10 Years of Preaching, 10 Lessons–Lesson 5: Taking the Towel

(NOTE: This blog is part of a series of posts I’m doing on lessons I’ve learned on preaching over the last 10 years)

This past Sunday night I celebrated my 6th anniversary as the primary teaching pastor at Bloom. It’s been quite a ride. When I think back over these past six years of (almost) weekly teaching, one of the things that stands out is how completely the orientation of my heart has shifted in terms of my spiritual understanding of what I do… what my preaching means to this community and how it functions within the community.

In perfect honesty, I came into this job six years ago holding at least a partial hope that my preaching every week would launch me out into “next big deal” status in pop Christianity. It’s embarrassing to admit, but it’s true. And every time someone would listen to one of my messages and compare me to some bigshot preacher out there, it would only fuel the flames of vanity.

Maybe the best thing that could have ever happened to me is exactly what DID in fact happen to me. The hoped-for “next big deal” status never arrived. And I think I got something better in return: I got to learn the joy of week-in and week-out service to the people of God in the pulpit, without the distraction of having to think about what some mega-audience out there was thinking about my preaching.

One of the things that we (preachers) sometimes lose sight of is how local and specific the work of preaching is. We’re talking about lives here. Actual lives, lived before the face of God, in all their pain and joy and beauty and complexity. And the absolute BEST way to make a difference in those lives is by holding them lovingly in your heart, and then from your heart bringing a fresh word to them, FOR them specifically, based on your knowledge of who they are and your discernment of what God is saying to them.

And with that, we have the 5th lesson: preaching will always lose its mooring when it is divorced from the call to serve the Body of Christ in love.

By the same token, it will be all the better for being anchored in a more general pastoral call, and all the disciplines pertaining thereunto.

Paul’s words in Ephesians 4 ring true, and have a peculiar significance for the preacher:

29 Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31 Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. 32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.

Note the juxtaposition of verse 29: “unwholesome” is set at the opposite end of the spectrum from whatever brings “benefit to those who listen” and builds them “up according to their needs.” A failure to walk in this total orientation to the needs of others with our speech represents “grieving the Holy Spirit.” And then of course Paul goes on to spell out in more detail in verse 31 just what this “unwholesome” speech looks like and is driven by.

Let’s be honest here for a second. A lot (maybe most) of preaching is driven along by motives that come straight from the pit of hell. Can I list some of those motives? (Disclaimer: I have been guilty of all of them… )

  • The desire to be thought well-spoken, intelligent, educated, or gifted (vanity)
  • The desire to be more like so-and-so, secretly comparing yourself to them (envy)
  • The desire to show how you are right and others are wrong (self-righteousness)
  • The desire to divide the world up into who’s right and who’s wrong (factiousness, self-righteousness)
  • The desire to become a big deal one day (vanity again…)

We could go on and on here. The point, I think, is becoming self-aware of every motive that falls short of the call to “serve one another in love”, a command which is constantly repeated throughout the New Testament, and then, aided by grace, beginning to learn to say “no.” For the truth here is that not only is preaching driven by these (and other) motives generally unhelpful (and usually bad) for the local church, it is also a heavy burden for the preacher to bear. It does damage to the preacher’s soul–that is, his (or her) whole life.

When I think back to some of my early years preaching, part of the reason that the task routinely felt heavy to me was that I was determined that basically every time I preached, I was going to “wow” people with some new insight, some bit of novel biblical or theological knowledge, some really edgy illustration, some incredible rhetorical flourish or turn of phrase. In my mind, the pulpit was my playground to work out my ideas, refine my gifts, and build a platform.

Good God. I am so sorry for that.

After years of preaching that way and finding it to be just as empty as the writer of Ecclesiastes said it would be, I know better now. I know that just to the extent that the call of Christ is a call into the community of faith, a call in which the ego goes to die; so also the call to preach is a call to die to the ego for the sake of loving and serving others.

Just so, when I lay down my ego-needs, I find myself stepping into the “light yoke” that Jesus promised, AND… I find that my preaching “hits the mark” far more routinely than it used to. I rise to preach, give voice to what I think the Spirit is saying to our community, trying to do so with the utmost simplicity and straightforwardness, and then let worship continue. I am not trying to make a name for myself. I am not trying to impress. I am not the center of our worship. I am not the main attraction.

I am a servant. With Jesus, I wash the feet of the faithful. And my unique way of “taking up the towel” for the sake of this community is with my words. The moment my preaching becomes detached from the ministry of the towel, it is an exercise in futility.

Part of what is entailed in the task of approaching preaching in this way is that we anchor ourselves as preachers more deeply in a life of prayer for our people. For it will be out of our prayer (which is a deep expression of the agape we live in with others) that our best and most helpful preaching will come.

Now, when I prepare, I am not just thinking about the text of Scripture, and all the interesting words and phrases and intertextual connections and that thing I read in so-and-so last week and so forth… as wonderful and valuable as all of that is… as much as anything else, I am reading the Scripture and also, in my heart, scanning my congregation, over whom I “pray without ceasing”, trying to let the Scripture be part of my general pastoral discernment of the Spirit’s work among us. As I sit all week with the Gospel reading, meditating on its twists and turns, I find myself naturally thinking about this situation over here, or that coffee I had over there with that person whose life is a wreck… I find myself thinking about who we are as a community, stories that I’m hearing, feedback I’m getting from people on how it’s going following Jesus. I can’t help but ponder our past and our future as a people in light of who Jesus is and what he is saying. Once again–all of life, OUR VERY CONCRETE LIFE TOGETHER–brought under the gaze of the Almighty, subjected to his scrutiny and wisdom and boundless love.

If and when I prepare this way, my preaching gains a simplicity, focus, and clarity that it would not have had otherwise… I’m not getting up to do a song and a dance… I’m not getting up to try to wow people with my intellectual ability…

Instead.

I’m drawing attention to the Scripture

I’m relating a story or a situation that came to mind as I meditated this past week

I’m wondering out loud how that touches broader issues we all face

I’m calling us to yield our lives to Jesus Christ in the midst of that

Is there more to it than that? Sure. But at its core… this is what we’re doing.

Preacher–there is a better way. Be quick to identify driving factors in your preaching that are unrelated to the more general task of washing the feet of God’s people. Then make a choice: do you want life, or do you want death?

Because everything outside of the call to die and rise with Christ Jesus in the service of God’s people is death. But to “die before we die”, as CS Lewis put it… that is life.

And your people will thank you.

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