The worst, powerless, exhausting, futile sermons I’ve ever preached have been the ones where I’ve preached it once before. There are no rules against this, certainly, and it’s definitely not sinful to do (if it were, conference speakers would be up a creek without a paddle).While some do this quite skillfully, when I do it, I fall flat on my face, confident I will never preach again.
Why is this so? Because, as Martin Lloyd-Jones put it so eloquently, “True preaching…is God acting. It is not just a man uttering words; it is God using him.”[1. Preaching and Preachers, 108]
So, how do you know when God’s using you in your preaching? Lloyd-Jones suggests you tend to see it when He’s not:
You are in your own church preaching on a Sunday. You preach a sermon, and for some reason this sermon seems to go easily, smoothly, and with a degree of power. You are moved yourself; you have what is called ‘a good service’, and the people are as aware of this as you are. Very well; you are due to preach somewhere else, either the next Sunday or on a week-night, and you say to yourself, ‘I will preach that sermon which I preached last Sunday. We had a wonderful service with it.’ So you go into this other pulpit and you take that same text, and you start preaching. But you suddenly find that you have got virtually nothing; it all seems to collapse in your hands. What is the explanation? One explanation is this. What happened on the previous Sunday when you preached that sermon in your own pulpit was that the Spirit came upon you, or perhaps upon the people…and your little sermon was taken up, and you were given that exceptional service. But you are in different circumstances with a different congregation, and you yourself may be feeling different. So you now have to rely upon your sermon, and you suddenly find that you haven’t much of a sermon.[2. Preaching and Preachers, 109]
This is a helpful reminder for me, simply because it is so reflective of my own experience. Preaching is not simply faithfully preparing a sermon, it is also God acting in and through preaching. We may not always realize Lord is working through us, but we definitely know when we’re on our own in the pulpit. And it is a dreadful.