When I was a very young preacher in Romania, a renowned actress attended our Sunday services. After three or four weeks she gave me a call. "Please come and have dinner in my home."
On the evening designated, the table featured all kinds of dainties. Together we enjoyed the food, talking banalities. After the meal she looked at me, smiled cryptically, and said:
"You are wondering why I invited you. It was for a definite purpose. There is a story I would like you to know.
"During the Reformation in Ger many, thousands came to listen to Jakob Bohme, a self-styled Christian philosopher, I believe a shoemaker by profession. He preached the newly discovered gospel with such power that thousands wept and laughed at his command. The rumor spread: 'A great man from God has arisen among us.' Bohme got used to being highly appreciated by his audience.
"One Sunday he observed in church a man who looked like Jesus as shown in sacred pictures. Bohme could read on the face of this young man that the sermon did not satisfy him, but rather grieved him. The next Sunday and the Sunday after, the same thing happened. Bohme could no longer bear it. He stopped this man at the end of the service and confronted him.
'"You seem dissatisfied with my sermons is that so? What do you dislike about them?'
'"Your sermons are much too beautiful to be true' was the reply. 'Two and two are four. This sentence is not beautiful, but it is absolutely true. You want to win souls. Your purpose is good. But in your enthusiasm, you launch yourself further and further from the basics. Two and two become four and a half, then five, then six, eight, and 10. Truth is simple, prosaic. How simple are the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes! God is truth. He does not agree with your sermons. Neither do I.'
"These words made a great impression on Bohme. He could not for get them. And as often as he got worked up in his peroration, he would feel as if someone were whispering to him, 'Is what you say really so? Do you speak the truth?' He would begin to stammer and lose his train of thought. People wondered what had happened to the eloquent preacher of times past. He must have lost his gift. Fewer and fewer attended his services.
"Finally, the one who had been beloved of thousands came to church one Sunday to find only a few old women and this one Jesus-like person. At the exit, the latter said to him, 'Now for the first time you have preached the naked truth. Your future task is not to allow it to remain naked and to tremble. Clothe the truth in beauty. No ornament is too costly for truth. Adorn it with jewels.'
"And so once again Bohme preached beautifully. But now he preached the truth beautifully.
"I have heard you preach several times," the actress continued. "You are young and you preach beautifully. So I thought it would do you good to know this story.
I've always remembered the sage advice of that godly woman.
After my many years in prison, she visited me in the hospital. She too had suffered persecution. From her I learned much about preaching and writing, but above all how to communicate simply and effectively.
I don't consider it important to be what people call a "good preacher." Some say Livingstone, who opened up the heart of Africa to Christ, had been a poor one. On the other hand, many golden-tongued spellbinders have done much harm. People swallow their false teachings without discernment.
Preach the truth
But I do consider it important for everyone to be able to tell others what they think so as to bring home to the hearers the truth they hold. The art of earnest preaching is none other than earnest witnessing for one's faith, or the art of communicating with others so as to influence them.
I do not write this for the pleasure of writing, but because I wish to share with you my thoughts on how I learned to preach and write so as to influence souls. My experiences might be helpful to anyone in any profession. These thoughts concern not only pastors but also those who must choose from which pastor, political leader, or educator they want to learn. They might also help you to teach others, at least your children, what you know.
Most of what is learned in seminaries---Latin, Greek, Hebrew, church history, dogma, hermeneutics unfortunately does not serve the supreme purpose. Sometimes it may even go so far as to cripple future pastors in their task of winning souls for Christ. Something else is needed. I believe the actress was very insightful.
Preach for saving
I learned another important aspect about preaching and speaking to others about serious matters from Garrick, a renowned Shakespearean actor of the eighteenth century.
I read his correspondence with a young pastor who had questioned him as follows:
"You are a master of the spoken word. People vibrate to every word and gesture of yours. Teach us as pastors how to handle the Word. Sup pose you had to play on stage the role of a priest who preaches how would you do it? What would be the modulations of your voice, the expressions of your face, your movements?"
Garrick answered by saying that he lives his roles. When he plays Othello he is jealous, when he plays Hamlet he is torn by doubts, when he plays Romeo he is enamored. He trans poses himself into the state of heart of the personalities he has to reveal.
"So," he continued, "if I had to preach on stage, I would transpose myself into the following state of mind: I am a young physician. Before me lies, deathly ill, my beloved bride. She may have a chance to recover, but only if she takes a drug that I have specially prepared for her. She is in a bad mood and does not wish to take it. I plead with her, 'Take this medicine, otherwise you will die, and with you my happiness too. Life without you means nothing to me. If you take it, you will live, and we will both enjoy unspeakable felicity.'"
Garrick wrote to the young pastor, "Think like this when you preach, and you will not have to worry about the right intonation, gesticulation, or expression."
Hundreds of books and dozens of courses about the art of preaching could not have played such a decisive role in my manner of delivering the Word as this letter of Garrick's to that young pastor.
At the start of my career as a Lutheran pastor, I was usually only the preacher. The liturgical part of the service was taken care of by someone else. I used the time when others sang or said their prayers to project in my mind a-definite image: Those before me are souls born in sin, born to sin. All are doomed to perish for eternity unless they agree to take the " medicine I offer them. I loved every one of them. If it was a small congregation, my gaze would pass from one person to the other and I would pray for each one: Save this man. If not, he is lost, and I cannot be happy without his being in the kingdom.
When I spoke before thousands, I would pray for the right side of the gallery, then for the left side, then for those in the rear, those in the front rows, those who stood. I would love them with the feelings of biblical Rachel, who said to Jacob, "Give me children or I die!"
A third episode in my life also influenced my preaching.
When I was a young pastor, I was very proud. Standing well over six feet tall, I was considered handsome, and the cassock suited me well. When I entered the church, I saw people looking at me with love, admiration, and great expectation. I am also Jewish, and a Jewish Christian pastor is a rarity. Christians make the mistake of spoiling Jewish Christians, showing them an affection apart.
An Orthodox monk, a friend who had heard me preach, observed how things were. At a dinner he told me a story, saying that I could use it as an illustration in a sermon.
"On Palm Sunday, when the Lord entered into Jerusalem riding on a donkey, He was received with shouts of 'Hosannah to the Son of David!' and with the waving of palm branches. That evening the donkey told his fellow donkeys in the stable, 'If only you could have seen with what honor I was acclaimed in Jerusalem! They called me "Son of David, King of the Jews." I had never before known the name of the donkey who was my father. I was very pleased to find out that he was called David. And the crowd seemed very determined to make me king! They threw their clothes before me on the road in order that I might walk on softness. I suppose they will come tomorrow to enthrone me. I imagine that when a donkey becomes king, he gets plenty of hay and is not made to carry bur dens anymore!'"
The monk finished. He looked at me significantly. "There are quite a few such donkeys. Young pastors are prone to believe that the honor they receive is for them."
A preacher has to be humble.
If he has natural abilities, it is surely a great asset. But he can do without. Neither Peter's sermons nor Paul's discourses nor the speech Stephen delivered before his death showed great rhetoric. They also have shortcomings in scholarship. My examiner in hermeneutics gave me a bad mark. He was sure that I would never do as a preacher. Perhaps the apostles would have failed his tests. Saint Jean Vianney, curate of Ars, did not have a high IQ, but he was a very effective preacher because he was humble and never pretended to have what he lacked.
My son delivered his first sermon as a seminarian with these words: "From this pulpit many great preachers have spoken. One of them sealed his sermon with a martyr's death. Don't expect much from me. I cannot preach like them. I cannot give you deep teachings. But I point toward One who will satisfy all the needs of your soul and your intellectual demands. This is all I dare do. I enter the shadow and let Him speak to you."
The audience listened to him attentively because he was modest.
I knew a preacher who was greatly loved because he would say in the middle of his sermon, "Wait a little I have forgotten what I was going to say. I re member it was something important. Just be patient a moment."
With most preachers such a thing would never happen. They would fill a gap in their memory with empty words. Humility wins. People have enough trouble with their own pride. They will not swallow yours.
Preach with life
Thomas Edison said, "Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration." I agree with him. In order to be a good preacher, a man has to work hard. The sermon must be the result of the labor of a whole Christian life, not of a few minutes or even a few hours of preparation.
The worst ink is better than the best memory. I write down every significant word I hear in a sermon or private conversation or read in the Bible or a newspaper, every episode from my life or that of others that can be used as an illustration. For every idea, I have one sheet of paper. I put on top the Bible verse with which I believe it could best be used. And then I classify the ideas from Genesis to Revelation. A person who makes 10 notes a day will have 36,500 notes after 10 years. I once had 100,000. Some were confiscated by the Communist police.
When I have to deliver a sermon on a given subject, I go to the respective drawer and usually find far too many illustrations, plus linguistic and theological explanations, for my immediate needs. I have much to choose from. People sometimes wonder about the richness of thought in my sermons. However, they are not the thoughts of the previous week, but those I have gathered across the years.
What I say in this article applies not only to pastors but also to every one who wishes to witness effectively for Christ, to everyone who wishes to communicate on a spiritual level.
Pastors should not preach just once a week. Bishop Latimer recommended the devil to his clergy as an example of a good pastor. He visits his whole parish every day. He speaks not only with the head of the household but also with the wife and with each individual child, and then he enters the kitchen to say a word to the maid who might be there.
I heartily recommend that you do the same when you pay a visit as a Christian. Have a story prepared for every child according to age. Prepare yourself for a private conversation as you would prepare yourself for a sermon before thousands. I was won for Christ in a private conversation. Since that time, thousands have been influenced for Christ through me. Who knows the value of the one man, woman, or child to whom you dedicate your time? He might be a future Spurgeon or a great saint in process.
Consider that every sermon or simple conversation may be your last or the last one heard by the person before you. It is a sin to give less than the best of which you are capable. Never care what your bishop, your board of elders, or the audience will think about your sermon or what the world will think about your talk. Simply deliver the message that you have from God, always adjusting it to the level of understanding of the people to whom you speak.
Preach the truth about the Truth, then embellish it with beautiful illustrations. Preach "as a dying man to dying men," as a physician to a terminal patient, as a lover to his deathly ill bride. Preach with eternity in your line of sight. And preach about Jesus, the greatest lover of all, who not only preached to dying people but Him self died for all that they might have eternal life.
You will have great reward in this earth as you bring souls to Christ, and the greatest joy of all---to spend eternity with them in the presence of the One you now represent.