Our weekly devotion from the sainted Rev. Earl Feddersen:
A well-known preacher tells of a lady who approached him after he had preached at a convalescent home. After a little discussion, he admitted: “I’m afraid I may have preached a little too long for you folks.” “Oh, no,” she replied, trying to reassure him, “it wasn’t too long; it just seemed long.” OUCH!
Since I’m not all that well known, you probably guessed I wasn’t that preacher. However, something similar happened to me a few years ago. When I was greeting people after a service, a lady mentioned how many minutes I had preached. (My memory is kind to me about such things and I don’t remember how long she said it was.) The remark pinched my conscience and I attempted a kind of apology later at Bible Class. Another lady immediately piped up: “Oh, no, I thought you stopped too soon. I wanted you to tell us more.” (My memory is better about her comment.)
The two comments illustrate two of the truths about preaching — preachers often have more to say than their audience has capacity to hear, and good preaching leaves the audience hungry to hear even more. How can both things happen at the same time? Well, it’s kind of like my son, Joel, at the supper table. If you offered him an extra helping of peas, he’d be “too full.” At the same time, he could readily down three more tacos.
One reason I like to preach on the Scriptures of the Church Year is that the lessons often lead me to apply the Gospel to situations and subjects that may seem obvious, untimely, or even unimportant to me, but are of extreme importance to one or more of my listeners. I don’t know how many times people have told me that I must have chosen the topic just for them. One of the most touching stories I’ve read about that phenomenon comes from Scotland:
A widow was taking her baby across the mountains to visit a relative. A terrible snowstorm suddenly fell upon the hills, and little by little the mother’s strength failed. The next day when her body was found, it was almost stripped of clothing. Her chilled and dying hands had wrapped her own clothing around the child who was found in a sheltering nook, safe and sound.
Years later, the son of the minister who had conducted her funeral went to Glasgow to preach. Something reminded him of the story he had often heard his father tell. He adjusted his sermon he to include the story of the Highland mother’s sacrificial love for her child.
A few days later, he was summoned to the home of a dying man, who told him: “I have lived in Glasgow all my life, but I have never attended a church. The other day, not feeling well and with the snow coming down, I passed a door through which I could hear joyful singing. I slipped into a back seat to get warm. There I heard the story of the widow and her son.” The man paused, sobbed, and choked at the words: “I am that son. Never did I forget my mother’s love, but I never saw the love of Jesus in giving Himself for me until now. My mother did not die in vain. Her prayer is answered.”
“If you cannot speak like angels,
If you cannot preach like Paul,
You can tell the love of Jesus;
You can say he died for all.
If you cannot rouse the wicked,
With the judgment’s dread alarms,
You can lead the little children
To the Savior’s waiting arms.”
Two of the lessons for Sunday talk about preaching. St. Paul says that he is commissioned and under compulsion to preach: “For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!” Jesus also indicates a necessity to move on from town to town in order to preach. I understand this. When I am invited as a public speaker at an awards or sports banquet, graduation, etc., and am speaking to a mixed crowd — Christians, unbelievers, whatever — I have been asked to be motivational, inspirational, or the like, but not to preach. Yet, I know of no greater motivation than the love of God and the Gospel of our Lord, Jesus Christ. Once in a while is all right, but in the long run, woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!
The Old Testament lesson seems almost out of place with the other two. It is one of Job’s laments. He speaks of his sufferings, longings and sleepless nights. No mention is made of preaching, but that omission may be the connection. Job needed a preacher, a prophet, someone to apply God’s Good Word to his bad situation. Instead, he had three so-called friends with good intentions and bad advice. The list of Job’s troubles is too painful to write or read, let alone live through as he did. But on top of it all, he had no Bible, no prophet, no pastor, preacher or friendly church to which he could turn. No wonder he couldn’t sleep! He and everyone around him knew that God was somehow involved in his problems, but no one knew how or why.
The task of the preacher is to be a (pardon the pun) Word processor — processing the Word into words. The words are to lead people into an encounter with God, where they can confront and at least attempt to find answers to ultimate questions. We have probably all heard preachers who seem to think they have all the answers. With God in a box or a book, they let a little of Him out here and there to settle all matters with finality. I think the preacher needs to join the “Jobs” and other seekers in life in the quest to discover and deepen a relationship with God. Equipped with some knowledge of God and His Word, the preacher shares how God is concerned and cares, leads and guides, and even joins us in our struggles. We may still not be able to know exactly how and why He is involved but unlike Job’s friends, we can know how not and why not.
Processing the Word into words can be difficult. Preaching can be dull, irrelevant, spiritless, often too long, and seldom too short. Sermons can be as lifeless and wooden as the pulpits from which they are delivered. Preachers can be arbitrary and immovable, innocuous and incomprehensible, or absurd and inappropriate.
The story is told of a young seminary graduate at his first parish. An elder welcomed him and oriented him. Everything proceeded smoothly and as he expected until his first sermon. He noticed that several people in the congregation seemed to be counting something. As he spoke, he could see individuals keeping track on their fingers of something he was saying or doing. After the service, the members shared conventional niceties about his sermon, but he sought out the elder to discover the purpose and object of the counting. The elder responded: “They were keeping track of the number of times you referred to Jesus’ name. That’s how we judge sermons. We know how Biblical they are by how many times the preacher mentions Jesus.”
The story is amusing and the point has some merit, but the other night, at a horrendously officiated basketball game, I heard Jesus’ name proclaimed innumerable times by someone who was definitely not preaching. But telling the Good News about Jesus is something that we can all do. Bringing little children to the Savior’s waiting arms is not the job of some select group, called and ordained. It is an opportunity on the doorstep of every Christian.
On the day after Christmas, LCMS Missionary Glenn Fluegge traveled an hour south of his home in Dapaong, Togo, to tell the Good News about Jesus in the village of Kong. He says, “I was nervous since it was only my third time preaching in French and my first time preaching in Kong.”
Fluegge struggled through his “first-grade” French while his friend Yaya, a Togolese church leader, translated into Moba. Yaya later said he had “added in stuff” to make the sermon “understandable.” During his sermon, Fluegge also contended with people straggling in and scurrying to find a place to sit. He said it was very different from the way he had imagined it as a little boy when he would “preach to the chickens” on the family farm:
“When I was in grade school I used to dream of preaching in front of a huge crowd of people who had never heard about Jesus. I used to practice while working on the ranch in California and dreamed about how I would convert the world. Ironically, I finally had my chance this last Sunday. Here I was in front of a huge crowd of Africans, few of whom had heard of or understood who this Baby was lying in the manger …
“Reality has brought me a long way from when I preached to the chickens on the family Egg Ranch to preaching to a room packed with Africans. In many ways I think I communicated better with the chickens. … Upon reflection, however, I realized that one thing remained the same in my dreams many years ago and in Kong last Sunday: God’s Word of truth was proclaimed, a Word of truth about the depth of His love for all of humankind fulfilled in this baby in a manger. And many heard it for the first time.”
Before Sunday gets here, take an opportunity to share with your pastor in the struggle of Biblical preaching. It could be fun! Read the lessons before Sunday. Ask yourself, “What is relevant? What would I want to hear the pastor talk about from these lessons? What am I prepared to do if he challenges me to tell the Good News about Jesus to a neighbor, friend or family member? Am I ready to say with St. Paul, ‘Woe to me if I do not preach (share, speak, tell) the Gospel’?”