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12 Defining Moments: The Moment to Find One’s Voice

Who am I listening to? Will I speak for God?
12 Defining Moments: The Moment to Find One’s Voice
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Editor’s Note: If you have missed any articles in this series, be sure to check out the Introduction article, where you can find all of the articles that have been released.

There is no task in ministry more daunting or demanding than preaching. Maybe it is because we are expending our souls. Handing over a piece of ourselves to those who have come to hear.

Theologian Thomas Oden refers to preaching as “the most public of pastoral acts.” People observe our features and gestures. They see into our intellect, emotions, heart, and soul. We have this commitment to get the scriptures into the minds and hearts, arms and legs, ears and mouths of men and women. And all of it is out in the open no matter the size of the pulpit. One is tempted to look around for a fig leaf.

It’s only Monday, but already one can pick up the scent of an approaching Sunday. Is there ever enough time to prepare for this unnerving task? Finding the time, however, is the easy part. The far greater challenge is finding the words—the right words. God’s Word. As with receiving one’s call and coming to grips with one’s identity, there comes a moment when we must decide whose voice will be heard in the pulpit.

‘The Very Words of God’

If anyone preaches, Peter commands that we speak, as it were, “the very words of God” (1 Pet. 4:11). This was also Paul’s aim, that his hearers accept what he had to say, “not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe” (1 Thess. 2:13). Being a voice for God is a serious business, one that restrains us from positing merely our own human suppositions.

For most of us, this moment in which voice is determined is more gradual, less dramatic. It began with my first class in seminary, elementary Greek. More than a new language, I soon realized I was engaging with inspired speech. God was grounding me in Scripture. Wrestling with the rigors of form and function, and moving on to hermeneutics, Bible, and theology, God was developing skills in me, but it was more; he was challenging me with the demands of being an expositor of his Word, a herald of the gospel.

It’s ironic that God would meet me in this moment. In my younger years, I had no urge to be a preacher. I was not like a kid viewing a NASA space launch and wanting nothing else but to be an astronaut. Listening to sermons did not compel me to seek a homiletical career path. It was more like doing time in the pew.

Recalling this early history helps me understand why the possibility of becoming a pastor—particularly a preacher—was such a remote thought. I determined I would never peddle the Word of God, let alone submit people to the deadness of a dull sermon. Who wants to contribute to this “swampland of mediocrity” that defines so many pulpits? Who desires to be associated with this “substantial disarray,” as David Gordon puts it in his book, Why Johnny Can’t Preach. I didn’t want to be that Johnny.

The call to ministry, and the subsequent appointment to be a preacher, changed all of this. Once I signed on—once any of us sign on to preach—we are forced to answer a series of questions, each reinforcing the other.

Will We Be Servants of the Word—or Will We Manipulate the Scriptures to Make Them Serve Us?

Those of us who are servants of the Word begin with the conviction that the Bible is the primary site of God’s self-revelation. We are convinced that it alone is authoritative for all matters of faith and practice. It has the exclusive right and ultimate power to determine what is true.

Increasingly, the question of Biblical authority seems open to debate. Theologian Donald Bloesch notes that this is at the center of the tensions and conflicts in the churches today. In more and more pulpits, the weight and place of Scripture shares space with cultural values.

Facing this “Who Am I Listening To?” moment, one must decide what voice one will serve. Is obeyance an option, depending upon the direction of the text and the nature of the subject? Or do we find ourselves compelled to place ourselves under divine revelation no matter God’s will regarding such subjects as election, divine design, course of life, eternal punishment, forgiveness, sexuality, and money?

A true herald of God is convinced God has a power and authority that encompasses, penetrates, and supersedes one’s own will.

Will We Speak as Those Who Have Confidence in the Revealed Word of God—or Will We Place More Faith in Our Own Words, Feelings, and Interests?

Many contemporary preachers have chosen to lean upon themselves and their own autobiographies. Our times resemble those of the prophet Amos; we suffer from a famine of hearing the words of the Lord (Amos 8:11).

Personal experience is often the ruling norm for truth and life. We assume our feelings reflect God’s will. When we find the message of the text is not to our liking, we are tempted to defer to our own impressions. We go with our intuition without evident rational thought, reducing the sermon to a heartfelt expression.

Here we must again decide whose voice it will be. Will Scripture have primacy, or will it be personal experience? Will we submit and allow the Word to break into our feelings, remold and reshape them, or will they encompass and surpass the Word?

Preaching dominated by our own agenda conveys the impression God’s Word is not strong enough on its own. Such preachers come across as well-meaning pedestrians providing needed assistance for an aging invalid. They lack confidence in Scripture’s sufficiency, what theologians refer to as the efficacy of the Word of God.

Those who believe the Bible is sufficient are declaring that it has the capacity to produce what it promises. Its truths can never be exhausted. Scripture may appear to be, as one put it, “a jumble of old bits and pieces of writing, a ragbag of poetry, history, folk tales, ethical instruction, and some strange stories about some even stranger people.” But there is a divine power within that creates and shapes reality.

Consider its own statements. The Word of God is what makes faith possible (Rom. 10:17). Its message has the force to set one free from bondage (James 1:25). Scripture has the potential to reprove, correct, train in righteousness, and bring lives to completion (2 Tim. 3:16-17).

The prophets recognized Scripture’s power and sufficiency. Held back, the Word becomes like a fire shut up in the bones (Jer. 20:9). It has the potency to accomplish God’s every purpose (Isa. 55:11).

Scripture’s claims and intentions do not return empty. On its own, the Word has the power to transform lives, revolutionize communities, and change the world.

To assume the Bible is shorthanded or insufficient is to miss the reality that it is far more formidable and relevant than our own words. The Psalmist encountered the voice of God and trembled at its energy to break the cedars and shake the wilderness (Ps. 29:5-8). The writer of Hebrews experienced the Word as something living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword (Heb. 4:12).

In her own experience in preaching, Barbara Brown Taylor noted that God’s Word in the human mouth is to push flesh to its limits. She likens it to carrying nitroglycerin around in a crystal goblet.

Will We Give Our Best Energies to the Rigors of Exegesis and Exposition—or Treat These as Secondary to Other Tasks?

If, in this moment of divine confrontation, we affirm our commitment to be God’s voice, we are declaring our willingness to bend our minds over such things as Hithpael Infinitives and theological conundrums. To be a conduit for God requires the full weight of our intellect. Once we tackle a passage, there can be no holding back. No pirating of other preachers’ sermons. Luther referred to such preachers as “parrots and jackdaws.” They steal, tending to repeat without understanding.

Careful exegesis begins with determining the text and moves to carrying out the work of contextualizing, translating, parsing, diagramming, theologizing, and discerning what is the goal of the biblical author. It’s not that we are called to master the text; it must master us. We must allow the text to do to our souls what food does to the stomach—spread through the bloodstream, the nerve endings, the reflexes, and the imagination.

Will We Engage with the Spirit—or Go it Alone?

Theology tells us there is an inseparable relationship of Word and Spirit. They never work apart. In the parallel admonitions to be filled with the Spirit (Eph. 5:18) and be indwelt by the Word (Col. 3:16), one finds that both exhortations have identical contexts. To be controlled by the Spirit is to be indwelt with the Word, and vice versa.

Second Timothy 3:16 underscores this relationship. God’s Word is the inspired record of Spirit-breathed revelation. The sacred writings constitute the decisive intervention of the Spirit of God at certain moments in history, inspiring the pen of men like Moses, Luke, and Paul. In the proclamation of God’s Word, prophets were not on their own; they were carried along by the Spirit (2 Pet. 1:21).

If we are attentive in this defining moment, it becomes increasingly clear that our divine mandate is to discern both the wisdom of the text and the movement of the Spirit. When the Spirit puts us into actual contact with the spiritual realities found in the biblical texts, we become through the miraculous action of the Spirit, “contemporaneous with the moment of revelation.”

This requires that one approach the responsibility to prepare and preach as a holy moment. In the process of parsing and diagramming, one is entering into a sacred presence where God continues to speak. Theologians refer to this act as the illumination of the Spirit. In contrast to the past tense work of inspiration, illumination is the ongoing internal work of the Spirit, shedding light on the interpretation of Scripture.

Lowry refers to this interplay as “dancing the edge of mystery.” We find that the text transcends our best thinking, our best tools, our highest imaginings, and our deepest feelings. We are stepping into the realm of the mystical where God has an overriding and tenacious commitment to his own purposes.

Yielding to the Spirit’s power in the pulpit, we discover the Spirit is animating our words and convicting hearts. He is acting through us and the words he inspires. It is not that the Spirit is giving new revelation; he is giving new light. He is not inspiring; he is empowering us to speak. This is what some refer to as the unction of the Spirit. In older treatises, it spoke of an intense awareness of the holy, an anointing that comes out of entering the depths, both of God’s Word and the activity of the Spirit.

Without the Spirit’s work, the Word dries up. Without the ministry of the third Person of the Trinity, assent to the preached word is impeded. John Piper, who has devoted several of his writings to preaching, underscores this: “Without this demonstration of Spirit and power in our preaching, nothing of any abiding value will be achieved no matter how many people may admire our cogency or enjoy our illustrations or learn from our doctrine.”

Will We Be Prophetic—or Seek to Be Popular?

This comes back to our identity, a question addressed in another divine moment. If we see ourselves as prophets and our preaching as a continuance of the prophetic tradition, we realize it is nothing less than a subversive act. We are countering secular wisdom with divine language. We are offering an alternative perception of reality.

As Jonah learned the hard way, we are to preach what God has given us (Jonah 3:2). It also demands courage, for it will make waves. When God’s Word is preached, the world’s power—founded on something other than truth—is exposed as fraudulent. Prophetic preachers, filled with power, anointed with the Spirit of the Lord, bring principalities and powers under the domain of Jesus.

Little wonder Will Willimon refers to such preaching as a violent act. We are declaring war on culture’s cherished idols. There is, hence, no retiring into the desert unless God sends us there for a season. Instead, we are called to be the point of the spear, advancing the kingdom at every turn.

In finding our voice, God is asking—“Will you first have the daring to listen, and then the mettle to stand up and speak against the status quo?” To a world which calls us to be at its beck and call, will we turn back and assault the growing social disorder? Will we refuse to play court pastors, keeping a certain distance from politics and power (Amos 5:6-7)?

Will We Live Out What the Text Requires—or Will We Be all Talk?

This final question is perhaps the most important one of this defining moment. If we choose to declare, “This saith the Lord,” do we promise to pursue a life that reflects it? God is asking for this. If we yield to ungodliness, it makes a mockery of God’s Word. It impacts its power and its credibility.

Oden makes this simple, summary statement, “Preaching well requires living well.” Stepping into this defining moment is more than a vow to lay hold of our spiritual authority and proclaim God’s Word; it is commitment to get in step with the Spirit and bear his fruit. We are choosing to devote ourselves to prayer and confront sin with wisdom. God’s preachers realize that it is godliness that validates one’s preaching.

In the end, preaching is a trust. The hearer wants to have assurance that what is being presented is not only the revelation of God—it is Word lived out in the preacher’s life. Am I willing to align my life with the text? Will the hearer see the truth of Scripture through the prism of my acts? If I do not believe what I am preaching, why should they?


If it is true that soul-transforming preaching is becoming a rarity in our culture, could it be that pastors are ignoring, or worse, refusing to heed the summons that comes in this defining moment? It is costly. It requires that we yield to Scripture’s authority, do the rigorous work of homiletical preparation, have absolute confidence in Scripture’s sufficiency, and be attentive to the role and ways of the Holy Spirit.

Entering the pulpit with competence demands that one has faced this defining moment, considered the implications of this homiletical summons, and has determined to be faithful. Preaching is, after all, this dangerous, confident adventure of letting God be God for the church. Will we step into the moment?

John E. Johnson is an adjunct professor of Pastoral Theology and Leadership at Western Seminary in Portland, OR. He has served as a lead pastor for thirty five years, and currently is a writer working on his fourth book, as well as serving as an interim teaching pastor.

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