The Holy Spirit and the Sermon – A Friendly Reminder For Those Who Preach

Here is a friendly reminder for those called to preach on the dynamic relationship between Holy Spirit and sermon preparation. It comes from a 1997 meditation offered by Walter J. Burghardt entitled “That the Power of Christ May Dwell in Me” (Christ in Ten Thousand Places, 80-83).  What follows represents about half of the meditation.  I have slightly redacted it for a Protestant audience (pastor for priest and sermon for homily). Perhaps it will speak to you as forcefully as it spoke to me.

Among all too many of us there is a hidden, unspoken, forgivable kind of blasphemy. It is the protest of Jeremiah when the Lord appointed him a prophet to the nations: “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak” (Jeremiah 1:6). Unintended blasphemy – to preach, or refuse to preach, as if successful preaching depended primarily on me. The blasphemy is the implication that preaching is effective only when the preacher enjoys natural gifts: a prominent presence, graceful gestures, sonorous sounds, assonance and alliteration, paradox and pictures….

Desirable indeed, save for the most desirable asset.  A sermon’s effect is a matter of grace, and grace comes through the Holy Spirit – on my people and on me. And God rarely gives inspiration to the lazy however gifted, much more often to the humble however limited. If, as the Old Testament story of Balaam reveals, God can speak through the mouth of a harassed ass (Numbers 22:38), God can surely speak through the dullest and most plodding of preachers.  Not an ideal, just a fact.

As a young pastor preparing to preach, I usually resorted to the (prayer) chapel as a last resort, when my mind was iced over and nothing emerged. Now my first act of preparation is a prayerful appeal to the Holy Spirit, the Light that enlightens my darkness, the Power that propels my passion, the Lord who alone can change the hearts of hearers, the Spirit who alone can renew the face of the earth. My early sin was not the sin of the scribes, ascribing miracles of healing to a diabolical spirit. Still, analogous: ascribing miracles of grace to a very human, woefully weak spirit.

Is this a sermon or a lecture? A sermon, because I am not telling you how to shape a sermon, I am pleading with you to give room to the Holy Spirit, to let God be God. Not to turn you into an engaging speaker, only into an effective speaker, only into an instrument of the Holy Spirit.

I end with a consoling reminder. The Holy Spirit that gives the increase to the word we scatter is not some gossamer ghost in outer space. The Spirit is God, God within us – within you, within me, within the people we are privileged to address. Remember that in the New Testament the Spirit is dynamis, “power,” our “dynamite.” Shake that Spirit loose! That’s why the Spirit possesses us: not to hide in us, not simply to rest in us – to share divine power, to make it possible for us weak humans to hear the Lord saying not only to Paul but to us, “My grace is sufficient for you, for (my) power is made perfect in weakness” (II Corinthians 12:9); make it possible for us to conclude with Paul, “So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ (the Spirit of power) may dwell in me… Whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (:9-10).

Do you believe that?

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