My Holy of Holies
A good friend from the Pentecostal tradition, in which people will often stand up and speak very authoritatively to the congregation, told me a glorious story. According to my friend, a man once stood up and declared, "Thus saith the Lord: Even as I was with Abraham when he led the children of Israel through the wilderness, so I will be with you." Then he sat down.
His wife nudged him and whispered something. He quickly stood back up and said, "Thus saith the Lord: I was mistaken. It was Moses."
That story captures the mystery of preaching, illustrating both the Word part and the flesh part: "Thus saith the Lord, I was mistaken."
The very words of God coming through human instruments, which would be you and me.
What an odd combination that is!
How do we prepare our souls for this task? We are very fallible people and yet we are to speak for God. Our preparation is not just getting our spiritual life "amped up" for a weekend service. It is much more a way of life: "What kind of person am I becoming so that preaching is the outflow of a certain kind of life, and it comes out of me in a way that God wants it to come out?"
This means not preparing your soul for a week of preaching, but how to prepare your soul for a life of preaching.
You speak in the Presence of God
When you look at Jesus, the line between when he's teaching, when he's praying, and when he's just having conversations gets really blurry. Whereas for me, the lines are often very distinct. I tend to compartmentalize.
When you speak in relation to another person, you have three categories: (1) you speak directly to the person, (2) you speak in front of the person, or (3) you speak in the absence of that person. In the third category, I might be talking about you or I might be talking about something else, but your presence is not impacting what I say. We all recognize that we usually speak differently about a person in their absence than we do in their presence.
When it comes to God, we can speak to God, and we can speak in the presence of God, but we can never actually speak in the absence of God. But for some reason, God makes it possible for us to feel as if we can.
I recently visited the Christian college I attended, and I was remembering the odd game we played in the cafeteria. As we sat down to eat, we would all surreptitiously put our thumbs up, and whoever was the last one at the table to get his thumb up had to offer the prayer over the food.
Now, think about that! God is watching this the whole time. But we're sticking our thumbs up, and the loser has to pray. Then we bow our heads and say, "Dear God, thanks for this food and we love you so much."
God is present the whole time, but we were acting as if he's not paying attention until we bow our heads and close our eyes; then he picks up the phone and we're connected. But we act as if the thumb stuff escapes his notice.
We live differently when we're aware of his presence. How many of us drive differently when we see a squad car than we do when we think the police aren't around?
John Ortberg is pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California.