If I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel. 1 Corinthians 9. 16 (RSV)
It is boring; it puts you to sleep; it is – THE SERMON! In 65 years preaching, I will undoubtedly have bored a fair number of folk and those nodding heads in front of me tell their own story. I am amazed that I cannot recall hearing one snore! There was a time when, in the tradition in which I was nurtured, preaching was one of the most important activities that happens within Church worship. The pulpit was placed conspicuously at the front and centre, “the preacher six-foot above contradiction”. The sermon, the climax of the service although the AMEN was deferred until the final rousing hymn, attempted to raise the roof – our response to the message in the preaching.
I recall a story that did the rounds once upon a time, a story about one of the great scholars and preachers of a former generation (annoyingly I have forgotten which one it is), a tale he told against himself. He arrived at the church where he was to be the visiting preacher that morning; a church with a steep climb of steps from pavement to church porch. An elderly lady was stood at the bottom perturbed by the prospect of the ascent. The preacher, true gentleman, hastened to her aid and helped her up the steps. At the top she thanked her “Good Samaritan” and asked him who was preaching that morning: “ Dr. So-and-So” he told her. “Oh dear,” she said, “would you kindly help me down those steps!”
In student days, whenever opportunity occurred, my pals and I were a bit choosy about where we worshipped on Sunday, our goal: the church with the good preacher. There were some around, not all of them among the “star” performers. Those were the so-called good old days and unlikely to return. The traditional sermon doesn’t feature as highly in training curriculums. They don’t preach any more as once they did. In many churches the pulpit is either removed or standing redundant, a step taken to lessen the gap between preacher and congregation and create a more friendly and intimate relationship within fellowship. At the same time, it is an indication of the status now accorded the traditional sermon. Now we speak of “The Message” rather than “The Sermon”. In what is known as “Fresh Expressions of being Church” we aim to make Church more attractive and relevant – new ways for a new generation of Jesus followers.
Like the Apostle Paul, quoted above, our Calling is to share the Gospel of Jesus. It is all too evident today that change is inevitable, and surely no preacher will deny that or think themselves excluded, his/her gifts no longer required. Granted, there are times when all the signs are that PowerPoint, and the like have taken over entirely from the pulpit. The method and style of proclaiming the Good News of the Gospel may of necessity change with the times; shorter sermons, story telling rather than erudite essays, drama, visual aids, video, dialogue, whatever. There are many ways of doing it. Among the books about preaching on my shelves, one by Dr. H.H. Farmer entitled Servant of the Word pleads for “the rediscovery of preaching” as long ago as 1941. I would hope and pray that “New Ways of being Church” will lead to a rediscovery of preaching in its remit. I believe there is still a place within the overall ministry of a church for the type of sermon I, as a Servant of the Word, was called to preach all those years ago. I hold firmly to the view that God still works through what Saint Paul calls “the foolishness of preaching.” It happens in those places where there is renewal and growth, that a prominent place is given to testimony and the preaching of The Word. I return to Paul – he sees the task of preacher as of divine appointment and the passionate discharge of a trust. More than that, and because of that, it is an inestimable privilege. I like the way the Revised English Version translates 1 Corinthians 9.16; “It would be agony for me not to preach.” The Message is equally interesting, “If I proclaim the Message, it is not to get something out of it for myself, I am compelled to do it, and doomed if I don’t.” You cannot think of this immense privilege without reference to the awesome responsibility that goes with it – can’t have one without the other. Remember Paul was not addressing himself to preachers and evangelists alone. He has concerns over happenings in Corinth, he writes, “To the church of God which is in Corinth, to all who are called to be God’s holy people, who belong to him in union with Christ Jesus, together with all people everywhere who worship the Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours.”
Who said it? Memory fails me! But I have never forgotten the saying which defines our task, yours and mine, as “one poor beggar telling another where to find bread.” A tremendous responsibility ….. an inestimable privilege!
Who, having been called to be a preacher, would stoop for a King? (Thomas Carlyle)