Jesus was a splendid communicator. Of course, as a teacher of preaching and a devout Christian, I am expected to say that. As far as I know, the Bible does not make that claim. No verse in the Bible tells us how marvelous Jesus was as a preacher. Everything we know about Jesus’ ability as a preacher is left to implication and not to a direct statement.
As a case in point, look at John 6:11–17. All four of the biographers of Jesus write about this event, and I am eager to know to what the great truths point. Yet, first John tells us about a young teen who actually provided the loaves and fish that Jesus used to feed the crowd that day. This was a miracle of sorts. When I have taken my grandsons to a ball game, the boys I know are always hungry. The first thing they want to do includes ordering a hot dog and something to drink. In fact, they would be content to spend the afternoon at the concession stand just eating. Here, the day drift toward evening, and this youngster has not touched the lunch his mother had made for him that morning.
Perhaps he was too excited to eat. Nothing much happens in a small community; villagers take their excitement wherever they can find it. A popular young Teacher had come to the area, and reports were that He had performed miracles. He also told stories, and boys like stories. He was a happening! Everyone wanted to hear what He would say and see what He would do. This boy did not want to miss out on anything that big. He raced to stay ahead of the crowd, to find the choice spot up front to catch everything that was going on. Maybe it was the rush and movement that kept him from eating his lunch earlier.
But that raises another question. What made that young man donate his lunch to Jesus? OK. Andrew asked him for it. But imagine that conversation: “Look, son. The people are hungry, and we have no way to feed them. Is that your lunch you have there? Would you mind letting Jesus have it? We are trying to scrape up something, anything. Your lunch might help.”
Would not any normal kid have responded, “Mister, you’ve been out in the sun too long. All I have is five loaves and a couple of fish. Small fish! I’m getting real hungry myself. I haven’t eaten anything since breakfast. The lunch won’t even be enough for me. You and Jesus are crazy if you think that what I have in this bag is enough to feed this crowd.” That is what I would have said, wouldn’t you?
But for some reason the lad went along with it. He surrendered it to Andrew, and Andrew sheepishly turned it over to Jesus. “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish ” he reported, “but how far will they go among so many?”
The answer to that question is easy: “Not far. Not far at all.”
There is something else. When the disciples fed the crowd, how did they get everyone to eat the same menu? Were there not some people in the crowd who complained about the food? Were not some of them picky eaters? Fish and bread is not everybody’s favorite dish. In a gathering that large, there must have been some who had eaten spoiled fish when they were growing up and could not stomach it as adults. Did everyone in the crowd realize how hungry they were or how desperately they needed something nourishing that afternoon? I know that the text says, “Everyone had enough,” but is it not possible that some of the basketfuls left over came from people who did not like the menu?
Years ago when I first believed that God wanted me to go into the preaching ministry, I had several different questions. One was that I did not have much to say. I could preach a few sermons that people might fi acceptable, but then what? What do you say toacongregation when you feel you have given them your best and you are required to preach again next week and the weeks following that?
And every congregation has those folks who want to challenge the preacher. How do you preach to them? How do you convey that you care?
Do you identify with Andrew? I do. As I stand behind a pulpit, I have often wondered how anything I have prepared could feed so many. My best sermons are little more than fish and chips, and are at times a bit greasy. Is it not foolish to believe that the sermon I have in my hand could possibly meet the hungers of an entire congregation?
Let’s be honest and face up to the challenge. But that might keep you out of the pulpit. Why not do something easy, like rocket science?
After you have given it your best shot, when you have done the most diligent exegesis you can do, when you have read the best commentaries and crafted your sermon with skill, then delivered it with passion, even when you have read my book on preaching and followed its counsels to the letter—
Face it: When you have done your utmost, it is simply not enough.
At best, you have two small fish and five loaves, but you never have enough to feed the multitude.
Only Jesus through His Spirit can do that.
You must give your sermon to Him. Ultimately, preaching is His work. It’s astonishing sometimes. He not only multiplies our effort but also creates in listeners a hunger for what we offer them.
I remember the first time that happened to me. I was 15 and went to the Broadway Presbyterian Church in New York on a Wednesday evening to hear my cousin, Ernest T. Campbell, preach. He had just graduated from college and was attending a seminary in New Jersey, but he had come to deliver a sermon to the people in the church where he had grown up. I attended because, as a family member, I felt I should be there.
Ernie chose as his text Ephesians 6:10: “Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might.” How much can anyone say about an exhortation such as that? I discovered that Ernie could say a good deal. By the time the sermon ended, I asked God for His strength to live my life. I also decided to enroll in the college Ernie had attended because I wanted to preach like him. I took very seriously what I believed was a prompting by Christ to give my life and gift to Him. That evening, I believed that the Holy Spirit broke through that crowd, singled me out, and confronted me. More than 70 years later, those decisions made as a teenager still work themselves out in my life.
Only Jesus, through His Spirit, can work in listeners’ lives. He not only can give our sermons a power that they do not have on their own, but also create in listeners a hunger for what we offer them.
Every preacher knows the surprise. You get an unsigned note in the middle of the week, “Thank you for letting God use you last weekend. You will never know the difference it has made.” And you wonder how or why that took place.
Or you celebrated Communion and spoke that brief word about the bread and the cup: “This is My body broken for you,” and “This is My blood that was shed for you.” Words you have spoken scores of times, but you learn later that a man in your congregation who had begun an affair with someone in his off e broke it off because of those words about the death and resurrection of Christ. You had nothing like that in mind, but you are reminded that God can take your sermon and do with it what you never intended.
Every preacher knows the astonishment when a woman meets you in the grocery store in the middle of the week and thanks you for your most recent sermon in which you talked about apologizing to your children when you have messed up as a parent and what a difference that made in your family. You think back over your sermon and realize that you had not preached about that at all. To be sure, you listen to a recording of your sermon, but there is not a sentence about saying “I’m sorry” to anyone, and yet that woman in the store thanked you, and she really meant it. You can be a bit bewildered about how God works in people’s lives and minds.
As I think back over my years of offering a couple of fish and a few rolls to listeners who I hardly know, I realize that I did not know their needs, but Christ did. He created the hunger and had your sermon meet their need. God has a passageway into listeners’ lives that you and I know little about. Give your sermon to Him.
Of course, we will not offer to God what costs us nothing. We will give Him our best. Yet there are no great preachers, but we serve a great Christ who can do great things if we put our sermons and our preaching into His hands.
William Barclay, who himself held on to faith with shaky hands, wrote about A. J. Gossip, a man “who lived closer to God than any man I have ever known.” At one time, Gossip was minister of St. Matthew’s in Glasgow. There was a week when he went through the seven days that every preacher experiences, and that made it impossible for him to prepare as he should. “You know the stairs up to the pulpit at St. Matthew’s?” Gossip asked. “You know the bend in the stairs? Jesus Christ met me there. He looked at the sermon in my hand. ‘Gossip,’ He said to me, ‘is that the best you could do for Me this week?’ ” While thinking about all the pressures of that week, Gossip could honestly say, “Yes, Lord, it is my best.” Then Gossip said, “Jesus Christ took that poor thing that Sunday morning and in His hands it became a trumpet!” 2 It is always so. Even on our best days we have only some small fish and a few rolls. But we serve the living Lord. Give Him your small lunch and trust Him to feed His people.
1 Adapted from the chapter“A Final Word,”from Haddon Robinson, Biblical Preaching:The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2001), 221–224. Used by permission.
2 William Barclay, William Barclay:A Spiritual Autobiography (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1975), 13.