The Last Page: Preaching
By James T. Bradford
In her book, When God is Silent, celebrated preacher and author Barbara Brown Taylor describes a rather awkward family conversation: “My sister Kate, who — like me — did not grow up in the church, began attending one after her son Will was born. Trying to downplay my delight but eager to talk to her about it, I asked her one day which service they attended. ‘Neither one,’ she said. ‘We just go to Sunday School and then we go home.’ When I asked her why, she told me how they had gone to church at first, and how she had sat there Sunday after Sunday listening to the preacher vent his spleen at God’s enemy of the week — alcohol, the lottery … Santa Claus — until she felt as if she had been beaten with a stick. ‘One day,’ she said, ‘I stood up in the middle of the sermon, put my hands over Will’s ears, and led him out of the church. Now we just go to Sunday School, and we’re all a lot happier.’ ”
A lot is at stake when we preach. People’s eternal destinies are in the balance. Our task as preachers is to holistically exegete both the text and our audience. In doing so there is certainly room for prophetic, anti-sin preaching. But for preaching to be life giving and life transforming, it needs to do better than leave people either beat up or off the hook.
What was the apostle Paul’s take on effective preaching? “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. … so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power” (1 Corinthians 2:2,5). Paul was probably not the most gifted of public speakers, a fact his critics seemed all too eager to point out. But he contended that preaching centered in “Jesus Christ and him crucified” sets people up for an encounter with the living God himself.
It starts with “Jesus Christ” — who He is, His kingdom rule, and who we are in Him. Winston Churchill possessed a vision of the glory of the British Empire. By the outset of World War II, however, the British people shared no such visions of grandeur. They were discouraged, demoralized, and desperately unprepared to fight. Yet Churchill’s courageous leadership and soaring rhetoric lifted the British people to prevail over seemingly insurmountable odds.
How did he do it? According to Oxford philosopher Isaiah Berlin, Churchill idealized the English people “with such intensity that in the end they … began to see themselves as he saw them.” In so doing, he “transformed cowards into brave men.” This is the preaching task.
We proclaim a kingdom whose King, the Christ, is supreme. In Him we are citizens of the age to come, no longer of this world. As people begin to see themselves as Christ sees them, cowards turn into brave men.
But the story does not end there. Evil is real, sin is powerful, and habits are stubborn. Some things need to die in our lives before freedom can come. It is therefore “Jesus Christ and him crucified.” Whether the subject du jour is tithing, sexual purity, prayer, marriage, obedience, or the Great Commission, the King along with His cross is where Spirit-encountering preaching ultimately needs to take us.
Early in my preaching life I felt such pressure to be relevant that I started focusing primarily on applied principles and self-help human performance. In the process I lost track of the gospel itself. One day I sensed the Holy Spirit convicting me that I had preached for months without mentioning Christ’s cross — even once. Yet it is “Christ crucified” that sources the Resurrection wellspring of lasting life change, not my talent as a communicator.
May the Lord help us minister His Word in life-giving dimensions. Let us preach with excellence and yet not miss the simplicity of Jesus, the humiliation of the Cross, and the “demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power” (1 Corinthians 2:4,5).