“Be not rash with thy mouth, and let not thine heart be hasty to utter anything before God: for God is in heaven, and thou upon earth: therefore let thy words be few.” ~Ecclesiastes 5:2
P.T. Forsyth reminds us that the “Christian preacher is not the successor of the Greek orator, but of the Hebrew prophet.” Whereas the orator buries his subject in words, the preacher liberates his subject with a Word. Indeed, the minister is not called to say something, he is required to have something to say. His business is turning ears into eyeballs so that his hearers may catch sight of Christ.
However, among the problems faced by the preacher is the sheer poverty of words. Though we amass heaping piles of them, most carry little weight. The majority of our words are obtained at a meager price. Culled from the vernacular. Picked up in the back alleys of civilized discourse. Gathered from the hellscape of (un)social media. We have stockpiled a surplus of worthless goods. Precious few purchased at the cost of time and energy and discipline. If our talk isn’t cheap, it is certainly heavily discounted. Small wonder, then, that our words hold no value.
The solution to this conundrum is not necessarily the acquisition of more five-dollar words (though having varying denominations of linguistic currency should not be viewed as a detriment). Rather, the answer to the question of poverty is one of economy.
While the minister is charged with declaring the “whole counsel of God,” he is not expected to do this every five minutes or so. One doesn’t “drive a point home” by loading it, cold and stiff, into the rear end of a hearse. A preacher ought to have the good sense to quit around the same time that he is finished. Too often a minister runs out of edifying material ten minutes before he concludes and circles the airport until he runs completely out of fuel. That’s no way to run a railroad. Have faith in the Living Word. Let patience have her perfect work.
Practically speaking, this requires fewer words of the preacher. This is not to say that sermons should be shorter, only that they be succinct. Preachers must be like poets, learning how to say a lot with a few words. Beware the danger of burying the point beneath an avalanche of prattle. Unchecked rambling will so garble an argument that the preacher becomes, like wee Hiawatha in the deep woods, very hard to follow. Just so, words have a tendency of getting in the way of whatever one is trying to say. Whereas, exact speech is exacting speech. Plain talk is rarely misunderstood. To borrow a culinary image, trim the fat and thicken the gravy.
This is where a more intrepid soul might wax eloquent concerning the particular glories of preaching from a manuscript. But since I am not so adventurous let me simply underscore the virtue of writing one. Whether or not a preacher ever makes use of it in his delivery, the process of composing a manuscript will be rewarding. Among the practical benefits is the confidence that comes from having a clear and definitive word for the hour, and the opportunity to omit those bits of the sermon that folks would normally sleep through. Further, preparing a manuscript will go a long way towards laying aside the weight of superfluity and other homiletic sins which do so easily beset us.
In this way sermon preparation becomes an ascetical act of devotion. The pen becomes the means by which our wandering thoughts are tethered to the Cross. In the act of writing a sermon prayer and practice become virtually indistinguishable: “Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength, and my redeemer” (Ps. 19:14). Words are the offerings we bring. May they be the choicest of the flock and fit to purpose.
Ultimately, we aim for concision in our preaching because God is in the heavens and we breathe through our noses. Reverence compels brevity. We must give account for every idle word, especially those words employed in the Lord’s service. Let us keep the books clean by keeping our accounts short. God sits on his throne and we stand in pulpits: therefore let thy words be few.
You can learn more about J. Brandon Meeks’s new book on preaching, The Foolishness of God, here.