The mystery of a sermon (3)

The mystery of a sermon (3)

A well-known preacher once said in his Sunday sermon, “Every blade of grass is a sermon.”  Some days later a parishioner saw the minister mowing his lawn.  When he turned off the mower to say, “Hello!” the parishioner remarked, “That’s good Pastor, cut your sermons short!”

No doubt many a time we’ve wished the preacher would do exactly that.  I recall a fellow student at college who preached for the first time and spoke for over an hour.  The elders of the church he was visiting gave him the same advice that the parishioner gave the preacher mowing his lawn.  Me?  To my embarrassment I recall getting through my first attempt in under 15-minutes – I was so nervous I raced through it in record time.  Afterwards the most common feedback I got was that I needed to slow down.

I recall from my childhood that there was a practice of “taking a break” half-way through the sermon to sing a song before the preacher would resume.  In contrast to the lengthy sermons of those days we tend to have sermonettes – but then, as someone has said, “Sermonettes are okay if you want to be a Christianette.”

The reality is that a “good” sermon is always too short and “bad” sermon is always too long.  In any case we in the Reformed Churches are less likely to judge a sermon by its length than by its faithfulness to Scripture.

At this point we have that fascinating interaction between preacher and hearer as God’s Spirit is at work in both the pulpit and the pew.  The God who inspires the preacher to expound and apply His Word also works to build up the listeners in faith and love and to inspire them to diligent service of their God.  Let me give an example of this from the perspective of both the pulpit and the pew.

There have been many times when I have found preaching just plain hard work.  I’ve laboured through every sentence of my sermon and at the end I have felt exhausted and sometimes more than a little depressed.  Does that want to make one give up as a preacher?  No, because even in those instances I have so often heard afterwards from someone who was blessed by the message.  There have also been times when I have found a wonderful liberty in preaching God’s Word – sometimes even to the point where it has felt as if God’s Spirit has taken over and that I had become almost a spectator to my own preaching.  Again, this is part of the mystery of a sermon.  God sovereignly works as He wills and when He wills – so there are times when a preacher is particularly anointed for his task while at other times that special anointing seems to be absent.

The same is true from the pew.  There are times when a congregation is gripped by the message that is preached.  Jonathan Edwards was not a particularly eloquent preacher – he had a tendency to just read from his manuscript.  But there were times when he had to pause and quieten the congregation – so many were weeping because they had been touched by God’s Spirit through the preaching of the Word.

I often marvel at the way God has used a message that I have brought from the pulpit: often in ways that I couldn’t even connect to my preaching.  Typically, in those instances, someone has said to me, “What you said on Sunday morning has really been a challenge to me.  I was particularly struck when you said…” and they will then proceed to remind me of what I said in the sermon.  But the strange thing is that in many of those instances, what they claim I said was not said by me at all.  It’s rather that something that I said started a train of thought through which God eventually used to enrich their lives.

There is great mystery in a sermon but it’s a blessing and privilege to be able to preach Christ and Him crucified and risen.  It’s also a blessing and a privilege to hear a message from the pulpit in which Jesus is exalted.