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‘The unfolding of your words gives light…’
(Psalm 119.130) The Spiritual Discipline of Preaching

By Catherine Williams

Catherine Williams is an Anglican Priest working as a spiritual director, writer and editor. Licensed as a Public Preacher she preaches regularly in a variety of contexts. Catherine is the Anglican Commissioning Editor for The Preacher

Preaching the Word of God to God’s people is an awesome task! Such a high calling requires training, discipline and ongoing development. No taking this lightly. Not in our own strength do we undertake this task, but through the calling, equipping and guidance of the Holy Spirit. Preaching is a gift and responsibility that needs nourishing and stirring up. Preaching is a spiritual discipline.

 

Called to preach in churches and cathedrals, at tiny mid-week services, diocesan and national events, to royalty and even live on the BBC, on Christmas Day I’ve discovered congregations react variously to sermons. Most depressing is standing before a congregation I’m visiting and seeing them switch off before I’ve even begun. Clearly, nothing of worth is expected. There is no sense that together we are on holy ground, expectant to meet the living God, creator of the cosmos, who walks beside us in Jesus and dwells in us through the Holy Spirit. Perhaps such congregations have been continually disappointed, have stopped listening, or never realised that God wants to meet with them in this way.

Preaching as part of the worship of God should lead to a godly encounter. Preaching should change us, whether we are preaching the sermon or receiving it. Our minds stretched and our hearts transformed through engaging with Jesus the Word, we grow in discipleship and are led out into kingdom living. In preaching, we break open the scriptures to feed on Jesus the Word and the encounter should nourish, renew and enable us to grow in faith.

DISCIPLINED PREPARATION

Anticipating encounters with the living God it makes sense for us to prepare well for preaching. Our preaching is not a series of one-off events. Our preaching is a reflection of our ongoing daily walk with Jesus. What we say as preachers, whether it’s in conversation, in the pulpit, at work or wherever comes from being God’s beloved child. The deeper our relationship with God and the closer our walk with Jesus, the more likely people are to encounter God through our words and actions, as we allow the Holy Spirit to mould and flow through us. So, preaching always begins with and is enveloped by prayer. Prayer is essential.

PRAYERFUL ENGAGEMENT

Developing as a responsible and responsive preacher requires a lively, committed and disciplined prayer life. Prayer is a life-long activity of getting to know Jesus. This might happen through the Daily Offices, a daily quiet time, regular Bible study, times of meditation, contemplation, centring prayer, silence, fasting or mindfulness. We might go for prayer walks or runs, pray the rosary, have charismatic praise sessions, serve the needy or all manner of ways of spending time with God: waiting, listening, gazing and loving. This is the bedrock of our preaching life.

 

This comes sharply into focus as we settle to prepare. Listening to the Holy Spirit takes time. Her inspiration bubbles through us as we are attentive. So, it’s good to start preparation about a week before we are due to preach. We might light a candle, pray the Lord’s Prayer or the Collect, asking for insight, and then continue by reading prayerfully the passages set. We might use Lectio Divina to enter into the text, listening for a sentence or phrase which catches our attention, calls us to explore further, or disturbs our equilibrium. At this point in the process, it’s a conversation between us, the texts and God. And that’s enough for now. Having read the passages prayerfully we put them away and carry on with our day.

THOUGHTFUL CONSULTATION

Next, we consult others. This is the moment for the commentaries, preaching aids and other resources. This is the time to engage in serious hermeneutical study with the texts grappling with the language, context, genre, and other people’s interpretations. We explore deeply, make notes, and ask questions. We might take our exploration into a home group, or online forum, and with those around us. Children are often brilliant biblical commentators. All this ensures that we do exegesis – objectively starting with and drawing out of the biblical text, rather than the more subjective eisegesis – deciding what we’re going to say and then trying to impose it or find it in the text. When we’ve done the hard graft with the texts, we put the resources away.

SLOW PERCOLATION

Then for the rest of the week, we carry the texts within us, brewing away like a good cup of tea or a fine beer. People, media, books, movies, music, nature, local issues and so on, dialogue with the texts within us. This is a remarkable process, sometimes playful, often precarious, which works so much better if we’ve done the spiritual and academic work with the texts early on. Slow cooking is required for rich, tender and flavoursome meals. The quick microwave is handy but fast food rarely produces an original meal.

 

Slowly our sermon will emerge as the Spirit leads us to make intuitive connections, leaps of faith, and surprising original discoveries. Here our voice develops its particular tone and confidence. We find our own voice in consultation with others and underpinned by the Holy Spirit’s inspiration. But it takes time, it’s not for rushing, or leaving until the last minute. Once the sermon is brewed it shouldn’t take much longer to write than it does to preach. ‘But I haven’t got time to do all that’, you say. Really? The Spirit offers to partner with us to enable people to meet with the living God. The Spirit will do the heavy lifting, longing to inspire us if we will only listen and trust. We do have time for this!

CHECKING CONTENT

Our calling is to preach the Good News of Jesus Christ. Good News! Not insipid news, fake news, miserable news, half-hearted news or bad news. Where is the good news in the texts we’re tackling? Where is the good news of Jesus in our national life or local context? What is God’s good news for these people, in this place at this time? What does God want to communicate to us all today?

 

We’re also called to preach God who is revealed as Trinity. How do we refer to God? Are we focusing on one person of the Trinity to the detriment of the others? Might we need to expand our image of God to preach a deeper and richer expression of God? What have we said about God as Creator? Have we mentioned Jesus? Has the Holy Spirit made an appearance? Our daily relationship with the mystery of the trinitarian God is key for Christian preaching.

REMAINING FRESH

When we’ve been preaching for years and are practised and confident, we might start to cut corners, rely on past efforts, and know we can pull it off without engaging as deeply or leaning so heavily on the Holy Spirit. Less preparation, less prayer, less consultation, and less listening might become the norm. Preaching becomes less adventure and more chore. As with all spiritual disciplines, we can become cosy, complacent or bored. The discipline required seems unnecessary, and the spirituality is tired. Our congregations begin to sense something isn’t quite right. The balance of grace and truth has shifted. The preacher has gently eased out God and replaced the Spirit with their own highly developed skills and experience. Preaching will become a burden, and our joy will fade. We are in danger of giving people who hunger for God, stones and snakes instead of bread and fish.

 

But resurrection is only a breath away. Assess the situation, confess the lack of engagement, and resolve to pick up adventuring with the Spirit who has waited patiently and is ready to resume the partnership. Back to basics! Time to remember our calling, ask God to make us worthy and be excited and humbled by God’s word in or out of season. It’s time to engage again prayerfully with the texts, make time for serious study, and leave generous spaces for the Holy Spirit’s inspiration to emerge from deep within, gracing our preaching once again with the fragrance of Christ.

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