Friday, September 4, 2009

The Weakness & Power of Preaching

Here is sermon #6 from my First Corinthians series. This one is close to my heart; it is about preaching.

1 Corinthians 2:1-5

Week after week we gather on Sunday mornings. I read a passage of Scripture and then talk for thirty minutes or so. What is this thing called preaching that I do and you listen to? These words from Paul to the Corinthians give a partial answer. I say "partial" because I'm not sure this thing called preaching can ever be understood. In fact, it's another expression of God's foolishness.

So far, Paul has said the message of the cross is foolish in terms of worldly wisdom. And not only the message of the cross, but people of the cross are foolish. Now, to complete the triad, the way it all happens –– preaching –– is foolishness. Preaching is the bridge between the message and the people who would accept it. And if the message is foolish to the world, and if the people who end up accepting it are the world's fools, then it is also true that the way it all happens seems a bit farfetched as well.

John R. W. Stott (with a name like that you can tell right away he is British) has written one of the best books there is on preaching. It is called Between Two Worlds because the preacher needs to be a bridge between the world of the Scriptures and the world of his hearers.... between the world of God's truth and the world of feelings and opinions in which we live. The first sentence in his first chapter straightforwardly says, "Preaching is indispensable to Christianity." What is it about preaching that is so important? Paul's answer is that preaching is a weakness that illustrates the kind of foolishness God has chosen to honor, and preaching is also a way of revealing God's power.

Why is preaching seen as a weakness? Words are among the most powerful things on earth. Think about what Hitler was able to do with words. A good orator can have an audience crying or laughing or angry and ready to go out fighting. Why is such a thing as preaching then seen as a weakness?

John Stott gives some good reasons in his book which are based on issues today. One is the anti-authority mood which permeates our culture. Most people do not want anyone telling them what they can or cannot, or even should or should not, do. A good illustration is the unrest in the Catholic Church, who understands herself to be the Rock Christ invested with the authority of truth that will not budge. When the Pope speaks out on abortion or sexual morality, the secular press (and too many dissidents in the Church) go ballistic. The world-spirit does not like being under authority, and Christian Truth is authoritative. Preaching is meant to declare Christian Truth.

Bold and forthright preaching is a rare thing today. It is much easier to give lectures and opinions. G. Campbell Morgan, the great preacher of Westminster Chapel in the early part of the 20th Century, has been credited with the observation, "Sermonettes breed Christianettes." True preaching declares God's truth with authority. It makes people aware of the chasm between sin and holiness.

During my time as associate pastor at the Grantham Church on the campus of Messiah College, I was under the preaching and modeling of Dr. Robert Ives. He wrote an article for the Evangelical Visitor about preaching (at the time, this was the periodical published by The Brethren in Christ Church) answering a question some had asked of him. It had to do with what was seen as a discrepancy in Bob. They said when he was in the pulpit he was bold and uncompromising, but that when approached personally he was humble and willing to make allowances. Bob's answer was that in the pulpit the minister is the voice of God's Word, but in the counseling office (or wherever) the minister is a brother sharing a common humanity with whomever he is with.

That is not to say that as long as any preacher is in the pulpit he is protected from all error. There is no ex cathedra for a person just because he is ordained for the ministry of the Word. But at the same time, there is an authority inherent in the Word of God as it is preached that must not be quinched, regardless of the culture's distrust of authority.

A second weakness of preaching that Stott identifies is what he calls the "cybernetics revolution." Cybernetics is a study of the mechanics of communication, both human and mechanical. Cybernetics can help a person with things like voice projection, inflection and gestures. It is also a study of how communication can be enhanced by anything from a sound system to the special effects of video.

On the one hand this could be a strength to preaching (although there is a major reason why it is not, and I'll come to that). After all, can preachers not benefit from techniques and technology? Look at the TV and mega-church preachers; they have close-ups, split screens and Bible verses before the viewer. The weakness, though, is that for every technical trick the preacher tries to use to his advantage, other media use it incredibly better. The cybernetics revolution means we have gotten accustomed to movies with special effects and star personalities with every advantage to make them look good on camera. What average preacher, speaking "live," can hope to compete with that? And so conventional wisdom capitulates saying, given the entertainment options of today, trying to communicate through mere preaching is too great a weakness.

The third weakness in preaching that Stott mentions is a loss of confidence in the gospel. Alongside the glitter and flashiness of what we might lump under the word "Hollywood," and alongside the pain and turmoil we are aware of on a world-wide scale (thanks again to technology), it seems as if the gospel is no match for what we are facing. So contemporary Christianity has tried to offer its "suggestions" to the world –– how to be “better” on the world's own turf.

We have Christian movies and contemporary Christian music and Christian exercise videos and who knows what else to try to market our message in a way that is palatable to the world around us. And when even that does not make a dent in the problems.... when our influence seems to be a mere cultural backwater, we retreat to maintain our own bit of identity and acquiesce to the idea that maybe the gospel just won't work any longer in changing the world. If all our enhanced ministries will not do it, certainly preaching is too weak to do anything. Isn't it?

I believe that Stott is right in his analysis of the weakness of preaching, but underneath it all is another weakness that comes from Paul himself. Preaching is weak because God has chosen weak things to show his strength. The biggest weakness there is to preaching is the belief that God really can use such a thing to any kind of advantage given the realities of our world. So, we need to see what biblical preaching is before we accept or reject it.

First of all, biblical preaching has a definite message. It is marked by its unique content. Biblical preaching centers on Jesus Christ and him crucified (v2). Prior to any other task, the ministry is one of proclaiming what God has done through his Son. In the words of the preceding verses, preaching is declaring the truth of righteousness, holiness and redemption in Jesus. If the Scriptures are not true and trustworthy, and if God has not given us salvation from sin in Jesus Christ, then preaching is ridiculous and the church can shut its doors and put up a "CLOSED" sign.

But if it is true that the Scriptures are trustworthy and that God has given us salvation from sin in Jesus Christ, then there is something to proclaim with the loudest voice and the greatest authority. And if a preacher stoops to peddle pop psychology or merely plays with cute little stories and worn out cliches, then there will be no confidence in the gospel, for the gospel will not be heard. True preaching is telling the message of the cross.

Preaching is not limited to its content, though; in biblical preaching, the method must match the message. This is where the conflict really comes with cybernetics. Yes, there are tricks to good communication. Yes, there is technology available to give public speakers all kinds of polish. Preachers can go to school and learn exegesis (biblical interpretation) and homiletics (the art of sermon construction and delivery). But none of that insures good preaching. In fact, it stacks the deck against it apart from the utmost care.

Yes, there are advantages one can use in preaching to make it look and sound better, but look at Paul's response to that: I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom (v1), and again, My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words (v4). In other words, he did not try to distinguish himself. Paul had a message which ran counter to the world's way of thinking; it was the cross. His manner, or method, matched his message. He did not try to "knock 'em over" with his brilliance or with his presence. Paul believed the message so much that he was willing to practice it in his own life and ministry.

Every preacher on earth faces the dilemma of self-sufficiency. I was raised in a church that taught me how to use "spiritual language." I had the privilege of an education that has given me tools for doing academic Bible study. I've had some good models of preaching throughout my life to learn from (and I've also had some bad models that showed me what to avoid!). I say all of that to say this: I have learned enough to give a pretty good performance. But if I ever see that's all my preaching is –– a performance, something I go through the motions of doing –– so that lives are not being changed, I hope I will have the courage to quit.

There is one standard of biblical preaching, and Paul tells us what it is: a demonstration of the Spirit's power. When all is said and done, a good sermon is one in which the Holy Spirit has worked. It can be a sermon which brings us face to face with God in worship. It can encourage us to obedience or drive us to repentance. It can give us fresh resolve to love Jesus with all our hearts. The one thing true preaching cannot do is give our brains an academic stretch or titillate our emotions and then leave us just like we were.

I am very conscious of a call to preach. I am aware time and again of the Holy Spirit taking what I say and do and making it far more effective than it could ever be apart from his working. It is because God has chosen to use the foolishness of preaching to draw people to his Son. The power does not come from me, or any other person. I mentioned in a previous sermon the kind of loser I would be apart from what the Spirit of Jesus has done in me. The primary desire I have is to preach the truth and beauty of Jesus Christ so that every one of us is in the process of becoming everything that God wants us to be. And what God wants us to be is like Jesus. So we preach Jesus. Anything else is playing a game.

There is a certain reason why God takes ordinary people like me and uses them to preach the power of his Word: Paul says, so that your faith might not rest on men's wisdom, but on God's power (v5). If the success of my preaching is nothing more than my personality or wit or a natural ability to stimulate your natural thinking, then all I have done is win a few people over to maybe following me (until you find out I cannot be all you need). And that kind of thing is always divisive; some people will like the preacher a lot, and others will not. But if my preaching helps you love Jesus Christ as never before, then something is happening which will stand the test of everyday life and time.

There is a sense in which this passage is an examination text for me and other preachers. You have a right to expect me to commit myself to this standard of preaching. I want to say that by God's help I do make that commitment, and there is no other aspect of my ministry I take as seriously as proclaiming the truth of Christ crucified as it's given in the Scriptures. I appreciate the gifts God has given me which help me do that, and I try to use them under his Lordship. Still, the bottom line is this: My ministry stands or falls in the power of the Holy Spirit. I confess to you that I know that.

But the responsibility does not only rest on me, it also falls on you as you hear the Word preached. It is not enough that you hear what I hope is a stimulating sermon. It is not enough to smile and be nice. My part is to be the channel for the Spirit to speak through his Word in power; your part is to allow the power of the Word to work in your lives so that you are always living out of a commitment to Jesus Christ and are desiring to be like him.

On the surface, preaching cannot compete with the world's glamour of entertainment. It seems foolish to think that an average person like me should be able to affect the very core of your being. But as I allow the Holy Spirit to move through my preaching in his power, you can expect that power to be making an effect in your life. The power of preaching is lives changed by the Holy Spirit –– lives who are being changed because the message of Christ crucified turns them into people of the cross. Is that the kind of preacher you desire to hear? I hope it is. It is the kind of preacher I want to be.

No comments:

Site Meter