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The glory of preaching


By colin - Posted on 03 September 2012

 

The Glory of Preaching

Rev. William Fitch, Knox Presbyterian Church, Toronto

(CHRISTIANITY TODAY Jan. 20, 1967)

 

The man of God must preach with heart aflame and with love overflowing in every word 

 

William Stubbs, Bishop of Oxford, once counseled a young curate who had asked for some advice about preaching: "Preach about God," he said, "and preach about twenty minutes." With the first part of his counsel I fully agree, but I have grave reservations about the rest. Can one really begin in such a brief time to proclaim the immensities of revelation and the glories of Jesus Christ? 

 

In the noble words of the Book of Common Prayer, the Christian minister "receives authority to read the Gospel in the Church of God and to preach the same." Richard Baxter declared it was his constant purpose "to preach as a dying man to dying men"; this kind of burden must surely liberate a man from the tyranny of time. In preaching, God reveals Himself in His Son to men. God is not haphazard or casual in His choice of messengers; and when the Lord God gives His Word, He surely intends that it will be fully declared. 

 

When our Lord came into Galilee, He came preaching. Before He did miracles, He was a preacher. In this way He set His seal on this supreme office of the Church - the preaching of the good news of the kingdom of heaven. And when the Spirit came in power upon the disciples on the day of Pentecost, He made them preachers. Peter confronts the men of Jerusalem and preaches Christ. He does little more than quote Scripture and reason from it. Yet, as he preaches, a change takes place. William Arthur describes it: "At length the whole multitude is moved to the depths of its corporate soul, and forgetful of everything but the overwhelming feeling of the moment, they exclaim, Men and brethren, what shall we do?" This is the power of preaching. 

 

Some things have become clear to me during my years in the ministry. I have learned that I myself am the sermon. Preaching is a conveyance of truth through personality. Therefore, everything in my experience has a part somewhere in any message I give. In this sense, some sermons take thirty years to prepare some more! I have learned also that the longer I am privileged to continue in the ministry, the more thorough and exacting my preparations must be. And I have learned that there is no magnetism like that of the Bible. The reading and expounding of the Scriptures creates a magnetic field that apparently is irresistible. 

 

I have learned, furthermore, that if the message is to be "with authority" it must be a "given" message. The truth must possess me wholly. The Bible must close in upon a certain passage until I know that this is indeed the verse or the page for a particular day. And I have learned that without prayer in the secret place, my words fall like dead leaves on frozen ground. 

 

Preaching is teaching. Because of this I have been forced to preach through series of themes and subjects, some short, some long. Studies in Hebrews covered a whole winter. The problem of evil took at least two months. The Lord's Prayer, the Sermon on the Mount, the distinctive Christian virtues - these and others have taken extended periods; and I think that some of the most significant advances we have made in our congregational life and witness have been contemporary with series of this kind. 

 

At the same time, there has to be real flexibility; and, it is here that the advantage of having two main preaching services every Sunday, morning and evening, is most apparent. A series can be taken systematically at either morning or evening worship, while the other service is made the occasion for a wider casting of the net. But the word must grip the preacher. Instead of wondering what to preach from on any particular occasion, wait till the word grips you like the handclasp of a friend. 

 

One of my assistants once taught me a great lesson. We were discussing preaching, and I asked him what his final preparation was before leaving his study for the pulpit. "I go through my notes with a blue pencil," he replied, "and score out the clever bits." 

 

It is very easy to draw attention to oneself in the pulpit. It is very easy to pull in the dexterous quotation from the poets or to show 'that we are right along with our generation by using some of the current slang. But as often as not these things fail to commend Jesus Christ. "My speech and, my preaching was not with enticing words," says Paul. The creative power of redemption comes through the preaching of the Gospel, but never because of the personality of the preacher. Anything that  flatters the preacher is a condemnation of his preaching. If it is only because of my preaching that people desire to be better, they will never get near. Christ. 

 

As Oswald Chambers has said so tersely and wisely, "The real fasting of the preacher is not from food, but rather from eloquence, from impressiveness and exquisite diction, from everything that might hinder the Gospel being faithfully presented. Thus Paul preached in Corinth. "In myself," he says, "I was feeling far from strong; I was nervous and rather shaky. What I said and preached had none of the attractiveness of the clever mind .... For God's purpose was that your faith should rest not upon man's cleverness but upon the power of God" (I Cor. 2:3-5, Phillips). 

 

This may well be the hardest lesson most preachers have to learn. For a great part of the nineteenth and well on into the twentieth century, the Church of the Western world idolized preachers to a terrifying degree. And the result? God judged the Church and took away this candlestick. For he will not give His glory to another. 

 

Yet we must avoid all sloppy or careless attitudes to the preparation of the message. There is a craftsmanship in preaching that fully repays the study we give to it. We dare not argue that because the message is all-important, we may ignore the form of its presentation. Granted that cleverness for the sake of cleverness must be ruthlessly shunned, we must nonetheless covet a careful technique, an articulate delivery, and a well-defined goal. 

 

J. H. Jowett said that no man was really prepared to preach until he was able to summarize his message into one single, well-formulated sentence. This is wise counsel. I can make clear to my hearers only what is crystal clear to me. This I have learned by hard experience. The beginning and the ending of my message must be prepared down to the last detail. The outline must be clear, easily remembered, often repeated in the course of the sermon; and it must rise up from the context and text being studied. How else can I expect the people to grasp in one short hour what has taken me days to discover? 

 

Illustrations? They can sometimes help; but often the illustrations stay in people's minds while the basic thrust of the message is lost. The New Testament preachers quote the Scriptures a great deal, and they do not hesitate to introduce their own personal testimony. I find that the Scriptures are not only their own interpreter but also their own best illustrator; and I feel more and more that the best illustrations are biblical illustrations. There is no experience of life through which the prophets and the psalmists have not passed, and they have left for us the record of their feelings in words that cannot be bettered. To search for these events and occasions and experiences must be the unrelenting task of a preacher who is committed to expository preaching of the Scriptures. 

 

My method of preparation is already clear in what has been said. The subject is chosen after much thought and prayer. I study the various translations of the Scriptures that are on my bookshelves - and we have over fifty translations in English - and I visit my special friends in their commentaries. Then the outline or skeleton of the message begins to form itself, and I get behind the typewriter and make very full and detailed notes. These notes will accompany me to the pulpit, and I write as I intend to speak. But always there are certain points at which I know there will be complete freedom from the manuscript, points where the congregation will demand a different phrasing, an altered emphasis, a freshness of thought. Extensive notes are essential to me in the pulpit; but I decline to come totally in subjection to them.

 

This raises the whole question of delivery. On this no man can legislate for another. The great Thomas Chalmers preached with a thick provincial accent, without any dramatic gesture, with his finger following the written lines as he read, and with scarcely a look upwards at the congregation. Yet the messages of that man of God went like fire through the land and multitudes hung breathlessly upon his words. One of the greatest revivals in the Western world was sparked by a man who was accustomed to hold the text of his message in one hand while in the other he held a lighted candle; thus he read, and - under the dynamic power of Spirit-filled preaching - multitudes were found in the valley of decision. 

 

What matters about our delivery of the message is that our hearts be aflame and that we be God-possessed, our minds directed by the Holy Spirit, love overflowing in every word we utter. What matters also is that we be ourselves, and not imitators of any other. As J.S. Stewart has said: Be yourself - forget yourself.

 

I wish to add only one word, and it is this: After thirty years in the ordained ministry I can think of nothing I would want to do but the job I'm doing. I thank God every day for putting me into the ministry. And most of all, I thank Him that He has permitted me to share in the divine mystery of preaching. the Word. There is nothing quite like it. I only wish I could have done it better.

 

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