Will any of us ever forget our first sermon? As hard as I've tried, I can't. It was titled, Called to Abundant Labors. Obviously the title was assigned.
In fact, the whole idea was cooked up by the cruel busybodies on the Christian Education Committee. They thought it would be great sport if a couple of ministry-minded teenagers would preach on a Sunday night. You know… a church's version of American Idol.
The evening service opened as they always did, a little singing, boring announcements, an offering, and then it was our turn. The other guy spoke first. At fourteen, we were the same age and, I assumed, of equal talent. I was wrong.
He started smoothly, opening with a little joke. I feigned a laugh. He gestured confidently. The crowd seemed impressed. His three points were alliterated. He was quickly getting on my nerves. He quoted scripture from memory, followed by the pastor's loud, "Amen!" My competition was on a roll.
Please God, make him stop! When he finished, the place erupted with cheers.
Then it was my turn. Stepping to the microphone felt ominously like walking the plank. I was too nauseous to be nervous. One final adjustment to my clip-on tie caused it to plop into the standing glass of water, spilling onto my handwritten notes, causing the ink to run. My sermon notes now looked like finger paintings. The crowd began to giggle. My knees weren't knocking, they were missing. I had no joke, no outline, no rhyme or reason.
Twelve minutes later I was done. The church was besieged in cold-sweats. My mother took her first breath. The pastor cringed. The angels wept. It was the worst night of my life.
And God, in His still small voice, said, "Get used to it, kid, I've called you to preach." Suddenly the words, "He uses the foolish things of this world…" had a whole new meaning. Balaam's donkey looked awfully familiar.
Preaching is the centerpiece of pastoring—the non-negotiable in the job description. It serves as the main entree at every worship service, evokes the highest compliments and fuels the hottest critiques. More times than not our preaching is how our people define us.
Debates rage over what constitutes a great sermon. Is it cleaver oratory? Is it crowd-pleasing analogies? Is it demonstrative passion? Is it the congregation's response?
According to scripture, great preaching has little to do with the size of our talent and everything to do with the size of our God—stumbling, bumbling Peter, on The Day of Pentecost, was proof positive.
Proclaiming God's word was never meant to be show-and-tell for a man and his gift. Great preaching is simply the spoken word opening the written word to proclaim the Incarnate Word.
A head count in the prayer-room isn't a success-barometer either. Nor does a beautiful venue make preaching great, otherwise John Bunyan's prison cell disqualified him.
Not even social injustice can negate great preaching. Otherwise, Richard Allen—born into slavery, preaching regularly at the plantation—could never have led his slave-owner to Christ.
Church opposition can't stop God's word either. If it could, John Wycliffe would be long forgotten. But, forty-three years after his death, church officials dug up his body, burned his remains, and threw his ashes into the river. His crime had been to declare "sola scriptura" on all matters of doctrine and practice. Those critics have been long forgotten, yet Wycliffe's work continues.
Jesus was revolutionary in His preaching style. In an era when the Pharisees were conjugating verbs and dictating laws, Jesus showcased God's everlasting love. Jesus wasn't so concerned with the art of preaching as much as He was the heart of preaching.
In a single prayer, Jesus gave us the clue to His brilliant technique: "I have given them Thy words."
"And the multitudes loved listening to Him."