Part 8 in a series on the church’s “liturgy”
“Preach the word,” Paul told his protégé-turned-pastor, Timothy. “Be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction” (2 Timothy 4.2). That is a powerful and unforgettable statement – surely one that every faithful pastor has, more or less, committed to memory. “Preach the word”! This, along with prayer, is the task of the gospel minister.
Now, of course, preaching the word is not restricted to Sunday services. The preacher is to be ready “in season and out of season.” In other words, there will always be unexpected, unrehearsed opportunities to open the Bible – beside the hospital bed, at the funeral home, in over-the-phone crisis counseling, when offering a ride to a neighbor walking home in the snow, and so on. The gospel minister is always to have the Bible ready at his mental fingertips, prepared to give a word from the Lord to whomever he may meet – even when those opportunities are unexpected, unrehearsed, and “out of season.”
But the fact that there are “out of season” times for preaching the word clues us in to the fact that there must also be an “in season”; a normal routine for preaching the word – namely, when the Lord’s people are gathered on the Lord’s Day! Preaching “in season” was vital to Timothy’s task as pastor in the city of Ephesus. And, if these Sunday sermons are vital to the pastor’s task, they are surely also vital to the congregation’s spiritual need as well!
Christians, in other words, don’t merely need to read their Bibles, or even to discuss them with other believers. Both of those are vital, of course. But it is also vital to hear the Bible; to have it publicly proclaimed. That is the inference to be drawn from 2 Timothy 4.2. If Timothy needed to preach; if he needed to open the book of God and use it to “reprove, rebuke, exhort” and offer “instruction” to his congregation, then the congregation must have needed such exhortation and instruction! They needed sermons just as they needed discussion groups and private reading opportunities. I hope it is plain, from 2 Timothy, that I am not merely saying that because I am usually the one giving the sermons!
There is something peculiar that happens when a local pastor (who knows the word, and who knows his flock, and who has spent his week soaking in a particular passage with them in mind) opens the book to them in the power of the Holy Spirit. I don’t know all the reasons why, but it appears to me a plain fact that the Holy Spirit often seems to bless this weekly proclamation of His word in a peculiar way – so that the mark left by a single Sunday sermon is often more pronounced than a whole week’s worth of personal reading. I dare say that many who read this little article will be able to say ‘Amen’ to that assertion. Many (though surely not all) of the times when the Spirit has convicted, or moved, or broken, or warmed your heart most signally have been under public proclamation of the word, and not simply when you were reading it alone. If it were not so, there would be no great reason for Sunday sermons, would there?
Mind you, it is proclamation of the word that is powerful – not the preacher’s style, delivery, education, or ability. It is the word that contains the dynamite, not the preacher. But the fact remains that the Holy Spirit often seems to give the preacher the distinct privilege (and solemn responsibility) of lighting the wick! Perhaps the reason is simply that the things we read in the Bible are too grand and important and wonderful to be savored privately! They must not merely be read, but proclaimed from the rooftops! Perhaps that is why the Spirit often reserves His greatest outpourings of blessing for the sermon-hour. Perhaps there are other reasons as well.
Whatever the case, scripture, history, and experience all demonstrate the great power and potential of the Bible sermon, preached with the Holy Spirit sent down from heaven. Therefore I conclude that one of the most important things a church can do as part of their Sunday liturgy is to give every attention to the public proclamation of the word. Who knows what the Lord may do if His minister is thoroughly, mentally, spiritually, and prayerfully prepared; and if His people will pray for the preacher ahead of time, and arrive on Sunday morning well-rested, alert, eager, and expecting a word from heaven!