Bible text: Mark 13:10-11
And the gospel must first be preached to all nations. And when they bring you to trial and deliver you up, 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.
Next Sunday, I will be preaching my last sermon at Scottsville Presbyterian Church. I will be retiring as its pastor.
As I review my seven and a half years of service, I count preaching as one of my top joys. I have loved mounting the pulpit each week to deliver what I hoped was a meaningful word from God for my congregation. Yet if I were asked to name the most anxiety-producing aspect of my job, I would also have to name preaching, specifically sermon preparation.
As a solo pastor, I felt my congregation deserved a fresh sermon each week, no repeats. And so every Monday morning I began afresh the task of trying to discern a word for my congregation for the following Sunday and to express it in words that were easy to understand yet touched both mind and heart.
As a Presbyterian, I believe the sermon is no ordinary lecture. It grows out of the Scripture texts read in the Sunday service. I follow the ecumenical revised lectionary in choosing my texts for a good reason. It keeps me from harking on the same familiar texts and themes that represent my own personal canon in the canon. Instead I am challenged to tackle the more complex message of the whole Bible.
The Trials of Sermon Writing
That is precisely the source of the agony of sermon preparation. On many a Monday morning, I have sat staring at the texts the lectionary assigns and scratching my head. What kind of relevant message can I pull out of these texts?
Sometimes the message comes quickly and easily. But often not. Instead I must wrestle with the text, sometimes as intensely as Jacob wrestled with the strange figure who blocked his crossing of the Jabbok river (Genesis 32:22-32). The texts just seemed too strange or too complicated or too foreign to modern American life.
That triggers great anxiety within me. I am constantly afraid that I will come up on Saturday night with no message to deliver the next morning. I will be shown to my congregation to be an inadequate pastor, nothing more that a simple peddler claiming to be the wizard of Oz.
Sometimes this anxiety will stretch into Tuesday and Wednesday. It will disturb my sleep and my moods.
Coming to Birth in Its Own Time
But then I discover something amazing. Something always comes. It might be as late as Thursday morning or even Friday afternoon, but a message always comes.
Sometimes the sermon comes while I was driving my car to the office. Sometimes it comes after my weekly breakfast with fellow clergy also preaching the lectionary. Sometimes it comes after I have written one whole sermon and then realize that that draft just does not work. Sometimes it comes during a session of meditation or after an afternoon nap.
I never know how it will come, but it does come, week after week. Over time I’ve learned to deal with the anxiety by talking to myself. “Gordon, you’ve never been let down before. Relax. The sermon will come in its own time.” And it does.
When I look at the finished sermon, I often find myself wondering where all the ideas it expresses have come from. I didn’t know that I had them within me.
That’s why I’ve come to regard my sermons as a gift. Yes, I do the research that lies behind them. Yes, I do the hard work of constructing the sermon and searching for the right way to express my thoughts. Yet the finished sermon doesn’t feel like it’s my sole creation. Somehow it was given to me, given in terms of its timing and in terms of its content.
In a strange sort of way, sermon preparation has given me a more vivid sense of how the Holy Spirit works in the hidden recesses of our consciousness. I do my part, but in an important way, the Holy Spirit does his as well. If the sermon speaks to my congregation, it’s because the Holy Spirit has somehow had a hidden hand in crafting what I say. If the sermon falls flat, then the Spirit and I were out of sync with each other.
In his eschatological discourse recorded in Mark 13, Jesus urges his disciples not to be anxious when they must witness to their faith before a law court and other persecutors. The Spirit will give them what they need to say. And so it has also been in my experience as a pastor. Thanks be to God.
Note: The photo shows the pulpit of Scottsville Presbyterian Church, where I have delivered my Easter sermon for seven consecutive years.