By Paul Koch –
As the final academic classes of my seminary career came to an end, I tried my best to play the part of prophetic seer gazing into the future. I had call papers in my hand; I was making plans for my ordination service and installation at a great little church in southeast Georgia. There was no denying it now, to the shock (I’m sure) of family and friends, I was going to be a pastor. I tried then to imagine what sort of a pastor I was to become, and the more I thought about it the more I set my focus on one thing. I wanted to be the best preacher. And in case you forgot what a pompous ass I could be, I didn’t just want to be the best that I could be; I wanted to be THE best – the greatest preacher of our age.
I didn’t want to just be the faithful pastor bumbling along at my parish, maintaining the status quo. I wasn’t content to simply do what the men had done before me. Not that I was looking to be innovative and usher in some sort of radical change, but I wanted to elevate the craft of preaching. I wanted to hone and sharpen it to a level of greatness. If preaching was a learned skill, then certainly one could pursue quality in the quest of being a great preacher. I wanted to wield the tools of rhetoric like the greatest of apologists, removing barriers to hear the Word of the Lord.
I can still remember Dr. Voelz talking about the art of hermeneutics and the need to work with the original languages of Scripture. He said something along the lines of, “Everyone who has a Bible at their home knows the story. They know it like you know the outcome of a game when watching it on a black and white TV. You know who wins and who loses, you know the plays and the details of the game, but it still doesn’t compare to watching it in High Definition color. And as awesome as that is, it doesn’t compete with actually being at the game sitting at the 50 yard line in the midst of the roaring crowd. It is this seat at the game that we approach when we strive with the hard work of interpreting the Word.” So I could work hard to not only bring the picture into color for the flock I was entrusted to lead, but I could strive to actually bring them to the game. And in my reckoning, it would be in the moment of preaching that they would find themselves caught up in the crowd high fiving strangers sitting beside them like they were family.
So, by studying the principles of Biblical interpretation, by learning all I could from the master rhetoricians, by reading the great preachers of today and yesterday I was set on a good trajectory to become the greatest. However, this could never be enough. I soon learned that preachers don’t preach in a vacuum. A sermon is a moment in time that is infused with the lives of those who hear the words. A sermon is crafted with an audience in mind, with a people that will actually hear the words when they are spoken. So all the reading and prep in my study wouldn’t be enough. In the end I had to know the flock. This lesson would prove to be the most difficult to master.
As it turns out, the hearers of my sermons who I picture in my head begin to change when they are defined by the concrete reality of their lives. My assumptions about the people who gather in church on a Sunday morning are challenged when I stand next to a hospital bed in a living room and I’m enlisted to help a faithful wife turn her weak husband so that he won’t get another bed sore. How can I begin to understand her fear and concern as she watches her husband wither away before her eyes? How can I know what it is like for a wife to care for a man who had always been there for her, who had always been the strong one, who had expected to shepherd her through such hardship?
I’ve found that I don’t sit in my study with same vigor and excitement after I’ve returned from the home of a charter member of the congregation who has probably just received communion for the final time. Instead of wrestling with the arguments set forth in the latest commentary on the text I’ll be preaching on Sunday, I’m caught up in what it means that I had to break that little communion wafer into a small sliver of a piece because she no longer possessed the ability to swallow a whole or even a half of one. What must it be like to hunger and thirst for the gifts of Christ beyond even her ability to consume them?
I’ve talked with young couples on the verge of divorce. Barely able to look at each other, they are upset and angry with the secrets that have eroded their trust and confidence. I’ve sat quietly next to members consumed with depression or bi-polar disorder or some other tragic mental illness, and I am overcome with the feeling of being completely inadequate and lacking in ability to even begin to open my mouth and offer help. Such moments shake my confidence and teach me far more about the Word of God than I could ever discover by only staying in my study. How do they factor into the Word I preach?
As it turns out, the greatest obstacle to becoming the greatest are the very people to whom I am to preach. The quest for excellence is pulled from the academic pursuit and craft of oratory to the faces of my brothers and sisters. As I stand before them I see their hurt and worry, their pride and arrogance, their fear and longing, and it is in this moment true greatness is pulled onto its knees and dressed to serve.
Don’t get me wrong, I still want to be the greatest; only it is a much different journey than I imagined. It will be driven not by pride or arrogance but by compassion and mercy. It will not be formed victory, but be shaped by a cross. In fact, it just might look a lot like the faithful bumbling of the many pastors who have gone before me.