I have found myself keenly aware, in recent days, of what I cannot do when it comes preaching. I can pray over the text. I can labor to understand it. I can consult commentators wiser than myself to help me with the latter. I can write, and re-write, and then re-write some more … trying to word things as precisely, and clearly, and winsomely as possible. And then I can try to present it all, at sermon time, with the same precision, clarity, and winsomeness. And all these things I must do. And yet, as I have worked away in recent days, I have more than once been keenly aware that, unless God enables us to really ‘get it’ at sermon time … we won’t come away with as much blessing as we might have. Because I myself can’t bring the blessing!
My words may be clear enough to be understood with the head, and creative enough to keep the attention, and accurate to the text. And yet I cannot think, and write, and speak well enough to really make the arrow strike all the way to the depths of the heart. No preacher, in fact, can pull the bow string back that far!
But God can do so! God can place His hand over mine, and pull back on the same string of sermon around which my quivering fingers are wrapped … and cause the arrow to find its mark, and to pierce all the way to the very heart of our hearts! It may be the same sermon that I wrote down on paper; the same words that I would have said, even had He not pulled back quite so far on my string … but with His extra-ordinary tug on the line, now they really penetrate.
Indeed, it may be that He sometimes chooses to pull back hardest on the string when I find my sermon to be, humanly speaking, the poorest … so that I remember that the power is in His mighty arm, not in my tongue! So that I remember that it is not the sermon by itself, but the word and power of God, that do the real work!
And at the same time, the words will also penetrate much more deeply, too, if God softens the hearts of the hearers; if He opens us up so that the arrow has a suitable place to lodge. That’s what He did for Lydia in Acts 16, and that is what I need Him to do for my hearers, too. Because, just as my words (accurate, clear, and winsome as they may be) cannot put real penetrating force behind the sermon, so also they cannot open anyone’s heart to really receive it. “Apart from [Him I] can do nothing.”
Now, let me be quick to say that God's word is powerful, in and of itself (aside from anyone's attempts to preach it)! And let me also say that, when His word is faithfully proclaimed, God always puts His hand on the bowstring with His preachers (Isaiah 55:10-11). Always! Even if I don’t see or feel it, He is providing power that I cannot! But I firmly believe that He wants us to ask for more; that He wants us (both preacher and hearers) to desire that He pull the arrows back even farther, and cause them to strike with all the more force, and on hearts that are all the more open! That’s why we pray for the preaching, right? Because we believe that God must do what the preacher cannot; and because, although His word never goes out from the bowstring without achieving God’s purpose, yet we believe that God has the prerogative, at any time, to lodge the arrows even more deeply than normal!
So would you pray for that in your church? Would you ask God to help your pastor, yes, to do what he himself can do to faithfully hit the mark, week by week? And would you also thank God that, when your pastor does so, you can trust that the Spirit's fingers are surely taut around the bow string with the preacher's? But would you ask the Lord, too, to pull that string back all the more, and to lodge His arrows in places that your pastor could never reach with his own strength, and even to depths that God Himself does not always choose to reach in the normal course of your Sunday meetings? Pray for a deep movement of the Holy Spirit in your midst – the kind of heart piercing that we read about in Acts, when men “preached the gospel … with the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven” (1 Peter 1:12, KJV).