Sundays in this time of Covid-19 have proved a challenging experience. For the most part I have been sustained through zooming into Chelmsford Cathedral’s 8.30 a.m. ‘Breakfast with the Bible’ – the coffee and croissants, alas, are no longer, but the seminar-type of Bible study has remained. Sunday worship has been more problematic, particularly when hymn-singing is not possible – for me having a ‘cantor’ singing the hymns does not ‘hit the spot’ and so over the months we enjoyed exploring various options. However, whatever the form of worship, I have always looked forward to encountering God through the preached ‘word’. Alas, there have been occasions when I have felt frustrated. It seems to me that many of today’s preachers need to learn afresh what preaching entails.
The fact is that preaching is far more than normal discourse. God is at work. As the Anglican scholar Tom Wright once wrote:
The preaching of the word stands alongside the gospel sacraments as one of the normal and vital ways in which the living God is active and at work in the lives of his people and the wider church…. It is meant to be an occasion, when, so to speak, God happens: when that strange and yet familiar moment comes upon us, and we know that we have been addressed, healed, confronted and kindled by the one who made us and loves us.
Or in the words of British Baptist Michael Quicke:
Preaching is nothing less than sharing the in-breaking of God’s news to create new people in new community. Christian preaching, at its best, is a biblical speaking/listening/seeing/doing event that God empowers to form Christ-shaped people and communities… Preaching is about God communicating his will and purpose with power and immediacy to effect change…. Preaching, at its best, is a God happening, empowered by Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Indeed, according to Darrell Johnson in The Glory of Preaching: “Whenever a human being, Bible in hand, stands up before a group of other human beings, invites the gathered assembly into a particular text of the Bible and as faithfully as possible tries to say again what the living God is saying in the text, something always happens. Something transformative, empowering, life-giving happens”.
However, none of this is possible if God is not allowed to speak. As I have discovered in this time of lockdown sometimes the sermon is relegated to ‘a thought for the day’ with a ‘reflection’ from the preacher. The Bible needs to be taken seriously. In the title of H.H. Farmer’s old book, the preacher is ‘the servant of the Word’. We are not in the business of sharing our views, but of expounding God’s Word. The task of the preacher is not to entertain the congregation, but to enable God’s people to hear God speak.
“All true Christian preaching is expository preaching” declared the late John Stott, and in my judgment rightly so. The preacher’s only claim to be heard is that our message is rooted in the Word of God. If as preachers we preach our own opinions, our congregations may listen to them politely, but at the end they have every right to reject them. But if the content of our preaching is Bible-centred and Bible-driven, then our preaching has a God-given authority; we become God’s heralds, his ambassadors, his agents.
However, preaching is not simply about ‘unpacking’ God’s Word, but applying God’s Word, and in turn bringing challenge and comfort, hope and inspiration to God’s people. Preaching is not just ‘about God and about ten, fifteen, or twenty minutes’. The preacher’s task is to allow God to work in the lives of the assembled congregation.
However, to allow God to work, preachers need to give shape to their preaching, so that God’s Word is allowed maximum impact. To ensure preachers do not engage in a leisurely discursive ramble, there needs to be a structure which serves to ram home the points that need to be made on the basis of the passage for the day. It is only the well-structured sermon which enables preachers t to fulfil the maxim of Richard Baxter and “screw God’s truth into their minds”.
Yes, the congregation too has a part to play if they are to encounter God through his Word. Those who listen need to be able to pray: “O God, open your Word to our hearts, and our hearts to your Word, and give us grace to receive it, understand it, and to obey it, for the glory of Christ our Lord”. However, for that to happen, God’s Word in the first place needs to be opened. Preachers take note.