Every week pastors around the world set aside time to prepare sermons. We stare at the blank document on our word processor, watching that terrifying cursor blink, almost in unison with the seconds ticking away. It's a stressful time.
Even though I pick out the topics and Scripture for my sermons months in advance, this moment of blank document anxiety begins every week when I sit down to prepare my message. Since I study at home (a place of endless distraction), I find every excuse not to write anything down or read anything from the stack of resources I've pulled from my shelves. Nevertheless, like all pastors, I am fixed to a deadline and must produce something before I can deliver the message.
For many pastors, Saturday night is not a time of fun and entertainment, but of utter madness. Writing is a frustrating process, and I am not sure there is a single person who really enjoys it. Pastors don't write sermons because we want to, we write sermons because we have to. This burden makes preaching energizing, but it makes our study time stressful. We don't always feel like preparing or preaching or writing, but we know we must. Who else will? Writing is a burden.
Recently, one of our pastors asked each preacher on staff how he goes about preparing his sermons. When he came to me, I shared my process in my typical, scattered way. I said my process started by listening to my audience, identifying what I'm hearing from those I speak to each week. This, of course, is essential in preaching. Listening to your community—with its needs and lies bound together—can lead to God's direction. I explained the importance of good resources such as commentaries, and I recommended reading widely outside of the common theological resources as well (fiction, current events magazines, and more).
But as I sat in my office after he left and looked at my "process" outlined on my whiteboard, I reflected on the actual content from my sermon the week before. Listening to my audience was part of it, but it certainly wasn't the genesis of my sermon. The resources I read certainly guided and structured my exegesis. But more than these things, my sermon started with God's activity in my heart, in my daily life. Much of my actual content came from lessons hidden deep within my character, which Christ is forming. I never expected these things to surface until I sat to write.
Three weeks ago I was in the middle of a series on biblical justice. I was speaking on the Good Samaritan, and as I prepared the message, I tried to recall an example of simple, on-the-spot generosity like the Samaritan's, a time when God set me up to give by faith, and I followed through. It hit me: I can't remember a time when I've given in a way like this. I could not think of a time when I was as generous as the Good Samaritan. I've been generous, but not that generous.
To be fair to myself, I suppose it could be true that I've never been given an opportunity to give like the Good Samaritan, but this is doubtful. More likely, I have had numerous opportunities to give in radical, unorthodox ways but I never responded as Jesus would have. I rarely pray about these opportunities and probably don't have eyes to see them if they did appear. I was about to present a truth that I had never experienced in my own life.
During my sermon preparation, I had every commentary out and pages of notes on the historical, linguistic, and geographic context. I knew the different scholarly takes on the passage and understood why Jesus chose a Samaritan instead of a Jew. But I had never actually done what Jesus was teaching. I had prepared in all of the ways school had taught me, but I had not prepared in the way that mattered most—experience.