When I was wrestling with my call to ministry, it was first and foremost a call to preach. Like Jeremiah, I felt I had to share God’s word with others: “If I say, ‘I will not mention him or speak any more in his name’, then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot” (Jer 20.9). Like Paul, I felt “an obligation” to preach had been laid upon me: “woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel!” (1 Cor 9.16).
When I went to a Baptist college the focus of our training was preaching. In those days there was the weekly sermon class, when the whole college came together to listen to a student preach – and then to engage in criticism of the preacher. First the floor was opened to students to say what they thought of the sermon, and then all the staff had a go too! In such a context preaching was very much the ‘virility’ mark of a would-be Baptist minister.
Even today, when churches are looking for a minister, first and foremost they are looking for a preacher. Hence our Baptist custom of preaching ‘with a view’. True, there are always meetings with deacons, and meetings with church members – but ultimately what counts is the ‘preach’!
Over the years I must have preached 1000s of sermons – and have done so with great joy. My first sermon I preached as a 16 year old in a Leicestershire village – it was harvest thanksgiving, and I found it difficult to concentrate because a bumble bee was buzzing around the corn and flowers arranged around the pulpit. Since then I have had the privilege of preaching all over the world. However, the greatest privilege is to preach as a pastor. True there can be a buzz – indeed even a thrill – in being the ‘guest preacher’ for the day – especially when the congregation has been large and the venue has been exotic. But itinerant preaching does not truly satisfy – time and again this form of spiritual ‘hit and run’ feels like a ‘performance’. In no way does it compare to preaching to people one knows and loves. Inevitably sermons preached by pastors to their people are much more personal – indeed, to a large extent the sermons were shaped by the needs of one’s people. As a result, most of my sermons cannot easily be preached within another context – they are very different from the ‘travellers’ which an itinerant preacher might hawk around.
But it is also a very demanding task to preach Sunday by Sunday within the same church, with at least one if not two new sermons to prepare a week. In this respect Donald Coggan, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, talked of “the joyful tyranny of being a minister of the word”. He went on:
“Preaching is a tyranny. I refer not only to the fact that Sunday comes round with an inexorable regularity and makes demands which must needs be met. I refer also to the fact that we know that we must not offer to the Lord a second-rate offering; only the best we can produce will do. I think of the demands which this makes on a man’s freshness and devotion and reading and thinking and praying. A tyranny indeed. But a joyful tyranny – who would be without it who has been called and commissioned? I suppose a mother finds the care of her family in the early years demanding and tyrannical. But deprive her of her brood and you have the epitome of bereavement and misery.”
How true those words are. Although there were times when I wished the French Revolution had succeeded in creating a ten day week and that I would therefore have fewer sermons to prepare, the reality is that I enjoyed the weekly discipline of studying God’s Word, discovering His word for today, and then shaping the sermon in such a way that the word became clear to all. But now, that task is no longer mine. True, I may still be invited to preach occasionally – but I will never again be preaching as a pastor to my people; and that I already miss.