Chapter II. The Priest as a Preacher
By the Ven. Percy C. Webber
Archdeacon of Madison, Diocese of Milwaukee
BY preaching the priest shares in the prophetical office of the Lord; thus that office becomes a foremost and essential characteristic of a successful priest's life. Jesus Christ came preaching, and when about to ascend, commanded, "Go preach the gospel." The direct result of the outpouring of the Holy Ghost on the day of Pentecost was preaching. From the hour -when the disciples went elsewhere preaching until this day, the many have come from heathenism to the Laver of Regeneration, to the Sacrament of the Breaking of the Bread, have been taught the "all things whatsoever" Christ commanded, and been builded up in His life, by the foolishness of preaching.
To preach the gospel is of the highest dignity and greatest responsibility; it is the chief way by which the Church can and does, everywhere and with all, "earnestly contend for the faith once delivered to the saints."
Preaching, to quote Geikie, is "mentioned in the New Testament over eight hundred times, while such related words as 'edify,' 'exhort,' 'teach,' occur about two hundred and fifty times." Then, too, we should bear in mind not only the direct evidence of the New Testament for preaching, but, likewise, first, the testimony of the Church, and second, that of reason. The Church in her baptismal office for infants says, "Ye shall call upon him to hear sermons." In the office for adult baptism she says, "Call upon them to use all diligence to be rightly instructed in God's Word." In the Communion office she places the sermon almost immediately after those inspired utterances, the Epistle and the Gospel. Who can doubt this is because she knows how utterly impossible it is for the highest spiritual approach to the altar of her Lord to be made without that quickening of the affection, will, and mind, which comes from the true sermon? Again, the Church has done her work as the evangelizer and guide of the nations by naught else as by the truth set forth in the preaching of the gospel. Without doubt, as said Aristotle, "worship is the highest of the six administrations of the state;" and, we may add, the fountain, source of all which is real and lasting in their activity; likewise, it is true, the central and highest act of worship is the Blessed Sacrament; but in order that one shall rightly in this highest act show the Lord's Death till He come, devoutly join with Him in the communion of His Body and Blood, and go forth to be the true citizen, it is necessary that he have his whole being lifted up to the apprehension of the spiritual meaning of the sacrament, and this can be given him in no such wise as by preaching.
Reason teaches, and truly, the highest thing known to man is a living personality. Therefore it is reasonable for us to believe that by no written word or mere uninstructed act of outward worship can the mind be so illumined, the heart so inflamed, the will so aroused, as by the power which resides in the spoken word, compelling with all the life-force of that authority which speaks not in any earthly name, but by the command of the Christ, emphasized and enriched by the experience in the life, of the effect of the word which is being delivered.
A most glorious privilege is it to preach the unsearchable riches of Jesus Christ and His truth. Nothing can take the place of preaching; no; rather is it that every other activity of a priest's life is made vital and truly effective because of it. When a priest preaches he stands forth, first, as the ambassador of Christ to beseech men in Christ's stead to be reconciled to God; second, as a messenger come to prepare the way of the Lord by making known the commands and promises of the Lord; third, as a watchman, who must give an account of those for whom he watches; fourth, as a steward of the mysteries of the Lord holding up ever, even in an age which disparages the value of the sacramental observances, the absolute necessity of keeping every command of the Christ and maintaining its permanent value, whether concerning a sacrament or any other Christian observance.
In exact proportion as a priest realizes the emphasis placed on preaching by his all powerful and ever-present Lord, the apostles, and an evangelizing Church, will he magnify his office as preacher, knowing that only as he is a never-tiring, effective preacher, can he be a truly successful priest.
There is a two-fold mistake which is made by one and another in this our day. On the one hand, undue emphasis is laid upon preaching; on the other, upon the sacraments and the reading of the services. Each is necessary, and where the real work of the Church as Christ designed is going forward, there is to be found both preaching and worship. The one cannot do without the other. Preaching which results in no definite coming to and walking with Christ, in the sacraments, and the worship of the Church, sooner or later becomes utterly unapostolic. Worship and administration of sacraments, without the attendant power of preaching, tend to the death of spirituality, and easily end in mere washing of the cups and platters of a cold or superstitious formalism.
Not every priest has the gift of eloquence, or is imbued with much learning, or has the ability to deliver highly polished discourses; but every priest, and we make no exception, can as surely as he is called of Christ to preach the gospel, be an effective preacher. An effective preacher wins men to Christ, extends the kingdom, builds the people up in truth and righteousness, and inspires them with holy zeal, to spread the gospel, even to every creature.
He who would be an effective preacher will have as deep rooted as life, the desire to win men to Christ; second, he will never forget he can do nothing without the constant aid of the Holy Ghost, for whom he will unceasingly pray even with fasting; third, he will have a deep sympathy for men in all their cares and doubts and failings, and never cease enthusiastically to feel he has the one thing they stand in need of, namely, the gospel of Christ; fourth, he will look forward to each sermon or its allied lecture, instruction or private counsel, as one more grand and glorious opportunity for the presentation of Christ and His power to help men; fifth, he will, before and during each sermon, ask himself the end which he has in view; sixth, he will preach with all the earnestness of one who knows the surpassing importance of his subject for his hearers, and is filled with the deepest yearning that they may see, and know, life, for which they all so long, to be, as he knows it to be, in Christ and His friendship; seventh, he will seek for each sermon the power which can come to it by the earnest striving in prayer for him and his sermon, of a certain number of faithful believers in the promise, "if two of you be agreed on earth as touching anything they shall ask, it shall be done for them by My Father, which is in Heaven"; eighth, he will in every sermon make direct personal application of the message he delivers to those who are then in the seat of the hearer; for he well knows a sermon is not a debate, an essay, no, nor anything else than the delivering of a message from Christ to man.
After the priest has well considered the truths which have been thus far set forth in this article, he will then see how very great is the necessity of the right preparation of the sermon.
The first thing to do in preparing for the sermon, and most important, is to select the text. This should be done only when the priest's whole nature is in a spiritually quickened condition; hence, for perhaps the majority, the time immediately after the Sunday morning service is the best time, for then if ever it would seem as if the priest would be in the condition mentioned. As a rule, the earlier in the week the text is selected, the better; so if Sunday, the ideal day of selection, be not used, then certainly the priest should not allow, if possible, more than Monday to pass before making a selection; yet there may be weeks when it will be found more desirable that the text should be selected late, even to within a few hours of the preaching. The one thing to be borne in mind is, the priest should never select his text except under the influence of the Holy Spirit, and with great and intense longing for the glory of Christ and salvation of souls. The priest must, if he would rightly select his text, be one who, as soon as one opportunity of bearing the message of his Lord has passed, yearns for the next one to come.
Again, as the priest stands forth not as other men do when they are publicly speaking, but as the messenger of the Lord acting, if he truly act, under the guidance and illuminating power of the Holy Ghost, he must never allow his selection of the text to become a thing of mechanical habit, or mere intellectual choice. He must give room for the direct leading of the Spirit. Thus it may happen that even after he has entered the pulpit it may be borne in upon him, not to preach on the text he had selected, but upon some other.
Again, the priest, remembering he preaches not simply to instruct the mind, but to kindle the affections, rouse the moral nature and strengthen the will of the people, and never as a mere part of a service, will, in the selection of his text, ask himself, What would Jesus be likely to choose for His coming message? And, as he asks himself this question, he will turn to his Lord in earnest believing prayer; then confidently select his text.
The text having been selected, there comes first the spiritual preparation, in which the priest will first meditate upon Christ and Him crucified as the necessity for men; and how surpassingly glorious is the life which becomes a man's, when he truly puts himself under the direction of Christ, with the thought how, through the coming sermon, he is to have the opportunity of once more impressing this truth in some one of its many aspects upon his hearers! Second, he will meditate upon the glory which there is in being the real friend of Jesus Christ, and delight himself in the thought that his sermon may be the means by which some one shall attain to this glory. Third, he will pray day by day until the delivering of the sermon, for the message and the hearers thereof. Fourth, he will give himself to the reading of books which have to do with the true spiritual life and work of the priest, especially as told in the sermons and lives of holy priests. And fifthly, he will give himself to making a very earnest use of the Friday abstinence and all its opportunities, especially the devotional reading of the Holy Scriptures in the Gospels, that he may hear the voice of the Master, and, hearing, rise up to go forth, even as Christ meant him to go, when He said, "As the Father sent Me, even so have I sent you."
The intellectual preparation for the sermon has a two-foldness. First, there is the general and constant intellectual training, which becomes the very granary of truth from which the text is selected in particular. He who would do good general training of his intellect for the work of preaching will fail not to study History, which will give him the knowledge of what Christ has done for men; Dogmatic Theology, which will keep before him the necessity of clear dogma as the basis of true morality and train him in clear doctrinal thinking; the Bible, especially reading it with the aid of commentaries. From the great poetic and philosophic, and sermon and biographical writers will he gain what we may term "intellectual power," for these works will not only instruct but stimulate as well. He will read Current Literature, which will give to him the knowledge of living men and the movements of the present civilization, thus furnishing him with illustrations and adaptations for the truth of his message.
The particular intellectual preparation will consist in studying the text, if possible in the original, and comparing it with all related passages of Holy Scripture. Second, making an analysis of the text and subject suggested thereby. It is well never to have more than three points in the ordinary sermon, and these so related that one great impression of the everlasting truth is left with the hearers. Third, the analysis made, then let the preacher think the text and its analysis over day by day, and if possible, as he meets his parishioners, talk with one and another of them concerning the thoughts in his mind suggested by the text, though of course, not saying to any given person anything about the sermon as such. Fourth, if the priest writes his sermon out, let him at first write with all rapidity each and every thought which comes to him; afterward, at his leisure, re-arrange, add to or drop out. Yet, if he is to preach extempore, let him not content himself with making the analysis and brooding over it, but let him make full and copious notes which he should carefully study and so arrange that, if need be, he can have them with him in the pulpit for purpose of reference only. Fifth, he should gather illustrations for each point, nor hesitate to do so, either from scripture, from nature, from current or historical events; for all truly persuasive speaking, even that' of the Master Himself, who spake not without a parable, has ever been more or less illustrated. The truth must be given to men in such wise as will enable them to understand that it is no mere theory which is being uttered, but a living reality which has its manifestation and illustration in the outward things of life. Moreover, if the preacher is to win men, he must speak to them in the language which they can understand; and that language is the every-day things of nature and mankind as they touch the mind, the heart, the will, the external life. Sixth, he will, just before the delivering of his sermon, if possible, go carefully over it and with prayer.
The subject matter of the sermon can not be else than the Holy Scriptures. They are the Word of God and contain all things necessary to salvation in the fullest possible sense, and give us "the things written aforetime"; and the truths of the New Testament give such a full and clear revelation of every principle which can enter into the workings of life in any age, that preaching them the priest is ever not only abreast of his age, but as a true leader going on before. It cannot be too much insisted on that the "compelling force" of Holy Scripture and its uplifting power for every characteristic of man found in any class or condition, is without a single rival. The poet, the philosopher, as well as the moralist, find in the Bible the highest ideal, and by it the lowest type of man is brought into life's true relations as toward God, man, and the universe. God, in Scripture, gives the general unfailing vision of life and its constant principles of action. He calls the priest as preacher to the making real and glowing with all the charm of true and present every-day life, this vision and its principles. The subject matter, then, of the sermon, is the vision, splendid, as declared in the Bible, which the priest, as preacher, is to persuasively describe in the language of the day, instruct with his own personality which has been "caught up," and filled through and through by its glory. The priest, as preacher, who would be true to his subject matter, as he preaches not himself with a scriptural text as a decorous preface, will be very sure, first, so to preach Christ and Him crucified, that, even as Moses and all the prophets spake concerning Him, his every sermon, no matter what particular text and its phase of the truth is being declared, will "lift up" Christ and show Him as Saviour. Second: So to preach the Bible, that no one of its great doctrines--the Bible is a book of doctrines, of Repentance, Atonement, Regeneration, Sacramental life, the Holy Eucharist, the Trinity, the Resurrection, etc., etc.--shall fail of a most scriptural, insistent and persuasively practical teaching by him. Third: So to preach the great, ever fresh and constantly practical doctrines of Holy Scripture as to make them, what God intended, the flashlight of truth upon the life of the present and future, even as they were upon the ages wherein they were revealed.
The work of the priest, as preacher, is to make clear, charming, and the one thing to be desired, the revelation of God as set forth in the Bible, and emphasized in nature and humanity. His subject matter and text book thus are one and the same. The need of the hour is men who, without doubt, believe, as they believe in God, that "all scripture is given by INSPIKATION of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness; that the man of God may be thoroughly furnished unto all good works"; and will, so believing, go forth with all boldness to preach without flinching, or "seems to me," or acknowledgment of "possibly successful dispute of the Bible." The teaching they are "persuaded is concluded and proved by the scripture," and this they will do not in the arrogance and weakness of mere private judgment, but with minds and hearts taught and guided by the Church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.
The length of a sermon depends upon the character of the service in connection with it and the subject of the sermon. Usually speaking, it is wise that the sermon of a Sunday morning be not above a half an hour; in the evening it may be longer. Again, there are times, as during Advent and Lent and in Missions, when there may be courses of sermons which will be preceded or followed by so brief a service, if any, that they may each be as long as the preacher will, and as the subject demands.
Sunday sermons should never be of a controversial character. The great subjects of the Gospel, as the doctrine of the Incarnation, the Resurrection, the Trinity, should be, of course, preached fully and clearly, but not as if anyone doubted them; moreover, each sermon must be a real appeal not only to the understanding and the will, but to the affections likewise; for out of the heart are the issues of life. This being said, it must not be forgotten, however, that every sermon should have as its basis, though not mentioned, some certain dogmatic truth.
The most effective manner of preaching, undoubtedly, is without manuscript, for thus the personality of the man in all of its directness of flashing eye, and kindling face, and quivering earnest personality, can be manifest as it cannot be if the sermon be from manuscript, or committed. If, however, a priest has not yet preached the ideal, which is extempore preaching, then let him write his sermons with all that certain something which is his when he sits to write a very persuasive and intense, and almost life or death letter to his friend. In delivering the sermon, the best rule for the priest is this, and this alone: Intensely believe his message, be sure Christ wants him to deliver it, be filled with the consuming desire to convince the people before him, then speak without thought of the manner, or of body or hands, or kind of tone, or trick of speech. Leave all such things to the mere elocutionist. Let the priest of God, as he delivers his message, be so intensely alive to its grand meaning, that he has no opportunity for any thought of how he should speak or is speaking. Finally, the priest who would be an effective preacher, will, as he finishes or closes his sermon, do so with the one great burning desire that his message may find a convincing lodgment in the heart of each hearer to be manifested in his or her life.
The priest, who having prepared his sermon as the messenger of Christ, with the realization that he must account to Christ for his utterance, and is filled with a deep love for souls, especially for those before him, being, as it were, consumed with an agony of desire that they shall hear and go forth to a new life, must, he cannot help it, be the effective preacher of the Gospel. And when his Master appears at the great day he shall, having "turned many to righteousness, shine as the stars forever and ever"; and even here and now have the priest's great joy, that of seeing many an one "saved through Christ forever," and the kingdom of his Lord extended, because that he did faithfully, and thus effectively, preach the everlasting Gospel of the Son of God.