This is post 1 of 2 in the series “CALVIN THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY PREACHING LECTURES"
- Reflections on the Preacher’s Call – Take This Job and Love it!
- Reflections on the Preacher’s Craft – 1400 Sermons Later
Reflections on the Preacher’s Call: Take This Job and Love it!
Calvin Theological Seminary Lecture
What a profound honor it is for me to stand in this place, and to have the privilege of breaking open my mind and my heart under my obedience to Jesus Christ, to share with you something of the calling, which is ours. I would ask you please to pray with me.
Lord, nothing in my hand, I bring. Simply to Thy cross, I cling. Amen.
Preaching is my life. The Bible makes it clear that every Christian has at least one gift of the Holy Spirit. Some have more than one, but everyone has at least one. The one gift of the Holy Spirit, which is mine, is the gift of preaching.
Understand please that the gift of preaching does not make one better than anyone else. No gift of the Holy Spirit is to be exalted about any other gifts of the Holy Spirit. Preaching is just one of a whole host of incredible gifts which the Holy Spirit of God has given to God’s people. But that gift is mine, and I daresay for many of you, if not all of you, the gift is yours as well. The gift is ours. Not ours alone, but it is ours. A number of years ago, there was that rather crude crash country song sung by an old but forgotten country singer named Johnny Paycheck. The song was entitled “Take This Job and Shove It.” Well, if I could write my own country song, it would certainly have a more positive twist. I would entitle it “Take This Job and Love It.”
35 years ago, I took this job of preaching. I loved it then. I love it now. And I would like to share with you some reasons why that is true. To be a preacher demands a sense of call—To be a preacher demands a sense of call. Surely there is no reason for me or for anyone else to stand here and declare to you that the greatest need that exists in our world today is for people to meet, to know, and to love Jesus Christ. The words that Paul addressed to the Romans 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 in whom they have not believed, and how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent?” How, indeed?
You see, right from the very beginning in the church, preaching has been central to the cause of Jesus Christ in the world.
If you scan the pages of the New Testament, you very quickly begin to realize that those first preachers in the church were gripped by an extraordinary power. What happened to them was as real as the nails driven through the hands of Jesus, as real as the stones with which they were sometimes assailed. The message which was theirs was like a fire shut up in their bones until they made it known. And yet, every time they proclaimed it, they simply added fuel to that fire. Nothing could stop them. Nothing could silence them. Throw them into prison, and they transform their cell 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 preach all the more convincingly about the one who is the great conqueror of death. Nothing could stop them. Nothing could silence them. And every time they preach, something happened. In one heart or in 3,000, something happened; something magnificent happened. What is it that they were preaching that aroused such positive response from many and such negative reaction from some? They were telling what they knew. They were preaching what they believe in their hearts and with their lives. And I think it’s worth noting that they kept on preaching, and they kept on believing no matter the cost, no matter the response. No matter what happened, they kept on believing, and they kept on preaching.
I believe that we are called today to follow in their training. Certainly, in my own life, I am trying to do just that, to keep believing and to keep preaching the very same message those first preachers preached. You see, I believe that Jesus Christ was nothing less than God in human form, come down to this earth to show us how to live and how to love and how to die and how to live again. I believe that. I preach that, and I’ll keep on believing that, and I’ll keep on preaching that no matter what. I believe that Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary. I believe that. I preach that. I’ll keep on believing that. I’ll keep on preaching that no matter what.
I believe that this Book is nothing less than the direct inspired Word of God written, the only infallible rule for everything that we are to say, to do, to believe, and to think in life. I believe that. I preach that. I’ll keep on believing it, and I’ll keep on preaching it no matter what. I believe that there is salvation in no one else, that there is no other name under Heaven by which we shall be saved, save the name of Jesus Christ. I believe that. I preach that. I will keep on believing it. I’ll keep on preaching it no matter what. I believe that one Friday, they hung Him up to die, and they hauled Him down dead, and they buried Him tight in a borrowed grave, and I believe that several days later, God reached down from Heaven and cracked that grave wide open and lifted His only Son to new life, and I believe that He walked out of that grave alive forevermore with all of the power of Heaven and earth in His hands. And I believe that His dying and His rising has eternal significance for us and for the world in which we live. And I believe that everyone who claims Him as Lord of their lives and Lord of the world gains not only a peace of mind and a power of righteousness for this life, but gains also the gift of a life beyond this life, a life that will never ever end. I believe that. I preach that. I’ll keep on believing that. I’ll keep on preaching that no matter what. That’s the message that those first preachers preached. And every time they preach it—something happened; something magnificent happened. I believe I’m far within the mark when I say that something would happen today, if that same message were truly preached by the church in our time. That is why the preacher must be under the compulsion of a call. How can they preach unless they are sent? How, indeed?
You see, you don’t just drift into the pulpit. If you do, you don’t stay there very long. There must be down inside of you a feeling which says, “Woe unto me if I do not preach the gospel.” Preaching is not a job you want. It is not a job you seek. It is a job to which you are called. The more I study the lives of the greatest preachers, the more I realized 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’s not a job you want. It’s not a job you seek. It’s a job to which you are called.
I am painfully aware of my own unworthiness to stand in the pulpit. In fact, I never step into any pulpit anywhere without being aware of the fact that I shall be preaching to some, at least, who have ascended higher in the faith or plumbed the depths of belief far beyond my own finding or my own diving. I know just how unworthy I am to stand in the pulpit.
Even more than that, if you were to know me at all, you would know that I am basically a very reserved person. I can tell you as honestly as I know how I am literally terrified to stand in front of people to speak. I have been preaching for 35 years, and it has never gotten any better. I cannot step into the pulpit on my own. When I preach, I feel—literally feel, a push in the small of my back, shoving me into the pulpit. I cannot do it on my own. There is something—better word—someone who is stronger than I am, who takes hold of me and shoves me into the pulpit. I cannot do it on my own. That someone is the Holy Spirit of God. To be a preacher, one must be convinced at one’s core that one is doing precisely what God wants you to do. The Word of God must burn like a fire shut up in your bones until you make it known. And every time you preach it, you only add fuel to the fire.
To be a preacher demands a sense of call.
To be a preacher produces a measure of pain, pain. In Romans 10, where we have this eloquent description of the call of the preacher, there is a little line tucked away in the 10th verse that says, “Not everyone who heard believed.” There is always going to be that negative response and reaction. There is going to be pain. God knows that this job of ours, this calling of ours, is not easy. God knows that the ministry is not a holiday; it’s a campaign. God knows that to be a preacher is to run slap up against the frustration of failure, the attack of opposition, the pain of rejection, the agony of persecution.
God knows that the powers of this world are fearsome indeed. And God knows that the preacher must lock horns and do battle with those powers week by week by week, sometimes winning, sometimes losing but never ever retreating. God knows that there are worldly philosophers out there who will attack every idea and ideal the preacher advances. God knows. There are pagan philosophers out there who will ridicule the Christ whom the preachers so dearly love. God knows that there are self-sufficient people out there who want nothing to do with the Christ who is so passionately trying to reach out to them. God knows that there are people in the church who couldn’t care less about the church, and who seem to take a special pleasure in undermining the preacher’s sense of worth and value and honor and dignity by sending your letters that slice you to ribbons and almost inevitably are signs. “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 in count is full of that and more, and it hurts. You add to that the pain that comes from preaching in the time in which we live. I want to tell you this, straight from my heart, I am under a deep and growing conviction that it is going to be tougher and tougher for Christians and for the church to thrive in this country.
I believe that more and more Christians and especially those who preach the gospel will have to face persecution right here in the land of the free. Oh, maybe not overt persecution like being tossed to the lions, but veiled persecution like being ridiculed and rejected, like being relegated to the sidelines of society’s priorities, like being restricted and restrained by the political and legal systems of our time. You are, no doubt, aware that there is a bill moving toward passage in the Canadian Parliament to declare this Book as hate literature. The very beginnings of that kind of legislation are being forged right now in this country. Preach the Word of God in the years that are ahead, there will be a price to be paid.
I have to tell you that I’m much helped these days in my own ministry by reading from a wonderful little book by a man named Hans Ehrenberg. The book is called Autobiography of a German Pastor. It’s the story of how Hans Ehrenberg and his church managed to stand against Adolf Hitler and the Nazi movement. In the book, Ehrenberg talks about the fact that the strategy, which was theirs in his church, wound up enabling the individual witnesses in that church to stand against the enemy and to overcome in difficulty, even the difficulty of the concentration camp. The strategy was two-fold: on Sundays, Hans Ehrenberg preached the gospel of Jesus Christ, the same message preached by the first preachers of the church. And on Thursday evenings, Ehrenberg and his people gathered at the church to pray, to study the Scriptures, to confront these core values of the faith, to immerse themselves in the great creeds and confessions of our faith and traditions. Ehrenberg refers to those Thursday night sessions as, “rehearsals for whatever might be coming.” It was that strategy that enabled his people to stand strong no matter what. It was costly to do so. In fact, Ehrenberg himself ultimately was shipped off to a concentration camp.
In the book, though, he has one little story, which he says, is the perfect illustration of what the strategy of his little church was all about. It’s the story of a teenage girl who, one summer, went off to summer camp for girls of her age. The camp was to begin with a special worship service where all the campers came together, the beginning of the week. When all of the campers, including this young girl, walked into the hall, where the service was to be held, at the focal point of the room, front and center, a large picture of Adolf Hitler.
The young girl from Ehrenberg’s church suddenly got up, walked down to the front, picked up the picture, smashed it against the wall, and turned around and said to the assembled group, “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.” It cost her dearly. Ehrenberg said, “What was so amazing about that was not that she smashed the picture of Hitler, not even that she could confess the first commandment. What was so amazing about that was that she was prepared beforehand to do both.”
That’s our task, to prepare our people for whatever might be coming, to deliver to them the meat of the Gospel, the solid groundwork of our faith so that they may stand strong with Jesus Christ no matter what. Do that. Preach that. Truly preach the Word of God, and sooner or later, you will pay a price. To be a preacher brings a measure of pain. Will you please forgive the inelegance of his expression? Friends, if you ain’t hurting, you ain’t preaching. Preaching does bring pain.
You see, preaching is strenuous. It demands everything you have in you. It demands everything in your mind, everything in your heart, everything in your body. Your weekends become the time when your stomach is filled with butterflies and your nerves are set on a ragged edge. On Sunday mornings, you’re up long before the sun, the S-U-N, in order to study and to hone your mind razor-sharp, in order to pray and focus your mind and heart upon the Son, the S-O-N. Then in the uplifting context of worship, you proceed to pour out everything you have in you 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 in 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. To be a preacher brings a measure of pain. But thank God, to be a preacher brings an abundance of joy. Robert Kirkpatrick once said, “The power of a sermon is measured by the point of contact with the pew.” Instant replay. “The power of the sermon is measured by the point of contact with the pew.”
I believe we are called to make that point of contact. My preaching flows directly out of my pastoral care. I work tirelessly to stay in touch with my people, to keep my finger on the pulse of their hopes and dreams, their fears and frustrations, their sins and shortcomings, their sufferings and sorrows. Do you understand what I mean when I say, “I do not preach through a book; I preach to a congregation”? Since there is nothing more worthless than the answer to an unanswered question, since there is nothing more foolish than a solution to a non-existent problem, I tremble to step into any pulpit without having taken at least some measure of the life experience of the people to whom I shall be preaching.
The toughest assignment for me of all is to be the guest preacher in another church, where I never quite know if the point of contact has been made. Ah, but when I step into my own pulpit, I am very much aware of the fact that there is an older fellow there who immediately turns up his hearing aid. There is a young mother there who hands a crayon and a piece of candy to the six-year-old at her side. There is a high school student there who slumped down in the pew because his mom and dad made him come to church. There’s a business executive there who’s got 1,000 things running through his mind, and he’s fighting to focus his attention. There’s a young adult there seeking, searching, wondering, hoping that maybe, just maybe, the real secret of life might be found there. There’s an expectant mother there who, as I speak, feels the movement of new life within her. There’s a homosexual there carrying a pain almost too heavy to bear. There’s a single person there tortured and tormented by loneliness and temptation, both of them longing to find some way out of the darkness and into the light of the Lord. There is someone there who just recently considered suicide. There’s someone there who, within the last seven days, cheated in one way or another. There’s someone there who regularly feeds the flesh with pornography. There’s someone there wearing clothes that are threadbare, and there’s someone there wearing a $2,000 wristwatch. There’s someone there who was born again of the Lord Jesus Christ before I was even born to my mom and dad 60 years ago.
I stand in the pulpit, and I look out at them, and I know how different they are. And yet, I must come to them with one great shining truth that God loves them and loves them all, that no matter who they are, no matter what their circumstances may be, no matter what they may have been or done or said or thought in their lives, God loves them so much that he gave to them and for them His only Son.
They’re all different, but I’ve got to come to them with that single message, and so I must inevitably try different approaches. Sometimes, I come with a whole chunk of Scripture. Sometimes, I come with just a verse or two. Sometimes, I come with prophetic zeal. Sometimes, I come simply pleading. Sometimes, I come with the wisdom of the classics of great literature and music. Sometimes, I come with the fun stuff of the latest pop song or paperback volume. Sometimes, I come wanting to challenge them to the core. Sometimes, I come wanting just to lift their spirits a little bit. Sometimes, I come with a broad vision of the Kingdom. Sometimes, I come with simple life principles to build into their everyday experience. Sometimes, I come with a booming voice. Sometimes, I come with a tantalizing whisper. Sometimes, I come with great rolling, rollicking laughter. Sometimes, I come with the tender touching trickle of tears.
But you see, they’re all different, and so I must come to them with different approaches. I am seeking to gain entrance for the Spirit of Christ into their hearts. Not all doors open to the same key. But when the key fits and the door opens, oh, what joy. Dear God, oh, what incredible joy! I guess that’s why I so love the older lady who came to me one Sunday after church and said, “Tell me, who do you preach to when I’m not here?” The power of the sermon is measured by the point of contact with the pew.
One example, please. I remember visiting in the hospital one of the wonderful women in my congregation. Her name was Frances Kirkpatrick. She was ill, seriously ill, desperately ill. When I walked into the room and looked at her, her skin had turned chalky white. Her hair had gone flat and silver, so that as I looked at her, I could not tell where she stopped and the pillow began. Her husband, Bill, whispered to me that he didn’t think she could last much longer—turned out he was correct.
I stood there at her bedside and wondered what in the world I might say to her. Then, suddenly, I remembered that one Sunday several years earlier in the sermon, I had decided the 23rd Psalm using the broad Scots dialect so prevalent in the Highlands of Scotland. And I remembered that after that sermon, Frances Kirkpatrick came up to me and thanked me for that recitation of the song because she said it took her back to her own growing-up years in the Highlands of Scotland. Then I remembered that Frances Kirkpatrick said something else to me that day as well. She said, “I want to recommit my life to the Shepherd.” And so she did.
I remember that. So I reached down and took her tiny, frail little hand in my own. I leaned down over her bed, and I began to say, “The Lord’s ma hair’d.”
I felt her hand tighten on my arm. I saw her lips begin to move. No words forthcoming. Just mouthing the words with me.
“The Lord’s ma hair’d, I’ll ne’er want
He oots me he lee doon
Oot auld the knoll and mang the groes
Wot a bonny burny scroon.
“Ma soul he wakens by its dwan
Oot o’er the mairlen veet
In kilricht roads for his name’s sake
He eerts ma wandrin’ feet.
“Yea, tho’ I hast a gang milong
Doon through the dead virth dale
I’ll tho naskae’ for He is by
His crook and kent ne’er fail.
“My table He hast hansel’d weal
While foes do sit and glower
The oil ‘o grace is on my head
Ma bickers lip an óur.
“Gude guidance and gude greenin’ shall
Gang wit ma late or ere
And I’ll sign oop in the Lord’s big hoose
And bide forever mair.”
Frances Kirkpatrick never said a word. The tiny river of tears that flowed from the corner of her eyes, across her temples and down into her ears spoke volumes. And it wasn’t very long before the Shepherd came to take His little lamb back home. So you see that I could bring Christ to the hospital room because I had first tried to bring Christ and the power and the hope and the courage and the comfort and the consolation we have in Christ, because I had first tried to bring Christ from the pulpit. When the point of contact is made, that brings a joy to your heart, like no joy you could ever know, a joy which nothing in this life can ever shake or destroy.
To be a preacher—to be a preacher brings an abundance of joy. Please let me finish with this. James Russell Lowell sat at the feet of the preaching of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and later on, wrote eloquently of that extended experience. Here are his words, “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 is the calling, which is yours and mine. That’s why I love this job. And that’s why I want you to love it too. For you see, you and I have the matchless opportunity to encourage people, to reach out and hold on to Jesus Christ for dear life, life here and life hereafter.
Soli Deo Gloria.
To God alone be the glory.
Amen and Amen.