In her wonderful book, When God is Silent, Barbara Brown Taylor reminds us preachers that there is nothing like that moment of silence just before we begin to preach. We look out and wonder if we are about to waste the parishioners' time. We look at our manuscript and ask, "Will we embarrass ourselves? Will we contribute to the famine? Will we simply give filler food? Have our words been chewed so many times (repeated so often already) that there are no nutrients left in them?"
These are critical questions for an age that is finding it harder to find spiritual nourishment. It's not that we should work to end the human hunger for God's Word; rather, we are called to intensify the appetite so that, as Taylor puts it, "the whole world will bang its forks for God's Word." Now that they have a taste, they are desperate for more. But this will require a change for some. It will require that we preach with a depth that is largely absent.
Sermon prep begins with our own soul.
How does one preach words that penetrate? How can we avoid the kind of thin and shallow messaging that plague so many of our pulpits, that waste our congregants' time? It begins with our souls, with time with God. In the days of Jeremiah, the spiritual condition of the nation was not so different than ours; it had drifted into bad religion. The words of the prophets had become nothing more than hot air. There was a famine of Word in the land. Jeremiah identified the reason: "the Word is not in them" (Jer. 5:13). The Word of God was not resident because these ancient preachers no longer stood in the council of the Lord. Nothing of God was imparted to them (Jer. 23:18). And so, nothing of any depth was gained. They spoke from their own heretical minds, preaching self-invented words that were comfortable—but not radical. They were good humor men who wooed the crowd and watered down the message.
If we stand to proclaim, and we haven't answered the question, "Why am I preaching this?" we are not ready to carry out the homiletical mission.
Too much preaching has turned into entertainment designed to woo the crowd. It is time to recover "standing in the council of God." Preaching cannot be reduced to a few thoughts put together at the end of the week after reading The Atlantic, Time, the latest Grisham novel, or Sports Illustrated. It is not a hurried work, another pastoral task to be checked off before Sunday. Ask yourself, "Are you spending more of your time in the council of culture or in the council of God?" Unless it is with God, sermons will tend to use the Word in a decorative way, a garnish for the main dish, whatever that is. People will go away hungry.
We must listen.
To get the Word in us is a process that begins immediately after the last sermon is preached. We begin to contemplate what God is saying next. We stand in the council of God at the beginning of the week, for a meeting has to take place. As Paul Scherer put it, "God is not intent on sharing conceptual truth. That must come later. It is not some saving measure of information he wants to impart; it is himself he wants to bestow." We can't make a sermon if he is not first making us. Like David in 2 Sam. 7, we must sit down and we wait to hear.
Into this council we come to seek God, his glory, and his passion. As Taylor reminds us, we listen, for no one will listen to us unless we can give evidence of our relationship to silence. We sit before him and ask that he might speak into our souls. We open the text and let it first preach to us. We begin to get a sense of why he wrote this text and why it must be preached. If we stand to proclaim, and we haven't answered the question, "Why am I preaching this?" we are not ready to carry out the homiletical mission. Only in an awareness of his presence do we begin to grasp the reason we are called to exposit this text. We begin to sense the awesome prophetic task he is calling us to. Is there a charge given to men and women more unnerving than the responsibility to declare, "Thus saith the Lord"?
We engage in contemplative exegesis.
Throughout the rest of the week, we step in and out of this council. Get close enough to God, and we realize that preparing sermons is not about analyzing moral memos; we have come to hear the voice of God. We move into a process Eugene Peterson refers to as "contemplative exegesis." We wallow in the text, reading it aloud over and over. We dive into the Scripture to know as much as we can, grammatically, theologically, historically. We attempt some form of lectio divina. We chew on words like a dog chews on a bone. We treat nouns and verbs with profound respect, knowing they are the building blocks of ideas. Like scientists, we seek to explore the depths, investigating the use of Hebrew imperfects and Greek perfects. And yes, if this sounds like a working knowledge of the languages is imperative, I would say definitely. God likens his Word to silver that must be mined (Proverbs 2:4); hence, we need to know how to do this. We are moving into depths that are unfathomable. I am sure most of my sermons have simply scratched the surface of the surface.
Be surprised by the text.
Spending time before God, we also position ourselves to be surprised. This is the advice of Eugene Lowry in The Sermon. Every week, we are dancing on the edge of mystery. If we labor under the burden of providing support for a dogmatic conclusion already occupying our mind, it ceases to be exegesis. Something has to turn sideways or the sermon doesn't effectively commence. Too many of my earlier sermons were dedicated to a deductive method, in which I avoided the tension. I stood and stated the obvious, and then worked to prove my point. I was not trained to look for the mystery, to relish in things that made no sense. I rushed to commentaries to close things down and form conclusions. I sidestepped the depths. I robbed parishioners of the joys of itch and scratch.
This time in God's council can be painfully hard work. I liken it to a rodeo, where I am never certain when I will be bucked off. It can be a perilous ride. Preparation amounts to an ongoing dialogue throughout the week. It can be calm—sometimes it turns into screams. There are halcyon days mixed in with lots of turbulent ones.
Preaching is humbling—way before we stand in the pulpit. In the work of exegesis, we are acknowledging our propensity to work at surface level. We admit this text is from another realm, and it sometimes makes no earthly sense. We are exposed to things we don't like reading. God also reveals things he does not like about our behavior. We come to Friday as desperate beings, not because we skipped the hard work, but because we are dealing with truths and concepts that are way out of our league—and time is running out! But we have to do these things; otherwise, as Peterson warns, "the exegetically careless pastor should be sued."
Gradually, the homiletical outline takes shape, one that flows out of the exegesis. We have heard from God. In the process, we are reminded that we are not called to smooth over things. We are now prepared to stand before the congregation and expose false premises and penetrate self-deceptions. As Brueggemann puts it, prophets speak to the "real deathlines" that hover over unrepentant hearts with the candor born of anguish and passion. Out of the depths with God, God replaces indifference with passion. We are not worried about wasting anyone's time. We do not fear people will leave hungry. A fire has been placed into our souls. Far more than wind, the Word moves as a sledgehammer to pulverize hardened hearts (Jer. 23:29); a sword is at work penetrating the deepest levels of experience (Heb. 4:12). Like the psalmist, something of deep has flowed to deep.
John Johnson is Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology and Leadership at Western Seminary and he is pastor of Village Church, a multicultural church on the west side of Portland, OR.