I know you pray for your sermon at least once a week. As you're walking toward the front on Sunday morning, prayers are flying thick and fast: Help! You know people need to hear something more than an inspiring thought or tip. They need to hear from God. And if it's going to happen, it's going to happen through you. So you pray!
But beyond that moment of truth each week, and beyond asking God to give you understanding and a heart for your people, does prayer play a role in your sermon preparation? Too many of us treat prayer as if it's simply a step in the process between reading the text for the first time and finding our illustrations. We need to regain a theological vision in which prayer becomes the posture of the preacher, for before our people can hear from God through us, we must hear from God ourselves. And hearing from God through his Word is the fundamental work of prayer.
We live in a culture and age that values self-expression above all else. When we pray, we're keeping it real with God; we're telling him what's on our mind, what we're concerned about, or what we need. And that's a problem, because in Scripture pouring out our hearts to God is never the essential point of prayer. The point of prayer is realignment, as our hearts assume a posture of dependence and humility before God. Prayer places our needs in the perspective of God's sufficiency, our problems in the perspective of his sovereignty, and our desires in the perspective of his will. Prayer is not a monologue. Rather, prayer invites God to have the last word with us, and for his Word to shape and define us.
So prayer must be the constant attitude of the preacher in sermon preparation. For me, that means meditation and prayer on the text every morning as part of my own devotions. I'm not merely trying to get a jump on sermon preparation. I'm seeking to humble myself before God's Word, so that when I finally come to preach, I preach God's agenda, not mine. Prayer makes me a fit instrument in the hands of the Redeemer.
Through prayer, the Holy Spirit gives the preacher spiritual insight and understanding. As the psalmist says: "I have more insight than all my teachers, for I meditate on your statutes" (Psalm 119:99). Normally, this insight comes as we pursue the hard work of study—translation, exegesis, reading, and so on—prayerfully.
One of the habits I learned from an older preaching mentor was to praise God in prayer for something I saw revealed about him in the passage I was going to preach—and not just privately. We begin our elder and staff meetings by reading the passage for the coming week and spending time praising God for what we see about him in that passage. Week after week, I come away instructed about both the text and the God of the text. At times I have thought that I had seen all there was to see in the passage, but as I pray with my fellow staff and elders, the Holy Spirit instructs me through them, and I walk away with a richer vision of the text. Through prayer, private and corporate, the Spirit teaches us what he has said, and what we need to say.
Preparing sermons requires knowing what the congregation needs to hear. If you're like most preachers, you probably have an opinion about what your congregation needs to hear. But all too often, that means our sermons are shaped as much by our own hobby horses as they are by the text or the Spirit. People in our congregations need a bigger view of God, hope in the midst of discouragement, and comfort in the midst of sorrow. People need to know the power of God to forgive, restore, and reconcile through Christ. They don't need our agenda. They need the wisdom of God for their lives, according to his Word.