I have just finished preparing a sermon. If the truth be told, I thought I had prepared it yesterday. I had worked hard on what had been a difficult text, and I thought I had made a pretty good ‘fist’ of expounding it and applying it to the world of today. It was all written out – five sides of A4 – and ready for preaching. Or so I thought. But then I had another look at it – and realised that there was still work to do. My first draft, dare I say it, was without doubt interesting and stimulating; indeed, if I may be even more immodest, it would have come over as a fresh and original approach to a well-known Scripture passage. And yet as I reflected on how I might frame my prayer of response, I suddenly realised it lacked bite, it lacked challenge. The fact is that preaching is not about God and about twenty minutes. Every sermon should have a definite purpose in mind. Preachers, like barristers, should be seeking a verdict.
In the words of R.W. Dale, the great Congregational preacher:
‘To carry the vote and fire the zeal’ of our congregations, this, gentlemen, is our true business. If we are to be successful, there must be vigorous intellectual activity, but it must be directed by a definite intention to produce a definite result.
Or to quote HH Famer, the scholarly Anglican Oxford don, H.H. Farmer:
Preaching is a knock on the door…It is a call for an answer… Yet how many sermons I have heard which lack this summoning note almost entirely. They begin, they trickle on, they stop, like the turning on and turning off a tap behind which there is no head of water.
To return to the first draft of my sermon – if the truth be told, it lacked punch. So, for instance, at one point I spoke about ‘the immense value of the Gospel’ without inviting my listeners to discover the good news for themselves. True, my text was not a natural spring-board for preaching an evangelistic sermon – indeed, one might well wonder how the words of Jesus about not throwing your pearls before swine (Matt 7.6) could ever be the basis for good news. For Jesus was primarily urging his followers to be discerning when it came to sharing the good news of the Kingdom with others. And yet should a preacher ever speak of Jesus without encouraging people to discover the difference that Jesus makes to living?
In the end on the basis of this strange text I developed a three-fold challenge.
- A challenge to discover ‘the precious gift’ of all that Jesus offers
- A challenge to share this good news with friends and colleagues who might be receptive to our message
- A challenge to love even the hardened cynics, for love can melt even the hardest of hearts.
In the light of those three challenges I then wrote the following prayers of response:
- First a prayer for those who have yet to discover the ‘pearl of great price’.
“Lord Jesus, I now see the amazing difference you can make to my life. In you there is forgiveness for all that has been wrong in my life; in you there is meaning for living; and in you there is hope of life eternal. With great joy I open the door of my heart to you: come in to my life and be my Saviour and my Lord – and I will gladly follow you all the days of my life.”
- Secondly, a prayer for those who find it difficult to share their faith:
“Lord Jesus, far from throwing pearls before pigs, all too often I fail to tell anybody of the difference you have made to my lifed. Forgive me for keeping the good news to myself. Help me to forget my shyness, so that when the time is right I can tell friends and colleagues of your amazing love for me”
- Thirdly, a prayer for those who find it difficult to love those who are different to us.
“Lord Jesus, sometimes I find it difficult love those who seem to stubbornly turn their backs upon you and your ways. Forgive me for my narrow-heartedness. Help me to love – and in loving reflect your love to all”.
Preaching, which is true to Jesus, surely always demands a response!