My Dear Shepherds,
After having preached most Sundays for 35 years, I’d been going without because I’d retired. I’m lazy enough that I didn’t miss the hard work of preparation so much but, oh, that privilege of stepping up, Bible in hand, to preach to God’s beloved people—well, my life hadn’t been the same without that.
What is that feeling? It was as if I’d dressed in the crisp white of the kingdom, as if I’d arrived in the stately uniform of a royal official bearing a scroll inscribed by the Lord Christ himself. The message on my lips came with royal authority.
After the songs ended and my text was read, I stood and walked up the platform steps to a thin, black music stand masquerading as a pulpit. Maybe 30 people were distanced about the darkened room and a camera carried me across an unseen bridge to others. But crimson-jacketed town criers might just as well have summoned those citizens of the Realm. I stood there, not my own, but the Lord’s spokesman. “Be strong in the Lord,” I began, “and in his mighty power.” And, lo and behold, I was.
What happens in a sermon is akin to what happened when Samson came to the defense of God’s people. Words coming from my mouth somehow flex rippling muscles. They stop enemies in their tracks. They bring forth light. They carry medicine and a balm. They become manna.
I had struggled so hard to find the clearest outline and the most potent words. I had carved away parts I liked but would be distracting. (You’ve got to kill your darlings, as they say). I puzzled and prayed out how to simply explain one of Paul’s phrases and how to infuse urgency and authority to the message. But, as always, it just seemed like so many flat black words till I got up to preach. Then those dry bones were embodied and inhaled the breath of God, rose up and, miraculously, God himself spoke!
Without our doing, sermons become clairvoyant. They know people’s secrets. A fellow told me recently about his first experiences in church. “It was like the pastor had been sitting in my backseat,” he said. A woman told me last Sunday, “After the week I had, that was exactly what I needed.” Every preacher has heard, “You were preaching right to me,” but I’m always amazed that the Holy Spirit does that through me.
Did you ever play that game as a kid where you lean over, put your forehead on a baseball bat and then circle it three times? Then when you try to walk you stagger like a drunken sailor. I’ve imagined Christians coming to church staggering like that from their week in the world. But then they gather to worship and pray with one another and with Jesus, and they get their bearings and balance. The preacher may be the only person in their lives who tells them God’s honest truth. Their faith learns what to think and gets its footing and they march back into the world.
A hundred years ago, James Weldon Johnson captured the poetry of old African American preaching. His little book is called God’s Trombones, a magnificent name for preachers! Part of his “Morning Prayer” is for “this man of God, who breaks the bread of life this morning.”
Lord God, this morning—
Put his eye to the telescope of eternity,
And let him look upon the paper walls of time.
Lord, turpentine his imagination,
Put perpetual motion in his arms,
Fill him full of the dynamite of thy power,
Anoint him all over with the oil of Thy salvation,
And set his tongue on fire.
Be ye glad!