Podcast Episode 29 | 12 min
Preaching Through Weakness
A suprising ally for every preacher.
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Matt Woodley: This is Matt Woodley, and welcome to Monday Morning Preacher. I’m here in the plush studios of Christianity Today, recording with our guest host Kevin Miller.
Kevin Miller: You know, Matt, I don’t usually use the word plush to describe cramped, hot, and bare bones. I’m guessing you’re leading into some episode on sarcasm and preaching.
MW: Well, we’re here and we’re having a good time, and we’re ready for our next episode.
KM: It’s good to have you back too. Since our last episode together you’ve been all over the world.
MW: Spent a week in Kenya, Nairobi, and a week in Jos, Nigeria, and did some preaching.
KM: You did preach?
MW: I did.
KM: And what was that like for you?
MW: I love preaching in Nigeria. It’s so great. People are so open, so responsive, and it’s a great preaching context.
KM: How long did you get to preach? Can you like filibuster and preach for an hour?
MW: They are disappointed if you preach less than an hour. They don’t think you’re a good preacher.
KM: Lord, why have you not called me to Nigeria? Well, it’s great to have you back.
MW: Well, thank you. So Kevin, I was pastoring out in Long Island a little while ago and I discovered that a rather famous preacher had actually visited our church out there and given at least two sermons. It was this guy …
John Stott: There is a tendency to idealize or romanticize the early church, to look back through tinted spectacles, to speak of it with bated breath as if it had no blemishes. Then we miss the heresies and the hypocracies and the rivalries and the immoralities which troubled the early church as they trouble the church today. Nevertheless, one thing is certain and that is that the early church had been radically moved and renewed by the Holy Spirit.
KM: You had John Stott at your church?
MW: Well, before I was there he was actually roommates with one of the guys that was one of the associate pastors there. So he came out and gave a couple of sermons at Three Village Church in Long Island. He was, as you know, an amazing Bible scholar, preacher, and mentor to thousands of preachers around the globe. But most people do not know that he also had a favorite Bible passage for preachers.
KM: Okay, which one?
MW: 1 Corinthians 2:1-5. So why don’t you go ahead and read that for our listening audience.
KM: Alright, let me find that here. Paul writes, “And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.”
MW: About 20 years ago, Stott wrote a really great article on this passage and how it applies to preachers. It was called “Power through Weakness.” What we’re going to do in this episode is walk through a few quotes from that article from John Stott, and then comment about a preacher’s surprising ally, weakness.
KM: Wow, it’s hard to think of weakness as our ally but I’m looking forward to this episode because I’ve often wrestled with trying to understand this passage.
MW: So let’s talk about what it is, what it isn’t. Let’s start with what the apostle did not mean about preaching in weakness, which Stott spent some time on in that article. Here’s what he said:
This is not an invitation to suppress our personality. It is not an invitation to feel weak when we don’t. Nor is it a renunciation of rational arguments. It is rather an honest acknowledgement that we cannot save souls by ourselves, whether by our own personality, our own persuasion, or our own rhetoric.
What do you think about that, Kevin?
KM: Well, it’s amazing. Probably the only thing I would do is I would want him to broaden it a little bit to say not only can we not save souls by ourselves but we can’t bring inspiration, faith, hope, conviction, or any other fruit of preaching by ourselves.
MW: I’ve been putting sermons together for over 27 years, hundreds of sermons, and I know you’ve preached a lot as well.
KM: Not as much as that.
MW: Well, you’re still amazing. Some of the sermon prep we could do in our sleep, right? I mean, at one point in my career I started to think that I could really save and transform people through my own intellect, cleverness, humor, or authenticity. Now, I wouldn’t have said that, but that was my heart attitude. Thankfully those days are mostly behind me because I really believe that true life change has to come from God and the power of the Word in the Holy Spirit. Here’s another passage from Stott’s article on “Power through Weakness”:
Weakness would not be an accurate description of many evangelical preachers today. Preaching courses aim to inculcate self-confidence in nervous students. If Paul had enrolled as a student in one of our seminaries, we would have regarded him as exceedingly unpromising material.
So I read that and I think, Uncle John, you’re meddling now. You’re going too far; stepping on some toes here. Because that’s kind of what we do sometimes in seminaries and at Preaching Today.
KM: So are we going to have to close down the website now?
MW: I don’t think so. But sometimes we convey the attitude, “Hey, average preacher out there, you can do this, you’ll be great.” And now Stott is saying, “Tell preachers how weak they are.”
KM: You know, I have wrestled with this and I think, to me, how I’ve come out on it is that weakness in Paul doesn’t mean don’t use the skills you have. I think it means use the skills you have in utter dependence on God, knowing that those skills will never be enough.
MW: I like the way you frame that. That is why you are our guest host.
KM: So am I going to get a raise?
MW: Absolutely. Double what you’re making. So here’s how Stott sums up his thoughts about preaching in weakness: “We have a weak message—Christ crucified, which is proclaimed by weak preachers who are full of fear and trembling. It is received by weak hearers who are socially despised by the world.” God chose a weak instrument, Paul, to bring a weak message, the Cross, to weak people, the Corinthian working classes. But through that triple weakness he demonstrated his almighty power.
KM: You know, I think this actually could be seen as hopeful. I know you’ve had those days in preaching—I certainly have—where you go home and you’re just kicking yourself. You think, Why didn’t that come together, why was that so confusing, why didn’t I do that as well as I had hoped and planned to do. This gives me encouragement that even though I may be weak and my sermon may be weak, if I have prayed and thrown myself upon God, his power will be released through this gospel.
MW: I think that word “power” is really important because the promise of what Paul is saying in 1 Corinthians here is that there is power in our weakness. There’s not just weakness in our weakness. God’s power is displayed through our weakness. Stott told a really interesting story about this, and of course if you’re a subscriber to PreachingToday.com you could find this on our site.
KM: Well, I actually am a subscriber so maybe you could just tell me.
MW: I’ll tell everyone, subscriber or not. It was back in 1958 and Stott was leaving a university outreach in Sidney, Australia. The day before the final meeting he received word that his father had just passed away. Those are the days you couldn’t just hop on a flight that minute, you had to wait. So he was going to preach the last day. And in addition to his grief, he started losing his voice. So he gathered a few students around to pray for him and someone read Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 12, “My grace is sufficient for you, my strength is made perfect in weakness,” and then they laid hands on Uncle John and they prayed for him. Here is how Stott described that sermon. I love this description:
… I croaked the gospel like a raven. I couldn’t exert my personality. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t use any inflections in my voice. I croaked the gospel in monotone. Then when the time came to give the invitation, there was an immediate response, larger than any other meeting during the mission as students came flocking forward. … I’ve been back to Australia about 10 times since 1958 and on every occasion somebody has come up to me and said, “Do you remember that final meeting in the university in the great hall?” “I jolly well do,” I replied. “Well,” they say, “I was converted that night.” Or somebody would say, “I got called to global missions that night,” or “I got called into the ministry that night,” or “God healed something profound in my life.”
KM: So as we wrap up this episode on preaching through weakness, what difference does this profound principle make for you and for me and for our listeners as we all go about preaching?
MW: Well, you’re a brilliant guest host, you take a shot at it.
KM: Well, you know, I actually feel weak a lot in this sense, like I always feel like I don’t have enough time to get this sermon together. I don’t know how I’m supposed to pastor and preach at the same time. I often feel I don’t have enough leaders, we don’t have enough money. There is limits in all areas of my life, so I think if I instead of fighting that and lamenting that and trying to power up through that, if I throw myself on God in prayer, and let the death cycle of the sermon happen like we did on an earlier the episode, God will be revealed somehow to my people in a way that he couldn’t be otherwise.
MW: Right. I have to admit, at one point in my career—maybe about 10 years ago—I got bored with preaching because I felt like I was sort of on autopilot, going through the motions and not really depending on God like I needed to be in my preaching. So I was looking for opportunities to preach that would scare me. I actually took an assignment—I knew a friend that was a chaplain for an arena indoor football team—to do the chapel for the visiting New Orleans Voodoo indoor football team. And I’m thinking, This is great, I’m so scared that I have to depend on God.
But what I’ve been learning in my 25-plus years of preaching is that every sermon is scary. Really when you think about it, right? Because every sermon we are trying to do something that is not in our power to do, which is to see lives change by Jesus Christ for eternity. So I think I’m learning that every single sermon I need to be like the Apostle Paul back in 1 Corinthians 2. I’m coming in fear and trembling, I’m coming in weakness. No matter how much study I’ve done, I need to rely on the Lord.
KM: It’s good to know that, like you said, weakness is an ally. It’s not something we need to fear or shrink back from.
MW: Yes. So you’re normal. You’re actually in a good place if you’re in weakness. So preachers, embrace your weakness, but also trust that God has power to display through your weakness as a preacher.
Before we conclude this episode let me give you an update on Monday Morning Preacher. This episode is the last episode of Season One of our podcast. So thank you for being a loyal listener and thank you for joining us. We will be relaunching Monday Morning Preacher, probably in the Fall of 2018 with Season Two. We are taking a short break so we can work on some important site updates to PreachingToday.com, but once that’s done we look forward to relaunching Season Two. This is Matt Woodley for PreachingToday.com on Monday Morning Preacher. Thanks for joining us.
John Stott was the former rector emeritus of All Souls Church in London, a prolific author and scholar, and a mentor to many Christian leaders around the globe.