We all have those times in ministry when it's just plain difficult. In the early days of my ministry and preaching, Saturdays and Mondays were those times for me.
Saturdays were spent struggling to find a verse, an illustration, a thought to share with the people that would show up at church the next morning to see and feel all my hard work. These were "pre-Internet" days, so by mid-morning I'd have 25 books spread out all over my floor just to find one nugget of truth.
The second-worst days were Mondays. After I had the time to let the damage I caused the day before sink in, Monday became a depressing day of "no one was changed, saved or transformed and even cared." And then realization set in that I got to do this again for the midweek service.
There has to be a better way, I thought. Over the years, I found one.
It all depended on what my "H" looked like.
The familiar story of the Last Supper in the Gospel of John has so changed my life and view on preparing for the sermon. Let me explain.
Jesus and the disciples are together when Peter wonders what Jesus meant when He said, "One of you will betray me." I love that Peter is always asking the question everyone is thinking but afraid to ask. But "who" he asks is what set me on my journey. Consider the passage:
"There was reclining on Jesus' bosom one of His disciples, whom Jesus loved. So Simon Peter gestured to him, and said to him, 'Tell us who it is of whom He is speaking.' He, leaning back thus on Jesus' bosom, said to Him, 'Lord, who is it?' Jesus then answered, 'That is the one for whom I shall dip the morsel and give it to him'" (John 13:23-26 NASB).
Follow the process here in the passage. The one "reclining on Jesus' bosom" is John, the writer of this Gospel. Then Peter signals to "him" (small h) and said to "him" (small h) to ask Jesus who He is talking about. Then notice verse 25, referencing "it." The one leaning on the bosom of Jesus said to "Him" (big H)," Lord, who is it?" And then in verse 26, "Jesus answered." I find this exchange amazing. Peter hears something from the second member of the Godhead. He doesn't understand it. So who does he ask? John.
Therein lies the secret of sermon preparation, preaching with authority and freedom from sermon depression. It's the "h" issue. Peter spent his time asking John to ask Jesus, instead of asking Jesus.
Listening for Jesus' Heartbeat
Think of where John is. He's leaning on the bosom of Jesus. His head is resting on His chest. That means John is literally hearing the heart-beat of God. Just the surface thought of that is staggering. To lean on the breast of Jesus is to get the heartbeat of Jesus. John hears what makes His heart beat faster. But Peter, like most of us, has learned to ask "the leaners on the breast of Jesus" what the answers are instead of trying to find a vacant spot on His chest.
There are sermons, and then there is God's heart.
For the precious people I preach to every Sunday at Brooklyn Tabernacle in New York City, I want to deliver God's heart to them. My three decades in the ministry have been a journey of interacting less with my library and more of finding my spot to hear the heartbeat of God. To get that close to Jesus takes the most time and the most discipline.
I have spent most of my life asking the little "h" what God meant, and now I'm finally learning to ask the big "H." Martin Luther's axiom carries more weight with me than ever: "He who has prayed well has studied well."
I remember being at a missions conference, sitting on stage with our speakers. I was to deliver the final sermon in a few days. As I was telling our church the schedule, I gave them a taste of my upcoming sermon to whet their appetite for the incredible three points I was going to make. As I went through each point, for the life of me I couldn't remember the third one. It became a bit humorous for the church, but no harm done as I stood in the pulpit trying to rattle my memory. Then I heard my third point whispered from someone on the side of the stage. Bewildered at how they knew my third point, I quickly blurted it out.
Sitting down, my heart sank. I realized the speaker who helped me out knew my third point because it was from his book I had taken the outline. I was sitting next to the author whose message I swiped. He was so congenial and never said a thing about it. This author's heartbeat for world missions was just like God's. His books seemed to beat that way also. When he spoke, you felt it. It was in his voice and part of his DNA. I wanted that.
Don't misunderstand. I believe all truth is God's truth. When a preacher, a writer, a commentator shares an incredible insight or a great thought, is it out of bounds to relay that to our church? Of course not. That doesn't make sense. I'm not asking you to neglect being well stud-ied. I am pleading with you to come back to the breast of Jesus and hear Him.
There is something about the man who first hears Jesus' heartbeat.
Now let me put things in perspective. I'm not advocating an all-out "Smith Wigglesworth" assault, who advised all young preachers to burn all their books and only read the Bible. I have about 7,000 books in my personal library that I have no intention of eliminating. It's not a matter of one or the other, but rather placement and priority. It's all about, "At what point do I turn to the books?" After all these years of preaching, I'm finding a place on His bosom before a place in a book to underline and develop.
I am honored to serve with Jim Cymbala at The Brooklyn Tabernacle. I remember sitting with him at a round table of pastors an-swering questions when someone asked the proverbial question "What is God saying to the church?" Though the question was sin-cere, he was asking the little "h." Pastor Cymbala pointed him back to the big "H." His answer was profound. He said to the young minister, "Is God saying something to the church? I don't think so. I think He is saying 10,000 things to the church. When you read the book of Revelation, Jesus is not saying the same thing to Ephesus as He is to Laodicea and to Smyrna. He spoke specifically and definitely to each church. Each pastor has to find out what He is saying to each of your churches." That is the big "H" versus the little "h" summed up beautifully.
I know the difference when I've listened to a well-studied man and a well-prayed man. The man who first starts with the little "h" can craft a sermon masterpiece. But there is something about the man who first hears Jesus' heartbeat. That pastor speaks with authority. My plea is that we hear His heart first before anything else. Always remember that there is a vacant spot on the bosom of Jesus waiting for you. He wants you to hear what saddens His heart and what makes it glad.
Making Prayer the Priority
God's heartbeat is heard in prayer.
The problem is that we don't see prayer as study. Prayer is the priority of study. It's funny to me that the Bible never says, "Read without ceasing." It seems to me that prayer is much harder to do than reading. If the heartbeat of Jesus is found in prayer, then I have to find a way back to that vacancy that many of His heralds have vacated.
Practically speaking, what does that mean? This is going to sound so infantile and so overly simplistic that I would be skeptical if someone told me this. Before a commentary is opened, before a text is Googled, before a podcast is listened to, take a Bible and a pad of paper and lie on the floor and listen to God. Find that place John occupied and hear God's heartbeat for your church and your congregation. Remember, the heart of Jesus is heard in prayer.
Do I still use my library? Of course. Charles Spurgeon's sermon on 2 Timothy 4:13, "Paul: His Cloak and His Books," is a master-piece. Spurgeon shows the proper placement for books and the Scriptures (parchments) in the preacher's life.
I try to read a book a week. I have a well-maintained reading discipline I've developed over the years. I've learned that the books are the little "h." But just because it's little doesn't mean it's not valuable.
It's just an issue of priority to me. I've felt God speak to me about Mark 5 and the three characters that fell at the feet of Jesus (a man with a legion of demons, the woman with the issue of blood and Jairus). I've read that passage on my knees with a pad and paper desiring to hear His heart. I've written down thoughts from prayer. And then after prayer, I've found myself gleaning from the great preacher J.D. Jones of Bournemouth and his incredible commentary on Mark. Don't burn the books. There is value in them. Just be determined to hear Him before you hear them.
Delivering the Heart of Jesus
I usually preach from my iPad. I deliberately loaded an image so that each time I reach for it I see it. It's the picture of a statue that sits in downtown Boston depicting the great American preacher Phillips Brooks. He's preaching at the pulpit with Jesus standing behind him, His arm resting on the pastor's shoulder. When I saw that statue, I knew I wanted that same experience every time I stood in the pulpit at The Brooklyn Tabernacle. I wanted to deliver His heart for His people. I wanted Jesus close by. I wanted the backing of Christ and not just the backing of simply well-meaning and well-written textbooks behind me. When it's all said and done, I want to be able to cite Jesus before citing a resource. I want to hear what "He" had to say before anyone else. I want my "H's" in priority order.
Not too long ago, my 10-year-old son traveled with me when I spoke in Delaware. He left something at the house of the pastor leading the ministry I was speaking for. He was horrified because that toy was so important to him. I called the pastor, and he as-sured me to tell Christian Paul that the toy was put in the mail Saturday morning and would arrive in New York shortly. Well, Sunday morning came, and a little boy rushed downstairs to check the mail for his toy. To his consternation, no mail and no toy. He couldn't believe it.
"The pastor said he mailed it Saturday. Why isn't it here?" he asked.
Then came the lesson on the U.S. postal system and how letters get mailed. I told him, "Just because someone mails it on Satur-day doesn't mean you get it Sunday."
Then it dawned on me, this is my past preaching life summed up in the disappointment of a little boy. Why all the disappointment over the years about my preaching? I thought I got the package ready on Saturday and delivered the mail on Sunday. Not so. The package to be delivered takes time. The preacher who prepares a sermon on Saturday will never deliver the mail on Sunday. I can deliver a sermon on Sunday and have for decades. But I've now realized that in these times our nation does not simply need a ser-mon. They need the heart of Jesus.
TIM DILENA is the founding pastor of Revival Tabernacle Church in Highland Park, Mich., and now serves with Senior Pastor Jim Cymbala as as-sociate pastor at Brooklyn Tabernacle in New York City.