By Chris Philbeck
I remember the weekend my son graduated from high school. It was June 2003, and the graduation ceremony was scheduled for Sunday afternoon. We had several family members in town to help celebrate, but before heading to the high school gymnasium for the actual graduation, we would all be sitting together in church. I wanted to preach a great sermon that weekend for my son, all of our other graduates, and for my family. I just really wanted to preach a great sermon. But it was a struggle.
I’m not normally a “grinder” when I write a sermon, but I was grinding all week. Then, on the day I needed to send my manuscript to our production team, I had an “aha” moment when reminded of a quote I had read many years earlier. (I wish I could recall the source.)
“Great sermons take their life from the nearness of God.”
You wouldn’t think someone who at that point had been preaching for over 20 years would forget an important truth like that, but that’s what happened. I had become so consumed with creating a great sermon that I left God out of the process. And while it stings a bit to admit it, I’m sure I’m not the only preacher who has made this mistake.
Paul wrote, “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching” (1 Timothy 4:13). The word devote is translated from the Greek word prosecho, which means “to turn the mind to.” In his commentary The Pastoral Epistles, Donald Guthrie writes that prosecho, a verb, “implies previous preparation in private.” As a practical application, it can mean preparation in the sense of writing a sermon.
Every preacher has his own process. But there’s another preparation that needs to happen in private—it’s the preparation of the heart as you turn your mind to God in a way that allows him to work in you and through you to consecrate the process. Great sermons take their life from being near to God.
Just as every preacher has his own process when it comes to writing a sermon, we all have our own process when it comes to drawing near to God. Here are the elements that are important for me.
Solitude is beneficial for every believer, but it can be especially beneficial for preachers because the focus of solitude isn’t what you do, it’s what you don’t do. Solitude demands withdrawal, and it’s in that withdrawal that we hear from God.
We’re all familiar with the post-adrenalin crash Elijah experienced after the miracle on Mount Carmel. A threatening message from Queen Jezebel sent him not just running for his life but questioning his will to live. Ultimately, he ended up in a cave on Mount Horeb.
After spending the night, God told Elijah, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by” (1 Kings 19:11). One after another came a great wind, an earthquake, and a fire, but the Lord wasn’t in any of those events. Instead, God spoke in a gentle whisper (v. 12). And Elijah, alone in the presence of God, heard that whisper. Every preacher needs to experience the solitude of being alone with God in order to hear from God.
Solitude always leads to confession for me, and confession draws me near to God. If we are going to speak for God, we need to make sure nothing disrupts our fellowship with God, and unconfessed sin is a great disruptor.
I occasionally struggle in my spiritual life in more ways than I have space to write. However, when I follow the instruction of 1 John 1:9—“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness”—weight is lifted, barriers are removed, and I draw near to God as I’m overwhelmed and renewed by the wonder of his grace.
I have favorite psalms of praise I like to read, sometimes out loud, when I want to draw near to God. Psalm 8 is a good example; it begins and ends with the words, “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!”In between are words of great praise. Psalm 145 is another favorite: “The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love. The Lord is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made” (vv. 8-9). You can’t read verses like that and not feel the presence and goodness of God in a powerful way.
I’m thankful for the call to preach. I’m thankful God has given me the opportunity to preach for more than 40 years in three great churches. But I’m most thankful for the knowledge that I’m not alone in this call and opportunity . . . and neither are you.
James 4:8 says, “Draw near to God and he will draw near to you” (English Standard Version). As you plan your preaching calendar and as you write your sermons, make drawing near to God a priority.Great sermons take their life from being near to God.
Chris Philbeck serves as pastor of Mount Pleasant Christian Church in Greenwood, Indiana. During his 40 years of ministry Chris has had the privilege of planting a church, leading a turnaround church, and now a megachurch. He loves to preach and lead and finds great joy in helping people discover the greater life they can have in Christ.