By Joe McKeever
Those of us who counsel pastors and teach future preachers sometimes caution them to “study the Bible for itself, just to receive the Word into your heart, not to prepare sermons.”
We might as well tell Sherlock Holmes to enjoy crime scenes for the beauty of the occasion and stop looking for criminals, tell Albert Pujols not to worry about actually striking at the baseball crossing the plate but to relax and take in the inspiration of the moment, or tell Joan Rivers to give up on plastic surgery.
Some things you do because this is who you are.
When a pastor reads a great insight in the Scriptural text, does anyone think for one minute that he is going to file that away in a personal-edification file, never to be shared with others in sermons?
Yes, he is blessed by it, and certainly it does something to his own soul. But if it does feed his spirit and call him to realign his priorities, you can bet that he will be off and running to trace out similar teachings in the Word with a view to sharing the results with his flock.
That’s how it ought to be. It’s not an aberration at all. He’s doing what he does.
At some point in a Sherlock Holmes story, I recall someone complimenting the sleuth on the brilliance of his deductions. He said simply, “Of course. It’s what I do.”
Think of it: pastors preach two or three sermons each week for year after year. The amount of material they go through is mind-boggling. Every thing–every thing!–they read and watch and talk about and listen to is grist for their mill. It has to be this way because without their being on a constant alert for insights and illustrations, they would dry up and fall into a destructive pattern of preaching shallow or repetitive or purloined stuff.
The sermon machine has to be fed, to put it crassly.
I’m remembering an incident from thirty years ago that caused tension between my wife and me because neither of us understood this fact.
Margaret and I had developed a sweet little routine that we were enjoying. I think we got the idea from Charlie Shedd, a popular Presbyterian pastor and author whom we had come to appreciate. Once a week, we scheduled a two hour lunch, usually a picnic under a favorite shade tree. In the intervening days, we each read and reread and studied one Psalm on which we had agreed. Then, when we came together, we would read it and talk about what we found challenging, insightful, frustrating, or obscure or even troublesome in that Scripture.
I found it wonderful.
My wife’s mind is so sharp, her perspective was so different, and her instincts were so well-developed to see unusual insights in these scriptures that as soon as I got back to the church office after our picnic, I would head to the typewriter (no computers yet) and type up everything on that Psalm I could recall from our discussion. It was great stuff.
And then, you know what happened next, I’m betting.
I began preaching it.
But I began preaching it without preparing Margaret for that. It just never occurred to me that she would give it a second thought.
The first she knew about it was when I stood in the pulpit on Sunday, usually an evening service as I recall, asked everyone to turn to Psalm Whatever, and began expounding the fruits of our discussions. I did not mention that most of these insights had come from Margaret’s and my weekly outings. That was irrelevant and unnecessary. No matter. Even so, she was offended.
“I thought we were doing that for us,” she said.
That quickly brought to an end our wonderful little picnics, sad to say.
Had I been smarter, maturer, and more sensitive, I would have told her in advance that I’d like to do this and made her a partner in the endeavor rather than spring it on her.
She was all too aware of a pastor’s constant striving for sermon material and of the relentless return of the Sabbath. My mistake was in springing it on her.
As a retired pastor preaching in different churches all the time, most of the sermons I deliver I have preached numerous times before. But, they are always works in progress, with none of them to the point that they need no more reflection, thought, study, or prayer. In fact, some of the best Bible study I ever do concerns sermons which I have preached repeatedly but still sense a need to study the broader context and see what more is there to be discovered and benefited from.
It’s what preachers do. And more power to them in this.
For the typical pastor who loves the Lord and treasures His Word, there is no difference–none, nada!–in reading Scripture for a sermon and reading for his personal spiritual needs. It all goes into the same vat. What blesses the sermon blesses him. And vice versa.
I suggest we quit burdening pastors with our perfectionistic requests, none of which are biblical, practical, or useful.
Joe McKeever is retired missions director for the New Orleans Baptist Association. Before that Mr. McKeever pastored churches in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and North Carolina.