What do you expect of a preacher? Or to put it another way: what would a preacher have to do to earn your disapproval?
In the previous post, we looked at Paul’s own estimation of his preaching against the background of what may have been unspoken expectations among the believers in Corinth. Here are his words again, this time taken from the Common English Bible:
When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I didn’t come preaching God’s secrets to you like I was an expert in speech or wisdom. I had made up my mind not to think about anything while I was with you except Jesus Christ, and to preach him as crucified. I stood in front of you with weakness, fear, and a lot of shaking. My message and my preaching weren’t presented with convincing wise words but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power. I did this so that your faith might not depend on the wisdom of people but on the power of God. (1 Cor 2:1-5, CEB)
What form of expertise did the Corinthians hope to find in Paul? What did Paul think might be expected of him? He was, after all, a highly educated man, capable of publicly going toe to toe with pagan philosophers (e.g., Acts 17:16-34). Yet in the passage above, he writes as if he had decided beforehand not to get pulled into the game of trying to impress people with his rhetoric.
That’s not to say that his ability to make such an impression should be taken for granted. Nobody knows for certain what he means by “weakness, fear, and a lot of shaking,” but some think it may refer to some actual infirmity. It reminds me of the guest preacher we had several weeks ago: Chris Simning, by God’s grace a survivor of cerebral palsy. When he shuffled awkwardly to the pulpit and began to speak in slurred tones, one could hardly help wondering what would happen next.
What happened next was a demonstration of the power of the Holy Spirit. Despite Chris’ halting cadences, the message of a sovereign and gracious God, delivered in humility and weakness, came through loud and clear.
I’m not saying that one has to be disabled to communicate the gospel! But sometimes it’s necessary to be forced outside our taken-for-granted expectations to be able to hear the message without the distracting expectations we bring with us.
For example, I remember being in a service recently where a person stepped into the pulpit to read Scripture. He stood too close to the microphone; every time he said a word beginning with letter “p,” it made a sound like someone dropping a dictionary. Can’t he hear that? I thought to myself incredulously. Dude, get a clue–that’s so distracting!
It took a while for me to realize that he was reading God’s word, and I wasn’t listening. And that realization itself, I take it, was from the Holy Spirit.
Those who preach God’s word have a tremendous and sacred responsibility to handle the word rightly and humbly. But listeners have a responsibility as well. The Holy Spirit may have something to say to us; but will our heads be too full of criticism and disdain to hear?
I wonder: what would happen if in the moment we found ourselves wishing the preacher would do something different, we prayed for a demonstration of the Spirit’s power instead?