Does my title give me away? So much for being coy with my proposition. Let me say that this post is going to get me in trouble with some dear friends who preach God’s word every week. My message to them: Bear with my critique. I pray that my thoughts will be considered as “wounds from a friend”—a very fallible friend.
Here, let’s start this way. Have you ever heard someone (probably a preacher or teacher in the church) say something like this:
“I had prepared all week to teach on __________, but the Holy Spirit changed my lesson at the last minute.”
I have. Dozens of times. The idea it conveys is that the particular message that was prepared was not of God (at least at that time) and this new message was most certainly of God. In fact, the new message is miraculously of God! Why? Because I did not really prepare for it. It must have been God who prepared it. “I just step back when that happens and let God do his thing. Who am I to interrupt God?”
Can I say something? (Wait, let me hide behind something first . . .There.) That is a stupid statement!
My basic thesis is this: The type of assumptions required to adopt the occurrence of such homiletic detours is irresponsible both to yourself and to your audience and misunderstands the way God works in the life of the church.
Let me give you some characteristics that I see in such statements. They can:
Neglect the Holy Spirit. The idea that is conveyed is that the Holy Spirit is not present in the sermon/lesson preparation process. Without God’s presence and guidance in the study, does he somehow show up at the pulpit? There is no justification for such thinking. In fact, I would argue that we are in more need of the Spirit’s guidance in the study than we are when we deliver. If the Spirit is not present when you are in preparation, how can he be there when you deliver? The delivery is simply the product of your life, study, preparation, and daily walk with God. If this is true, why would God miraculously change what he has been preparing you to present? Can he not make up his mind? Did some new unforeseen circumstance arise that caused him to adjust, shift, or compensate for? Be careful.
Blame the Holy Spirit. The idea that God changes the sermon or lesson can be an attempt to discount your involvement and responsibility in what is being presented. Maybe you did not prepare and you are seeking someone to blame? Maybe you want to say something that you don’t think will gain people’s favor? Maybe you are just trying to blame the Holy Spirit?
Be manipulative. The third commandment, in principle, has nothing to do with swearing, but everything to do with protecting God’s reputation. When we claim that God miraculously changed the lesson or sermon, we may be manipulating the audience. In other words, it may be another way of saying, “This sermon is really from God.” In doing this, you are using his reputation by way of putting a “hands-off” authentication on your teaching. After all, if God changed your mind at the last minute, whatever criticism that someone might have must concede its fury; otherwise, the critics might find themselves at enmity with God himself. That type of approach is manipulative. The best we can do is prayfully hope that God has guided our lives, thoughts, and studies to qualify us to represent him when the time comes.
Arise from a gnostic bent. I think that people assume that this is a norm in the pulpit because we have the tendency to separate the mundane from the sacred. We often believe that if it is from the Lord, it will have a halo around it. Halos don’t seem to appear in studies that are filled with struggle, doubt, and, often, timidity in our conclusions. We seek the halos to rise above the mundane to sanctify us in a different way. However, we must live thoroughly converted lives, recognizing that the wall between the sacred and the “secular” is not really present, and it never was. It is no more spiritual to study than to preach.
But . . . What about . . .
I can hear it coming. What about Jude in the New Testament? I am just following in his footsteps.
“Beloved, while I was making every effort to write you about our common salvation, I felt the necessity to write to you appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints.” (Jud. 1:3)
Doesn’t Jude here demonstrate that he was going to write about something but the Holy Spirit led him somewhere else? Yes, but this cannot be applied to what I am speaking about. Jude is not saying that he was just about to write on the subject of salvation, but the Lord miraculously changed his lesson. He is saying that he purposed to write about salvation, but he was convicted of a greater priority instead. To put this in our current situation, it would be like me saying that I have been intending to preach on marriage, but I feel it is more important at this time for me to start a series on dealing with false doctrine due to its current influence in our culture. The reason for the change is not some last minute anointing of the Holy Spirit, but because of the expediency of the subject for the current situation. It says nothing about preparation and study. It is assumed that Jude is prepared to speak to the issue of his conviction precicely because of the presence of his conviction.
In the end, we need to be careful. From conception, preparation, to presentation, we can only hope that God is guiding it all. Can God change our sermon or lesson while we are in the pulpit? Of course. The question that you have to ask yourself is whether or not this is a model that we should expect. Your message can be further shaped, nuanced, and impassioned while you are teaching, but this is not really God changing your sermon. Preach what you prepare for and prepare for what you preach.