I’ve had a very interesting situation in the last couple of days. I was invited to preach a sermon of my choice in a church a few weeks ago. Now for the record I find that freedom to pray and choose a passage to share with God’s people very hard to enjoy. Here I prefer the limitation to a particular text or book to work with. But in this case I thought of trying a different approach. I thought I could go back to something I had preached before and this time focus more on its application to this particular congregation. I put in the hours and in the end even my outline and structure changed as I listened more to the passage. I felt I understood it better and it was going to be much more helpful to my listeners. Unfortunately, a few days to the Sunday I was told there was a bit of mixup and two of us were scheduled to preach on the same day. Cut the long story short. I didn’t get to preach it.
Fast forward a week later and I get another opportunity to again preach a passage of my choice this time in a bank fellowship. You can guess which passage I went for. I thought maybe that sermon wasn’t meant for that congregation and again I got back to editing it with the bankers in mind. Guess what happened? The morning before the fellowship I was told the fellowship wouldn’t happen that day but they were open to rescheduling this again. Now at this time I’m thinking maybe I’m just not meant to preach this sermon. Actually there was a part of me that thought even if they call me back I’ll go for a different text. Throw this to the bin and start afresh.
But then I paused and asked myself what God might be saying in this situation. I’m I just a victim of bad planning and the reality that things don’t always go according to plan? Was it just not the right approach on this? Was God seeking my humility? But then I thought, wait, maybe I was meant to preach this sermon. Perhaps not to that church or this fellowship but to a whole different audience. Maybe I was meant to put in all the work and preach that sermon to myself. Actually as I paid a bit more attention to the passage I realised the first audience of the passage I had in mind was actually an individual before it was a congregation. My sermon was Jonah 1-2 which is actually Jonah’s own testimony and the sermon applies mostly to him. As I reflected on this I discover something even more striking. Perhaps all sermons have their first audience in the one who preaches. The preacher has a congregation to preach to but God has a preacher to preach to. Yes God wants his people to hear his word but like with Jonah, God wants his servant to hear him first. Here’s two other things I reflected on. I thought I needed to pay closer attention to God’s target before my own. And I felt I needed to surrender my heart before I asked for my audience ears. I reflect more on this here:
Your Target Vs God’s Target
When you prepare to preach it’s possible and actually good to spend a great deal of time thinking about where your audience is at. I tell our apprentices to make sure they’ve reserved enough time to leave their study tables and get into the theatre of their congregant’s lives. It’s right and good to think about your audience before you print your sermon. I must say a lot of good reformed preachers need to hear this truth. But then we need to ask what God’s target is. More closely I think the preacher needs to set aside sometime to think about himself in relation to the message. Preachers are God’s first disciples before he uses them to disciple his people. We are not mere instruments, we are also the audience.
I actually believe the best sermons hit home in us because they’ve already applied to the preacher. We all hate listening to people who sound mechanical and removed from what they are trying to communicate. I’m sure you’ve sat through sermons that you felt the preacher wasn’t enjoying or even seeming to believe what they were preaching. I’m not talking about charisma here. I have in mind that feeling that the sermon is not contextual to the preacher’s world. That feeling when you know the sermon is lifted from a televangelist somewhere but worse it’s not owned by the preacher. Regardless, the question is do you believe what you are preaching? Have you spent time applying its truths to your reality? Has it cut you to the heart? Before going to your target audience remember you are God’s target audience. It is far easier to listen to a preacher who has preached to themselves than one who thinks it’s someone else who need to hear the sermon. The latter actually tends to be more guilty tripping and with little life reality. The former tempers God’s commands with God’s love and grace because the beggar knows how hard it is for his fellow beggar friends to find bread.
Your Heart Before their Ears
But let’s talk about how to actually apply our sermons to ourselves. Most of us immediately think about the dos and don’ts when we think application. What must I do? Where I’m I getting it wrong? What sort of behaviour needs rebuking? What can I do better? Sadly, a preacher who applies the sermon like this is very hard to listen to. They’ll use their example but make your life very hard because the foundation is the law not the Gospel. I’m sure you’ve heard preachers that were torturing themselves on the pulpit and by effect leaving you wearied by what they were preaching. Now to be clear I don’t mean that the word will never call us out. I don’t mean that we’ll leave every sermon happy and clappy. No, but again not every sermon is meant to be a mood killer. And I think it all goes with how we apply it to ourselves.
The man who begins with what do I need to do has not listened to the passage or perhaps doesn’t understand how change happens. The sermon ought to speak to the heart and mind before it addresses the particular life choices we make. It needs to kill our idols before it calls us to gossip less. It needs to magnify Jesus so that we can see sin for the rebellion it truly is. Actually a sermon that changes behaviour before the heart cannot truly be a Gospel sermon. It’s superficial and religious at its core. Its foundation is manipulation and within no time what looked like change is seen for what it is, mere religion. The preacher’s heart needs to be set on fire by the wonder of the Gospel before his actions can follow. Such change comes from deep conviction and its credit goes to God alone. Such change lives out the truth of the Gospel regardless of who’s watching. Religion on the other hand depends on the compelling nature of the preacher. And boy some people can force you to change. Unfortunately such change never last through the waves of life. The pressures of this life, the lies of Satan and temptation of sin are too strong for mere religion. No, we need the Gospel to change us from inside out. Before we appeal for the ears of our audience we need to surrender our hearts and ask God to help them do the same.