Think for a moment about preaching. In that moment a man walks up to a pulpit, opens his Bible, and begins to speak. He is standing before the congregation and endeavoring to speak to them on behalf of God. He is not giving new words from God but declaring what God has already said and pressing home the implications today. For most, it’s difficult enough to speak in front of people, but how much more to do so on God’s behalf? But it’s not simply the presence of the people gathered and the content of what is said that can make a preacher’s knees knock. The fact is, God himself is there. The shadow from the King’s scepter casts an unmoving shadow upon the pulpit. God, the glorious King, is there. Sobering stuff indeed.
Little wonder then that preachers ask for prayer when they preach. Feeling the weight of the task of speaking Christ in the sight of God any honest person would likely assert their own inadequacy (2 Cor. 2:16-17). O, how we need prayer.
There is a tendency though, while feeling the weight of preaching, to forget our need for help in preparation. Most preachers I know spend about 10 to 15 hours a week in sermon preparation in order to preach for 30 to 45 minutes. This means our preaching is about 5 percent of our preparation. This is a lot of work on the cutting board before serving up the plate. And the preparation is so important. We linger long over the text: meditating upon it, carefully exegeting it, discerning the author’s intention, wrestling through interpretation, and considering how it applies in our context. This work is as vital to the sermon as preparing food is to a good meal. We simply cannot overstate the importance and necessity of faithful, diligent study.
Do we give our study proportional prayer? I often hear ministers ask for prayer for their preaching, but rarely do I hear requests for their study. I am guilty of doing this very thing. Furthermore, we tend to weight our own prayer for the sermon towards the delivery of it.
Why do we do this? As I consider this a few reasons come to mind.
First, we tend toward thinking that others need the prayer. While it is true that those who will hear the sermon need our prayers, we ourselves need prayer. It is actually quite prideful for us to overlook our own need for help in the study. While others certainly require prayer, so do we.
When we do ask for prayer it’s for the stuff that we lack confidence in. This tends to be the delivery of the sermon (speaking) because ministers are often comfortable and confident in their method of study. We will be as prayerful as we are cognizant of our own weakness. Perhaps a good prayer for a preacher would be to become more acquainted with his own weakness.
We may also be a bit too reliant upon commentaries and other works. Don’t get me wrong, commentaries are extremely helpful, and I recommend the use of a broad variety of resources. However, they have their place—and their time. I’ve heard David Helm say that commentaries are there for him to ask them questions when he wants to. They are not always talking at him; he can call on them when he wants to and close them up likewise. This is crucial. Commentaries are valuable reference material, not source material. If pastors wait to turn to commentaries until after they have wrestled with the text, then they will be more inclined to pray. During this time of text work we are asking the text all kinds of questions. And as we do we find that the text, by the Spirit of God is speaking back to us—interrogating our hearts and lives. The Bible is getting into us as we get into it. When we are grappling with the text we will be driven to prayer and be more likely to ask others for prayer also. Charles Bridges writes that the minister “should be a man of prayer—he needs the internal instruction of the primary Teacher.”
John Owen helps to puncture our prideful self-reliance while kindly directing us to God in prayer:
For a man solemnly to undertake the interpretation of any portion of Scripture without invocation of God, to be taught and instructed by his Spirit, is a high provocation of him; nor shall I expect the discovery of truth from any one, who thus proudly engages in a work so much above his ability. But this is the sheet anchor of a faithful expositor in all difficulties; nor can he without this be satisfied, that he hath attained the mind of the Spirit in any Divine revelation. When all other helps fail, as they frequently do, this will afford him the best relief. The labors of former expositors are of excellent use: but they are far from having discovered the depth of this vein of wisdom; nor will the best of our endeavors prescribe limits to our successors; and the reason why the generality go in the same track, except in some excursions of curiosity, is— not giving themselves up to the conduct of the Holy Spirit in the diligent performance of their duty.
So let’s give ourselves to the duty of prayer both in our preparation and delivery of the sermon.