10 Years of Preaching, 10 Lessons–Lesson 3

(NOTE: This blog is part of a series of posts I’ll be doing on lessons I’ve learned on preaching over the last 10 years)

When do you “prep” to preach? Probably for all but the very most charismatic among us, there is a definite time and day that you sit down each week and begin to work on your coming message (or messages, if you’re one of those annoying folks capable of planning multiple weeks and months out 😉 ). You open your Bible or pull out your computer at, say, 9:00 a.m. on Tuesday morning, and get to work. So in your mind, sermon prep began on Tuesday at 9:00 a.m. and ended whenever you stood up to deliver your message. Basically. Most of us could probably measure our “prep” time in hours–5, 10, 15, etc., and oftentimes we feel better or worse about our messages (heading into Sunday) based on how much time we invested.

But is this really the best way to think about “sermon prep”?

My experience has taught me that it is not.

We’ve talked already in parts 1 and 2 about how the preacher needs to have a clear idea of what they are doing (opening a window to the kingdom), and how they need to make sure that their focus is not on “applying the text” to our “everyday lives” but rather on making plain how the text is already a description of the one beautiful and vexing life we now live before the face of God. But how do we become preachers capable of doing this?

I know one thing–thinking of something called “sermon prep” simply as a discrete moment that happens at regular intervals in your pastoral schedule ain’t gonna get the job done.

It’s just not big enough.

A text that has always been formative for me in my own ministry has been this one, out of Ezra 6. The restoration of the city is underway, and Ezra the scribe has been sent to help with the project. The favor of God, according to the text, is clearly upon him, and the narrator puts forward this explanation as to why:

For Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the LORD, and to practice it, and also to teach His statutes and ordinances in Israel. (Ezra 6:10)

This is so fabulous to me, and brilliantly instructive. Note the order–Ezra has “set his heart” to:

  • Study” Torah (the Heb. is “seek out” Torah, which I love)
  • Practice” or “do” Torah
  • Teach” the statutes and decrees of Torah in Israel

The priority here is clearly upon Ezra’s commitment to seeking out the wisdom and purpose of Yahweh in Torah and then figuring out just how to put it into motion… how it works… what it does… how it opens up vistas of understanding… how it binds and looses the human experience… and then, and ONLY then, can he “teach Yahweh’s statutes and decrees in Israel.”

It seems to me that the first call of the preacher is to live with God, in a dynamic interface between the nuance and texture of Scripture on the one hand, and their lived experience with God on the other hand. We are explorers in the frontier of faith, guided by our sense of who God is and how his world works through a careful and continual study of Scripture… a sense which is continually tested against what we’re actually finding out on the frontier. We move back and forth, in our own lives, in our families, in our interactions with neighbors and coworkers, between text and the “context” of our lives, seeking to understand how it all works.

And then here and there, out of our own experience of God, we stand up before the people and bring a fresh word.

That means, obviously, that the preacher must be, above all things, a disciple, a learner, an apprentice in the task of following Jesus. What we bring to the people of God when we stand up to preach is not (God forbid) some clever new interpretation of a text, or some purely academic or poetic twist on truth, or some clunky abstraction that requires 10 pages of notes to talk through… but rather the fruit of a lived experience with God, rooted deeply in, tempered by, and in fact made possible through the text of Scripture, which is our “norming norm” and the prism through which we’re called to perceive the one life God has given us.

Think about it for a minute. The messages you’ve heard preached in your life that were the most powerful, the most transformative… didn’t you get the sense that those messages came out of a whole life lived with God? That this wasn’t truth newly acquired, but truth that the preacher had gotten friendly with over the years? And when you heard that message, didn’t it have a ring of depth and authenticity to it that made it so compelling?

Then ask yourself… where does that come from?

I contend that it comes primarily through an Ezra-like commitment to be a disciple first, and a teacher second.

(At least) two things will immediately start happening to you when you begin to understand your call as a preacher this way:

First, “sermon prep” will go from something that happens at discrete moments on your weekly calendar, to something that is basically happening all the time. Now of course you will likely STILL sit down at set times to do work germane to the assembly of your sermon… but when you do, you’ll no longer be entering into some activity totally alien to the normal ebb and flow of life, but rather you’ll be sitting down to reflect on what the Lord is graciously showing you as you walk with him. Of course, the text of Scripture will often challenge you here. There will be times that the “window” being opened through this or that text is one that you’ve only barely begun to put your head through… or one that scares the living crap out of you! That’s ok. Be honest about that. Your listeners will thank you.

Second, you will begin to understand in all kinds of fresh ways the “light yoke” that Jesus spoke of… as a preacher. I know a lot of preachers who live with continual anxiety about Sunday. I was one of those guys, and honestly still struggle with it from time to time. But as I’ve walked with God and clarified some of this business in my own heart, the anxiety is starting to evaporate. I’m not getting up on Sundays to do some song and dance to entertain people. I’m not getting up to try to give some elaborate explanation of a so-called “truth” that is beyond my present experience, or the experience of my congregation.

I’m getting up to try to tell them what I’ve come to know of the God who is speaking through that text, and what that might mean for us. I am free, in fact, I am encouraged to draw on my own experience in doing this, since my own experience, after all, represents the training ground in which God is working his beauty in my life. And because in my whole life I am committed to understand what it means to live in the kingdom, everything in my life is fair game for “sermon material.” There is no shortage, for I am always living with and knowing God. Anything that makes the cut on Sundays is surely “run-off”, overflow out of the abundance.

At it’s best, I’ve come to understand a sermon to be a rhetorical act that combines biblical and theological insight stitched together with the very stuff of life. And once again, if what I’m saying is accurate, then the “narrative” or “personal vignette” moments of my message are not incidental or complementary to the “real thing” of the sermon (the biblical or theological exposition), but they also are the “real thing”–living testimony to how the glory of God is actually shining through.

I’ll get into how this notion of sermon prep effects actual sermon prep and organization of content in following posts, but for now I’ll leave you with this challenge:

If you’re experiencing a lot of anxiety about preaching each week, chances are you haven’t entered into the “light yoke” of discipleship as a preacher.

You’re trying to do too much, or you’re doing it in the wrong way, or your life and your preaching are disconnected. Whatever the case, I’ve come to understand that the Abba of Jesus does not lead us into that soul-crushing, toxic anxiety that stifles generosity of soul even as it eats us alive. He wouldn’t put that on us. He’s better than that. If we’re feeling that pressure, it means somewhere we’re out of sync with him.

What’s been your experience with this? Do you resonate?

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