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How Shall They Hear?

September 14, 2003 | Providence Presbyterian Church | Romans 10-5-15

On the second Sunday in September of 1968, 35 years ago now, I stepped for the first time into the pulpit of my first church, the First Presbyterian Church of Kilgore, Texas. Ever since, on the second Sunday of September each year, I do two things. I always have us sing the hymn, “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken,” the hymn with which that first service began, and I always preach a sermon which is a bit more personal in nature. Today, with you, I continue that personal tradition. Therefore I wish to reflect a bit on the calling which is mine—the calling which I share with all who have ever dared to stand in the pulpit. I want to break open the Word of God and break open my own heart in the hope that by so doing God will speak His Word to your heart.

Now surely there is no need for me or anyone else to stand here and declare that the greatest need in our world today is for people to meet and to know Jesus Christ. The words of the Apostle Paul written 2,000 years ago might just as well have been written yesterday. “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. How then can they call on the One they have not believed in and how can they believe in the One of whom they have not heard?. How can they hear without someone preaching to them?” How indeed? You see, right from the very beginning in the church, preaching has been central to the cause of Christ. Scan the pages of the New Testament and you will see that the first preachers were gripped by an extraordinary power. What happened to them was as real as the nails that were driven through the hands of Jesus, as real as the stones with which they were sometimes assailed. It was like a fire shut up in their bones until they made it known, and every time they proclaimed it they only added fuel to the fire. Nothing could stop them. Nothing could silence them. Throw them into prison and they transformed their cells 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 about the great conqueror of death. Nothing could stop them. Nothing could silence them. Every time they preached something happened, in one heart or in 3,000, something magnificent happened.

What were they saying that stirred up such passion and excitement? They were telling what they knew. It was the remarkable story of One who had been dead, executed like a common criminal, nailed to a cross on a hill outside the city of Jerusalem, buried in a new grave, sealed with an enormous stone, guarded by soldiers of the Roman Legion. It was the story of how on the third day after His death, sometime between sunset and dawn, this One who had been dead rose up from the cold stone slab where they laid his dead body, cast aside the grave clothes, and standing on wounded feet, walked out into the garden alive forevermore. It was the story of how He then appeared to His startled disciples, and, in signs that convinced even the most unbelieving of them, proved Himself to be alive, the living Son of the living God. It was the story of how His death has a deep significance for us all because it was a necessary part of God’s plan to redeem us from our sin and how all who claim Him as Lord of their lives and Lord of the world gain not only a life beyond death, but also a peace of mind and a power for righteousness in this life which nothing can ever destroy. That was the dramatic word of God they preached and when they preached it something happened. I think I am far within the mark when I say that something will happen today if that same message is preached, truly preached by the church in our time. Permit me then to share with you some thoughts about preaching and the preachers.

First this, to be a preacher demands a sense of call.

Paul says it plainly in Romans 10: “How can they preach unless they are sent?” In other words, a preacher is under orders. A preacher responds to a higher command. A preacher is under the compulsion of a call. Here is the way I define preaching: Preaching is God’s act of transporting the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ from the “there and then” to the “here and now” for the purpose of transforming your life and my life in the world in which we live. So, preaching is not simply the delivery of an essay on the preacher’s philosophy of life, though inevitably one’s life view will bleed through the lines of the sermon. Preaching is not a theological lecture, though all good preaching will have sound and significant theology within it. Preaching is not the teaching of Christian morality, though all good preaching will encourage adherence to the moral standards of our Christ. Preaching is not the stringing together of Bible verses or Bible stories, though all good preaching will be firmly, solidly, rooted and grounded in the scriptures. Preaching is all of those things and yet it is more than all of those things, and it is more than any of those things. Preaching is nothing less than God’s act of transporting the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ from the “there and then” to the “here and now” for the purpose of transforming human lives and human societies. What God did for humankind, through Christ on Calvary, by some mysterious power of the Holy Spirit, is repeated, renewed, reenacted when the story is told by one seeking to be a clear and open channel for that spirit. That means that the preacher must be under the compulsion of a call.

You don’t ever drift into the pulpit. If you do you don’t stay very long. It is not a job you want, not a job you seek. It is a job to which you are called. There must be down inside you a feeling that says, “Woe unto to me if I do not preach the Gospel.” The more I study the lives of the greatest preachers, the more I realize that there was about them always a sense of personal unworthiness for the calling which was theirs. Moses didn’t want the job. Amos didn’t want the job. Jeremiah didn’t want the job. It is not a job you want. It is not a job you seek. To be perfectly frank, I never step into a pulpit without remembering that I am going to be preaching to some people who have climbed higher in the faith or plumbed the depths of belief far beyond my own climbing or my own diving. I know how unworthy I am to stand in such a holy place. But more than that, if you know me at all, I am basically a shy and reserved person. I can tell you honestly that I am terrified to stand in front of people to speak. I have been preaching for 35 years and it has never gotten any better. Therefore, I cannot step into the pulpit on my own. This may or may not sound a little strange to you, but I feel, literally feel, a shove in the small of my back. My guess is if you were standing behind me at that moment, you would see the cloth of my pulpit robe move. Someone stronger than I am takes hold of me and literally propels me into that pulpit. That someone is the Holy Spirit. I cannot do it on my own. And so to be a preacher you must have a deep inner conviction that you are doing precisely what God wants you to do. The word of God must burn like a fire shut up in your bones. Yes, to be a preacher you must be under the compulsion of God’s call.

Then this: To be a preacher causes pain.

God knows that this job is not easy. God knows that to be a preacher is to experience the pain of rejection, the frustration of failure, the attack of opposition, the agony of persecution. God knows that the ministry is not a holiday but a campaign. God knows that the powers of this world are fearsome indeed, and God knows that the preacher must contend with those powers every single day. God knows that there are worldly philosophers out there who will attack
every initiative the preacher advances. God knows that there are pagans out there who will ridicule the Christ whom the preacher so dearly loves. God knows that there are people out there who have little or no regard for the church and seem to take special delight in undermining the preacher’s sense of worth, value and dignity by sending you letters which slice you to ribbons and which almost always end with the words, “The Holy Spirit led me to say this to you.” How absurd! Believe me, that is not the work of the Holy Spirit. But, the preacher encounters all of that and more, and it hurts.

There is pain in being a preacher. Preaching is strenuous. It demands everything you have—everything in your mind, everything in your heart, everything in your body. It must be passionate. The people must know that it comes straight out of the agony of your own struggle in the faith. It must be authoritative. The people must know that you are confronting them not with some preacher’s words, but with God’s Word. But then, when you are dealing with the most exciting, the most engaging, the most energizing message the world has ever heard. How could you ever treat that as just another day at the office? You can’t. And so your weekends become the time when your stomach is filled with butterflies and your nerves are set on a ragged edge. Sunday mornings you are 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 on the Son—S-O-N. And then in the uplifting context of worship, you proceed to pour everything you are and everything you have into the act of preaching so that when it is finished, you are finished. You feel used and used up. You are spent. There is 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 the Word of God and you will shorten your life at least a little bit. Yes, to be a preacher causes pain.

But please note, to be a preacher brings unspeakable joy.

Oh, what joys! No great movement of the faith has ever begun anywhere than in the pulpit. It is still the pulpit which draws people into the loving grip of the Redeeming Christ And where preaching is honored by both pastor and people—where preaching is honored by pastors who give of themselves the extraordinary time, energy and effort required to prepare so that God is able to use them; and where there are people who come to the pews waiting expectantly to hear the word from the Lord, yes, where preaching is honored by both pastor and people alike, it draws as nothing else. You see the pulpit calls you like the sea calls a sailor. It will hurt you again and again, but you cannot resist its incomparable allure. It will break your heart a hundred times over, but you will keep doing it because you love doing it. And because there are so many gracious, loving people out there who keep encouraging you to do it. And because … well, this little story says it all:

Some years ago the King of England was to deliver an address of worldwide significance. The address was to be broadcast in the United States. It was to be beamed across the Atlantic Ocean to New York City and then from New York out to the country. Twenty minutes before the broadcast was to begin, in the New York studio, a cable was accidentally severed. Without that cable, the voice of the King of England would never be heard in America. There was not enough time before the broadcast to repair the cable. It was at that moment that a young technician in that studio, a man named Harold Vivian, walked over and, with his one hand, he picked up one end of the cable, and, with the other hand, he picked up the other end of the severed cable. Then with 250 volts coursing through his body, so that at times it convulsed him, the voice of the King of England went through him and out to the people.

That is what preaching really is, dear friends. It is taking in your one hand the hand of God and taking in your other hand the hands of your people. And sometimes, in being that connecting link, you will hurt beyond the telling of it. Sometimes you will be convulsed. Sometimes convulsed with pain and privation. Sometimes convulsed with joy and laughter. For in preaching there is deep agony and there is fierce joy. But the real glory of it all is that through you, the people shall hear the voice of the King.

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