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A Preacher's Temptation: Sermon-prep Procrastination

We need to practice the discipline of allowing the Holy Spirit to inform our study.

As a pastor, every week I'm tempted to cheat. I'm tempted to disregard either the Bible or the principles of rightly interpreting God's Word. Or both. I'm tempted, as all pastors are, to bypass the Bible and biblical exegesis in an effort to wow the congregation with anything and everything but the Bible.

In this series of four articles, I want to challenge you to prepare sermons based on the conviction that no sermon is God-glorifying if it ignores or mishandles God's Word. I will do so by briefly walking us through four temptations we preachers face on a weekly basis. For each temptation, I will offer a truth that we can use to uphold us when enticed to leave aside or compromise our fundamental convictions and practices of sound Bible preaching. I will conclude with a summary word from that rightfully famous preacher's text, 2 Timothy 2:15.

The preacher who can't sit early and often meditating on Sunday's text will not preach well.
In the first article in this series, we saw that our first temptation is to preach something other than the Bible as the source and essential substance of our sermon. The conviction to ward off this temptation is that when the Bible is preached God's voice is heard. Our main responsibility is to join the nearly thirty centuries of Bible-expositors before us to cohabit with the divinely inspired texts Monday through Saturday in order to speak on Sunday "the honest truth about the words of God to the real needs of the people of God,"[1] believing that "the Sunday morning sermon has been the ordinary conduit of the life-giving Spirit to the people of God through the ages,"[2] and that God's voice is heard when his Word is opened, explained, and applied.

The Second Temptation

Our second temptation is sermon-prep procrastination. We live in an age of remarkable advances in technology. Let's use that technology. We shepherd people who have real physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. Let's love people. However, let's not allow technology and people to persistently push us away from our study of Scripture. Sermon preparation is sacred time. It is as sacred as prayer, burying the dead, baptizing your firstborn, and kissing your wife with Song of Solomon kisses.

Sadly, I know too few pastors who are in the habit of getting to this sacred duty and delight early in the week and often throughout the week. Rather than redeeming the time,[3] too many pastors (you?) cheat on getting to the text and then spending much time in the text because they fall prey to the temptation to reply to emails immediately, read twenty-four blogs every twenty-four hours (or is it twenty-four minutes?), chat on the cell phone, watch the must-see YouTube videos,[4] and refuse to say no to any unexpected office visitor. At their ordination these same pastors were likely commissioned to make their life verse "Preach the Word," but their weekly, out of context, much perverted, proof-text for procrastination has become "Do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say, but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit." The foolishness of preaching and the foolish preacher are vastly different realities. And the pastor who thinks the Spirit will bless his sermon if he refuses to sit, read, study, and pray through that Spirit-filled book is foolish.

For this second temptation the corrective measure is discipline. I don't mean a slap on the hand or the bottom (although perhaps starting there might get your attention). I mean learning the discipline of Spirit-filled sitzfleisch. Sitzfleisch is a German word comprised of the words sitzen (to sit) and fleisch (flesh). I first heard this word from my church history professor in seminary. If I recall correctly, it was a term used often by the great Reformation scholar, Heiko Oberman, to talk about what it takes to be a good scholar. It takes "sitting flesh," that is, the ability to stay glued to a chair until the task at hand is complete. The same is true of the good preacher. The preacher who can't sit early and often meditating on Sunday's text will not preach well. I'll put it that simply, and Lord willing, prophetically. Let him who has ears, hear.

We are used to hearing the phrase "Spirit-filled preaching," which emphasizes the Spirit spontaneously assisting the preacher in the act of preaching. I take no issue with Spirit-filled preaching so long as it is properly defined and acted out. Let us "give room" for the Spirit in the pulpit. But let us also "give room" for the Spirit in the study. Why not ask the Spirit to give you the desire to sit and study? Why not ask the Spirit to open your eyes to see the text's truths, implications, and applications? Why not ask the Spirit to inspire you to study the text in community—with other pastors, interns, commentators? Why not ask the Spirit to broaden your mind with the reading of the best books of poetry, novels, and theology? Why not ask the Spirit to make you a pastor-scholar, someone who lives and works by the discipline of Spirit-filled sitzfleisch?

1 Ibid., 30-31.

2 Ibid., 21-22.

3 What the church today needs is a theology of the redemption of time. E.g., Jonathan Edwards's sermon "The Preciousness of Time, and the Importance of Redeeming It," in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, ed. Edward Hickman, 2 vols., repr. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1992), 2:233-236. Two samples of such theology should suffice: "Time is so short, and the work which we have to do in it is so great, that we have none of it to spare" (2:233-34); "There is nothing more precious, and yet nothing of which men are more prodigal" (2:234). Perhaps also a rabbinic theology of study is needed: "The world endures because of three activities: study of Torah, worship, and deeds of lovingkindness" (Mishnah, Avot 1:2); "These are the activities whose benefit a man can enjoy in this world but whose principle remains undiminished for him in the world to come: honoring father and mother, deeds of lovingkindness, making peace between a man and his fellow. The study of Torah, however, equals all of these put together (Mishnah, Peah 1:1). Cf. Mishnah, Peah 1:1; Babylonian Talmud, Menahot 110a; Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 59a. I am grateful to Dr. Michael Graves for these rabbinic references.

4 For a grander overview of this theme, see T. David Gordon, Why Johnny Can't Preach: The Media Have Shaped the Messengers (Phillipsburg, PA: P&R, 2009).

Douglas Sean O'Donnell is the Senior Pastor at the New Covenant Church in Naperville, Illinois and the author of God's Lyrics.

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