The other day I was reading an article on ‘The Practice of Preaching and the Spiritual Life of the Preacher’ (Congregations 40.2, 2013) by Bruce Epperly, when suddenly I felt as if I had been hit between the eyes. For all of a sudden I came across what for me at least is a new way of looking at preaching. For Epperly describes preaching as ‘blessing the congregation’.
Let me quote:
“My vocation is to bless this congregation and give them words of hope, consolation, affirmation, challenge and confirmation”
I too have always wanted to give my listeners “words of hope, consolation, affirmation, challenge and confirmation”. There is nothing new about describing the purpose of preaching in those terms. But I had set out to “bless” my congregation through my preaching. I had always thought of the ‘blessing’ as the benediction which comes at the end of the service. But not Epperly. He goes on:
Perhaps the most essential practice for preachers is the act of blessing. Throughout my process of preaching, I remember the community to whom I am preaching. I pray for their well-being and spiritual growth. I pray that I might speak a word of grace, healing and inspiration to them. I see them as God’s beloved and ask that God fill them with joy and grace. I continue this practice as I walk to the podium, take a few cleansing and centering breaths, and then, as I gaze upon the congregants, take one more deep breath and symbolically and prayerfully breathe God’s blessing upon them.
My own practice has been different. As I stand before the congregation, about to preach, I normally lead the people in a short prayer, asking that that God will speak to us today. I often begin the ‘prayer for illumination’ (as distinct from a prayer of ‘blessing’) with a slightly amended form of either Psalm 119.18 or Psalm 119.105: “Open our eyes that we may behold wondrous truth out of your word” or “Your word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path”. The end result of my preaching is probably no different from the end result of Epperly’s preaching – and yet there is a difference of emphasis.
On the other hand, only just a few weeks ago, I wrote a chapter on preaching, where I said:
Preaching for many pastors is their number one priority. For Baptists and Free Churches in general, preaching has been the primary ‘sacrament’ through which God has made himself known and ministered his grace.
Although down through the centuries theologians have wrestled with the meaning of the term ‘sacrament’, surely at the very heart of the word is that it is a means of blessing. In other words the concept of preaching being a means of God’s blessing his people is not new to me. Yet, if the truth be told, the idea has not been at the front of mind when I have stood up to preach.
Maybe there are times when preaching is not a means of blessing. I have just been reading through the Book of Jeremiah, and thought to myself how grateful I was not to have had his message of doom to proclaim. But, living as we do the other side of the Cross and Resurrection, we have good news to share. So why is it that some Gospel preaching can be so negative? And why is it that some preachers take every opportunity to lay into their congregations for their perceived short-comings. What a difference it would have made if preachers saw their sermons as a means to bless their people. And what a difference too, it might make, if the members of our congregations came to church wondering how God was going to bless them today! Yes, Epperly is right, preaching is a means of God’s blessing his people. I like that emphasis.