I think I knew more about preaching before I began to preach. At least I was more sure of the things I was sure of. Now that I preach on a regular basis I have a better assessment of how little I really know about the art or science or whatever it is of preaching God’s Word. There is a mystery to preaching that makes it so very different from anything else I have attempted, succeeded at or failed at—and all three are descriptors of what I have done in the pulpit so far.
I know there have been times in the past that I’ve rolled my eyes at preachers who have tried to explain to me just how difficult it is to prepare and preach a sermon, but I guess I didn’t take their word for it because they make it look so easy. Albert Pujols looks effortless when he smacks a baseball 387 feet over the left-center wall at Angel Stadium, so I probably won’t believe him when he says it’s tough, but after I take a turn at the plate and dribble a few ground balls down the third base line, I might start to get it. Now that I’ve taken a few turns in the metaphorical batter’s box, I think I’m starting to understand what these preachers were saying. It’s not about whining or crying or asking for sympathy, but just the plain truth. Preaching is really, really tough–far more difficult than it looks on a Sunday morning.
There is a lot I could say about lessons learned, some of the joyful variety and some of the painful, but just one thing I pondered this week was the strange interplay between freedom and burden, two things the preacher wants to have and wants to carry with him as he fulfills his ministry. I think I’ve come to understand at least a little bit of what these preachers were telling me.
There is a kind of freedom a preacher longs for. It is a freedom of mind, a freedom of clarity, a freedom of words and expression. It is the freedom that allows words to come easily, that allows the mind to go in beautifully unexpected directions, and to bring the mouth along with it. It is not eloquence, though, but the freedom to feel and apprehend the power of the Holy Spirit, to know that God himself is speaking through you, to be aware that he is at work, to be bold, to powerfully call people to respond to the gospel. This is freedom, freedom to put aside yourself, to put aside self-consciousness and personal agendas, and just to serve as a kind of conduit between the God and his people, between God and that specific person. This is the freedom the preacher wants as he considers preaching and as he stands there in the pulpit and declares, “This is what God says.”
As a preacher longs for freedom, he also longs for a burden. This burden begins to weigh down the man as he considers what he will preach, as he begins to labor in prayer, as he studies the Word. It grows heavier as he considers how to apply that Word to the listener, how to call on people to obey that Word and live as if it is true. The preacher wants to carry that burden with him into the pulpit. Without it, preaching can seem light or trite or just far too human. That burden drives a man to declare his utter dependency upon God and to crawl from his study to his pulpit only on his knees. The burden weighs heavy on a Saturday night and heavier still on a Sunday morning. Though it is a burden, and a weighty one, it is at the same time a gift of God, perhaps not unlike Paul’s thorn in the flesh, given to keep him from conceit, to remind him of his dependence.
The man who preaches longs for both burden and freedom, freedom to be used and burden to be used powerfully, freedom to unburden himself before the Lord and before the Lord’s people. The one does not exclude the other. A man may have one, he may have neither, but he will long for both. As a preacher I pray that I will be both free and burdened. I would encourage you to pray in that vein for your pastor as well.