Chapter 6

8 Dynamics in Preaching’s Double Communication

Speaking to human beings about the living God and speaking to God about human beings.

The call to the preaching ministry is a call to an inherently double mode of communication. On the one hand, speaking to human beings about the living God (especially in light of his final and full self-revelation in Jesus of Nazareth), and on the other hand, speaking to the living God about human beings. Indeed, the later precedes the former, prayer preceding preaching.

We see this double mode lived out in Jesus’ ministry. Luke tells us that “while he [Jesus] was praying in a certain place, after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray as John [the Baptist] taught his disciples’” (Luke 11:1). It is the only thing the first disciples are recorded to have asked Jesus to teach them.

There is no record of “teach us to cast out demons,” nor, “teach us to do justice,” nor, “teach us to heal,” nor, “teach us to strategically influence the culture,” not even, surprisingly, “teach us to preach”! Just “teach us to pray.” Because the first disciples could see that Jesus’ liberating, justice making, healing, culture-influencing, and preaching ministry emerges from the relationship with the One he calls “Father,” and that the key to that relationship was prayer.

If this is the case for the Word-made-flesh (John 1:14), how can it be otherwise for those called to preach the Word of the Word-made-flesh? Preaching that reaches the human mind and heart, preaching that brings about real transformation (on all kinds of levels) emerges from a praying mind and heart. The call to preach is first and foremost the call to pray.

There are at least eight different dynamics of this double mode of communication.

On-Going Prayer Life

The preacher ought to be regularly seeking communion with the living God through devotional reading of the Word and prayer. Ideally, this ought to be done as the first thing of the day. The preacher is up before all the hustle and bustle of the day, to meet with the living God.

Each preacher will live this out in different ways, and in different ways at different stages of life. I had one pattern before children came along, a different pattern when they were little ones, yet a different pattern when in their teens (when I prayed a lot!), and yet a different pattern when they left home. But the one common denominator has been, “first thing of the day.”

Reading the Word for my own sake, praying in light of what I read. Not, by the way, reading the text to be preached! I am reading texts for my own communion with the triune God. Praying out “the stuff” in my own mind and heart. Listening for his Word to speak to me as me, not as me the preacher. Then interceding for the people for whom I will be preaching. People implicitly know whether the preacher cares for them; it simply oozes from the preacher. The most effective way to care for people is to bring them before the only One who can finally meet their deepest needs.

Praying the Prayers of the Psalms

Over the years I have found that praying the prayers of the Bible is the most effective way to keep me on track. Thus, I pray through the Psalms a number of times a year. As the saints before us testified, the Psalms give us just the right words to pray. Again and again, as I pray the next Psalm, I find myself saying, “I would not have thought to pray that for me and for the people I am serving; thank you, Lord!”

The Lord has used psalms to address deep issues of my life, issues that need to be healed before I can get up to preach. I especially commend to preachers Psalm 119, the Psalm that prays the Word into our souls. Twenty-two sections, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Each section with eight verses, all beginning with the same Hebrew letter. Praying through eight different synonyms for God’s Word. (I commend to you Charles Spurgeon’s book on 119 entitled The Golden Alphabet—it explains why he was such an effective preacher.)

The Prayers of Paul

Also helpful are the prayers of the apostle Paul, especially the ones he prays in Ephesians. After studying all of Paul’s prayers in all of his letters, David Crump in his, Knocking on Heaven’s Door, observes that Paul “asks for nothing in moderation ... blatant extravagance … superlatives become the lingua franca of all of Paul’s prayers” (233).

I love to hear Paul preach the gospel; where would we be without his preaching? But I also love to hear Paul pray the gospel; no one, except the Lord Jesus who taught Paul to pray, prays like he does. Paul preaches the gospel the way he does because he prays the gospel the way he does. My soul is regularly stirred when I pray with him.

The Prayers of Jesus

Then there is the prayer Jesus teaches us to pray, the so-called Lord’s Prayer. It is the first thing I do in the morning. Line by line, never having to ask, “Does this please the Living God?” Of course it does, for the One who lived for all eternity in the Fathers’ heart, is teaching us.

And there is Jesus’ own prayer, the true Lord’ Prayer, recorded in John 17. Whenever I take time to soak it in, so much of what I am going through and what the people I serve are going through, it puts it all into a redemptive perspective. There is simply no other prayer like Jesus’ prayer. Join him in it, and watch what happens to your mind and heart!

Praying for the Text to be Preached

We only want to be preaching what the Great Preacher wants us to preach. He knows the needs of our people better than we ever will. He guides us to the portions of the Bible through which he will meet the particular needs of the particular people we serve in a particular place at a particular time.

Praying for his guidance, of course, is best done well in advance of the week we are to preach! I advocate for preachers to have a good idea of what they will be preaching a minimum of three months out, ideally one year out. The plan can change, of course, but at least we have a good idea of where the Lord wants us to invite people to inhabit for a season. This requires taking time to listen. To listen to the Holy Spirit as he suggests texts he wants to have preached.

Praying During Our Study

We also ought to be praying as we study the text to be preached. We ask the Holy Spirit, who inspired the text, to open it up for us. Asking him to lead us as we do the careful study of the words and sentences, not wanting to come to the text with our preconceived ideas of what it says, but asking him to help us understand it correctly.

Praying, first of all, that we might meet the Jesus of the text ourselves that our minds and hearts might be taken by who he is in the text! Then doing ourselves whatever the text calls us to do before we call people to do what the texts calls us to do.

This, I find, is the challenging work; to let the Lord deal with me before even beginning to craft a word for others. But it is work that must be done. People can tell whether the preacher has been addressed by the text before preaching. This is also part of what will draw them into the preaching.

Praying As We Craft the Sermon

“Lord, what do you want me to emphasize?” “O Lord, help me put together a clear order and flow for the message.” “Help me to say only what you are saying in this text?” “Do not let me be clever just to be clever.” “Keep me from using illustrations that are catchy but that have nothing to do with the text.”

I am regularly amazed at how he answers these prayers. Especially regarding flow; regularly he gives me what I would have never thought of!

Then praying as we write it all out: “Please Lord, help me use the right words in the right ways. Help me to not use words that inadvertently detract the listener.” He knows the issues in the listeners, and will help us not trigger untimely reactions.

Praying As We Prepare to Preach

Praying for a “double opening.” It is what Paul prays for in his first prayer in Ephesians, taking us into the great mystery of preaching. He prays, “… that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, that the eyes of you heart may be enlightened, so that you may know …” (1:17-18).

He prays first of “revelation.” It is the word apocalypsis. A word Paul loves to use (Rom. 1:17; Gal. 2:12, 16). It is wrongly used in our time to say, “Oh, no, something horrible has happened,” as in a newscaster saying, “Most of the nation will experience an apocalyptic snow storm.” No, the word simply means, “opening up,” as in opening a door, or pulling back of a curtain, of lifting a cover off a box. Paul is praying for such an opening. “Oh dear God, open yourself to the Ephesians.” He prays this way for there is no way any human being can know God without such an opening by God.

Then Paul prays for “the eyes of our hearts to be opened.” For God to open our eyes up to what he has opened up. A double miracle of opening.

No matter how clever, brilliant, or creative we preachers might be, none of us can perform this double miracle. We are absolutely dependent on God to do this when we preach.

I think this is in part why we feel helpless on Saturday night as we go over our message. If you are like me, I find myself saying, “This is not going to work; I cannot make it work.” I am thrown back on Paul’s prayer. And wonder of wonders, God answers it. A true wonder to behold.

We see Jesus working this way in the story of the road to Emmaus, in Luke 24. The downcast disciples could not see what was going on around them (i.e. the risen Savior right there with them). So Jesus takes them through the scriptures to show them that what happened to him was told beforehand. Then he took bread, and blessed it, and began giving it to them. “And their eyes were opened” (Luke 24:32). He opened up himself and opened them up to what he opened up. “O Lord, please do it every time we preach!”

Praying As We Step Forward to Preach

As we step forward to preach, pray: “Lord, give me the strength to do this well. Help my heart be in the right place, seeking your fame and not mine.”

Know what I mean? I have been preaching 50 years now, and I still need to pray this way. When I was a young preacher, people were beginning to speak well of me, saying all kinds of really nice things about me and my preaching. As it came time to preach I tried to put all of that out of my mind (i.e. I tried to put myself down, to be humble).

An older preacher, in his 80s at the time, Peter Joshua, said to me, “Humility does not come by putting yourself down, but by lifting Jesus higher. So when you go up the steps to preach (that was in the days when we had high pulpits) say, ‘Jesus, I want these people to think highly of me,’” “What?” I replied, “That is what I am fighting.” “Do it, and then say, ‘But I want these people to think more highly of you.’” I have done that ever since. And it works! Of course, all of this praying is under my breath.

Also, as we step forward to preach, we speak to the enemy of Jesus, who seeks to rob him of his glory and to rob people of hearing his gospel. A simple “prayer.” “Evil one, in Jesus’ name you have no authority here. You leave me alone, and you leave these people alone.” And he does. He leaves. He has to in the name of the Victor over evil. And this “praying” is also under my breath.

Praying After the Reading of the Text to Be Preached

To pray something like, “Spirit of the Living God: We believe that you enabled the writer (Luke, Paul, whomever) to do their homework well and write these words as you willed to be written. Will you now in your mercy and grace cause these words to come alive in us as never before.”

I find that when I pray something like this, I am freed and empowered to do the work. Even if someone has prayed for me before reading the text, I still pray something along these lines. For my own sake, and for the people’s sake, to realize I am not coming with my own best Christianized thoughts, but seeking to speak the Word of the Lord.

Praying After the Sermon

We pray after the sermon: Giving thanks for helping us preach. Giving thanks for the Word himself bearing fruit, even if we cannot see it. Asking for grace to let it all go. Praying for all the grace we need to now interact with the people. Some of whom will want to give thanks for our speaking God’s Word, some of whom will want to challenge us.

So I have learned to pray, “Oh Lord, only bring my way those that you want me to meet. Be a shield around me.” At first I thought it too selfish to ask him to be a shield, until I realized that it means that whoever encounters me encounters him. And such folks are then blessed.

The call to preach is the call to participate in a glorious two-fold mode of communication. On the one hand, to speak to the living God about people. On the other hand, to speak to people about the Living God.

Can you think of any more meaningful way to live?