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The Agony and the Ecstasy of Preaching (Dr. M. Vernon Davis)
THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY OF PREACHINGBy Dr. M. Vernon Davis
One who does not have the continuing responsibility to stand before a congregation to interpret the meaning of our lives in God’s light may find it strange to refer to preaching as an event of agony and ecstasy. A preacher, however, knows all too well the depth and heights of emotions one can regularly experience in fulfilling Paul’s injunction to Timothy to “proclaim the message, be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable” (2 Tim. 4:2, NRSV). Preaching can be ecstasy when one has something to say and is convinced it is God’s word for this people at this time. Preaching is agony, however, when one has to speak because it is the appointed hour to invite the thirsty to the living water even though one’s personal well has gone dry.
The agony comes because of several persistent realities in the experience of preaching regularly to a congregation. One is the incessant demand of it. For the preacher, Sunday can seem to come every three days. The preacher lives under the burden of expectation that requires one regularly to produce fresh and relevant insight from God’s Word to a waiting congregation in varied life settings. The Baptist preacher in particular usually faces the demand to prepare several sermons or lessons each week. This can create the pressure for everything one reads or experiences to turn into sermon, often when the experience may shed little light on either God’s Word or our lives.
A preacher can also experience the agony that comes when one is dealing with “the unsearchable riches” of God’s Word with inadequate resources for understanding it or interpreting it to others. We are called to proclaim truth that is beyond our understanding and grace that is beyond our experience. We find ourselves pointing others to truth we have only partially grasped. We can sense that we are at times purveyors of sacred information without the note of persuasive testimony that comes from a personal transformation it has produced in us.
The young preacher, especially, may not have faced the kind of trouble through which he or she is attempting to help guide others. The challenges that come through such experiences as suffering, death, parenting, or vocational crises may yet lie ahead. Elton Trueblood said that a person needed to have an experience of God’s grace in middle age whether or not they had one in earlier years. By then, he said, one will have experienced enough failure and disappointment, enough sin and guilt to be able to know truly the need for God’s redeeming and restoring grace. The preacher also has to live through the seasons of the soul to be able to speak with authenticity about the resources of grace.
Preaching can be agony when one faces the challenge of a diverse congregation. People come to worship from a variety of life experiences. Some are bursting with the need to praise God for fresh experiences of blessing. Others are struggling with the search for God’s presence they have been unable to find. Some want to praise; others need to protest. The people who gather are different in age, education, gender, cultural experience, and ethnic background. Each comes with the hope that a word from God will meet them at the point of their deepest need. But the preacher often walks away from the sermon with the awareness that what reached one person seemed irrelevant to another. What one found to be too simplistic another felt was over the heads of the congregation.
The agony of preaching can come when one’s best efforts produce little perceptible response. This does not mean the success of the sermon is to be measured by the number of people who make a public response in the time of invitation, even though none of us is immune to the temptation to measure our effectiveness by this standard. In other ways, however, the preacher can become painfully aware that one’s own excitement in sharing a new discovery of truth is being met by a congregational shrug or yawn. A sense of disconnection in the preaching event can be deadly for both the preacher and the congregation. In time it can diminish the sense of expectation that is needed by both when the pastor stands to preach.
The agony of preaching is most painful when the preacher is experiencing a time of spiritual drought. What does one say when there is dissonance between the word one proclaims and the life one lives? Where is the joy in proclamation in times one knows the silt of guilt that sticks to one’s own soul or senses that even the good words no longer convey the freshness of a growing relationship with God? In such times no pre-packaged proclamation from another will suffice. No snappy sermon starters can long substitute for an authentic word from God that has been experienced at the depths of the preacher’s own life and in the context of a congregation’s particular life experience.
The preacher can also experience moments of ecstasy as well as agony in preaching. Often these come when one least expects them. The surprise of God’s presence in a sermon cannot be planned. Once in an extended conversation with Gardner Taylor, we explored this phenomenon. I will always remember his long pause and the soft comment: “It’s a mystery, isn’t it? It’s a mystery.” Perhaps such keeps the preacher at the task,the possibility that one’s own words will truly become in the moment of preaching the vehicles of God’s Word. It is this divine possibility that compels the preacher to be diligent in preparation and to offer the sermon in prayer to God as well as in proclamation to the hearers.
The ecstasy of preaching can come in the study, when in those all too rare moments the words come as if by gift and the sermon seems to write itself. When new light breaks into one’s mind, one cannot wait for the moment to share it. These are moments, in a happy reversal of the ordinary, when the sermon overtakes the preacher and one’s primary task is simply to receive what one has desperately been trying to grind out.
The ecstasy of preaching comes in those sacred moments when one senses that the congregation has been gripped by the proclamation of God’s Word. A holy hush may pervade the room. A sense of presence of the people to God may be evident. A response may come in verbal affirmation or personal decisions. Every preacher needs to experience the moment when it is clear that “surely the presence of the Lord is in this place.”
The ecstasy of preaching can come in the aftermath of the sermon. There is the “thank you” expressed by one in tears for whom the words of the sermon intersected with the deep need of life. There is the comment of one who adds a word of illustration from his or her own life experience. There is the call in the middle of the week to discuss questions raised by the sermon over lunch. There is the long delayed note that comes years after the event which says, “I remember a sermon from years ago that has made a difference in my life.” These become the best forms of currency in which the preacher can be paid.
Both the ecstasy and the agony of preaching can become a temptation to sin. The preacher is tempted to take all of the responsibility for either failure or success. In agony the preacher is tempted to despair, in ecstasy to pride. In both the preacher fails to recognize the presence of both human limitation and divine grace. In despair the preacher may shrink from the preaching task and lose the hope of its possibility as an agent of God’s transformational grace. In pride one may overestimate the preacher’s role in the preaching event and be set up for the fall that is sure to come.
What can the preacher do to avoid succumbing either to despair or pride? One antidote lies in a commitment to continued spiritual and intellectual growth. The preacher can be a continuing student of the Scriptures for the primary purpose of personal development rather than sermon preparation. A plan may include the continuing and concurrent study of both a solid academic and a devotional commentary. To be profitable such a study demands daily discipline to rigorous thinking on one’s knees.
The preacher can make a commitment to be a responsible exegete of both the text of Scripture and the people of the congregation. Phillips Brooks once said that he never sat down to prepare a sermon without thinking that he should be making pastoral visits; and he never made pastoral visits without thinking that he should be preparing for Sunday’s sermon. Pastoral preaching involves a continuing tension between one’s understanding of the hearer and the text. One must know well the two primary textbooks—the Bible and the church directory.
The preacher can make a commitment to incarnational preaching. The preacher faces the challenge each week of asking how this particular word can become flesh. Incarnational preaching will of necessity be confessional preaching. The preacher’s life must provide the best illustrations of the truth of the preacher’s sermons—even though those illustrations will seldom find their way into the pulpit. In living with the people the preacher will give ample opportunity for them to see the sermon.
The preacher will find it helpful to cultivate the gift of laughter. This laughter does not mean taking lightly the magnitude of the task or the seriousness of one’s stewardship of the Gospel. It arises rather from not taking oneself too seriously. The preacher’s role is that of speaking for God. The seeming absurdity that my words could become vehicles to convey the Word brings laughter indeed. Yet, it is not simply the laughter in response to the absurd, but laughter in response to grace that is therapy for the preacher’s spirit.
Agony and ecstasy are enduring experiences of the person who dares to speak to the people for God. Yet, they do not inevitably bring one to the twin sins of despair and pride. The One who calls us to this daunting task also promises to guide us through despair to hope and through ecstasy to the humility that comes from knowing that “this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us” (2 Cor. 4:7, NRSV).
The Window Library
click the links below to see full-version issues
The Window - Fall 2011
T.B. Maston - His Life and Thought
Manuscripts from the 2011 T.B. Maston Lectures in Christian Ethics
with Dr. William M. Pinson, Jr.
The Window - Spring 2011
Narrative and Character Formation
Manuscripts from the 2010 T.B. Maston Lectures in Christian Ethics
with Dr. Joel Gregory