The Rev. Tracee Hackel
I received some suspicious mail this past month. It did have a return address but I won’t tell you who sent it I don’t want to embarrass them. I’m sure some of you have encountered mail like it. The bright yellow card stock proclaiming in large black and red letters: “PREPARE EXCITING SERMONS IN HALF THE TIME!” Inside is an offer for a monthly shipment of a book by a well known Christian author and five sermon outlines based on the book-of-the-month prepared “by pastors for pastors” to be used however the recipient chooses to do so. These sermon outlines are, “Designed to help you quickly make use of the book, saving you steps and effort in sermon preparation.” Now aside from the obvious problems I see here with encouraging pastors to walk a fine line between honorable use of another’s material and outright plagiarism and encouraging them to base sermons on books’ instead of The Book,’ I wonder if it is really wise to provide ways for pastors to save steps and effort in sermon preparation’? I wonder if this piece of mail may not be as deadly, if not more so, than some of what has passed through our postal system lately?
The season of Advent in the church is a time when we cultivate expectation. It is a time when we remember the history that led up to Christ’s first coming and look forward to his second coming. It is a time when we wait upon the Word, so to speak. The church calendar compresses into four weeks what was four hundred and some years of the history of God’s people four hundred and some years of silence between Malachi and Matthew four hundred and some years of waiting upon God’s Word.
The Preacher’s task is to scatter the seed, not to cause growth
In the gospel of Mark chapter 4 verses 26-29 there is a little parable that is not found in the other gospels: [Jesus] also said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as it is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come” (NIV). In the parable of the Sower, at the beginning of this series of parables in Mark’s order, the “seed” is equated with the Word of God, and there does not seem any reason to equate the seed with anything else in this parable. The Kingdom of God is that which grows from his Word, and this parable makes the point that this growth has nothing to do with human ingenuity or will. The process of the growth of God’s Kingdom, springing from the Word is not one that human beings can engineer; whether we sleep or get up, the seed sprouts and grows, though we do not know how. The abundant fruition of the Word in the lives of God’s people is a gift from God. The goal of preaching is not to be exciting,’ it is to be faithful to the Word which is exciting. To seek excitement as an end in itself for the art of preaching is like pouring fertilizer on an empty field, and the final result is the same a useless pile of muck and stench. The parable makes it clear, the preacher’s job is to scatter the seed, to preach God’s Word, growth is up to God.
Growth Takes Time
The second point this parable makes is that the growth of the Word is a process. This process occurs in steps, it takes time. The soil produces grain, not all at once, not immediately mature, but first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. It is only when it is ripe that the farmer harvests the grain. If the grain were harvested before the full kernel had formed and ripened then the barns would be empty and there would be no seed for the next crop. The Word must have time to develop in its hearers before it produces mature fruit ready to be harvested and put to good use. Not only are preachers the farmers in this parable but they are also the fieldthe soil in which the Word takes root and over time bears fruit. As much as a preacher needs to faithfully proclaim the Gospel she needs to hear the Gospel, and in fact unless one has ears to hear one cannot faithfully preach. This is perhaps the most deadly aspect of a program like the one outlined in my suspicious mail. By assisting pastors in “saving steps (or time) and effort in sermon preparation” such a program short-circuits the process of the growth of the Word in the life of the preacher. Not only do preachers have to work on the Word, but perhaps more importantly, preachers of the Gospel need to let the Word work on them. This takes time. It includes the effort of study, meditation, and thoughtfully bringing that Word to bear in daily life. If someone else has gone through the steps and spent that time and effort for the preacher then they are the ones who will reap the return and the preacher will be left
Preachers must be formed by the Word as well as form their sermons according to the Word of God
The Word of God is not merely knowledge passed on from pulpit to pew, it is a dynamic, living Word that shapes us and grows us into the likeness of Christ. Preachers ought not only to form their sermons according to the Word of God, but they need to be people who are themselves formed by the Word of God. This program advertised in my mail may save a preacher steps and effort,’ but in the process may lose a preacher her soul.
We are to be a people who wait upon the Lord
Pastors are busy, especially this time of year. The calendar fills up with choir rehearsals, children’s programs, caroling parties, cookie exchanges, and church dinners, not to mention various community activities all requiring the blessing of the pastor’s presence and participation. But this time of year also reminds us that we are to be a people who wait upon the Word of the Lord. The people of God were, since the beginning of time a people called into being and formed by the Word of God. After the last of the prophets, for over four hundred years, the Lord ceased to speak anything new in order that the Word could take deep root and grow in the lives of his people. This was no idle waiting period, but rather a dynamic time of being formed and re-formed by the Law and Prophets until the time was ripe for the full fruition of the Word to be revealed in Jesus Christ.
Each week the preacher has the task of waiting upon the Word of the Lord in order to present Christ to her hearers. The preacher’s task is a microcosm of God’s larger historical-redemptive purpose: hearing the Word of the Lord, waiting upon that Word, letting it take root and grow in daily life, beholding the glory of Christ shining in that Word, harvesting this mature understanding of the Word, and then scattering that Word into the field. The process is as important as the proclamation. As busy as pastors are, there is simply no substitute for the time and effort such a process takes.
Time in the study is a vital part of the preacher’s work
It is true that sometimes emergencies and unforeseen crises dictate that sermon preparation has to be cut short, but this should not become a regular practice for any preacher. It is also true that not all sermon preparation goes on in the study. Actively waiting upon the Word involves, well, activity, an obedience to the Word that leads one out to visit the sick, bind up the brokenhearted, minister to the poor and needy, to seek out the lost, and to build one another up in the Lord. Nevertheless, the time in the study is a vital part of a preacher’s work, one has to hear the Word in order to obey it and God forbid that those times of crisis should find a pastor lacking in the ability to bring the Word to bear in a difficult situation, because she has not been borne by the Word in regular study, reflection, and prayer.
So, although I believe the intent of my suspicious piece of mail to be a good one, to save busy pastors time and effort on one task in order to free them up for other ministerial activities, my final analysis is that this piece of mail, if opened and used, is in fact deadly. Sermon preparation may not be a preacher’s most noticeable task, but is this the area in which she ought to be seeking to save time and effort? The presence of time and effort spent on sermon preparation may not always be noticed and is rarely appreciated, but the consistent lack of it becomes painfully evident in the life of both the preacher and the congregation under her care.
Preaching is hard work
Mark’s parable teaches us that we do not know how the seed of God’s Word sprouts and grows. We do know that it takes effort, the seed must be scattered. We do know that it takes time, day and night whether we sleep or get up,’ and that it happens in steps, first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head.’ Mark essentially teaches us that preaching is Advent work, it is an active, obedient, waiting upon the Word of the Lord and seeing its fruition in Jesus Christ. If this is what the Kingdom of God is like, should our ministries reflect any different pattern?