I’ve been preaching now for nearly twenty years. That’s in three congregations, the last two of which have multiple Sunday morning services. You tally it all up, and I figure I’ve preached somewhere around two thousand times. Two thousand times I’ve climbed into the “pulpit,” stared out into a sea of different faces and dared to say, “Hear the Word of the Lord.” Some of you preachers reading this have got me beat. Still, two thousand times is no small number.
And yet every time I stand up to preach, I still get nervous. The nature of that nervousness has changed over the years. But I still find preaching to be, in so many ways, such a vulnerable act. For me personally, the most vulnerable moment comes after the sermon, at the end of the worship service, once the words of benediction have been spoken. It’s in this moment I find myself wondering, “What just happened? Did anything happen? Anything at all?”
On my more insecure Sundays, when the sermon seems to fall flat or I’ve had to speak a hard or unpopular word, the question is not just “Did anything happen?” but “What did they think? What do they think of me? Do they still like me?”
That’s embarrassing even to write. And yet I suspect I’m not alone. There are those of us who are burdened with a desire to please, a need to be liked, and I’ve just come to terms with the fact that I will battle this for the rest of my life and ministry.
But it’s more than that. It’s more than just wanting to be affirmed and liked. There really is a sense of believing in the power of the ministry of the Word. That’s why we preachers care so much. It’s why we work so hard to do our study and craft our words. It’s why we stay up late Saturday night trying to get just the right turn of phrase. It’s why we stand up on Sunday morning and pour ourselves out in the preaching moment. We believe, or at least we want to believe, that Isaiah is right: when God’s word goes out, it doesn’t return empty. We believe that preaching, in the power of the Spirit, really can wake the dead, heal the sick, bind up the brokenhearted, cut through the hardest heart, topple the proud and lift up the lowly. Preaching really can usher in a whole new world. Words don’t just say something, they do something!
And this is where preaching every Sunday over the long haul is an act of faith. So often we don’t see the immediate impact of our preaching. A mentor of mine once said that the impact of faithful preaching is like the subtle shifting of Lake Michigan sand dunes. Daily you don’t notice much shift. But over time, you realize just how far the dunes have actually moved from where they once were. God’s work through faithful preaching is most often slow, quiet work. It takes faith to trust that something is happening, even when you can’t see it.
In addition to an act of faith, I’m also learning to embrace preaching as an act of worship. It’s my offering, my sacrifice of praise, to the triune God who gives us our speech and digs out our ears, the One who makes our words and our hearing efficacious.
Recently, I re-read one of my favorite essays by John Chrysostom (347-407), one of the greatest preachers of all time. The essay is titled “The Temptations of Greatness,” and it’s such a good reminder that while we’re called to preach with excellence, the measure of our effectiveness is ultimately not in the response of our hearers, be it praise or criticism. It’s in our desire to please God and to speak the truth in love, even when it’s unpopular. Here is one of my favorite excerpts (and please forgive the gender exclusive language):
When he has composed his sermons to please God (and let this alone be his rule and standard of good oratory of sermons, not applause or commendation), then if he should be approved by men too, let him not spurn their praise. But if his hearers do not accord it, let him neither seek it nor sorrow from it. It will be sufficient encouragement for his efforts, and one much better than anything else, if his conscience is telling him that he is organizing and regulating his teaching to please God.
So twenty years and two thousand sermons later, I’m still learning to let pleasing God and not the praise of others be “sufficient encouragement” for my preaching each Sunday. Before the sermon, in the midst of the sermon, and especially after the sermon. And I’m choosing to trust that somehow, someway, in the faithful preaching and hearing of God’s Word, something holy really is happening. Perhaps if we’re attentive enough and patient enough, we preachers just might get a front row seat to catching a glimpse of a new world being born.