Not long after my recent book Why We Listen to Sermons (Calvin Press, 2019) was released, my colleague John Witvliet and I had a conversation about it at Calvin Seminary’s annual President’s Legacy Society luncheon. John noted that if he had to choose who the book’s main character or actor was, it would clearly be the person of the Holy Spirit. And indeed, that was exactly my intention. I think you cannot talk about or think about preaching without encountering the work of the Spirit at every turn.
As I have noted in other columns here in Reformed Worship, when Pentecost came, the first significant evidence of the Holy Spirit’s outpouring came in the form of a sermon delivered by the apostle Peter. We sometimes get so distracted by the tongues of flame and the rushing wind and the miracle of everyone being able to understand in their own native languages what the disciples were saying that we forget that what they were understanding was a sermon (Acts 2:14–40). Peter first exegeted biblical texts, and then through them he proclaimed the good news of the gospel. This became the first of about twenty-seven sermons (about one per chapter) in the book of Acts.
Clearly the Holy Spirit likes preaching! Perhaps this is why, with very few exceptions, every gathering of Christians in every part of the world throughout Christian history has involved some form or another of what we would all recognize as the preaching of God’s Word. The forms of sermons have changed. Early church sermons were sometimes heavily allegorical in ways many of us today might find to be a bit of a stretch. At times sermons have been heavily expository (to the point of sounding like rigorous Bible study teaching). For a time there was something called “mystagogical preaching” that reflected on spiritual experiences believers had already had. Some preaching has been heavily didactic and deductive; in more recent times some preaching has been more inductive and poetic.
Whatever its precise form, preaching has been a staple of the entire history of the Christian church. In all times and in all places the Holy Spirit has continued to use the preached Word to convict, to inspire, to reconvict, to nurture, to convert, to teach, and to strengthen individual believers and the church as a whole.
When Calvin Seminary’s Center for Excellence in Preaching was first getting off the ground fifteen or so years ago, its president, Neal Plantinga, used to say its goal was to help preachers to craft sermons that would be “eventful.” Preachers should come into the pulpit every week expecting that, imperfect though every sermon may be, the Spirit is going to take each sermon and do something with it. Something will happen; it will be eventful. Pity the preacher (or congregation) who views sermons as just something to be gotten through, to be endured or tolerated. Yes, we preachers all know that there are some weeks when the sermon comes together in such a tortured way that we suspect very little can come of it, and we will be only too happy to leave it behind and try again the next week! Those who listen to sermons also know that now and then even preachers whose sermons they usually like may deliver one that seems—in the mind of a given listener, anyway—to have landed with a deadening thud.
In my book I recount something that Rev. Fred Rogers—yes, Mister Rogers—once related in an interview with The Christian Century. One Sunday morning Rogers heard a sermon that struck him as having fallen short on most every level. It was, as Plantinga likes to say, both vague and dogmatic. After the sermon, Rogers turned to a woman he knew sitting next to him and was about to share his rather dismal view of the message when he noticed that she was in tears. The sermon had spoken to her and touched her at a very deep level.
I have no idea why the Holy Spirit does not apply every sermon with equal force to every listener every time, but maybe it has to do with the fact that on any given Sunday morning, each listener has different needs. Knowing that, the Spirit wings the sermon’s words into some hearts more than others (but over time the Spirit will most assuredly get around to everyone!). But even in weeks when we feel we are not at our best, we preachers need to expect that the Holy Spirit is going to do something. To expect anything less is to undercut the power of the Holy Spirit in preaching!
But that’s no excuse for being sloppy or less than diligent as preachers. Just because the Spirit speaks even through weak homiletical efforts is no reason to lower the bar for ourselves and expect the Spirit to do the heavy lifting for us. Still, there is more than a little comfort in knowing how vital and active the Holy Spirit is in all our preaching. For this reason we all must bathe our preaching in prayers for the Spirit to act, to make of each message something eventful.
Some years ago my colleague Rev. David Beelen and I taught some preaching classes at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, or Angola Prison, near Baton Rouge. Before teaching the inmate pastors, Dave did what he has done every Sunday morning for years. Long before anyone arrives for worship, Dave prays over—and literally anoints with oil—the pulpit, the piano, the pews, and the doorways through which people will enter. As he does this, he invites the Holy Spirit to touch each person, to speak through the worship and especially through the sermon, to heal and touch and inspire each person who would come through those doors and sit in those pews and listen to a message from that pulpit. I was blown away when I heard what Dave does each week to invite the Spirit into his preaching—yet it makes perfect sense.
When we preach, it’s all about the work of the Holy Spirit. Since the Day of Pentecost the Spirit has worked eventful happenings through sermons that proclaim the good news of the gospel. Even as the Spirit worked a transformation in the formerly feet-of-clay disciple Peter such that he preached a message that converted three thousand people on the spot, so the Spirit keeps working small miracles every time God’s Word is faithfully proclaimed. As preachers, we do not need to know what will happen through any given sermon. But we most certainly must believe that something is going to happen. It is very simply the Holy Spirit’s way!
This column is provided in cooperation with the Center for Excellence in Preaching. For more on the CEP, its upcoming events, and its online resources, visit cep.calvinseminary.edu.