Yesterday I received a text from my pastor, asking me, 3 hours before he was supposed to preach, if I had a sermon ready. What he was asking me to do was prepare and preach a sermon in three hours time, because he may or may not make it in time to preach what he had prepared. I dropped my plans for the afternoon and sought to make the best of it. I anxiously prepared some notes, and finally on my way to church I got a call from him saying that he was going to make it in time.
I can’t explain what that felt like, but I’m sure that it was anything but random. Reflecting on this experience has allowed me to assess my notion of divine dependancy – and what sermonizing should look like. I was tempted to wallow in pity, complain about the situation, and doubt my ability and calling to carry out the task at hand. But believing that God is sovereign means believing that this is no surprise to him. In fact, if I must crash and burn, it is for my good.
In those three hours, I managed to think a little bit about prayer.
There is no recipe or formula to prayer. It seems we tend to think that God will only listen or respond when we have the right words, or the right length of our prayers, or even the right motives. The problem with this approach is that it is focused mostly on the act of praying itself, rather than the person we’re speaking to. We tend to think that before we can pray, our lives need to be straightened out, or we need to know more about how to pray, and or we need a better grasps of the traditions of prayer.
Those are all good things for sure, but if we are fixated on them, the mode and content of prayer can easily become more important than the God we’re praying to.
Likewise, in the unanticipated moment of preparing and delivering a sermon, I had the choice to ponder on the opinions of hearers, and the degree of eloquence of my speech, rather than the beauty, grandeur, and work of God. Sermonizing in general can lose its power, becoming an intellectual task, a performance for hearers, a simple distribution of nice sounding words, rather than a work of the Spirit’s power.
As I enter into a season that will offer many opportunities to preach, I must come to terms with the challenge of keeping in tension the hard work behind the sermon and the utter dependence of God’s work. There needs to be this tension, if not, one will outweigh the other. Paul says to Timothy, Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything (2 Tim 2:7). I say tension because it is not an easy flowing, mysterious-less, domino-effect, process. I don’t have the keys to his work – He is working, and I am joining. I don’t produce God’s work. God just works. The miracle encapsulated in the Gospel is that He always initiates, and we, by grace, join. Likewise with prayer; if we don’t view God as Father, we will make prayer a simple interchange of goods, a business transaction, a sense of entitlement with requests that make God do what we want. Sermon prep, like prayer, is seeking to be at one with God, knowing what he’s saying, how he’s working, and joining him, entering into his Story he invites us to participate in.
This is the miracle of preaching and praying.