The Hard Work of Illumination
The Hard Work of Illumination
Why hearing the Spirit in the text can seem so difficult
I've always suspected that there are other preachers—better men than I—who sit down to study for a message, and just out of sight on the other side of the desk, the Holy Spirit pulls up a chair and leans forward eagerly. The preacher dutifully and earnestly begins to study. Then he looks across the desk at the Spirit, just a shadow out of sight, and says, "Speak, Lord, for thy servant is listening." And—boom—with a kind of shiver, the pastor begins to write as fast as he can—the sermon almost leaping out of his pen, full-blown with lucid outline, transforming insights, gripping illustrations. The preacher then sits back, gasps, wipes the tears from his eyes, and heads home to supper, armed and ready. And the Spirit smiles.
Now with me it is an entirely different story. If I didn't know better, I'd guess that the Holy Spirit pokes his head around the corner at some point on Friday afternoon and says, a little rushed, "So how's everything going in here?" like a supervisor with too many workers to check on. Before I can lift my bleary eyes and weary shoulders, he says, "Good. Good. Glad everything is coming along," and he's off to someone else's cubicle.
I know it isn't really like that, of course, but that's how it feels.
Gospel preachers must—must—know the Holy Spirit as their constant help and power, but don't you ever wonder why preparing has to be so tough, so slow, so painstaking? Considering we're in league with God himself, it just seems like it all ought to come a little easier. After all, God brought forth all creation with just a word. So couldn't he cut us a break on sermon preparation?
Difficult preparation is guaranteed, of course, if our hearts are out of sync with God. There's no doubt that we can be like a cell phone when the battery is on its last legs. The Voice on the other end will keep cutting out. The psalmist said, "if I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened." I'll tell you something else: not only does the Lord not listen when we cherish sin, he doesn't talk much either. A pastor's study can take on an unearthly, ominous silence when there's sin in the air.
Even when I've settled things with the Father, I have noticed that study is often harder after a time of rebellion. It is almost like my receptors have been sin-dulled. It is almost as if, in my sin—radio-like—I tuned God out and began listening to some other voice, and now it is hard to find the station again. I suspect it is simply that God pulls back a bit, perhaps reminding me of Samson's haircut, and giving me a taste of the awful weakness I'd know if he really were silent. The message comes, but harder, and with the sober reminder, "You really don't want to try this work without my help."
There are lots of times, though, when neither sin nor spiritual apathy seem to be the problem. That's when the study struggle really mystifies me. Do you remember Jesus' promise in Luke 12: "When you are brought before synagogues, rulers and authorities, do not worry about how you will defend yourselves or what you will say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say." Every Christian who lives on the cutting edge of life has had times when, in standing up for Christ, the right words just came—with no preparation.
So why not when we preach? Maybe you're one of those folks who have stepped to the pulpit some Sunday to say, "I had a different message prepared, but the Lord gave me this sermon on the way to church today." But that has never happened to me. Not once. Every single one, I think, has been hard work.
But how rich I've gotten digging! Sometimes I feel like one of those legendary prospectors from the Sierra Madres, all dust and grizzle and poverty-patched pants, but with a secret stash of gold tucked away deep in my soul from all those hard hours of mining Scripture. It seems as though there have been hundreds of times, as I've wearied of the hard work of preparation, that I've begged the Lord to let me be done, to let me go home. Sometimes he does. But most of the time I've felt as though God has said, "There's treasure waiting for you! Dig and scrape a little longer, and you'll be glad you did. There's gold in them thar hills!"
Can you hear me now?
I'd like it if there was a sermon prep technical help line. I'd plug away in preparation till I got stuck. Then I would just bow my head and dial up the help line. "Yeah, hello. Is this the Holy Spirit? Good. Just a quick question: I can't seem to find a good outline on chapter Luke 12. What would you suggest? By the way, how much should I make of that chiasm in verses Luke 12:3 and Luke 12:4? Oh, and one more thing. Got any good stories about humble kings?"
That doesn't usually work, obviously, but I have learned to recognize the Holy Spirit's help in other ways.
When Archimedes, sitting in his bathtub, realized the principle of displacement, he is said to have run naked into the street yelling, "Eureka!" Discovery invigorates all good students, but when we're studying Scripture, the kick of discovery becomes the bowed head of worship.
For example, I recently considered Jesus' statement to the paralyzed man, "Son, your sins are forgiven." Jesus then said that compared to healing, forgiveness was a far more difficult miracle. Why is that? I wondered. I sorted through my mental files of Bible study and theological training and began to list all that Jesus' grant of forgiveness entailed. I'm sure the Holy Spirit was clarifying my thinking in those moments, but the mental process was that of any good student. As the truths began to line up, my heart filled with wonder, and my sermon gathered electricity—my "Eureka!" became "Hallelujah!" Every student knows the shout, but only the Holy Spirit gives the hymn.
Another similar evidence of the Holy Spirit's work is when I'm nourished by the Scripture I study. Who but lovers of Scripture can understand how the Bible feeds us? As the hours of study pass, in spite of a weary mind and body, there is a sense of nourishment, of strength. I think of it sometimes like Popeye's spinach. That ability to digest Scripture, to sense it like the pulse of blood in my heart, to sense wisdom forming in my mind—all that is a sure sign of the feeding of the Spirit.
Another way the Holy Spirit works: I've read how spacecraft run the risk of "losing their balance"—of starting to wobble out of control. I have that capacity in sermon preparation. Being angry makes me wobble with the desire to "give 'em a piece of my mind." Being tired makes me wobble by cutting corners, or by being pessimistic. In those times, the Holy Spirit is like those complex gyroscopes that keep satellites from wobbling into oblivion. He helps me to cool down, to check my words, to persevere, to pray, to check my heart, so that I don't crash crazily into my congregation on Sunday.
I used to see a fellow named Mike at the bagel shop I frequent. We got acquainted through crossword puzzles. He found out I had a knack for finishing the last few words that he couldn't get. He said he was the starter and I was the closer. That is what the Holy Spirit does for us all on Sunday mornings. I've filled in all the blanks that I can and erased things two or three times, till the sermon is paper-thin. But we get up there, open our Bibles, and we preach a finished sermon. Mike would always shake his head when he'd see the right answers I penciled in. "Of course," he'd say, "why didn't I think of that?" That's how I usually feel after a sermon. People tell me how the sermon helped them, or I reflect on how a thought jelled right there in front of God and everybody, and I shake my head and think, How did he do that? Why didn't I think of that in the first place? Because I'm the starter, and the Holy Spirit is the Closer.
Don't forget who you're dealing with
When we get to feeling that the Spirit is making preparation a whole lot harder than it needs to be, we're forgetting our pneumatology. We forget just who we're dealing with; or rather, who is dealing with us.
We forget sometimes that the Holy Spirit who helps me is the same Spirit who gave Isaiah both the truth and the language to describe the Suffering Servant's comfort and the redemption. The same Spirit who inspired Moses' rock-inscribed Law, David's soul-singing poetry, Paul's intricate doctrine, and Jesus' own parables and sermons. And now the same Spirit whispers to me and through me. My words do not carry the authority of Scripture, of course, but the Spirit works with me to find my words for his Word and to pour his truth through my heart till God's message carries something of the flavor of my own soul. It makes me wonder what would happen if I listened even a little more intently, prayed even a bit more silently!
We forget sometimes, when it seems the weight of the sermon rests heavily on our shoulders, how deeply invested the Spirit is in what we do. He is no passive observer, no busy supervisor. He does not stroll the aisles of studying preachers like a stern, silent professor looking over the rim of his glasses, seeing if we know our stuff. Fact is, he desires far more to come from our sermons than we do.
He is, we know, the very author of Scripture, so when Scripture is preached he is intensely involved. He knows every nuance of theology and exactly how far every word and metaphor is to be stretched. And he wants me to know, too, if I'll dig and listen at the same time. He'll tell me if I'm trying to make more of a text than God intends, or less. I never need to study alone.
But more. He is Christ's own champion, devoting all his infinite ingenuity, authority, and power to showing forth the glory of Christ. Every sermon we preach is, to him, another light to shine on Christ. Surely he will give us lustrous words and gleaming insights if we share his goal of showing forth Christ from the text before us.
There is yet another reason for his help, for the Spirit loves the church. He is her earthly Companion and Coach, Hearer and Helper. He has poured out every spiritual treasure upon this Bride of Christ, and we "are being built together to become a dwelling in which Christ lives by his Spirit." When we earnestly desire to nourish and build Christ's church, the Holy Spirit stands close by our side.
Sermon preparation will almost always be a difficult work. Our world-warped minds do not easily grasp the Lord's logic nor the King's decrees. And God does not often leave his treasures lying about on top of our desks. He doesn't usually cast his pearls before preachers, unless we dive for them. But we need never doubt the Holy Spirit's eagerness to help us in our work. He is never reluctant to do such work through us. When we want nothing more than for Scripture to be clear, the Spirit is our sure ally. When we burn to show the glory of Christ, the Spirit will certainly aid our feeble light. And when we eagerly desire to spread a feast of God's own truth before his beloved people, or to proclaim good news to the lost and blind, the Holy Spirit stands ever ready with words and wisdom, with passion and purity, to set our sermons a-gleaming.