Preaching drives me to prayer. Much of it, I have to admit, is for myself: I need discernment, understanding, and a sense of what is the message that I should be bringing; perhaps my mind is churning and I need help in forming thoughts and capturing key points; because preaching has to be done alongside my “day job” I often come to it tired and needing energy and persistence in preparation; I may be anxious and feel the need of God’s peace and courage.
All this is certainly worth praying about, but I find it vitally important to call myself back from preoccupation with my own needs as the preacher to pray for those to whom I am to speak. What I’ve discovered is that what I pray for is then what I preach for. The focus of prayer sets goals that I hope my preaching will contribute to.
The Apostle Paul’s pattern in his letters was usually to offer a prayer for those he was addressing before going on to teach, appeal and challenge them. A good process for preachers! I find his letter to the Colossians particularly helpful in shaping my prayer and, accordingly, my preaching:
We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, 10 so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, 11 being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, 12 and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his people in the kingdom of light.
Praying this for a group of people that I am to have the responsibility of preaching to recalls me to the primary goal: that the Lord will be honoured and pleased; and the means to that goal: the lives lived by those to whom I will be speaking. Those lives will be pleasing to the Lord when they are characterized by the doing of good things and a growing into a fuller knowledge of God. So that’s what I want to preach for: I think of the sermon that is forming and ask how it will encourage God-pleasing action and be a means of all of us knowing God more.
This prayer specifies what the hearers will need for those outcomes to be realized: spiritual wisdom, to truly understand what God wants, and divine power, to be able to keep going in the life of faith with God-honouring qualities of patience and joyful thanksgiving. Praying it for my hearers focusses not only their need but also mine as I offer myself and my words to God to be instruments of His wisdom and power in their lives, for His delight.
Reading on in Colossians chapter 1 it’s difficult to tell where Paul’s praying to God for those he is addressing ends and his speaking to them about God begins. That’s the kind of confusion I aspire to!