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andrew butcher: through the earthquake, wind and fire

It was the first time I’ve ever had people screaming during my sermon. I’d prepared a brief ten-minute sermon on Psalm 139 for a Christening and for the entire time I was delivering it there were screaming children, others playing the piano, or calling out to their parents. I’ve preached in some pretty interesting settings, including prison, but until that Sunday no one had screamed the way those children did.

Afterward I felt very dejected. If anyone had heard a word I’d said then I’d be amazed at their hearing. I delivered the sermon without pausing, sat down and wondered why I’d made the effort.

And then, over afternoon tea, someone came up to me and said that what I had said had moved them to tears. I was flabbergasted. Not only had she heard what I’d said, which was amazing enough, but she had heard it enough to be moved by it. Afterward, I felt very encouraged.

Variations on that theme have happened to me before, not the screaming of course, but people coming up to me afterward and saying how they really connected with a turn-of-phrase, illustration or passing comment. And most times the things they connected with really were passing comments – they were sentences on my way to a point. But the comments I received from people were that those sentences, which were insignificant in my mind – if you like, supporting characters to the main protagonist – were where they heard God speak to them.

Preaching is, of course, one of the most visible forms of ministry. But there’s also much that’s invisible about it as well: the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of our hearers, the experiences of our listeners and how those frame what they hear us say, and the way some people connect to the stories and others to the theological facts.

And that’s what makes preaching one of the most humbling tasks I do. I might spend hours crafting the sermon, choosing the right words, finding appropriate illustrations and adopting a logical structure. I might adjust my tone, speed and volume in its delivery in order to underline my major points. And yet, while all of that is important, God’s work through my sermon is more important.

More than once I’ve said to my wife, ‘they got that out of my sermon?’

Of course, sometimes people respond to my sermon in misunderstanding ways, or in latching onto a minor point and seemingly ignoring everything else I said, or in making some comment about the colour of the PowerPoint slide. Those are all discouraging comments.

How many of you have had similar humbling experiences? How many of you have had people come up to you afterwards, or write to you at a later date, and express how God worked through something you thought wasn’t much, or was told through a noisy din? How many of you have received criticism for sharing what was deeply personal and meaningful to you, burning in your heart, but yet have also received gratitude and praise for the very same words?

I have. But – and this is a very important but – I nonetheless trust that God uses my meagre offering and transforms it by his Spirit into a life-changing encounter with Christ. That’s what makes it humbling: preaching is God’s work before it is mine; it is God’s word revealed rather than my word inspired.

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Dr Andrew Butcher attends and occasionally preaches at Tawa Baptist Church, Wellington. He is Director, Policy and Research at the Asia New Zealand Foundation. His personal website is www.andrewbutcher.org

5 Comments

  1. […] first contribution, ”through the earthquake, wind and fire’, on the Kiwimade Preaching blog is now online, where I start with the story of the only time […]

  2. Paul Windsor says:

    I resonate so much with what you are expressing here, Andrew.
    Again and again this kind of thing has happened to me.

    I find it encourages me to make my sermon to be an offering which I hand over to God with a “I’ve done my best, you do the rest” – and he does, often in unexpected ways. And I don’t need to know about it or try to measure it.

    And then when he still manages to speak through the noise and the under-prepared comment, he is reminding me that this is ultimately his work and it is his voice which speaks. So I want to prepare as fully as I can (both my words and my self) – but then let him take over and allow the words “to wing their way into the hidden depths of many a heart”.

    Thanks, Andrew – great to have you on board as one of our new columnists in 2011. There is more to come in February when we introduce four more new columnists.

  3. Geoff New says:

    Thanks for this Andrew. I had just this “problem” at Christmas. It was a community carol service in a noisy rural community hall, complete with wooden floor and a cacophony of incessant noise from, it seemed, everyone. Thing was – this level of noise was evident from the get-go and I sat there before preaching watching others give readings, paraphrase parts of the Christmas story and generally try and conquer the crowd. Knowing it was going to be me up there eventually, I took special note to see if ANYONE was taking anything in. And they were! So when I preached – I took heart from what I had witnessed in the lead-up and preached into what felt like a black-hole of inattention and indifference. But not so!! Somehow, the Spirit enabled people to lean into the message even so, and to absorb it. Preaching eh! A paradox. Not for the faint-hearted yet when we are faint-hearted it seems by the power of God hearts are touched (aka 1 Cor 2:1-5)!

  4. Mark Maffey says:

    The passage you reference 1 Kings 9 vs 9-13 is one of my favourites

    Here is a small reflection from part of one of my poems

    “So He said,” Go forth and stand on the mountain before the LORD” And behold, the LORD
    Was passing by! And a great and strong wind was rending the mountains and breaking in pieces the rocks
    The LORD sees all our needs, understands our fears, he is worthy of our trust, he keeps his word
    Sometimes we expect God to do things in certain ways; we look for the big things that will blow our socks
    We expect big things; we want to see signs and wonders, yet no eye has seen nor ear heard
    No mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him, despite us, opportunity knocks
    To do that which he has appointed us to do, whether it be what we imagine or not, it is to be obeyed
    For God does not always reveal himself in winds which rend mountains and break into pieces the rocks

    Before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD
    Was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire;
    We look for a sign, it’s not a big arch with a “M”, yet how often do we stop texting and read the word?
    My word is a lamp unto your feet, a light unto your path, yet how much do you it desire?
    It is life giving, will you sit, will you read, will you consider, listen and then act on what you’ve heard?
    Don’t expect me to shake you or light a fire underneath you, often I am not in the fire.

    With preaching or prophecy our role is to speak the word of the Lord and place our trust in him that his word will not return void. He is the Lord of the harvest, we are his seed-sowers, even if the land seems rocky, or thorny, disruptive or not listening, God is in control, it may take years for our words to have an impact, but one day they will.

  5. Nigel Irwin says:

    Andrew, I am with you 100% on this. I’ve lost count of the number of times I have sat down after delivering a sermon, feeling as though I have not hit ‘the mark’ – and then been pleased/humbled/shocked as people have shared later how deeply they were impacted.

    And I am grateful that it is this way – knowing myself as I do, if there was ever any hint that the impact of my sermons was the result of my own linguistic and oral efforts, I would be too quick to claim the credit. As it stands, I am left only to be excited at God’s willingness to take my own meagre offering, as Paul Windsor so aptly puts it, and use it to effect His purposes in the hearts of the hearers.

    Preaching is such an immense privilege – to be invited to share in God’s work in this way is something I find immensely humbling and continually joyous!

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