'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.' And so begins Darrell Johnson's The Glory of Preaching.
This is a huge, daring statement to make. I'm sure the only thing that happens during some of my sermons is that people have a space to take a nap. But something happens during a sermon. Something transformative. Something life-giving. That's a huge claim. Not because God isn't able. He can do whatever he wants. That's in his job description. It's a huge claim because there is one person in the middle who always seems to mess it up: the preacher.
Here are some insights I've gleaned through my research in theology of preaching and from preaching I've done.
1) No preacher is qualified enough to preach
I think some preachers pretend they know what they are doing every time they start preparing for a sermon. In many ways it's far easier than facing the honest truth. We have no idea what we are doing, and we are completely incapable of doing it. If preaching is an act of God, if it's something that God does, if it's a relational event where God comes down to speak to his people, then of course no preacher is worthy or able to stand in front of the congregation. The only one who is good enough to preach is Jesus and look how that turned out for him. No preacher is qualified or able to truly preach.
2) A preacher preaches because she has to
So, if a preacher is unable to preach, then why do we have sermons? The simple answer is because we have to. Barth speaks about the necessity of preaching. 'God gives the church the task of speaking about him' (Church Dogmatics I/2, 756). God calls men and women to speak about him to the gathered congregation. They are tasked with opening the Bible and speaking about it. What makes this word come alive isn't based on the stylistic, rhetorical or theological ability of the preacher but solely rests on God himself choosing to take up those poor, incomplete words and use them for his purposes. The moment I start talking about God, I stop talking about him because he transcends words and concepts, phrases and clever alliterations. But the church must still preach because God calls us to.
3) Sermons and sermon preparation should be bathed in prayer
I'm not always the most spiritual person. But when I am 10 minutes away from preaching I have this sense that I am totally out of my depth. Who am I to speak about God to these people? How can I ever express the beauty of God's being? The preaching event is nothing less than God extending his grace toward us. So that means a preacher can do no other than pray that God will be with her through the act of preaching and through sermon preparation. Prayer should be the foundation of any sermon and be woven into every aspect of its preparation. Preachers need to understand the text, they need to figure out how to word things but most importantly they need the Spirit to be at work shaping the hearts and minds of the hearer. A preacher relies on God's grace. They can do no other.
In the quote we started with, Johnson reminds us that something always happens when someone stands at the pulpit, Bible in hand, ready to speak. This can happen because of the preacher and often happens in spite of the preacher. But for whatever reason, God chooses to speak his word through people. He did it with the biblical writers and prophets and continues to do it through the words of preachers. All we can do is be obedient to what he is calling us to and thank God that he is at work in our churches and in our communities. There is nothing within a human preacher that deserves it. There is only the sheer grace of God.