I do not get to preach very often anymore. Never having been a called pastor loci, preaching has always been a treat. Well, not always. There have been Sunday mornings when I was tired, or my preparation for a sermon had been inadequate. Occasionally, I have noted outright malice at something I said in the faces of the hearers, but more often sheer boredom as I droned on, or impatience as I could not find an end to my thoughts. I still remember a dear member who week after week fell asleep with open mouth about three minutes into every sermon but managed to come awake some sixty seconds before my “Amen.”
Even with that in mind, mounting the pulpit still gives me a thrill each time I am given the privilege of bringing God’s Word to His people. It also reminds me how no privilege comes without responsibility. Most of my hearers are fairly well-behaved, pious people nowadays, some too old to have gotten into a lot of trouble in the past week even though they probably still do know how. Speaking to them about other people’s sins is not responsible. But even if we avoid sins of commission, we have more trouble with our omissions—of prayer for others, of a telephone call to check on a sick friend, of going out of our way to give a few dollars to a beggar without a roof. And if all of us in the congregation have developed the skills of short term memory loss in regard to the ways in which we blemish our lives, we, nevertheless, all return to Eve’s doubt as we face at least some of the troubles that rock our boats every week. We all need to hear God’s heartfelt desire that they fear, love, and trust Him every minute of every day above everything else. And so, our hearers will be thinking about the little failures of life or maybe only of the sins against them committed by others which demonstrate their need to flee to Christ’s cross. This leads them to easily recognize they are to place all their worries into His hands, trust His promise, lay premonitions and trepidations aside, and stop obsessing about whatever threatens to shake our world. It gives me no pleasure, but I do find it fulfilling to craft the expectations of God which help turn us out of ourselves toward His cross and His resurrected body that reaches out to His people.
All my hearers need my exercise of the responsibility to follow up this somber reminder with the consolation of the forgiveness of first commandment sins as well as pardon for our mistakes and failures, as well as the outright defiance of God’s Law, all of which we call actual sins. The words of the absolution flow into the sermon to deliver life “for you” and “for us.” All need the comfort of knowing God regards them as His re-created children, new creatures in Christ, and that is the way to identify themselves. For if God thinks we belong to Him, then we really are His own, and we live every day under His sovereign rule and serve Him with a sense of never-ending blessedness. Christ won the freedom, banning the proprietary claims of Satan on us. This freedom voids the claim to our future asserted by death, and it tears up the labels our guilt and shame try to pin on us. Jesus has liberated us from the lordship of death and the sin that is paying us death as its wage, for He has burst from the tomb. He has smashed the Devil and all His means of imprisoning us. He led us out of the dungeon of the Law’s death sentence, as Luther describes Christ’s unshackling us from all which threatens us in his Large Catechism’s explanation of the second article of the Creed. He has liberated and re-created us to live in the shadow of His ruling wings.
Our words of proclamation from the pulpit not only bring repentance and comfort, enacting in our hearers an exchange of sinful identity for the identity of God’s child, but also the motivation and fuel for loving others. Sermons equip hearers for giving this kind of witness and living the God-pleasing life in the way we think, the way we talk, the way we act. In a morally disoriented society the importance of concrete engagement with the challenges, questions, dilemmas, opportunities, and hopes of our people grows greater and greater. In a world bombarded by admonitions to buy toys we do not need and saturated with invitations to do things that insult our Maker, words from preachers are ever more necessary to provide our Lord’s counter-claims to the false views of reality propagated by our culture. The pulpit becomes the quartermaster’s dispensary, providing impulse and equipment for witnessing in daily life. As the body of Christ, the witness of one becomes the joy of all, and the sermon lays the foundation for all the joys which come from the witness of God’s people.
Some may say the few minutes the preacher gets each week to plant a few thoughts in his hearer’s heads cannot compete in a meaningful way with the barrage of deception and the inundation of pollution hitting every U.S.-American day after day in media of all kinds. That may seem likely, but we should not underestimate the power of God’s Word and the capability of the Holy Spirit to use our words to perceive the events and phenomena around our hearers from God’s perspective, rather the viewpoints of this world and its idolatrous alternatives. One little phrase, one longer stream of thought, a single passage of Scripture, or direct statement of God’s Word “for you” can find a fixed place in the memory of hearers and redirect their thinking and living. The Word of God is never preached in vain. It accomplishes the Lord’s desires and achieves His purposes.
Failing my recognition of visible, tangible results, however, a sense of fulfillment flows from just my own reflection on what the words of my feeble mouth offered to the Holy Spirit as tools for effecting repentance and the forgiveness of sins, for delivering peace and joy, for equipping the hearers to take on the challenges of the coming week. This sense of fulfillment comes not from my evaluation of my own genius in constructing or delivering the sermon, but from an appreciation of how the Holy Spirit has chosen me for the task He is carrying out.
I envy those who get to do it all the time. The burden may at times be heavy, but it satisfies.