Almost every Sunday of the year, excluding vacation Sundays, I stand in a church at least twice a day and preach a sermon. Before that point in time, I have spend a lot of time thinking about what I am going to say, reading the Biblical passages that I am working on carefully, doing some commentary work and so on. I write out my message and go over it several times, revising and editing and trying to make sure that it says exactly what I want it to say.
Part of what pushes me in this preparation process is that I am literally speaking for God. I am telling people what God wants them to hear–or at least, that is what I am supposed to be doing and hope I am doing. And even more significantly, the people I speak to on any given Sunday will hear what I have to say as a message from God.
And that understanding of what I am doing Sunday after Sunday scares me–a lot. I remember the first time I realized what was actually happening when I was preaching. I was speaking at the university chapel when I was a student. The chapel wasn’t full but there were a number of people there, all of whom were supposed to be paying attention to what I was saying. While there were a few who were obviously somewhere else, the majority were paying attention, listening to what I was saying–and I was suddenly aware that I was feeling really scared.
This wasn’t the fear of being in front of people–I have that nervousness every time I speak in any public context but even back then, I knew how to deal with it. It wasn’t the fear of any particular person in the audience–the fact that there were faculty members whose courses I was taking or would take didn’t bother me all that much. No, this was a deep fear that maybe what I was saying wasn’t what I claimed it was–maybe I was speaking my words and ideas instead of speaking God’s words and ideas.
How would I know the difference? My messages don’t come to me as a special delivery from heaven. I don’t get an email from God@heaven.net each week with my sermon attached. My sermons grow out of a process of thinking and praying and reading and researching and writing that I put a lot of effort into–but how do I know that what I am saying is actually what God wants me to say and not the product of my own needs and wants?
Because I am a preacher, I don’t get to hear a lot of other sermons. But when I have taught preaching at various times and places, I have had the task of telling other people that their practise sermons seemed to be more their own invention than a message from God. Leaving aside the issue of whether I am qualified to do that for another time, how is it that I can see when others are disguising their own stuff as God’s stuff and not be able to know when I myself am doing the same thing?
I have always encouraged people to question my sermons and have even taught them how to do that. Unfortunately, most people listening to a sermon aren’t much interested in doing the work necessary to critique and evaluate my sermons to determine if I am actually speaking for God. I have even experimented with feedback times and have found them very valuable but there generally isn’t much focus on whether what I said was actually what God wanted me to say.
And so, week after week, I stand in the pulpit and speak for God. I work hard at the preparation process, I encourage people to do their own thinking and research, I study and read the Bible daily. But in the end, I have to be accountable to myself and God over whether I am actually speaking for God or not. And for me, one of the ways of doing that is not to allow myself to assume that whatever I want to say must be what God wants said.
I am human and that great idea for a sermon may not be from God–it might come from my internal drives and needs and wishes. Regularly asking myself if I am really speaking for God is an important part of keeping myself accountable before the congregation and God.
May the peace of God be with you.