Picture a lone prospector peering into a cave on a barren Arizona mountainside. He's heard "there's gold in them thar hills" so with nothing more than some grub, a lamp, and a pickaxe he's come to this mountain looking for a vein of gold. He lights his lamp and heads into the darkness in hope of striking it rich.
Preparing to preach is like that. For most of us it is quiet, solitary prospecting. In school we learned how to study the Bible, the pickaxe work. Diligent study is harder and longer than most people imagine. If we are decent preachers the Word seems so clear by the time our people hear it they might be inclined to think that we just found scriptural nuggets glittering on the ground.
When we prepare our souls as well as our texts, Jesus walks with us incognito, the way he did with the two Emmaus-bound disciples in Luke 24.
As difficult as study is, I at least know what I'm doing in that realm. I was taught well in the skills of exegesis, hermeneutics, and homiletics. But intertwined with our preparation of the Word is the weekly preparation of our own souls. I don't know which part takes longer but soul work for me is more unpredictable and often troublesome.
Once I asked several pastors just exactly how they prayed for their sermons. A common response was, "Well, before I start I ask God to help me and to bless my work. Then I get at it." That's a good start but it doesn't have much to do with the preparation of our souls. Apart from suffering, sermon preparation is the most rigorous soul work I know. Although there are exceptions, I suspect that sermons only go as deep into the hearts of our hearers as they have into our own.
Nothing inhibits my study more than the noise within. Spiritual work cannot tolerate many distractions. My "do list," emails, and Post-It notes chatter on in my head so that God himself can hardly get a word in edgewise. What's more, my dull-headed weariness drones on like a 4 p.m. lecture. "Be still and know that I am God" is no small command. Prayer, at this stage, isn't a matter of what we say. It is just trying to quiet the relentless yapping inside.
Besides that, every single time I sit down to study I feel I'm already behind. Too much to do; too little time left to do it. I always feel like the White Rabbit who raced by Alice dithering, "I'm late, I'm late, for a very important date." When we feel like that, prayer can seem terribly inefficient; a luxury even. "I'd like to pray, of course," I tell myself, "but God understands. I have got to get this done." God does understand and he will help. But I just can't hear him very well if I don't quiet my soul. I study the words but miss the message. "Though hearing, they do not hear or understand."
When our son was young we would take him to a nearby park to play on one of those huge "recreational structures," a wooden wonderland full of passages and hideouts, swinging bridges and towers. A guy could get lost in there. Or in my case, stuck. It was an environment meant for small people. God's kingdom is like that, as is the study of Scripture. You have to be small to maneuver without getting stuck or banging your head. Jesus said, "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."
The gate into every passage of Scripture is low and narrow. We can try to squeeze in, big lunks that we are, or we can allow the Holy Spirit and the sacred text to make us small. Every passage carries a kind of humility potion. Every role Scripture takes—"teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness"—resizes us if we drink it down. If we let the Word work itself into our hearts.
To begin with, take stock of your heart. That can be like asking a shifty-eyed eight-year-old what he's been up to. You're not likely to get a straight answer at first. Persistence is necessary. Not all our sin and dishonesty lays brazen on the surface. We don't always see how swollen we've become inwardly. It's not easy to tell when you've gotten too big for your britches. So we pray often, "Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts." God will use your text like a stethoscope.
Our pastoral work—especially preaching—should make us great-hearted but it can backfire and just make us big-headed. You can start to think, "All these people came to hear me." We can become like a kid with a Superman cape ready to jump from the roof. Of all the Bible's failures, Samson is the one who makes me most twitchy. I have never forgotten a time many years ago when I got up to preach even while sin, like Delilah, snipped away at my God-given strength. My words that day had no lift, no life, no muscle. I do not want to ever forget the ominous shadow of the sightless Samson.
Besides making us right-sized, humility is a relief. Humility is rarely comfortable, but it is a relief. It's hard to hold in all that spiritual helium. A humble soul can maneuver gracefully in the passages of the God's Word. Small preachers are the best preachers.
Work with me
We never come to sermon preparation in a neutral frame of mind. Frustration or enthusiasm, weariness or worry, all crowd up to the desk with us when we study. Such things are actually part of our soul's preparation. God intended you to preach this text in the midst of this week. Thus, I cannot ignore what is happening inwardly. Good sermons, like pearls, are often God's beautiful Word coating an irritating grain of sand.
Gordon T. Smith writes about a time when he was frustrated with some colleagues. His spiritual director told him, "Well, Gordon, it is sometimes helpful to remember that 'difficult people are the faculty of the soul.'" Sometimes before I can preach I have to deal with the toxins that have built up inside. That soul work brings an authenticity and thoughtfulness to my sermon.
Prepare to serve
You've been in a restaurant where your waiter greets you, "Hi. I'm Jack, and I'll be your server this evening." Server didn't used to be a word. I think restaurants made it up because most waiters are not willing to say, "I'll be your servant this evening."
Many of us love preaching God's Word so much that we're sort of amazed anyone would pay us to do it. We want to serve Scripture. We love the privilege. However, Scripture doesn't always let me say what I want to say. Have you ever hammered out part of a sermon only to hear your Bible whisper indignantly, "That's not what I'm saying"? Has the Holy Spirit ever scolded you, "Enough with the clichés!" or "That story you want to tell is more about you than me." Scripture can be a tough customer.
Paul wrote in Col. 3:16, "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom …" Stop. Look at it again.
Let the Word of Christ. That is our text, whether it is from Deuteronomy, John, or Hebrews. Jesus Christ is speaking and he is the text come alive. Dwell. Like the God in his wilderness tabernacle. Like Jesus incarnate in this dark world. In you. Like manna or the bread and wine. Like the Spirit at Pentecost. Richly. In all its glory. Filling you till it is fulfilled in you.
A prepared soul requires the rich residency of the Word. Then we are ready to teach and admonish. Not before.
Paul continues in that verse, "singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God." When we have served Scripture well teaching and singing are hard to tell apart. Good preaching has a kind of melody, like harmonizing with the Lord. When I was a boy standing next to my mother in church I'd hear her singing alto during the hymns. I still remember when I figured out how to do that—how to find the pitch a third below the melody and harmonize. Prayer during sermon preparation is how we find our pitch and bring our voice into harmony with God's Word. It's a beautiful thing.
Being a servant also requires me to consciously serve my congregation. They are not sitting out there for me. I'm there for them. Whether it suits me or not, I must meet them where they are.
Recently a couple of my most gifted women's Bible study leaders came to me in frustration. Most of the women in the group they lead just won't participate. Neither of these two experienced leaders could get them to respond or share. The leaders were thinking about starting another group for women who would do their homework and participate. After we'd talked awhile something dawned on me. "You know, we should thank God that they're coming," I said. "These are women who love the Lord and make it a point to be there. Even if they don't say a word or prepare as we'd like, we would rather have them there than not coming! After all, we're the servants."
A couple days later one of leaders wrote me that she'd been reading in Luke how the crowds came to Jesus. She wrote, "Jesus didn't turn them away just because the people had a different agenda than he did. No, he welcomed them." She went on, "Here's where the ladies' study comes in and where I think God is taking me: I need to get over myself. It's not all about me and me not using my gifts. These women are coming, I need to welcome them, and share with them about the kingdom of God." Now her soul is ready to take up the Word.
Some parts of faith come easily to me as I study. For example, I trust that Scripture is really God speaking and that these are the words of life. I trust that God will use me to preach, a gift of grace. I trust that the people who listen will become better disciples of Jesus by listening. Those things are usually easy for me to believe.
The hard part of faith is often more subtle than those things. Faith isn't only thinking a thing is true. Faith is also the spiritual openness—vulnerability—to draw that truth into my actual thinking and actions. For example, I believe Jesus when he said, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled." But before I can preach it I need to believe it enough that I feel the hunger pains and realize how parched for righteousness I am. That is where faith isn't so easy. Getting my soul situated can take more time than reading commentaries! In that sense, soul preparation means putting off my laziness and taking up my spiritual responsibilities because I believe that will lead to the God-blessed life. I believe that if I love Jesus I will obey him.
Recently I saw a more elusive side of faith in the story of Martha, Mary, and their houseful of guests (Luke 10:38-42). The sisters had disciples to feed and the Lord Jesus himself to serve. Just like me when I get up to preach—disciples to feed and the Lord Jesus himself to serve.
Let's assume for a moment that Martha would have loved to listen to Jesus but her sense of responsibility overruled. Luke says Martha was "distracted by much service." I suppose Martha should have remembered how Jesus fed the five thousand and sat down next to Mary. But unless Jesus did that again, her guests were going to go hungry. Duty called. Responsibility snapped its fingers. I know that feeling. The responsibility of preaching—of feeding all those disciples and pleasing the Lord Jesus—stresses me out, too.
The thing Martha never imagined was that Jesus wasn't her guest. She was his! She wasn't there to serve Jesus. He was there to serve her. I don't know how Mary, who I assume was as responsible a hostess as her sister, showed such extraordinary faith that she could stop to listen. Not one in a thousand responsible people would have done what she did. Somehow she trusted that Jesus wanted to feed her even more than she wanted to care for him and his followers. Which of those two sisters would you rather hear preach?
To prepare our souls to preach we must allow Jesus to serve us. And that takes a unique stretch of faith—faith enough to shift the weight of responsibility from me to him. Faith enough to be quiet and listen.
When we prepare our souls as well as our texts, Jesus walks with us incognito, the way he did with the two Emmaus-bound disciples in Luke 24. He meets the yearning of our hearts with Scripture till we know what they meant when they said, "Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us"?
Like the prospector we go alone into the mine with our lamp and pickaxe. Jesus said in Matt. 13:52, "Every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old." When we prepare our souls as thoroughly as our text God's people receive great and godly treasures. But they also hear us shout for joy, "Eureka! Look what I found!" That is a rich congregation.
Lee Eclov recently retired after 40 years of local pastoral ministry and now focuses on ministry among pastors. He is the author of Feels Like Home: Reflections on the Care of Souls and Pastoral Graces: Reflections on the Care of Souls (Moody Publishers), as well as being a frequent contributor to Preaching Today and CT Pastors. To learn more about his Pastors' Gatherings visit www.leeeclov.com.