from Preaching Today June 2012

Why I look forward to another Sunday with enthusiasm

You’ve seen football players waiting in the locker room before a big game. Quiet. Intense. Stretched out on benches or the floor. Eyes closed. Earbuds channeling music. Then it’s time. Coaches call them to arms, shoot them full of aural adrenaline, and out they come! They blast through the paper wall while their fans cheer and their teammates huff and fist-pump.

Maybe I could preach better if we did that before the worship service. I could stretch out on the floor of my study with an iPod and get pumped on Keller or Chan or Tony Evans. Maybe I could huddle up with the elders behind the platform, hands stacked, voices starting low: “preach. Preach! PREACH!” And then with a controlled burn I stride to the holy desk. The congregation holds their breath.

Yogi Berra said of baseball, “Ninety-five percent of this game is half mental.” Preaching is about the same. We learned how to exegete a text, how to structure an outline, and how to stand and deliver. But somewhere along the line we need to learn the mental game.

I know that it is my God-ordained responsibility to deliver his Word faithfully whether I’m jazzed or not. We preach by faith. We preach even on Sundays when our hearts are heavy or our minds are dull. The Spirit’s anointing—his unction—does not always come with an adrenaline rush. But I can still get psyched. Psych is a transliteration of the Greek word psuche—soul. That works for me. Let’s say I’ve got to get “souled” up before I preach. But it won’t work to follow the example of athletes before a big game. Preachers have different motivations.

Heavy lifting

Usually, the first time I read my text, it seems one-dimensional, like Flat Stanley, and as light as the paper it’s printed on. As I study, pray, and think, it is almost as though, one word or phrase at a time, the print grows boldfaced and bigger and even heavier, as though the very ink gains weight. Gradually it is as if the passage begins to inflate from its flat folds and take on a more lifelike shape. Jesus himself comes to life in it somehow, and so do the people I will address.

It is tempting to preach a passage before it has fully come to life. It’s not that hard, really. You can lay out a solid exegetical outline, explain key words, colorize with good illustrations, but the sermon is too lightweight. Not so much because it is trite, but because it isn’t full. Did you ever see an actor on a stage pick up a suitcase, and you just knew there was nothing in the suitcase, even though he leaned into it? He just can’t fake the weight, and you begin to doubt the actor. A sermon is like that.

In the Old Testament there were priestly carriers. When Israel moved, priests carried all the parts of the Tabernacle. No trucks or carts. Just ordinary, white-clad men hefting the holy weight of God’s household goods. Think of the glory of that weight, the honor of that carrying. They were like anti-pallbearers. Instead of dead weight they carried Israel’s life.

The Hebrew word for glory, kabod, carries the connotation of weight. The glory of God is heavy. I get psyched to preach as I feel the heft of the weighty glory of a text of Scripture. Jesus himself is alive in this Word. In preaching we share something with those priestly forebears who carried the Ark of God’s glory ahead of Israel. And some Sundays, it is as though we step into a river bearing that holy burden of a sermon, and the water parts for the people of God. The prospect of carrying the weight of God’s glorious Word psyches me up; it stirs my soul to preach.

Did you bring us anything?

When it comes to getting psyched to preach, the people who sit there listening pose an interesting problem. One veteran preacher I know told me he still gets sick to his stomach some Sundays with stage fright. He gets anti-psyched.

I confess my problem is the opposite. I love having an audience. It isn’t a bad thing exactly, but it is dangerous. Amy Winehouse, the late drug-addled rock star, once stepped on stage and shouted, “Hello, Athens!” Only she was in Belgrade. Preachers can succumb to the performer’s tendency not to really care who is sitting out there, so long as we have an audience.

There is also the temptation to be excited about the material we’re preaching without much thought about those who will receive it. We become more like the freight hauler who delivers supplies to the church. Stack up the sermon points like boxes on a hand truck, trundle them up there by the microphone, and hold out the clipboard to whomever you can nab to confirm the delivery: “I just need you to sign here, please.” Something is out of whack when a preacher really just wants someone—anyone—there so he can unload the freight of his text.

But consider a different picture. A few years ago I took a trip to India. I found myself constantly wanting to tell my wife and son about what I was seeing. I took pictures mainly so they could see what I had seen. I picked out presents for them with much more relish than I would for birthdays or Christmas at home. The main reason I anticipated getting home was to tell them all about it and to show the gifts I’d been given and the treasures I’d found for them.

I can be psyched in that way about preaching. Pastors go on a kind of solitary journey each week as we prepare a sermon. Remember when Jesus said in Matthew 13:52, “Every teacher of the law who has been instructed about the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old”? We spend hours every week in that storeroom—on that journey. And on Sunday, we come back to our Christian family with pictures and stories, with gifts we’ve received and presents we picked out just for them. That psyches me up to preach.

I felt this energy come

Every preacher who hews to Scripture knows that there is a mysterious, holy power in preaching. What we don’t know is just how it will come through on a given Sunday morning. It is no small thing, of course, simply to set a passage of the Bible before people vividly and clearly. Simply preaching Christ is powerful and more important than anything I have a right to do, no matter if anything else happens. The privilege of simply doing that energizes me on Sunday morning.

But what also psyches me up is the possibility—actually, the likelihood—that God will do something in some lives that morning all out of proportion to anything I put in or that they expect. I read recently about a college football player from Florida who happened to be nearby when a Cadillac somehow crushed the tow truck driver trying to move it. This athlete was a big guy, but he said later, “I tried to lift the car, and when I first tried, it didn’t budge.” (Ever had a sermon like that?) The football player continued, “I backed up. I don’t know, but I felt this energy come, and I lifted it. I don’t know how, but somebody pulled him from the car.”

That kind of thing happens to preachers. I don’t usually even know it is happening. I don’t usually “feel this energy come.” But for some people sitting in that congregation, a crushing burden is lifted off them, some clear beam of truth punches light into their darkness, some new righteous resolve stirs their will and love for Christ. When they tell me about it at the door, I think, That happened here? God did that while I was preaching? Where was I?

Believing that such a muscular, Samson-like wonder will happen this Sunday gets my blood pumping as I wait my turn in the worship service.

Preaching under the stained glass

Biblical images psyche me up to preach. Imagine being invited to preach in a great cathedral illumined by scores of stained glass window-pictures, all of them illustrating what happens when we preach. Look, there is the sower, his cast seeds catching the light. Over there, a red-crossed medic binding up broken hearts in bandages of Christ. Here, an open-mouthed herald, his gospel scroll gripped top and bottom. Look at that window. It is Jonah stepping pale white from his whale pulpit to preach repentance and life. And look up there at another preacher—the temple builder with plumb line and rule, laying courses of gold, silver, and precious stones upon the foundation of Christ. I preach better when I take one more look at those windows before I begin.

I get up to preach like the boy opening his home-made lunch for Jesus to see. We bow our heads, and he blesses what I’ve brought, and when we lift our eyes there is food enough for all of us, food that started in my basket but came manna-like to everyone from the good hand of God. We eat there together with the Lord, and have basketsful left over.

Then there are the dry bones. I asked a young colleague the other day, “What’s the most interesting challenge you’re facing these days?” “Most interesting,” he asked, “or most discouraging?” He was heavy-hearted about the men in his church who seemed to respond to nothing for Christ’s sake. They sat there every Sunday like dry bones propped up in the pews.

I thank God that I preach to few skeletons on Sunday, but there are always some scattered among the resurrected saints in every church. They clatter into church without spiritual muscles or sinews, nerves or thoughts. We stand at the pulpit, and God whispers as he did to Ezekiel, “Son of man, can these bones live?” I doubt it, is what I’m thinking, but dutifully I reply, “O sovereign LORD, you alone know.”

So at God’s command, we again “prophesy to these bones, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD!'” We preach to the Holy Wind, the Breath of God, too. And some Sundays “there is a noise, a rattling sound, and they come to their feet.” What is gospel preaching but that! The prospect of facing the dry bones will surely psych us out, but the prospect of the Breath of God blowing into them while we preach stirs me to stand again at the pulpit.

Faith

I do not trust a preacher who doesn’t get psyched to preach. I don’t think we have to come out of the gate faces flushed or pumping our fists, but we need to get “souled up” if we’re to do justice to the holy text and serve Christ.

All this is really just another way of describing the way we feed our faith as we prepare to speak. A preacher who does not trust God that something profound will happen delivers little more than dust. Part of sermon preparation is fortifying our faith with these realities of preaching.

Years ago I read about a preacher who would virtually jump to the pulpit when it was time to preach. His surging eagerness put his listeners on notice what they were in for. I have thought of him almost every Sunday morning in the moments before I step to the pulpit—a preacher psyched to preach.