I want to start on this history of preaching from the present and going back, because I am a part of the history of recent times. I’ve been around that long. When I went to New York in 1948, it was the center of the greatest concentration of preaching that this country and perhaps the world has ever known in one city at one time.
One of the reigning voices of that city was my late and dear friend, Sandy Ray. Sandy Ray was in the glory of his noonday powers when I went to New York, and people were attracted to hear him from all over that city and all over the country. And I’m going to tell you a little anecdote about most of these preachers.
Sandy used to say—and this is a good thing for all of us who preach—that he preached in the right lane, because that was where the exits were. That’s a tremendous word, to know when to get off. If you don’t get off, they’ll get off you.
Talking about Dr. Ray and that exit, you know they tell the story in Scotland of this preacher who preached a long, intermittably for an hour and twenty-five minutes, two old farmers sitting in the back of the church, crofters they called them in Scotland, one said to the other, “When he is going to finish?” The other one said to the first, “He’s finished now. He just won’t quit.”
Charles Spurgeon used to say to his students at Preachers’ College, you talk about doing justice to the subject, you better think about the people. Dr. Ray had an amazing gift for taking the most ordinary circumstances and enlarging them—that was the way Jesus did—into eternal meanings. I could go on and on about his ministry.
There was also Adam Powell. There was an anger about him, but it was an anger that was all tied up with Jesus Christ, and it came out in his preaching. I remember he was talking about the first attack on Dr. King in New York, and he said, “They came to slay the dreamer going back to Georgia.” It was a tremendous presentation.
Harry Emerson Fosdick
Harry Emerson Fosdick had just gotten out of the pulpit at the Riverside Church. Dr. Fosdick used to talk about preaching. He used to say, and those of you who preach know this was a wonderful emphasis of expository preaching, that “those who take a text and who do not get the context are likely to use it as a pretext.” If we are not careful, we will make the scriptures say whatever we want them to say. That’s a basic dishonesty, because the preacher does not have very much to deal with except the currency of his/her own integrity and the integrity of language. That’s all you’ve got. If you debase the currency, if you start using words wrongly and the currency isn’t worth much, then you don’t have much to deal with.
So, we ought to be very careful. Where the scriptures have spoken we ought to try to be faithful to them. We ought not torture the scriptures, do them bodily harm in the service of some base motive that we have in using them.
That’s like the old story you’ve all heard about the man who claimed that he knew the name of the dog that licked Lazarus’ wounds. He said it says clearly in the Scripture, the dog licked Lazarus’ wounds. We have to be very careful about that kind thing.
There was another marvelous preacher in New York, Paul Scherer at the Church of the Holy Trinity. Scherer had the richest imagination. He used to say that the time of preaching is a time when we bring “the gods we have made before the God who has made us.”
That’s one of the things that preaching is all about, because you and I make gods, all kinds of gods, but those gods cannot stand up before the gaze of eternity. They are fleeting gods, passing gods, temporary gods, many of which we prop up ourselves. Isn’t it the Book of Isaiah, I guess it talks about making gods that we have to carry ourselves rather than having God who will carry us.
Ralph Sockman was at Christ Church, and I remember one telling of many telling statements he made. But we were preaching once up on Rochester, and he said that evening that “I don’t know what happened between crucifixion and resurrection, but I do know that something happened. I’m not going to describe what it was. But something happened that changed those disciples from cringing, hiding, fleeing fugitives into glorious, radiant, triumphant heroes of their risen Lord.”
Now you cut the resurrection down to its most basic element, and you can’t escape that. They can argue with you all they want about what form the Lord came back in or whether he came back, but something happened that changed those disciples.
Rolodex of Preachers to Know
Well I could go on and on about those men. I also ought to mention in my time William Holmes Borders. He was marvelous. You are heirs to a great tradition, and I hope to God you will forever honor it.
I’m telling you these names merely that you might have them and you ought to look up John Chrysostom, old Golden Mouth. You ought to know some of the English preachers—John Jowett, who was a king of Wordsworth of the pulpit. You ought to come to know Alexander Maclaren, who I think was the most gifted expositor the world has ever seen. That’s my own judgment.
I was talking with a young man after the Hampton Conference and he called the name of one of his teachers. He said, “You think Maclaren was greater than so-and-so?” Startled me. It was this young man had revealed to me two things. First, his enormous regard for his professor and, secondly, his incredible ignorance. But I nearly swallowed whole the piece of fish I was eating. I just said, “I guess I don’t know about that.”
Well, Alexander Maclaren. You ought to read Maclaren. He was a genius. He had the gift for taking a passage of Scripture like a jeweler. An expert jeweler can take a stone and they know exactly where to strike it so that it does not shatter. It breaks into its natural parts.
I had a professor at Union Seminary, the Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond—Dr. May was his name. I think he’s gone now—who said once to me that he never dealt with any passage that Maclaren had dealt with by reading Maclaren first, because if he read MacLaren he had to take Maclaren’s outline. Now that is a tremendous thing.
Then you ought to come to know R.W. Dale, who was at Carrs Lane Church in Birmingham and whose work in Ephesians is one of the great scholar-preacher works that we have available to us.
Spurgeon was at Metropolitan Tabernacle for thirty-eight years or thereabout. He preached to enormous crowds in London, and his sermons were read all over the English speaking world.
Spurgeon had a great sense of humor. A woman once said to him, “Mr. Spurgeon, you tell too many funny things.” He said, “But, Madam, you don’t know how many things I suppress.”
He said to his students at Preachers’ College, “Gentlemen …,” there being no women then in the school, “… wherever you start your sermon, make way as rapidly as you can across country to Calvary.” He was right.
We ought not preach about Calvary merely at this holy season or the Passion season. That’s the devil has driven us from our central place. Calvary ought to be in all of our sermons, explicit or implicit, for it was there that God got hold of all that was wrong with us and it took all of God’s all. He spared himself nothing. If you had gone up to the Father and said to him, “I need more,” you would startle God because he had no more to give. He gave his only, all that he had.
New Testament Preachers
Let me go back to the New Testament, preach it a moment. You ought not forget that New Testament had great preachers in it. There was Apollos of Alexandria, one of the great cultural centers of the ancient world, probably schooled in Platonist philosophy, gifted erudition, eloquent rhetorician with one problem. He didn’t know anything about Jesus’ death.
Preacher, no matter what skills you have, no matter what histrionics you may enter, no matter what eloquence you may possess, no matter what gestures you may make, if you don’t have the Cross, you don’t have Jesus Christ at the center, your preaching is as sounding brass. That’s our heart point. That’s where God made the difference in us and for us and, by his grace, through us.
R. W. Dale said he was preparing an Easter sermon for Resurrection Sunday, and it came to him, Christ is risen, actually risen. Never again in that church on any Sunday did they have service without having a resurrection anthem. Don’t let the devil drive you from our central place.
Calvary’s the place where all people stand … I started to say stand, but better still, kneel as equals. Calvary is the place where God got underneath all that was wrong with the world, turned it upside down in order to turn it right side up. Calvary was the place where God met the enemy head on and turned him back. Calvary was the place where God did all that needed to be done once and for all forever, so that he need never go back there in Jesus Christ. It has been handled once and for all. He met the enemy and turned him back, and the last cry that reaches up from Calvary is not the cry of a defeated soul; it is the exalt and shout of a Victor as he mounted all the steps toward his coronation.
There was Barnabas the preacher in the New Testament. Barnabas was not only a preacher, he was an enabler of preaching. Almost all of us who have gone along this way at any time at all must declare that we have been enabled by others. I don’t know anybody who’s made it all by himself or herself.
I used to hear people say in my youth, “I’m a self-made man.” Well, I don’t think I’d like to see a self-made man. We do badly enough when we’ve been made by two people. Barnabas was a preacher who enabled others. He took the Apostle Paul when nobody believed in him and brought him into the fellowship. He made Paul. Very likely you would not have heard about Paul had it not been for Barnabas, for the church was afraid of him. But Barnabas took him by the hand and brought him and said “This is a man the Lord has touched.”
Then Barnabas stood up for John Mark when John Mark had turned back at Pergamum and Paul would not have him. Even though Paul wrote that great chapter of love in thirteen Corinthians, he did not quite have it in him at that time to forgive John Mark. But Barnabas stood up for him so much so that they parted, and the church grew by their division. But Paul, later something happened to him, said to Timothy, “You come, bring Mark,” because, thank God, we all get a second chance. Where would we be if we didn’t get another chance.
These were not the greatest preachers. The greatest Preacher appeared on some pre-creation occasion when all he had was the power of his own personality. There in that pre-creation sanctuary, if I may call it that, he preached to what was not until what was not became what was.
His word “Let,” and when he uttered it all legions of possibility stood at attention and got ready to move. “Let.” And all the powers that may be got up rank on rank. He said, “Let” and all that might be came rushing to the fore.
Then he said, “Let there be,” and all that was not started straining to become. He said, “Let there be light,” and out of stygian darkness brightness marched, and he separated the night and the day. He said, “Let there be” and luscious fruit appeared on inviting trees whose leaves were fan to the rhythmically, to the soft music of the gentle zephyrs that blew in Eden’s Garden.
Gardner C. Taylor pastored Concord Baptist Church of Christ in Brooklyn, New York, for 42 years, helped found the Progressive National Baptist Convention with Martin Luther King Jr., and is co-author of Perfecting the Pastor's Art (Judson Press).