How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” (Romans 10:14–15)
“Papa don’t preach I’m in trouble deep” – “Madonna” Louise Ciccone – “Queen of Pop”
Preaching is what we are ordained to do. It is one of the most remarkable privileges that any person can be given. We are presuming to speak for God. It is not, as many seem to think today, simply telling people off or condemning them for their failures. Nor is it just a ‘pep talk’ – a friendly word of reassurance and encouragement. It is something quite different. It is engaging in a supernatural transaction. It is presenting the Word of God to the people of God. My friend and mentor Terry Fullam was a great preacher, and I learned a great deal from him. In a memorable one-liner, he said that sermons are a, “ ... Word about the Word from the Word.” In other words, sermons are always to have a Gospel focus, with Jesus Christ at the heart, and grounded in the Holy Scriptures.
Terry Fullam spent hours preparing his sermons – he told me that a useful guideline was an hour of preparation for a minute in delivery. By the time he actually preached his sermon – he never used any notes – it all seemed effortless. He also found nothing wrong with recycling his sermons. “They get better with age,” he once told me with a grin! Early in his time at St. Paul’s in Darien, I realized that he had three brilliant Christmas sermons that he brought back in a regular pattern each year.
Our eldest daughter, Sarah, who is gifted with a remarkable memory, also noticed this and entertained her high school friends by whispering his next lines or the “punch lines” to his stories before he finished them. This resulted in barely suppressed giggles from the entire youth group while he preached. Once, I observed what was happening, I apologized to Terry for the disruption. He smiled and said, “Don’t apologize. Sarah has managed to memorize my sermons. What higher compliment could a preacher ever receive?”
After returning to St. Paul’s in 1978, following our three years at Virginia Seminary, I began to take my place in the preaching rotation at St. Paul’s. Unconsciously, I imitated Terry’s preaching style but with very limited success. I found word-for-word memorization quite a challenge and would spend many a sleepless Saturday night fearful that I might forget a key point or go blank in the pulpit. I was also intimidated by his encyclopedic knowledge of the Bible and struggled to make it all fit together. I do recall, after one of my early preaching attempts, a dear friend approached me with the words, “Thank you for your sermons this morning – one would have been enough!” I winced and realized that I was trying too hard to be someone I was not.
Finding your own authentic preaching voice is vital, and I quickly discovered that I am more of a storyteller than a line-by-line expositor, something that I learned from the master preacher – Jesus of Nazareth. I realized that it is equally important to understand the context and culture of the congregation to whom you are preaching. I found that out very quickly during our time in New York City. The two morning congregations consisted of people who lived on the Upper West Side and had a high regard for well-thought-through sermons that appealed to both hearts and minds. The evening congregation was primarily made up of homeless men and women who were much more interested in knowing that they were beloved of God, valued as human beings, and that we were a church community that cared about them. Two very different cultures and sets of concerns required two very different sermons.
I remember one Sunday night when the visiting preacher, a longtime friend of ours, was preaching a fine sermon on what it meant to “abide in Christ” (John 5:15). By way of illustration he suggested that, in contrast to the time we spent in our various summer homes, to abide in Christ was to be in the place of our permanent residence. A useful illustration, perhaps, to those blessed with summer homes, but to a congregation of men and women who were without any homes – summer or otherwise – it showed remarkable insensitivity. Many of them turned and looked at me for some kind of an explanation, and all I could do was shrug and clean up later!
Good preaching starts on our knees as we listen to the Spirit of God. This leads us, through our study, to a confident proclamation of the Word of God, with the sure expectation that God will speak through that proclamation to the hearts and minds of those present – beginning with the preacher! Preaching is a holy moment and deserves our very best effort and most fervent prayers.
Terry Fullam also said, “Never drag your feet on your way to the pulpit – run!” Terry expected to encounter God when he preached, and so should we. Good preaching is never boring. It involves walking a tightrope between the historic faith of the church and the contemporary application of that faith. It is always a glorious adventure. Sometimes we leave the pulpit convinced that we have failed, only to discover that in an unplanned comment or story, someone present heard from God for the very first time.
Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. (2 Timothy 4:2)
Your brother in Christ,