Go ahead, admit it: you almost never ask this question. Except, perhaps, on the occasional Saturday night, when it’s late and you’re tired, frustrated, looking at a blank screen wondering when, maybe if, the Holy Spirit is ever going to show up and nudge you toward a sermon.
But even though the question of why we preach is rare–and, take my word for it, it is rare, hardly ever coming up even in a homiletics text book–it’s still an important one. Because the thing is, your basic sense of why you preach greatly, if often unconsciously, shapes each and every sermon you deliver. If, for instance, you think we preach in order to teach the faith, your sermons are going to be highly didactic. Whether you choose to print outlines in your bulletin, tell stories, or employ PowerPoint, your sermons will still be largely educational in nature. Similarly, if you think the primary purpose of preaching is moral exhortation, then no matter what form your sermon may take or what various means of communication you may employ, your sermons will consistently take aim at strengthening the moral life of your hearers.
Get the point? The “why” of preaching–that is, what we think preaching is primarily about–dramatically shapes both the “what” and the “how” of our preaching as well.
So, why preach? Truth is, of course, that there is no single answer. It depends on so many things, including our own theology, our life experience, and our sense of the nature of Christian worship; just to name a few. But while I can’t answer this question for you, I can at least share my own sense of the purpose and import of preaching. To get at this, though, I need to go back just a little further, beginning first not with why I preach, but why I listen; that is, why I want and need to hear a good sermon in the first place.
Okay, with this in mind, it’s time for me to come clean: for me, you see, listening to a good sermon is a matter of desperation. That’s right, desperation. Because, if I’m going to be honest, I have to confess that I sometimes find it hard to believe. In the face of the evening news, with all of its stories of human misery and suffering, the good news of the gospel can seem a little hard to believe. I mean, think about it: week in and week out we preachers proclaim not just that is there a God who created the vast cosmos and still sustains them, but that this God not only knows that we exist but actually cares, deeply and passionately about our ups and downs, our ins and out, our successes and failures, our aspirations and disappointments. See what I mean? This is a message that is just this close to being too good to be true.
And so I come to church each week longing to hear this message of God’s love poured out for all the world in and through Jesus Christ to renew me in faith, actually to create faith in me once again. To get down to it, I honestly think the message of the gospel is hard to believe for more than about seven days in a row. Because even when you leave church pulsing with a renewed sense of God’s commitment to you and to all the world, by week’s end on Friday–and my goodness, but on some weeks by Tuesday morning!–it all seems hard to believe again. And so Sunday becomes a time to listen to the story of God’s unyielding love and tenacious commitment to be with us and for us forever that we might have faith, hold on, and keep up the good fight, for another seven days.
Preaching, then, from this point of view, is bread for the journey. It’s our weekly immersion back into the story of God and God’s love for all the world that we might not only believe that story but go out from church ready to live according to it.
That’s why I preach, because I suspect there are people out there hungering for the word of the gospel. People who have lived with a deafening cacophony of words shouted at them all week long–words, let’s face it–that more often than not challenge their identity as God’s children rather than affirm it. And so seeking shelter from the meaningless noise of the week past, they come now to church seeking a word of comfort, a word of promise, a word of faith, hope, and love.
They are desperate for the word, for God’s Word, just as we are. Let us not disappoint them. Let us preach.