Growing up the preacher in my home congregation began every sermon with this prayer from John 17. “Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth. As thou hast sent me into the world, even so have I also sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, that they also might be sanctified through the truth.” I must say that I did not get it then. It seemed like a highfalutin prayer for an ordinary endeavor like a sermon -- and a sermon that seemed more about the power and passion of the preacher than anything else. I, like most kids, found sermons tedious, long, and rather dull. It was not until college that the full import of the sermon as the preached Word of God began to sink in. Once it began to sink it, I payed more attention to the sermon and attempted to spend less time critiquing the vehicle itself and more attention to where the sermon was taking me.
As a preacher myself, I begin every sermon with a two-fold prayer. On the one hand I pray for me and for the words I will say -- that they will be faithful and that I will not get in the way of their purpose. On the other hand, I pray for the hearers and that the Lord will send forth His Spirit to prepare them to hear and take to heart the Word of the Lord.
The passage of many years and the preaching of many sermons has taught me to be less taken with the vocabulary, eloquence, presence, and power of the preacher and more attentive to the power of the Word. The sermon is less mine and more His -- but so are the hearers. I have come to appreciate how hard it is to hear the Word of the Lord when our hearts and minds are so filled with the cares and comforts, distractions and distress, laughter and pleasure of self and the world around us. I have also come to count less on me and more upon the Lord who has promised to work through His Word rightly spoken and faithfully preached (within the twin poles of Law and Gospel and clear in what distinguishes them and which gives life).
The faithful preacher must avoid an exaggerated sense of self and his own responsibility. For it often seems to the preacher that too much rests on him, on his eloquence, on his ability, and and on his formulation of the words that proclaim the Word. While it is true that every preacher must work to hone his skills and to give to the hearer the best he has to offer, it also remains true that Unless the LORD builds the house, its builders labor in vain (Ps 127:1). The Lord not only builds the house but moves the hearer into that house and, by the power of the Spirit, leads the hearer to the blessed fruit of hearing -- faith.
While it is surely true that the Lord comes behind to clean up the mess we preachers sometimes make, it is more true to understand that just as Jesus gives us what to say, so He works that what is said accomplishes His purpose. I wish that we were more comfortable with silence so that the sermon could be left to hang in the quiet of several moments before we rush on to respond with the creed. I have not yet found silence workable and it is something which we both yearn for and then fear when it happens. Yet it is exactly silence what is needed after the sermon. Before rushing to fill the empty moment with something different and to shift directions, if ever so slightly, it would be good if we could pause a bit and let it all sink in. Perhaps you might advise me, brothers, on how best to do this.
The Lord does not delegate and disappear. He commands and compels while remaining within the Church through whom the preacher is sent. That is what we too often forget. Sermons are important not because the pulpit sits high or the tradition of preachers is great. Sermons are important because faith comes by hearing and the hearing it comes by is the Word of God. Both preacher and hearer benefit when the focus of this unique styles of discourse remains from Him, through Him, and to Him.