'Poor Little Talkative Christianity': Why Preach?
Preaching is not short on critics. The accusation that Christianity is just empty talk comes from various directions. The jibe about "poor little talkative Christianity" comes from E. M. Forster character Mrs. Moore in A Passage to India, in which she hears an echo in a cave and realizes that all Christianity's words amount to nothing more. Devotees of "signs and wonders" accuse the rest of us of being all talk but no power. Those immersed in social action can grow skeptical about the relevance of preaching. Compulsive internet downloaders can't see the point of the humdrum local pastor's sermon, when they can get their favorites at the click of a mouse. And, after all, is preaching really more significant than personal Bible reading and small group or one-to-one Bible studies?
It is not surprising that we who labor and toil at our ordinary local sermons suffer crises of confidence. Is it really worth the trouble?
Assemble the People to Hear My Words
I believe the answer is, Yes! Not because that happens to be the church culture I inhabit. Not even because I work for The Proclamation Trust and it's my job to advocate preaching. No, I answer yes for two massively significant Bible reasons. Both go right back to the formation of the people of God at Mt. Sinai. In Deuteronomy 4, Moses says, "Remember the day you stood before the LORD your God at Horeb, when he said to me, 'Assemble the people before me to hear my words'" (Deut 4:10).
What happened that day was (1) an assembly ("Assemble the people") (2) with a purpose ("to hear God's words"). I'm going to focus on the hearing of God's words in this article, and then on the assembly in a subsequent one. (I have developed these arguments in The Priority of Preaching, Christian Focus, 2009.)
At Sinai a man to whom God had spoken, spoke in turn to the people. After the initial terror of God's unmediated voice, Moses preached to them (Ex 20:18-19). And so the pattern was set: God's people listen to God's words spoken by God's prophet. Looking to the future, Moses promises them, "The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me. . . . You must listen to him" (Deut 18:15). And God did. A noble succession of prophets like Moses, faithful and courageous, spoke God's words to God's people in every generation.
And yet, at the end of Deuteronomy we read that since Moses, "no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face, who did all those signs and wonders. . . . For no one has ever shown the mighty power or performed the awesome deeds that Moses did in the sight of all Israel" (Deut 34:10-12). So the prophecy of Deuteronomy 18 had a two-pronged fulfillment: Lots of prophets like Moses in their faithful preaching, but no prophet like Moses in his Exodus redemptive miracles. Then the ultimate Prophet came into the world who by his death ransomed his people for God (Jn 6:14; 7:40). Above Moses (the Law) and Elijah (the Prophets), disciples are directly told by the Father to "listen to him!" (Lk 9:35). The people of God listen to Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father.
To Whom Shall We Listen Today?
But Jesus is no longer here. Not in his body. So the question arises for us, as it did for Israel after Moses' death: to whom shall we listen today? For them, it was the true prophets of the Old Covenant era. For us, it is the faithful preachers of the apostolic testimony to Christ. For them, the prophets developed and added to the hope, as they were inspired by the Holy Spirit. For us, our pastors preach a completed revelation. In that respect, their role differs from the prophets; but other respects, it is unchanged. They speak as God's mouthpieces, and we are to listen to them. The "man of God" designated the prophet in the Old Covenant (e.g. Deut 33:1; 1 Sam 9:6; 2 Kgs 4:7); it designates the pastor-teacher in the New Covenant (1 Tim 6:11; 2 Tim 3:17). Just as the false prophet under the Old Covenant becomes the false teacher under the New (e.g. 1 Jn 4:1; 2 Pet 2:1), so the true prophet becomes the faithful pastor-teacher.
But here's the rub: to be a faithful preacher I need to be gripped, humbled, and transformed by the word of Christ. Moses's successors (the prophets) were not cold functionaries who merely expounded the written Torah; they were men in whom the covenant word burned because they walked in close fellowship with the covenant God (e.g. "Your words were found, and I ate them," Jer 15:16). In the same way, those who expound the apostolic word of Jesus must be those in whom these words burn, who are being humbled and transformed by these words.
I still remember with shame typing out someone else's exposition of John 10 and giving it at a student meeting. It was a brilliant exposition, but my delivery was an abject failure for, while I spoke from a fine script, I did not speak from a gripped heart. My heart had not been shaped and changed by the passage by hours of prayer-filled grappling. And so my message came with no power. I will never do that again!
As a believer, I don't just need to hear the word of God; I need to hear it taught and pressed home to me by a pastor who knows and loves me. There is no substitute. His skills may be surpassed by more famous preachers; but they do not know and love me, and he does.
It is a wonderful privilege to speak for God, as a man gripped by the word of Christ, to men and women who gather to hear the word of the Savior week by week. Far from being "poor little talkative Christianity," I am the spokesman for a gracious and powerful speaking God.