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Thirty Minutes To Raise The Dead!

September 11, 1988 | First Presbyterian Church Orlando | II Corinthians 4:1-6

On September 8, 1968, I stood for the first time to preach my first sermon from the pulpit of my first church—the First Presbyterian Church of Kilgore, Texas, smack in the middle of the East Texas oil field. Today, twenty years later, I stand in this pulpit to preach my 900th sermon. Now I hope that in those twenty years and 899 sermons, some things have changed. I hope that I have grown in my faith and in the development of my spiritual gifts. I hope that I am a better preacher now than I was then. But there is one thing which has not changed in all those years. When I stepped into the pulpit for the first time, twenty years ago, I carried in my heart a single verse from Scripture: II Corinthians 4:5. In twenty years that has not changed. I step into this pulpit today carrying the same verse in my heart: II Corinthians 4:5. There Paul writes: “We preach not ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord.” Let me try to explain why that verse continues to accompany me during the time I preach…

Paul says, “We preach…”

It is no accident that the Gospels note quite specifically that Jesus “came preaching.” Preaching was the center of His earthly ministry, and from that center radiated both His wise teaching 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 triggered by explosive preaching. Long before Christianity had any institutions, or organizations, or even New Testament writings, it lived and grew by its preaching. In fact, it may well be that the seeds of conversion were planted in Paul himself by the fearless preaching of Stephen. You cannot read Paul’s letters without realizing that while he regarded preaching as a precarious, difficult, even scandalous business, it remained central to his life and work.

You see, right from the very first, worship has been the heart and soul of the church’s life—and the heart and soul of worship is the proclamation of God’s Word. Herman Melville went so far, in his classic novel, Moby Dick, as to visualize the pulpit as both the prow of the church and the prow of all civilization as well. That’s a staggering claim, yet for many generations, it was accounted as true. However, today it is easy to find those who say that the golden age of preaching lies in its past. For most of the last twenty years, many seminaries have de-emphasized preaching in the training of ministers, and too few pastors today are building their ministries around the centrality of preaching. Instead the emphasis is placed on promotional techniques, advertising skills, political adroitness, relationship building, and a host of inferior substitutes. Subtle, but excruciating pressures are brought to bear on the minister today to spend all week feverishly engineering spectacular schemes, attempting to be an ambassador of good will for the community, handling extensive correspondence and counseling, and serving as chief executive officer of a company. Add to that the congregation’s frequently unrealistic expectations and you have a situation guaranteed to diminish the call to preach. Kent Hughes, in a fine little book called, Liberating Ministry From The Success Syndrome, lightheartedly underscores these pressures by describing the typical church member’s idea of the ideal pastor. He is “always casual, but never underdressed; is warm and friendly, but not too familiar; is humorous, but not funny; calls on his members, but is never out of the office; is a Biblical preacher, but always preaches on the family; is profound, but comprehensible; condemns sin, but is always positive; has a family of ordinary people, but who never sin; has two eyes, one brown and the other blue!”

Too often these days in the face of these pressures, preachers resort to the kinds of sermons that I call “Saturday Night Specials”—they sit down on Saturday night and string together some artificially alliterated phrases, a joke they heard at the Rotary Club, a few pious moralities picked up from the Reader’s Digest, a dollop of Scripture, a quick swipe at current events, and a concluding story from Guideposts. That is trivial preaching, and trivial preaching trivializes the whole ministry of the Church.

I stand against that tide. After twenty years, it is my conviction that preaching, more than any other ministerial activity, sets the tone for the life of the church—that preaching, more than any other ministerial activity, transforms human life. James Russell Lowell sat under the preaching of Ralph Waldo Emerson and wrote eloquently of the experience. 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 listen 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 what it means to say “we preach.” The ministry is not like any other profession or vocation. All callings are from God and they are holy—but the ministry is the highest calling of all. I am speaking especially now to our young people. Please hear me. God may be calling you to preach the life-changing, world-changing Gospel of Jesus Christ. I am going to be talking with some of you about that. If you sense that God is already moving you in that direction, then do not wait; come see me. I want to help you confirm that call—and this church is eager to support you in that endeavor. Of course, you do not have to be young. Our seminaries are full of second-career people who have heard the call later in life. Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones left a promising career in medicine to enter the ministry, and listen to what he said: “I gave up nothing. I received everything. I count it the highest honor God can confer to be called to be a herald of the Gospel.” Alexander Whyte of Edinburgh once wrote to a pastor-friend: “The angels around the throne envy you your great work.” That is why Paul says with such passion and such power: “We preach…”

And Paul says, “not ourselves”—”we preach not ourselves…”

That seems strange coming from one who had so much about himself of which he could preach. Yet Paul steadfastly refused to do that. He knew that the proper subject matter of the Gospel could never be any person, any human, even himself. Nothing he had done, as remarkable as much of it had been, was worthy of proclamation. He knew that he, Paul, was the “chief among sinners.” He knew that true preaching exists in spite of, not because of, its preachers. It was Woodrow Wilson, the son of a Presbyterian minister, who observed that “the proof of the divinity of the Gospel is all the preaching it has survived.” Paul would have said “Amen” to that.

For the subject matter of the Gospel is God. Its plot is the story of Jesus. Its validation is the power of the Holy Spirit. Preaching is not a recital of what we have done for God, but of what He has done for us. It is not merely a proclamation about the power of God—it is quite literally the power 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 re-enacted right here, right now.

How sad then that the motto of many pulpits today is “we preach ourselves.” I don’t think that is because ministers are egotistical; I think it is because too many preachers have let the criticisms lodged against the Bible shake their certainty about its message. They have accepted too quickly the notion that this ancient Book and its concepts cannot speak potently to the sophisticated, intellectual climate of today’s world. Thus too many preachers feel that their only choice is to stand behind the bulwark of their own experience. The problem is that once we begin to preach ourselves, then those who have the most fascinating selves will have the most to say, and those with the most public visibility will be the ones who are heard. Against that notion, Kendrick Grobel once said: “In the New Testament there were no great preachers, only great preaching.”

A personal word at this point, please. I know that this pulpit is both very prominent and very visible. My predecessors here—Marshal 1 Dendy and Bill Kadel and John Anderson and Howard Chadwick—stood awfully tall in this city and in our denomination. I know that many of this city’s “movers and shakers” sit on these pews. I know that this church will soon become the eighth largest Presbyterian Church in the United States—and finally, I hope that someday, God willing, it will become the largest, for that will mean that we are reaching the people of this city for Jesus Christ! I know what this pulpit is. And even though when I stand here, I cannot escape the public eye, I am not here to preach myself. I do not want curious people to come here in search of some celebrity; I want needy people to come here in search of their Saviour.

Why do I affirm that I do not preach myself? Because that sets the Gospel front and center. Believe me, it would be easier to preach myself. There are controversial themes in the Bible I would just as soon not touch. Left to myself, I would choose safety and acceptance by watering-down or ignoring those dangerous issues. But that is just the point: I do not preach myself. I do not preach my preferences or my priorities. Rather I preach a Word that Jeremiah says is “a fire in my mouth” and that Revelation says is “bitter to my stomach.” It is a Word that I may quake to speak as much as my listeners may quake to hear. It is a Word that may judge me more severely than it does anyone else. It is a Word which at times may discomfort you—I am sorry, but it discomforts me even more. But it is a Word that cannot be denied, not because I want to be cantankerous or controversial, but because quite simply I am not in control of this pulpit, and I am not in control of myself when I am in this pulpit. This pulpit is under the control of the Holy Spirit, and when I stand here, I am not my own. Paul says: “We preach not ourselves…”

Then Paul says, “but Jesus Christ as Lord”—”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 Palestine for a few short years around 30 A.D. The title, “Christ,” declares that that life and ministry fulfilled all of the hopes articulated on the pages of Scripture. But the appellation “Lord,” is greater still. It means that this fulfillment was not limited to one place or time, rather it asserts the supremacy of Jesus over the totality of human existence in every age. It proclaims that the power of that life is something experienced not only there and then, but also here and now.

For Paul to preach Jesus Christ as Lord was to declare that His saviour 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 the cosmic ruler of the universe and the controlling center of your life and mine. That is why every preacher who preaches “Jesus Christ as Lord” must always preach for a verdict. That is why every sermon must be a challenge to make a decision for Jesus Christ.

You must know that I am not here to deliver charismatic blessings and dispense millennial visions. I am not here to influence legislation or to sell books and tapes. I am not here to play Democratic or Republican political games. I am not here to debate peripheral questions or to speculate on contemporary curiosities. I am here to preach Jesus Christ as Lord! I do not ask you to like me or to like my style. I ask you to love my Jesus!

There is a sense in which the Second World War was a war of words. It all began when a fanatical paperhanger named Adoph Hitler used spellbinding speeches to rally the German nation with visions of conquest and glory. His frenzied oratory set loose a military machine that soon brought Europe to its knees. The last holdout was Britain with Winston Churchill at its helm. The Nazis began to rain down firebombs on Churchill’s “Emerald Isle.” With disaster staring them in the face, Churchill took up his advisary’s weapon and began to do battle with words. He spoke to the people of Britain not of superiority, but of sacrifice; not of conquest, but of courage; not of revenge, but cf renewal. Slowly but surely, Winston Churchill talked England back to life. To beleaguered old men on their rooftops with buckets of water waiting for the firebombs to fall, to frightened women and children huddled behind sandbags while sirens screamed about them, to exhausted pilots dodging tracer bullets in the midnight sky, Churchill’s words not only announced a new dawn, but conveyed the strength to bring it to pass. Yes, lives were saved, and life itself was preserved, by words.

Little wonder that John Ruskin once described a sermon as “thirty minutes to raise the dead.” Little wonder indeed. That is my awesome assignment: to call you with words to come to new life in Jesus Christ. That is my profound privilege and my wrenching responsibility: to put into words, in such a way that we shall be led to put into deeds, the new day that is ours in Jesus Christ our Lord.

So help me, God!

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