you to die a little.” True, truer than true. Truly preach God’s Word and you will shorten your life just a little bit. My dear friends, believe me, I know what this pulpit is. This pulpit stands in one of the great churches in one of the great cities in this nation. And therefore, this pulpit is visible and any preacher who stands in this pulpit is quite visible as well.

However, I do not take to this pulpit 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. And so, therefore, I do not preach my personal preferences or priorities. I preach a word which Jeremiah says is a fire in my mouth and which Revelation says is bitter to my stomach. I preach a word which judges me more severely than it does anyone else. I preach a word which may on occasion discomfort you. I’m sorry for that, but you must know it discomforts me even more. I preach a word which cannot be dismissed. A word which cannot be denied. Not because I wish to be cantankerous or controversial, but quite simply because I am not in control of this pulpit. Furthermore, when I stand in this pulpit, I am not in control of myself. This pulpit stands under the direct control of the Holy Spirit of God. And therefore, when I stand here, I am not my own. I think that’s what Paul meant when he said, “We preach not ourselves.”

And then Paul said, “We preach not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord.”

Catch the significance of those words. Jesus Christ as Lord. The name Jesus that points to a specific life and ministry lived out over a relatively handful of years around the year 30 AD. Jesus, the carpenter of Nazareth. The title Christ, that title speaks of the fact that that one specific life actually fulfilled all of the hopes and all of the prophecies spread on all the pages of the Bible, Christ the Messiah. Ah, but the third appellation, Lord, that is greater still. Lord declares the supremacy of Jesus over the totality of the human experience and the totality of the human existence in every age. That word declares that that one specific life can actually be experienced, not only back there and then, but also right here and now. Preaching Jesus Christ as Lord sets loose an extraordinary power of God.

Scan the pages of the New Testament and you will quite readily see that those early preachers were gripped by an extraordinary power. What happened to them was as real as the nails driven through the hands and feet of Jesus. What happened to them was as real as the stones with which they were sometimes assailed. The Gospel message burned like a fire shut up in their bones until they made it known and every time they proclaimed it, they simply added fuel to the fire. Nothing could silence them. Nothing. Nothing could stop them. Nothing. Throw them into prison and they turn their sails into a pulpit and the prisoners into a choir. Stone them and they rose up from the dust bruised and bleeding but all the more eloquent. Lash them with whips and they preached all the more convincingly of the great conqueror of death. Nothing could stop them. Nothing could silence them. And every time they preached, something happened in one heart or in 3,000 hearts. Something magnificent happened.

And that is why preaching Jesus Christ as Lord declares that Jesus is not just the climax to all human history. Jesus is not just not the clue to all human hope. Jesus is not just the comfort for all human hurt. Jesus is nothing less than the sovereign, cosmic ruler of the whole universe. Jesus is nothing less than the one and only Savior of the whole world. Jesus is nothing less than the constant consistent controlling center or your life and of mine. And that is why any preacher who dares to preach Jesus Christ as Lord, must always preach for a verdict. The sermon must always be a clear call and challenge to make a decision for Jesus Christ in life.

My beloved people, you have to know that I am not here to deliver charismatic blessings or to dispense millennial visions. I am not here to influence legislation or sell books and CDs. I am not here to play Democratic or Republican political gains. I am not here to debate peripheral questions or to speculate about contemporary curiosities. I am here for one reason and for one reason only. I am here to preach Jesus Christ as Lord.

And so 2,000 sermons later, one thing remains unchanged. In the first sermon that I ever preached, and in the sermon I preached today, and in all of those sermons in-between, the message has been the same. I preach Jesus Christ as Lord and therefore, I do not ask you to like me. I do not ask you to like my style, but I do most earnestly, most seriously ask you to love my Jesus. And I ask you most earnestly, most seriously to make my Jesus, your Jesus.

Soli Deo gloria.
To God alone be the glory.
Amen and Amen.

 

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