The command in Second Timothy, chapter four, is straightforward and simple—or so it seems. Many a preacher gladly heard and obeyed the call of God, but in our youthful passion we often miss the other phrases surrounding this exhortation. Phrases like "be prepared in season and out of season," "keep your head in all situations," "endure hardship." Many of us imagine the art of preaching is bound up in style, meter, technique and voice quality. The truly spiritual among us know that preaching is bound in the text; proper excavation and presentation are the stock tools of the biblical preacher. So we take great pains to do the less than glamorous work of preaching in our study.
Preaching is far more incarnational than I imagined. Methodist bishop William Alfred Quayle said, "Preaching is not the art of making a sermon...it is the art of making a preacher." I have at times thought I could skillfully avoid preaching my life and my struggles—especially the humiliating ones. I now realize I cannot. No matter what text you deliver to your hearers, you can’t divorce your life from it. It may be comforting to think that my skill as a communicator could override my own struggles and hardships, but they just cannot.
We are all practitioners of what we preach. We either preach what we practice or we don't—but either way it comes through loud and clear. Haddon Robinson defines expository preaching as "the communication of a biblical concept, derived from and transmitted through a historical, grammatical, and literary study of a passage in its context, which the Holy Spirit first applies to the personality and experience of the preacher, then through him to his hearers."* While we work with the text like a potter shapes clay, God's Holy Spirit kneads us, working truth into our being. We either reveal to our hearers the reality of the text in our own lives or we reveal that we’re out of step with the text in our own lives. Both may be unconscious communication, but both preach loudly.
Some of us would love to think that a sermon can be presented as emotionless instruction, as if we were dishing boiled okra onto the hearer’s plate. You must realize that the incarnation of God's Word in you, lived out in your own suffering and hardship, seasons the message and makes the word palatable and even delicious to the hearer. It is an act of sacrifice for the man of God to be transparent and to bleed openly before his hearers. He is vulnerable and in great danger in front of others. The tragedy is that many of us preachers traffic in truths we have never lived out and frankly don’t care to experience. We can even develop an unintentional smugness that says to our hearers, "if you are like me, you won’t suffer what others suffer." No man I know would intentionally do this, but more comes through your sermon than you realize.
When my wife of twenty-five years died, I was amazed how many people in my church struggled spiritually with why God would allow me, their blessed pastor, to suffer like this. My concern is that maybe I’ve given them the idea that as God's man I’m shielded from hardship and suffering. I do know this—often I preach out of a sense of fear. Sometimes I'm not even aware of this fear but it drives my message passionately. I end up communicating an unintentional message. I have to stand on a pedestal to be seen and heard but the reality of Tammy’s death reminded many that no one is immune to suffering—not the man standing nor the one sitting.
My heart has been aching this week for the wife and daughters of Dr. Fred Winter, the pastor of First Baptist Church of Maryville, Illinois. I cannot imagine the horror of the congregation that watched as a deranged gunman shot first his Bible and then Fred to death. I didn’t know Fred, but do I know that last Sunday he stepped into that pulpit to do what he has faithfully done for over twenty years—preach the word. In the act of answering God's call and fulfilling his mission, he lost his life. What is the Message? It’s not safe to preach anymore. But then again, it never has been. Fred's message and life are one. We live in a fallen and sin-sick world that needs the words in Fred's Bible applied to people. Fred was a faithful man of God who preached the Word.
Today Fred is preaching his greatest sermon ever. His life, now in full reflection of those who loved him and knew him and his faithfulness to "preach the word," is speaking not only to the people of Maryville, Illinois, but to a nation. This is incarnational preaching at its best.