Saturday, 9 May 2009

Isaiah and the 'art' of preaching

Today I am thinking about my Sunday sermon. It will (possibly) be based on a text from the prophet Isaiah who was active about 745-680 BC. According to Jewish and Christian tradition he was the son of Amoz from the tribe of Judah and was the nephew of King Amaziah. In the Orthodox Liturgical calendar he is commemorated on May 9th which is the day before my birthday. All the Old Testament writers are remembered as saints in the Orthodox Church and some (all?) have a special day on which to remember them. So before you say happy birthday to me perhaps you will whisper one to Isaiah the day before.

People sometimes ask what makes me decide which text to preach on? As there are usually several texts to chose from, how do I know which one God wants me to use? Some are under the impression that it’s a ’simple’ process by which we – meaning priests, ministers and pastors etc – ‘hear’ a voice from God directing us what to say. “And the message for today is…” kind of thing. They assume that being men of God this is as natural to us as knowing how to mend a broken pipe is to a plumber! I must admit that would be great as it would remove the doubts I (too often) get as to whether I was in fact properly ‘tuned in’ to the Almighty when I sat down of a Friday to ponder what to say.

Others imagine a more mysterious process by which after prayer and fasting or all-night vigil, or maybe through meditation or even a dream, God communicates what He wants me to deliver. Unfortunately (or fortunately) it’s much more prosaic and mundane than either of the above. I merely go through the passages for that particular Sunday and use the one that ‘jumps out’ at me in some way. I then pray asking God to guide me and then sit down and read, reflect and write out (excuse the preacher’s alliteration) what the passage means, using illustrations to draw out the meaning and an application to put it into practice. Whether it ‘works’ or not is something I always wonder about – not without a little self-recrimination – but, when my faith is up to it, I am happy to leave it all in God’s very capable hands. If He can take a little clay and make a man, He can take something far less promising and make a sermon that will ’speak’ to the appropriate (and humble) person on the listening end.

Actually I am making it sound really easy and something anyone can do – and maybe they can. But we must be careful not rule out the much larger picture. The sermon is prepared and given within the context of a life that has been set aside to serve God – no matter how imperfectly, and I mean imperfectly. Also it’s meant for a congregation to whom God has – I believe – appointed me to lead and guide on the spiirtual path. Plus there’s the whole thing about Jesus’ promise to send the Holy Spirit to lead his Church into all truth, a promise made to a bunch of rather unpromising disciples just before his betrayal when every single one of them fled. And the fact is that I do pray every day in some form or another, so its not as if the lines of communication are closed until the day I prepare my sermon. Add to all that my desire to do God’s will and my congregation’s (assumed) desire to listen and learn, and what you get is something a bit more than just me in my study straining to produce another message to get me through another Sunday.

So mystery solved (or deepened). God cannot be restricted to a prayer or an hour with the Bible or constrained to construe a sermon within the narrow parameters of a rather specific means of guidance. He is always at work – as Jesus reminded his hearers – before, during and after my sermon-writing time because getting the message across is not just about the moment, its about all the moments put together flowing in a God-ward and God-ordained direction. So I will sit with Isaiah and God as the three of us collaborate together on what it is that needs to be said this forthcoming Sunday, safe in the knowledge that God, in some way, is in it all.

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