I’ve been preaching for 34 years now, and it’s still as hard — and rewarding — as when I started.
I can think of a few reasons.
When it comes to preaching, the text is in charge, not the preacher. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve approached a text with a predetermined idea of what it says. In the process of examining the text, I’m often surprised that it doesn’t say what I thought it did. At that point, I face a dilemma: either I try to squeeze the text into what I want it to say — bad idea! — or I let the text shape the sermon. It may look like the preacher controls what’s said in a sermon, but good preaching always allows the text to drive what’s said. Preaching requires ongoing submission on the part of the preacher.
Not only that, but the Spirit’s also involved. In his invaluable book Preaching and Preachers, Martyn Lloyd-Jones argues that some preachers tend to rely on their own preparation and nothing more. Others tend to rely on the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and nothing more. “But there must be no ‘either/or’ here; it is always ‘both/and’. These two things must go together.” As Paul put it, “Our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” (1 Thessalonians 1:5). Good preaching always involves the Holy Spirit. The preacher can’t do it alone. The Holy Spirit must be involved, or preaching falls flat.
And then there’s the preacher’s own soul. You can fix a car or reconcile a bank account with a rebellious heart, but it’s hard to preach with a heart that’s not submitted to God. The preacher must walk with God, absorb the message of the text, prayerfully ask for help, and live in obedience. You can’t mail any of this in. Thankfully, God uses imperfect preachers, but good preaching requires a close walk with God.
Preaching also requires love for the listeners. The best preaching is pastoral. Good sermons aren’t preached to an abstract audience. They’re preached to a particular group of people with particular needs. The best preachers know and love the people who will hear the sermon, and are motivated to pastor those people through the sermon.
Over the years, preachers can and should expect to improve at the craft of preaching. We should expect to become more familiar with the text and better at the skill of developing and delivering a sermon.
But we’ll never improve at some of what preaching requires. We’ll always begin in an attitude of submission to the text, with a need for the Holy Spirit to help us, with need for a closer walk with God, and with a group of people who need our love.
For these reasons, preaching only gets a little easier. And I’m okay with that. I love the regular discipline of walking with God, expectantly looking for what he will do, and then seeing the Holy Spirit show up and surprise us. That’s the adventure and the wonder of preaching.