For many centuries, preaching has been an important element in church life. Visitors often rate a local church in terms of its music, friendliness, and preaching. But, in what way does preaching relate to the sensed presence of God in a service?
In this series, ‘the church Jesus would attend’, I am developing nine key criteria, and the third of these is what I have called ‘serious attention to biblical preaching’. I don’t intend discussing the differences between teaching and preaching or the superiority of expository over topical preaching. Rather, I want to explore the connection between preaching and the presence of God.
I have long defined preaching as ‘the proclamation of the Word of God with power’, but the most succinct definition of biblical preaching that I have found is, ‘preaching that is true to the Word of God’. The Word of God is central to both formulations, so I need to explain what I understand by this term.
The Word of God manifests in our lives in two ways. Primarily, Jesus is the Word of God. ‘In the beginning was the Word… (and) the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth’ (John 1:1,14). However, the Bible is the inspired record of God’s interactions with humanity, which focuses on and finds full expression in the Lord Jesus Christ. So, while Jesus is the incarnate Word, the Bible is the inscribed Word. Therefore, when the Word of God is proclaimed in the power of the Holy Spirit, then Jesus would surely be pleased to bless it with His presence.
To take a slightly different line of thinking, prophecy is a means for God to communicate with His people and true preaching is also a way that God communicates with His people. Therefore, preaching is a form of prophecy. Biblical preaching presents the Incarnate Word in the context of the inscribed Word. If this is faithfully undertaken in the power of the Holy Spirit then it should be as much a “thus sayeth the Lord” as the gift of a word of prophecy. If this is truly the case, then should we not expect preaching to be a way in which Jesus manifests His presence in a Sunday service?
I have added the words ‘serious attention’ to ‘biblical preaching’ as one of the nine criteria because for preaching to be acceptable to The Lord and a means of sensing His presence, then both preacher and congregants need to give serious attention to it. I do not mean that the sermon should be the high point of a church service, with everything else as either a preparation or an aftermath, but rather that the time given to preaching should be one element in a concentrated period of worship, prayer, ministry, fellowship, and biblical proclamation that, in its totality, focuses on Jesus and is an encounter with Him. When the preacher stands up with Bible in hand, we should regard the next 30 minutes as part of worship and not simply the time a suitably qualified person either shares ideas or teaches doctrine.
When we hear the Word of God preached, we need to be expecting to encounter Jesus and to hear Him speaking directly to us.
The most profound compliment that a preacher can ever receive is when someone says, “it was as though Jesus himself was talking to me.” This can only happen when the preacher has faithfully presented Jesus, the incarnate Word of God, from the inscribed Word of God.
This means that the preacher too needs to give serious attention to biblical preaching. If he or she is to faithfully present Jesus in the context of the Bible then that preacher needs to prepare conscientiously, skilfully, and in dependence upon the Holy Spirit for illumination, wisdom, and ultimately for delivery. Every so often, a preacher has little option but to prepare a sermon at the last moment or to respond to the immediate direction of The Lord to change what he has prepared. Here is the personal account of a life-changing moment experienced by Dr A.J.Gordon, a well-known Baptist preacher of the late nineteenth century, when he found himself having to prepare a sermon on a Saturday night. It is quite lengthy and in an outdated style, but it is definitely worth reading:
‘It was Saturday night, when wearied from the work of preparing Sunday’s sermon, that I fell asleep and the dream came. I was in the pulpit before a full congregation, just ready to begin my sermon, when a stranger entered and passed slowly up the left aisle of the church looking first to the one side and then to the other as though silently asking with his eyes that someone would give him a seat. He had proceeded nearly half-way up the aisle when a gentleman stepped out and offered him a place in his pew, which was quietly accepted. Excepting the face and features of the stranger everything in the scene is distinctly remembered — the number of the pew, the Christian man who offered its hospitality, the exact seat which was occupied. Only the countenance of the visitor could never be recalled. That his face wore a peculiarly serious look, as of one who had known some great sorrow, is clearly impressed on my mind. His bearing too was exceeding humble, his dress poor and plain, and from the beginning to the end of the service he gave the most respectful attention to the preacher. Immediately as I began my sermon my attention became riveted on this hearer. If I would avert my eyes from him for a moment they would instinctively return to him, so that he held my attention rather than I held his till the discourse was ended. To myself I said constantly, “Who can that stranger be?” and then I mentally resolved to find out by going to him and making his acquaintance as soon as the service should be over. But after the benediction had been given the departing congregation filed into the aisles and before I could reach him, the visitor had left the house. The gentleman with whom he had sat remained behind however; and approaching him with great eagerness I asked: “Can you tell me who that stranger was who sat in your pew this morning?” In the most matter-of-course way he replied: “Why, do you not know that man? It was Jesus of Nazareth.” With a sense of the keenest disappointment I said: “My dear sir, why did you let him go without introducing me to him? I was so desirous to speak with him.” And with the same nonchalant air the gentleman replied: “Oh, do not be troubled. He has been here today, and no doubt he will come again.” And now came an indescribable rush of emotion’… ‘the Lord himself “whose I am and whom I serve” had been listening to me today. What was I saying? Was I preaching on some popular theme in order to catch the ear of the public? Well, thank God it was of himself I was speaking. However imperfectly done, it was Christ and him crucified whom I was holding up this morning. But in what spirit did I preach? Was it “Christ crucified preached in a crucified style”? or did the preacher magnify himself while exalting Christ? So anxious and painful did these questionings become that I was about to ask the brother with whom he had sat if the Lord had said anything to him concerning the sermon, but a sense of propriety and self-respect at once checked the suggestion.’