Chapter 1

Preparing for Your Sermon Through Prayer

Listening to the most important voice in our preaching--the Holy Spirit.

Before I went to seminary I worked for a large corporation in Tokyo, Japan. One winter, I had an unexpected opportunity to preach the gospel. My Japanese roommate worked as a prep school teacher and he was also a Christian. He suggested that we host a Christmas Eve outreach service as a way to give his prep school students, as well as our friends and acquaintances who weren't familiar with Christ, an opportunity to experience the spirit of Christmas. He offered to organize the event if I would preach.

In the back of my mind, I was considering the possibility of one day studying theology and serving in some kind of vocational ministry. I felt this would be a chance for me to get a little preaching experience—and so I agreed.

A few days before the service, my roommate sat me down and proceeded to give me instructions on how I should preach. "The students who come from my high school have never been to church before," he explained. "They're only coming to experience the mood of Christmas." Then he looked me straight in the eyes (which is a very direct gesture for a Japanese person) and said, "So whatever you do, don't try to convert them!"

On the Saturday night of our Christmas service, we wondered if anyone would actually show up. About 55 students ended up coming, filling our tiny chapel. As I looked out at their faces from my seat on our small platform, I saw them restlessly looking around and fidgeting in their seats. It was clear to me that these young people had never been to church before and would not likely be attending in the future because it isn’t part of Japanese culture for people to go to church. When I realized that this might be the first and last time for them to hear the gospel, a wave of fear swept over me as I thought about these young people facing an eternity without Christ. At the end of the evening I would have to answer to my roommate for what I said, but at the end of my life I would have to give an answer to God.

I began my message by sharing stories of growing up in Canada at Christmastime, about the snow and my belief in Santa Claus. Then I spoke about their impending university entrance exam, which would literally determine their career and the course of their entire life. I talked about how they would also face an exam before God at the end of their lives. I pointed out from Scripture that God took that exam for them in Christ by living a perfect life on their behalf and then explained how Christ died as a sacrifice for our sins so that we could have the greatest of gifts: forgiveness of our sins and eternal life with God.

At the end of the message I gave an invitation for people to receive Christ and about 15 kids raised their hands indicating their desire. I thought, This can't be happening in Japan. (The country has a well-known resistance to the gospel.) So I said, “Put your hands down.” I re-explained the gospel, the great cost of following Jesus, and said, “Your life is going to be harder if you follow Christ.” Then I gave another invitation. This time, about 20 kids raised their hands. Our tiny church, which previously had no youth group, had instantly acquired one.

When I crafted my sermon for that Christmas Eve service so many years ago, I was conscious of the fact that I had no formal theological training and that the message itself, from a homiletical perspective, was woefully flawed. But I do remember earnestly and desperately praying for God to move that night. As I look back and I see how the course of the young people’s lives were powerfully altered, I can say with the apostle Paul, "My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but a demonstration of the Spirit's power” (1 Corinthians 2:4).

Prayer Preparation Throughout the Week

I now serve as a pastor and have strong convictions about the importance of preparing biblically faithful, homiletically sound sermons. But I am also convinced that the most important voice in our preaching is not our own, but the voice of the Holy Spirit.

I completely agree with the 19th-century British preacher C.H. Spurgeon, who said, "I would rather preach with one ounce of the Holy Spirit, than 10,000 tons of fleshly wisdom.”

As preachers, we can rise early and stay up late tailoring our sermons, but unless the Lord builds our homiletical house, we labor in vain. If the lasting fruit of our preaching ministry comes primarily through the work of the Holy Spirit, we do well to take a posture of restful dependence on God in prayer.

I have discovered that I am able to enter into a more prayerful and restful space as I anticipate preaching if I can prepare at an unhurried pace. Yes, there is a certain kind of, "Oh, no, it's already Saturday—God, help me put together a sermon!" We can pray at the last minute but in my experience when I pray that kind of prayer my real motive is, “God, don’t let me be humiliated (by a lame sermon).” I’m feverishly looking for some good material and illustrations so as not to appear foolish or come off as boring.

When I feel my back is up against the wall as I am preparing, I am more conscious of wanting to perform well for the wrong reasons. I am preoccupied with getting some golden nuggets to preserve my glittering image rather than seeking to genuinely and prayerfully listen to God for how he might be guiding me.

I also find that my sermon preparation is more prayerful and receptive if it flows seamlessly out of my daily spiritual rhythms.

I begin my day by taking our golden retriever, Sasha, on a brief run through our neighborhood. I then take at least 20 minutes to engage in silent, centering prayer. As I sit in silence before God breathing deeply, my intention is to be receptive to the Spirit's leading. I breathe deeply, in and out of my nose, and I remind myself that the Hebrew word for breath, ruach, is the same word for Spirit. As I breathe in deeply I can thus inhale the Spirit and exhale my sin, anxieties, frustrations, and preoccupations. When I engage in silent meditation, I find that I experience more clarity, focus, and creativity from my stillness throughout the course of my day.

Thomas Aquinas believed that preaching is, ideally, the fruit of contemplation. Sitting silently in God’s presence fosters a contemplative, receptive posture. The fruit born out of this time can directly feed our preaching.

Meditation also gives me a deeper sense of connection with God and thus primes me to enter into sermon study, writing, and editing with a greater sense that the message doesn’t ride primarily on my shoulders. It reminds me that I am engaged in genuine collaboration where Jesus is the principal crafter of the message. This, in turn, takes the pressure off my shoulders, and helps me enter a lighter, freer, and more creative space.

Saturday Night

As Sunday approaches, I will preach my sermon to my wife to get some final feedback (I have already engaged in a prior "feed-forward" session on the sermon with four or five colleagues). I then seek to enter a quiet space. (If I am preaching on Sunday, I rarely accept an invitation to socialize on Saturday evening. If I'm doing a wedding, I almost always pass on attending the reception if I am preaching the next day). I want Saturday night to have a contemplative, prayerful tone.

Sunday Morning

On the Sunday morning I am preaching, I will go to the sanctuary early, preach the sermon to the empty pews, pray for our services in that location and for our three other venues. I will also often pray a prayer passed on to me by my mentor Leighton Ford:

Be in my mind and think your thoughts through me; be my wisdom, knowledge, and insight. And be in my voice. You told me not to worry about what to say or how to say it, but it would be given me. Free me to speak with silence or words, whatever is needed. And be in my body: release your creative affection in my eyes, my face, my touch, and my embrace. And if there’s something you're calling me to do, no matter how tough or menial, give me the strength to do it. Help me to live this day in the reality of you and me, the hope of glory.

Some years ago, I was visiting Canterbury Cathedral and was being given a tour by an Anglican pastor friend. When we came before the winding staircase leading to the pulpit my friend turned to me and said, “We pause—we wait here.” “Why?” I ask. Smiling, the pastor whispers, “We wait for the Holy Spirit.” I wasn't actually preaching at the Cathedral, but I've always remembered that. So, sometimes as I am about to ascend the steps to our platform in our sanctuary I will pause and wait for the Spirit. At other times, following the practice of C.H. Spurgeon, I will simply repeat silently, “I believe in the Holy Spirit. I believe in the Holy Spirit. I believe in the Holy Spirit.”

If I'm feeling unusually nervous about speaking in a particular place, I may pray, “Jesus, we will either succeed or fail together.” I'm hoping that we will succeed together rather than fail—but if we fail, I know that his acceptance of me is not at all dependent on my performance as a preacher or the human praise I may or may not receive.

While I am preaching, after my introduction and reading of the Bible text, I will pray (audibly) for the Holy Spirit to be our teacher and for God to use his Word to shape our lives. At the end of my message, I will often invite people to respond to God in prayer and offer silent space for people to seek him. In this brief time of stillness, I am also silently praying for the Holy Spirit to move in people’s hearts and lead them in their responses.

Sunday Evening

When I am done with the last service on Sunday night and I am walking home, I will try to resist the temptation to replay an error I made in the sermon, or some stumble during the delivery, a missed line or point, and remind myself that the results are ultimately in God's hands. I pray that God would continue to work in the lives of hearers; that God's Word would not return empty but accomplish God’s purposes (Isaiah 55:11).