Monday, January 16, 2017

If the Preacher Doesn’t Impress You…

This is a sermon I wish to preach one day… if a church would let me…
My aim today is to convince you that my work in preaching is done, here, today, even if you don’t enjoy it or aren’t inspired by it. Even if you don’t like it. And I warn you, you may not like what you hear me say today. I accept that up front.
I want you to know, in 30 minutes’ time, that just because I’m not a charismatic speaker doesn’t mean God isn’t using me; that if I’m unimpressive on this occasion it’s not that the Holy Spirit isn’t speaking through me. Indeed, I’m wanting to say the opposite — that the fact I’m here today means the Holy Spirit is using and will use me.
Further to that, I want to suggest that God will use me today to show you that it’s an acute idolatry to come to this or any other church simply to hear a particular sermon or speaker, and to laud that person for their oratory brilliance. There’s no problem with compliments for your thankfulness, we just need to keep it at that. Say it, then leave it, for the person, themselves. Don’t go on about it. Going on about it serves nobody, and it nullifies the Kingdom effect.
God can and does speak through anyone, because most of what God has to say has to happen in you. This is a biblical fact. If you have ears to hear you will hear. And hear well. If your mind is piqued and curious, your cognitions will stimulate your thinking. You’ll be contemplative, both here and for days afterward. If your heart is prepared to receive, it will receive today, and we trust the Spirit for that. If your will is strong in the Lord today, you’ll leave with your spiritual hands readied to do some hard God work.
Besides, I’m only a little part of your experience here today. The words you hear me speak are only a tiny component of what you think as you hear me speak the words. All your life context, your experiences, personality, pastimes, your spiritual gifts, and many other components of you come into play as my words hit you.
Whilst listening, you’ll analyse my words for truth, for instance, checking to see that they’re true, and when that box is ticked in your subconscious thinking, then, because you’re seeking a performance, you’ll begin to rate me; but a performance I’ll not give you, for the truth in all its unadulterated splendour is all you need. It’s all God wants me to give you. I know you want a performance, because I want a performance out of me, just like I like a performance when I’m sitting in a pew. But God’s thinking is not our thinking, just as His ways are not ours, as it’s said in Isaiah 55:8-9. God wants His message spoken plainly, for willing ears to hear, for incisive minds to contemplate, for hungry hearts to receive, for hard working hands to apply.
It’s taken me twelve years of occasional preaching (I’ve preached only about one hundred times) to realise this: 
God doesn’t want you pampered by my winsomeness,
He wants you piqued by His Word.
All I would need to do would be to read fluently from His Word and His power should work through that spoken work, and if it doesn’t, that’s not my fault. His Word says that that would be your issue; a mirror back to you and your relationship with God. Of course, we want to contextualise God’s Word for today.
Just because I read from notes doesn’t mean God doesn’t have something profound to say through me. It doesn’t mean I’m not anointed to speak here. The very fact I’m here for this purpose says something powerful about God and His mighty church. I was chosen to give this sermon today, just as the person was last week, and the person next week is. I’m hoping you’re thinking about those who preach here.
Just because I don’t use much humour, as if God’s Word and His Kingdom were funny, doesn’t mean my delivery is getting in the way. Could it just be that preachers who use lots of humour are compensating for something? I mean, are you here to be entertained? It’s a serious question. Because church in our world has become that way. Not only are we required to entertain people, we’re indulging them in the process. Sure, some preachers are naturally funny people. It’s great if that’s who they are. I’m more your serious kind of guy, so God is happy for me to be me.
Just because I don’t tell lots of interesting stories, which, where there are lots of them, or a lot of narrative content, really are fluff for little kiddies, doesn’t mean I’m not presenting well. Are we mature enough to hear the Word preached plainly without mollycoddling you with stories?
I want to suggest that well packaged entertainment is milk when what all of us need, as Hebrews’ says, is more solid food. In the Holman Christian Standard Bible, Hebrews 5:11-14 reads like this… it’s heading is…
The Problem of Immaturity
11 “We have a great deal to say about this, and it’s difficult to explain, since you have become too lazy to understand. 12 Although by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the basic principles of God’s revelation again. You need milk, not solid food. 13 Now everyone who lives on milk is inexperienced with the message about righteousness, because he is an infant. 14 But solid food is for the mature — for those whose senses have been trained to distinguish between good and evil.”
When we seek to be placated by entertaining messages what we’re really saying is the sermon needs to suit me. Rather, it should be the other way around; every sermon suits me — it actually does — for, through its words the Holy Spirit will reach me and usher into me a cherished Word all for me, alone. The Holy Spirit, and not the preacher, will speak powerfully about where our faith is at, how we’re getting on with others, who we need to forgive, about our sin, and how we’re relating to God, Himself. All that goes on as we bathe in the Word during any sermon at all. But, if we listen to a sermon with derision because we dislike the preacher, their delivery, or their material, God is speaking to us… derision, really?
So, it’s not about entertainment or eloquence. It’s about the Holy Spirit’s engagement and energising of us.
As a speaker who cannot claim eloquence, and who refuses to entertain, I want to explore for a moment two key figures in the Bible who, too, were not regarded as eloquent:
Paul as Preacher
Paul felt this sense of not being impressive enough by the Corinthians when he said in verse 1 of chapter 10 of his second canonical letter… I who am humble among you in person but bold toward you when absent.” Nothing about being a bold preacher from his own nib. He preferred to boast in Christ, and indeed would refuse to boast in himself or anyone else. Paul reinforced this when he quotes them as saying, “His letters are weighty and powerful, but his physical presence is weak, and his public speaking is despicable.” (2 Corinthians 10:10) Such a person should consider this: what we are in the words of our letters when absent, we will be in actions when present. The Greek word for “despicable” can be read as “pathetic” and to be “considered of no account,” and even “contemptible.” And to be counted as “weak” in person, no wonder the Corinthians couldn’t regard Paul’s preaching ability — they were already convinced!
Yes, the apostle Paul!
If anyone was a super-apostle of the Lord, Paul was. And, even though Paul conceded he wasn’t professionally trained as a speaker (2 Corinthians 11:6), he counted all worth in his presentation to be the knowledge he presented, not in its delivery. Somehow, we forget this. That barring nobody, the most famous and influential Christian to live, Christ’s very apostle, leant not on his delivery, but on the knowledge he imparted — if only those there before him would listen. Many churches, of course, did. But not as recorded in Corinthians.
Paul faced criticism about his speaking when other apparently more eloquent Judaizers (leaders trying to bring Jewish principles back into the Christian faith, who were said to be super-apostles) received rave reviews.  Yet, isn’t it amazing the faith of someone so “unimpressive?” And yet the last word is that Luke depicts Paul in Acts as a bold and powerful rhetorician. Earlier, in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he responds to the fact that the Corinthians are impressed by Apollos (chapter 3) and he apologises sarcastically that he did not come to them “with eloquent wisdom” (1:17), when he says that “Christ did not send me to baptise but to preach the gospel, and not with the cleverness of human eloquence, so that the cross might not be emptied of its meaning.” (1 Corinthians 1:17) Cleverness in this context is not a good word; it’s a worldly word. Do we hear Paul’s words here? Human eloquence empties the cross of its meaning — it shines the light not on Christ, but on the gifted speaker. Yet, Paul’s point was that it is spiritual immaturity to have partiality with men when we need to be impartial followers of Jesus, alone. And it is entirely possible that Paul suffered stage fright (a form of public speaking phobia), at least in some situations.
Moses as Leader and Speaker
What about other reluctant speakers in the Bible? Well, we know Moses (Exodus 4:12) was less than impressive, or at least he didn’t rate himself. What Paul was for the New Testament, certainly Moses was for the Old Testament.
If we analyse Exodus 4:10 and 6:12, where Moses laments in God’s Presence why he cannot accept the calling that he ultimately does accept. Moses says he is not eloquent, nor a skilled speaker, nor fluent. At best, Moses had a fear of public speaking; at worst, he was actually impaired in some way.
Some historians postulate that Moses was incredibly knowledgeable and gifted in speech, and Stephen in Acts 7:22 says it in plain words. Moses, these historians would convince you, was an Israelite who, because of the time he spent and the education he gained in Egypt, possibly found it hard to relate and communicate with his own people. He possibly fought for acceptance. Either way, God still used him to lead the people out of Egypt toward the promised land. He was still a capable enough orator to get the job done — an historically massive job at that.
Back to the Humble Preacher
As ministers we work hard at increasing our preaching skills. It’s our craft. It’s where we spend a fair amount of our time in professional development. It’s where we’re likely to make the broadest and biggest impact in church life. There’s no excuse for incompetent preparation. One pastor in his 80s who I knew told me about preaching, “it is and it’s always been 99 percent perspiration, one percent inspiration,” inferring not only the hard work that went into it, but the lack of savvy eloquence. There’s also no excuse for impassionate delivery. Many ministers, myself included, practice their sermons before they preach them, to hear the words as they come out, to refine the message, and to train the mind and mouth connection to say parts of the message that need to sound seamless.
I once heard Tim Keller, the famed New York pastor, say that he still puts in twenty-five hours into each of his messages. I’m not embarrassed to say that I usually spend that much time on my messages, praying, contemplating, reading, writing, practising delivery, re-writing, honing, praying some more. Most ministers I would venture to say would take at least ten hours to go through the same process. At least. Some are able to get up with less preparation, but these would be the significant few-percentile minority.
None of what I’m saying means I’m not responsible for preaching a sound Word faithfully to you. I must do that. Only if I don’t do that am I what they said of Paul — despicable, but for other reasons. And I trust you to let me know. But I’m sure, with the training I’ve had and the preparation I’ve put in, that this is a worthy Word for you to ponder upon, albeit an unusual message.
I want to challenge you to see your preachers and the preaching you receive in a new way. See them and it as God speaking to you through them, and not as them performing. It’s not about the preacher or the preaching. It’s about the capital-M Message.
I want to say it again, in finishing, that:
God doesn’t want you pampered by my winsomeness,
He wants you piqued by His Word.

God knows we all need to grow up and expect less entertainment from the pulpit, and receive more truth about grace. Because truth about grace that abounds in love is all that really matters… not personalities, goose bumps, rating scales, and the rest.

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