ISAIAH 6:1-8; February 23, 2020
For the past few weeks we have been looking at worship. We have seen how the passage in Isaiah, chapter 6, forms the template for Protestant worship. In Isaiah chapter 6 we see how worship is a drama, a drama with at least four acts. The first act is an act of praise. The second act is an act of confession. After Isaiah has praised the name of a high and holy God, after Isaiah has confessed his sinfulness in the presence of that God, he hears God addressing him personally: “Whom shall I send, and who shall go for us?” This is the third act in worship, an act of proclamation.
Isaiah was addressed by a word from beyond, a word that seized him and demanded something of him. God had work for Isaiah to do, “Whom shall I send, and who shall go for us?”
And Isaiah answers without any hesitation, “Here I am, send me.”
The proclamation of the Word in our worship service comes in two ways: through the Word of God as written, that is, through the passages of Scriptures which we read each week, and through the word of God as spoken–that is, through the preaching from this pulpit.
A few years ago I decided to end the reading of Scripture lesson each morning with that stirring verse from Isaiah 40:3: “The grass withers and the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever.” That verse is a reminder to us all of the enduring power of God’s word. Everything else we know will come to an end: our achievements, our possessions, our homes, our friends, our families, everything precious to us will come to an end, even our own lives. The earth which is our home will one day no longer exist. Only one thing endures. Only one thing lasts. “The grass withers and the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever.”
We who have come out of the Protestant tradition should remember that it was Martin Luther’s reading of the Scriptures which launched the Protestant reformation. Sometimes Protestants have been accused of having a “paper Pope,” the Bible which is our authority.
Let me just say a few words in passing about how I understand the authoritative nature of the Bible. I don’t believe the Bible is literally true at every point. It contains errors because human beings wrote it. God didn’t take some people, put their hands on a computer keyboard, and begin typing out what God wanted them to say in the Bible. Nor is the Bible a scientific book that you can consult to prove that the world was created in seven days.
But I do believe for people who stick with it, who study it and meditate upon it, the Bible does have the ring of truth. In that sense, the Bible is inspired, because as we read it we begin to understand God’s will for us and for the entire human race. A book that is inspired should be inspirational, and that’s what the Bible is, filled with God’s spirit for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear. You will be reading along, and you will be bored out of your skull for days and days and then, wham, something will hit you right between the eyes, and you know that’s God speaking to you in the words of Scripture.
And how about preaching? The preaching of the Word is probably what most Protestants consider the centerpiece of worship. Roman Catholics come to church for Holy Communion, where they meet Christ in the bread broken and wine poured. We Protestants expect to meet Christ in the word delivered from the pulpit.
To me, preaching is never at people. It is always for people. Good preaching only raises to a conscious level the knowledge inherent in everyone’s experience of life. It tells people what in the heart of hearts they already know, what in the depths of their souls they are only waiting to hear confirmed. In short, just as ears need words so do words need ears; and good preaching needs expectant people, people who year for something more, people who know there is something more, if only they could be told where to find it.
It takes three to preach: the minister, the spirit of God and the worshiper.
I once heard a layman say, “I’ve never heard a sermon I didn’t get something out of, but I’ve had a lot of narrow escapes.”
How highly charged were your expectations when you came in here today? Did you pray for the preacher this week, that his struggles with the word might bear fruit, or did you pray for him sometime during this service, that God could use an imperfect human being to say just the right word someone needed to here?
I once heard a black Baptist brother say, “I don’t like to prepare my sermon too many days in advance, because if the Devil knows what I’m gonna say in advance, he’s gonna be working in the hearts of my people to bring up some objections to God’s word.”
Now that’s a high view of preaching….that this brother feels it’s so important that the Devil himself is working to harden the hearts of his congregation against the message.
A layman asked his pastor what his method of preparation was for his sermon. The pastor said, “Well, I prepare hard for the first ten minutes, and I write out my manuscript for the first ten minutes, and for the last ten minutes I just let the Holy Spirit influence what I say.”
And the layman said, “That’s interesting, pastor, for invariably your part is better than the Holy Spirit’s part.”
I’ve been standing in a pulpit preaching the Word of God for over 50 years. It never gets any easier. I know what George Buttrick meant when someone said that a young preacher had plagiarized his sermon. He asked Buttrick is he was going to do something about that. Buttrick said, “He can have my sermon, but he can’t have my agony.”
I don’t know any preacher worth her salt who ever feels she has done a good job. Tom Long, who teaches preaching at Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, once asked a group of us how many sermons we preached a year. Our group of pastors said, “About forty.”
“Well,” Long said, “My hunch is that out of those forty, three or four will be gems, three or four will be bombs, and he rest will be somewhere in between.”
I’m sure that’s true. Most of you have heard me through the cycle of a year. I trust that there have been one or two which have really touched your heart. I know there are several which are just mediocre. And most are “in between.”
Preparing for a weekly sermon is a lot like your golf game. You go out every time to play well. Sometimes, but only rarely, you do. Other times, you shoot over your handicap. And most times, you shoot around your handicap.
You’ve tried your best, but it just doesn’t happen.
I have rarely been satisfied with a sermon I’ve preached. I prepare up until the last minute. I work on the sermon throughout the week. I do a final draft on Saturday night, and then revise it again on Sunday morning. I am striking out lines and changing thoughts up until the moment I come to church. For every minute I preach, I prepare for about an hour.
Most of all, what I want you to know about my approach to preaching is this: I feel that preaching is like one thirsty person telling another thirsty person where water is to be found. All of my sermons are directed first and foremost to me. When I am feeling broken and discouraged, I preach on hope. When I am feeling blessed, I preach on the need for us to give of ourselves and our money to God’s cause. When I see the hurts and pains of the world, and feel I need to do more, I will say that out loud for all of us to hear.
One Sunday a few years ago I was invited back to Portland to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Westminster Presbyterian Church. I had spent twelve years of my ministry there, and I gave it my best. After the service, I went to the door where I traditionally stood on Sunday morning to shake hands. A woman I only knew casually was the first person out. She said to me, “I just want you to know that while you here, you saved my sanity and my marriage. I was going through a very hard time personally, and my husband and I weren’t getting along. Every Sunday you said something in your sermon that helped me get through the week. I just want to say how much your ministry meant to me.”
Well, that was it. I had never talked with her about any of her problems. I had no idea what it was I said in those sermons several years ago. But there was something, some seed that germinated in my mind, and was typed on the word processor, and preached in that pulpit, that lodged in her heart.
Karl Barth, that great old Protestant theologian, has gone so far as to suggest that preaching is a form of trans-substantiation. “Something miraculous takes place when the written word through the spoken word becomes the living word to those who will receive it.”
“Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”
May we be so smitten by God’s word, that when we hear it each week, we will have responsive hearts, and cry out, “Here I am, Lord, send me.”