Pulpit: The Overemphasis of Arrangement

Sometimes thoroughly unsatisfying meetings take place. The Advent believers or the gospel workers, as they are called together, need a new quickening, an awakening,a reformation. The announced topics are promising, but the promises are not fulfilled. One hour passes along after another, and the meetings draw to a close.

Minister, Berlin Conference

Sometimes thoroughly unsatisfying meetings take place. The Advent believers or the gospel workers, as they are called together, need a new quickening, an awakening, a reformation. The announced topics are promising, but the promises are not fulfilled. One hour passes along after another, and the meetings draw to a close. The brethren and sisters have gained little as they came, so they go. Many of them are sad about it. What could have been the cause?

The speakers were above average, they were capable people. They had thoroughly studied their topics and knew well how to outline them. They also spoke distinctly and with appropriate bodily gestures and animation. They held to their allotted time, and they cited quotations from famous men and newspaper clippings.

In spirit I saw them at their preparation. Did they first of all consecrate themselves to God? Did they pray without ceasing? They had an important topic and needed to work it out correctly. They had learned how it is done. So under the heading to the left came a big Latin I, as a sign for the Introduction. Then came the first main heading, A. It contained four subheads, Roman numerals I, II, III, IV. The subheads were divided into Arabic numerals 1, 2, 3, 4. These Arabic numerals were again divided into a, b, c, d, and some of these letters were once more divided, this time with parentheses, (1), (2), et cetera. All that cost much diligence and thought.

The Building

One speaker formed his discourse like a building. First the construction plan must be ready, then the building materials, a good foundation, the walls and the different stories, finally the roof. So he, like an experienced builder, erected his building. Then he led us through it. Those present looked at everything with interest, yet did not seem entirely pleased with it. Certainly it was an imposing building, and nothing was lacking. But after we had looked at everything, we did not feel at all comfort able. The fact is, it was a prison.

Like the inmates of a prison, they were locked up there, each thought in its cell. The thoughts were wearing prison garb, and each cell was numbered. For windows, air and light, there fore, there was no great need. There was nothing there, either, that did not fit into the picture. In front of each window were bars and shutters. Thus not much light could come in.

The visitors were happy when the tour of inspection was over. There had been nothing that could have inspired them, nothing that might have gripped them inwardly. On such an occasion, on the sidewalk outside afterward a gray haired preacher told a younger co-worker of the complaint of an old Christian in another communion. "Formerly," he said, "we had wooden chapels and golden preachers. But now we have 'golden' chapels and wooden preachers."

As essential as arrangement is, it must still never become a prison.The Spirit must not be bound. Iron doors and barred windows keep away freedom, sun, light. A talk is not some thing written. The hearers do not want to read but to listen. You can read a thing several times, but one wants to grasp a talk immediately, for he wishes to hear it only once. It must be simple but living, vital, going directly to the heart. It must be good, reasonable food for the soul, must taste good and be nourishing.

In our chicken yard I always notice the reaction to proper food. Whenever I am hammering bones to small bits on the stone, I must be very careful that I do not also smash the beaks of the hens, for they greedily press around. The otherwise shy creatures forget everything be sides food. That they must have, and they take advantage of the opportunity.

He who brings a message that really contains proper food will find great interest. The hens pay little attention to the kind of stone or the shape of the hammer they see only the pulverized pieces of bone. The proper food is the present truth. The Bible is its source. The Spirit of prophecy, however, illuminates these truths. Therefore we must take out of the Bible grace for grace. The Bible is far from exhausted. Has it so little to say to us that we must bring forth so much that we have sought elsewhere? He who lacks material should study a book of the Spirit of prophecy, and many truths of the Scriptures will be illuminated anew for him. We must preach the Bible.

The Skeleton

Another speaker during his preparation thought of the skeleton in a room of the seminary he had attended. He had, of course, learned it thus: A good arrangement, an exhaustive articulation, is the main thing. There stood the skeleton in the cupboard, well put together. The single bones and even the small bones were clearly to be distinguished. "That is an excellent model," thought the brother; "that is also simple. The whole thing together is the topic. Head, body, and limbs are the single parts with their subdivisions."

The topic had been given him. The separate parts also were found. It was not too difficult to find their subdivisions. But it cost much diligence and many efforts to find the single bones and then bring them together at the right place. Finally the skeleton stood before him. Were they in every case the right bones? With many of them it was already difficult to determine what they had originally been, for they were very dry and some were also somewhat moldy!

So the man came to the meeting with his well assembled skeleton. He put on an earnest face, suitable for such a great topic, and gave his talk, which corresponded to its arrangement. He led us through all the details. At times he doubt less felt a bit uncomfortable that he could not show anything living. Once he tried to awaken life by shaking the skeleton, but the bones only rattled. After a time he shook it harder, and it rattled still more. At the end of his talk he wished to have one great climactic effect. He shook the skeleton mightily and it fell apart! The rattle had not grown to a storm. Anyone who wanted to could take a bone away with him, but the majority did not so desire. With a solemn face the speaker sat down, and the audience sighed with relief.

The Pear Tree

In my childhood's memories stands a pear tree. Its location was behind our barn on the way to the field. To me, little fellow that I was, the pear tree seemed like a mighty tree o£ life. What a tremendous trunk, what strong limbs and branches, what an endless wealth of leaves, blossoms, and fruit! Those were beautiful days when it gave us its fruit. Always there lay some pears ready for me, but since the fruit was desired by many, I had to be very alert. The best fruit seemed to fall at night, but somebody had always arisen early, when it was hardly daylight, and had already gathered it. That was what my older sister told me. And then she said to me, secretly and importantly, "Tonight I will waken you, and then we will gather them."

With somewhat fearful expectancy I went to sleep, and sure enough, she awakened me. "Kari, come, the pears!" she whispered into my ear. I followed her, in nightshirt, barefoot, and on tiptoe. Thus we went across the yard in the early dawn and came behind the barn. There stood the dark form of our mighty pear tree. Now we were under it. One could already see the fruit that had fallen during the night such fine pears! So many of them! We held our night shirts like an apron at two corners and gathered them full. Hush hush back to bed! In the straw under the sheets we hid the pears. Excited and happy, I ate until I fell asleep again. A little later someone wondered why the tree had been so stingy with its fruit that night.

Why should not the sermon be like a pear tree? A pear tree that is ready day and night to give away its fruit; for whose fruit people vie with one another, for which people always have time to spare, which they gladly seek out, which refreshes and strengthens them. But you cannot put that together yourself you must simply al low it to grow. And you cannot shake it at all, for it is too mighty, but the wind does it. The wind blows where it will (John 3:8), and you hear its sound. But what can the wind do in that other speaker's skeleton? There is no life to bring to fruition as there is with the pear blossoms; there is no fruit to be shaken down.

It is the overestimation of the human spirit, its power of judgment, the overvaluation of its capability to take apart and put together, that makes us poor preachers. Even intelligent people easily succumb to this overvaluation. In their scientific experiments to ascertain what life is, the brilliant scholars always come up to a certain point. They dismember the outer, they dissect the inner. They dissect until the life under their hands dies. But they can never take the single building blocks that they have taken apart and put them back together again into a living being.We cannot master life, but life masters us. We can kill, but we cannot make alive. We should think that over. It should make us humble.

We cannot employ the Spirit of God, but He wants to use us. The more of our cleverness we put into our sermon, the closer we are to death. Certainly our preachers today are cleverer than years ago, but who would say that they are more successful? If a congregation grows larger and larger, it has more power of selection. More smart people come into it. The preachers can be better chosen. We have a plan according to which we work. We must only begin to arrange rightly. He who can do that well is our man. Formerly there are said to have actually been people among us who could not even correctly analyze a text. Just think of the poor sermons that had hardly any outline! It is, of course, astounding how we, then, with such weak and simple forces, continually accomplished relatively great things. At a jubilee celebration in East Prussia Brother D. related that he had up until then baptized 998 soul; He probably possessed little knowledge in the field of rhetoric. I would gladly have seen him baptize his 999th and 1,000th souls, but he died before he could do so.

But the overvaluation of human cleverness does not die out. It is indeed a great challenge when God's Word teaches us: "Lean not unto thine own understanding." Especially to clever heads that is an incomprehensible saying. Is not their own good and intelligent head their hope and support? They do not want to be dependent, their own judgment is sufficient for them. Their own disposition, in the manifold meaning of the word, guides and fills them.

But for us man is not to be the measure of all things. The herald of divine truths believes in the working of the Divine Spirit. Therefore a sermon outline must be neither a prison nor a skeleton. It must be like something living a stream, a meadow, or a tree. It must be able to grow and change. It must live and move and throb with soul and spirit. Like the tree, it must stand outside in the weather, warmed through by the sun, blown about by storms, be dewed and watered from Heaven.

With a stream, a meadow, a tree, you cannot calculate everything in advance. You must trust in God, who fills the stream, who makes the meadow bloom and the tree grow. A preacher taught by Heaven needs much trust in God; I repeat, much trust in God. Your prison may, inch by inch, be computable, the bones of your skeleton may really be genuine and belong where they are, but you yourself do not feel comfortable in your prison, and all your efforts cannot make the skeleton live. There is nothing more that can be changed, nothing can be made more beautiful, and few are grateful to you. You may seem to yourself, however, to be a clever builder, a capable person.

The meadow is happy while it grows, for the bees and butterflies make it fruitful and nourish themselves from it; but the prison shuts out every butterfly and every bee.

The tree is acted upon by the weather. Storm, rain, sunshine, frost, and warmth work upon it, while it grows. But a skeleton cannot become any more it was already.

The stream continually gives, but it also takes continually. There are little brooks and streams, rivulets and rivers, that flow into it while it flows on. Everything living continually changes itself into new forms; but a prison is a box,well calculated and thought out, well planned and carried out. Therefore we do not wonder at the complaint of that gray-haired preacher who said that formerly we had wooden chapels and golden preachers golden preachers who believed the Bible and loved the Spirit of prophecy and hoped for the working of the Spirit while they preached. They were suspicious about their own understanding, but they trusted in Him who wants to be powerful in the weak.

So we do well to pay attention to the word of the Spirit of prophecy, which counsels us to give the Spirit of God room also during the sermon. To that end may the Lord give us the humble attitude that guards itself well from the pride of knowledge and the presumption of learning.

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Minister, Berlin Conference

April 1953

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