Being disappointed by one’s own preaching: on putting the Bible at the centre and trusting the Spirit

This Sunday I preached at Greyfriars for the first time. Like me the minister there, Richard Frazer, uses the Revised Common Lectionary so I took as my text one of the RCL readings for the day, John 1:43-51 (the call of Philip and Nathaniel). I found myself drawn to the question of why so many different titles are applied to Jesus over the course of these 9 verses and the resulting sermon can be found here. I was fairly pleased with this sermon until I delivered it when I discovered I’d more or less missed saying the thing I really wanted to say and had completely missed saying it in the way I would have liked to.

What I really wanted to say was that when we encounter Christ he will always be different and more than we imagine him to be; that God and God’s will for us is inscrutable and hard to discern but that if we trust God and pay attention to the workings of the Spirit we will be guided. What we know about ourselves and about God cannot simply be put aside but neither can they be allowed to prevent God showing us new and surprising things.

This only really became clear to me after I’d finished in the pulpit. As so often a range of related but secondary matters had taken over the sermon. Wha t exactly were the preconceptions Nathaniel brought to his encounter with Jesus and where did they come from? What did Jesus mean by calling himself “the Son of Man”?

Additionally I’d fallen into the classic trap of trying to do too much in one sermon. I wanted to deal both with the question of vocation as applying to every Christian and with the relationship of the Church to Israel. These are both important issues and are not unrelated to one another but taking on both on a single occasion is not good homiletic practice.

This experience of failure in preaching is not a completely new one to me. On almost every occasion I come away feeling that I’ve missed my own point. This time the realisation dawned on me when I said something about the Christian in church standing where Nathaniel stood. This was the real entry point to the sermon I was supposed to give. What I meant was that when we come into the presence of Christ in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper and in the Word preached this is as real and as risky as when Nathaniel responded to Philip’s invitation to “come and see”.

Nathaniel came to Jesus as “an Israelite” without deception and we come to Jesus as Christians. In both cases this formation prepares us to meet Jesus but doesn’t itself tell us what we should do and be. Only the encounter and the disciple journey can do that.

In the case of the preacher this means taking real care that one’s words come out of a struggle with the Christ one encounters in the Spirit lead struggle with the Biblical text.  The knowledge and opinions one brings are essential to this struggle but they mustn’t be allowed to overwhelm it. Done right the preparation of a sermon should included surprises, the discovery that you are being brought somewhere new. The preacher must be at stake in the process.

This Sunday, if I had paid better attention to where I was being taken, the sermon would have centred on an attempt to make the conversation between Nathaniel and Jesus really live in those moments at Greyfriars. I would have exerted myself to enable the congregation actually to imagine themselves in Nathaniel’s place. This would have required some of the same material about what it meant to be a first century Israelite but it would also have required an effort to bring to life the trans-Jordanian setting within the ministry and mission of John the Baptiser. 

I was right to try to create a bridge from that to the context of the contemporary church but I lost both the existential bite the inhabitation of the meeting would have given and clarity of purpose and message.

Next time I’ll get it wrong again, of course, but every time it’s worth reflecting on the necessity of putting the Biblical text at the centre and of trusting in the Spirit as one interprets it for the congregation put in front of one.

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