Sermon preparation is a delight and chore for the pastor. It is a delight because we love the Word of God and the people of God. After all, God uses preaching to initiate and sustain the joyful worship of his people, which in turn glorifies God (2 Tim. 3-4).
It is also a chore. This is because sermon prep is hard work. Thorny interpretive issues, homiletical hurdles, and church family dynamics often make sermon preparation difficult.
But there is another aspect of sermon prep that is too often either assumed or neglected. I am talking about the preparation of the pastor’s heart to actually preach the sermon. Preparing a sermon is not only about exegesis, reading commentaries, articulating propositions, and finding appropriate illustrations. Sermon preparation is also about personally discovering, digesting, and delighting in the truth.
This crucial aspect of preparation can be neglected or assumed. We might assume that the text is in us because we have read it, researched commentaries, and written our message. However, this is a costly leap. Instead of assuming that the text is in us, we must ensure that it is. Such subtle, oft-neglected oversight in preparation can become a foe to our preaching.
So why is it dangerous to neglect preaching the sermon to your own heart?
By not engaging your heart in preparation you neglect the spiritual benefit to your own soul.
The days of preparation during the week are like the laying down rocks in a riverbed—they keep the water moving quickly downstream. This crucial aspect of preparation prevents your heart from becoming a spiritual swamp.
Bypassing the heart in preparation will lead to your bypassing the heart in proclamation.
If you have spent time simply gathering facts then you will likely only relay facts to your hearers. You will become a lot like a spiritual tour guide or documentary narrator. This is not preaching. Just as there is a big difference between preaching about the Word and preaching the Word, there is a difference between preaching about people and to people.
Charles Spurgeon made the point this way:
To preach the gospel is not to talk about what the gospel is, but to preach it into the heart, not by your own might, but by the influence of the Holy Ghost—not to stand and talk as if we were speaking to the angel Gabriel, and telling him certain things, but to speak as man to man and pour our heart in to our fellow’s heart. This I take it, is to preach the gospel, and not to mumble some dry manuscript over on Sunday morning or Sunday evening. . . . Nay; to preach the gospel is to proclaim with trumpet tongue and flaming zeal the unsearchable riches of Christ Jesus, so that men may hear, and understanding, may turn to God with full purpose of heart. This is to preach the gospel.
This type of preaching comes out of a heart that has engaged with the text; he has discovered it, digested it, and even when preaching, delighted in it.
You will teach people to know things without feeling them.
It is common for people today to say they know something because they feel it. As Christians we are supposed to feel because we know something. In other words, the truth affects our mind and heart. When we preach we are teaching more than the text, we are teaching what we feel about it. We are communicating by our words and tone the depth of impact into our own heart. The only thing worse than never delighting in the truth is to see that you trained your people to do the same. May it never be.
So how can you deal with a stale heart in preaching?
- Interrogate: Ask God as you study the text, “What do you want to teach me?” How does this passage “reprove, rebuke, exhort, and train” me (2 Tim. 3:16)? Keep asking questions. Prayerfully think through the implications for your life and the life of your church.
- Wrestle: Jacob wrestled and refused to let go until he was blessed. Pastors love to spiritualize things, so here’s one: grab hold of that passage and pray. Refuse to let go of it until you are blessed with the divine privilege of delighting in the Word of God and the God of the Word (Ps. 119:47, 143, 174).
- Chew: In order to digest the truth of the passage we must chew on it. Gather together the nuggets of discovery and delight and carry them around with you all day. Let the truths be like a spiritual lozenge in your mouth all day. Soon it will be in you.
- Visit: I have been discouraged about the staleness of my own heart before preaching. Without fail, when I sit down and start talking to others, including my own children, I feel the increased sense of burden for them and excitement to proclaim God’s truth to them. I know that Mark Dever and others regularly meet with people in their church to gain insight into application. You might be preaching stale sermons because you don’t really know the people in your church.
The preparation process begins as soon as the preacher closes in prayer following the sermon. In less than 168 hours he will again be flanked behind the sacred desk to proclaim God’s Word. May those who preach not neglect their own hearts in view of reaching others.