Preaching is a funny old thing when you think about it. You stand at the front of a group of church members and try to explain what a bit of an archaic book means and how it applies to the people sat in front of you. You are trying to answer what it means in its written context and then what it means for people in your context. Week by week you do this. The same old approach, expecting it to do your people good again and again.
Though committed to the centrality and importance of word-ministry, it is easy to become despondent in our preaching. We expect the Lord to speak through his Word. As such, we very often expect immediate impact. Sometimes we get it as, from time to time, people come up to you and tell you just how the Lord was pointedly speaking to them through that particular sermon and how they are planning to change as a result. But far more common are the weeks of near silence, when nobody tells you anything, the weeks when the Lord appears (if this is your measure) to have worked less.
That’s a nonsense approach to the word though, isn’t it. The Lord is quite clear that his ‘word will not return to me void’ (Isaiah 55:11). It will, indeed, achieve all that he wills it to achieve. He is not working more just because somebody thought to come up and tell you some specific way they felt the Lord was dealing with them that particular week. I mean, let’s be honest, their personal feelings on what the Lord is doing bears little relevance to what the Lord is actually doing. Those two things might correlate, but their feelings on the matter – no matter how pointed they find it – are not the arbiter of whether the Lord was at work. Whenever the scriptures are faithfully taught and applied, the Lord is working.
But far more significant than the Lord’s apparent work week-by-week – judged according to people’s feelings on the sermon – is the imperceptible work that God is doing by his Spirit over the long-term. I saw a tweet by Pete Stewart the other day that I thought hit this nail on the head:
Isn’t that the truth!
We may wonder what effect our preaching is having each week. In the weeks of silence as nobody tells us how the Lord was specifically dealing with them, we may question whether it is doing anything at all. In the weeks when our congregations are grumbling about it, we may wonder if we’re cut out for the task. In the weeks when people tell us how they believe the Lord was speaking specifically to them and we struggle to figure out whether they were even listening to the sermon we were actually preaching, it is easy to wonder about the point of it all.
And yet the measure isn’t the short-term of how many people spoke to us any given week. It is the long-term. The long long-term. The question isn’t whether our people felt the Lord was speaking to them through any given sermon, it is whether they change and become more like Christ as a result of the preaching they imbibe over the years. Are they able to articulate the truths of the gospel more clearly? Are they able to apply the truths of the gospel appropriately? Is the evidence that they have understood the gospel working out in their lives?
We are unlikely to see the full effect – we may not see any effect whatsoever – of our sermon the week it is preached. But as we faithfully stand up and preach the gospel, as we open passage after passage and ask the same two questions of them again and again (what does this mean? and, what does it mean for the people in front of me?), the measure of its value is the long-term effect. As we faithfully proclaim the scriptures to them, and clearly show them what the Bible means for them specifically, we ought to be seeing our people becoming more and more like Christ.
As we mull over the sheer insanity of our preaching (yes, even my preaching!) making people like Christ, we have to remember that it is the Lord’s word we proclaim, it is applied by his Spirit, and it is he who will make us more like Jesus. If his word will not return to him void, if it will achieve all that he wants it to achieve, our task is to remain faithful and allow him to achieve what he wants to achieve through the preaching of his word.
And, I don’t know about you, but that takes a load off.