The magpie (at least, the one I have in mind) is a striking European bird of black and white plumage (as Jeeves might say, “The species pica pica of the family corvidae, sir”) – a sort of jazzed up crow, if you will, although I imagine many magpies would be thoroughly offended by the description. An even worse sobriquet attaches to this unfortunate bird: “the thieving magpie,” a reference to its alleged and rather unfortunate habit of flying away with anything shiny that takes its fancy and is not firmly tied down.
It is the sort of heist of which preachers are often accused, a connection all the more unfortunate if you also go in for monochrome livery. But is it a legitimate accusation?
Preachers are easily criticised, and sometimes rightly so, for taking short cuts with preparation. Many years ago a peer sent me a sermon he was intending to preach on the opening verses of a certain book of Scripture. I noticed two very distinct styles, one almost unintelligible, and one far more prominent than the other, and disturbingly familiar. Sure enough, he had drawn almost the entirety of this sermon from a low-level, devotional commentary, without acknowledgement, and clearly without having done any thoughtful work for himself. His contribution had been to throw in a few incoherent sentences of introduction and one or two linking lines between chunks of the commentary.
I recall another, older friend complaining of how he heard a man preach at a fairly significant conference. He just happened to have read a few days beforehand the very sermon of Charles Spurgeon which the man in the pulpit proceeded to deliver as his own.
Today, you can type in a few searches and come up with sermon outlines and illustrations, even complete sermons. Modern ministerial tools put entire libraries of commentaries, sermons and other works at our very fingertips, all just waiting to be cut and pasted with little ado. Audio and video streaming and posting of sermons means that there are well-known preachers you can hear many times, one Sunday from their own pulpit, during the week as downloads and streams, and the following Sunday from any number of other pulpits where his unthinking acolytes hold sway – not the natural, unconscious emulation born of appreciation and esteem, with echoes of tone and style and organisation and gesture, but a slavish reproduction of the sermon and sometimes the preachers’ very mannerisms. Whether online or not, some resources are even designed, at least in part, to provide specific helps: think of those volumes of sermon outlines, or the suggestions for preachers at the back end of every psalm in Spurgeon’s Treasury of David, or the dusty but rich old tomes of anecdotes and illustrations.
But are you sitting through the disquisitions of a man who has become nothing more than a channel for other men? If a preacher, have you become casual, even lazy, quite happy to go through the motions of preparation and then merely discharge another man’s words? To do this is merely to be an actor, not a preacher, to mouth as a talking head what any semi-competent researcher and reader could produce with the same resources.
But it can be a challenge when a preacher sits down to do his work. How do we ensure that we preach our own sermons, and not the sermons of men past or present? Why are we tempted to preach another man’s sermon?
Do we doubt the richness of Scripture? Perhaps we fear whether or not we shall be able to find a suitable text, or that the next portion of the Word of God, if we are following a sequence of exposition, will not yield sufficient substance for us to preach?
Do we doubt our grace and gifts? Are we, perhaps, not readily able to say that by grace of God I am what I am? Perhaps a lack of confidence makes us want to preach the sermon we imagine a better man would preach. We come to a passage of Scripture and think, “I wonder how Mr So-and-so preached this? That’s what I want to bring.”
Do we doubt the relationship between pastor and people? Perhaps we are not confident that that relationship can suffuse the sermon with enough common ground and shared experience for it to be profitable, or fear that it cannot sustain the pressure of the explanations and applications that must be made.
Do we doubt, ultimately, the person and work of the Holy Spirit? Do we imagine that we cannot enjoy in preparation or in preaching the same gracious operations by means of which men past and present were or are being equipped for the powerful proclamation of divine truth? Do we not think that he can fire our hearts and our minds and our imaginations, enabling us to discern truth, recognise issues, make connections, develop applications, and make known the glory of God? Is he so weak or we so incompetent that we are beyond his help? Does Christ not give gifts to his church? Does the Spirit not enable us to reveal God in Christ? Or do we effectively think that it is, in fact, all down to us? To be sure, we may not do it as we would, and we may weep repenting tears after every sermon, but – even taking into account our obligations and duties – it is not our power or wisdom that will accomplish anything in the sermons that we preach.
What is the answer? To simply sit and wait, even prayerfully, and hope that the lightning will strike? What if it does not? I remember one man who clearly had not read those pastoral theologies on what extempore preaching is not, and announced that he would preach in reliance on the Holy Spirit, having made it a point not to do any preparation beforehand. Let us just say that it showed, as the man delivered a discordant, discombobulated and in every sense pointless monologue that bore less and less relation to the text that was announced at the beginning of the address, and, indeed, less and less relevance to any of the people who were hearing it.
The answer to laziness and doubt is not to test God. Of course, there are times at which and circumstances in which we are cast entirely upon him apart from the regular use of the appointed means. At those times, we can and should expect less usual demonstrations of his equipping and enabling.
But what of the norm? How do we use the resources available to us?
At some point in my preparation, I will usually pull down the appropriate commentaries from my shelves. There may be resources online that I check. I readily admit that, if I have a sermon in my library on a text from which I hope to preach, I will read it. I may well borrow or adapt parts of it. I may even begin to do that in the act of preaching without being conscious of the fact that I am not inventing but repeating, producing something that memory has simply lobbed into the forefront of the mind at an opportune moment, I trust under the influence of the Spirit of God. There have been times when a certain structure was so compelling (but is it not strange how Spurgeon’s structure, or Warfield’s, or whomever’s it might be, can be so compelling on such a regular basis?) that I abandoned my own and simply followed it. I recall one occasion when I was wrestling with headings for a sermon, although the material was beginning to take form, and upon turning to Matthew Henry, discovered a series of words so magnificent in their fitness for the occasion that I immediately capitulated and adopted them, with an appropriate nod in the direction of the esteemed Mr Henry. On another occasion, pressed into action at exceedingly short notice, I could think of nothing better than to lift the complete outline of a sermon that I had read earlier that week; I then studied material into that scrounged outline before preaching it with full confession of my shameless borrowing. At yet another time, a splendid outline seemed to fall into my lap from on high, but the more I worked with it and the more thought about it, the more I was forced to the conclusion that my brain simply did not work the way the originator of that outline did – if not too good to be true, it was certainly too good to be mine. My suspicions were proved sadly accurate when I searched through some likely candidates and discovered that it was John Owen’s outline: I had read his address several months before, and something had dragged it from the murky recesses of the Walker mind as I pondered the same passage of Scripture. With a sigh, realising that once again I would need to acknowledge that I am stupid enough to construct a sermon around someone else’s outline without even realising it, I continued my labours.
Of course, none of this makes a blind bit of difference to you, because no-one models their style on me, not unless they are candidates for an unusually restrictive waistcoat and a lengthy sojourn in the kind of hotel with locks on the doors and bars on the windows. But what of great preachers of the past and present?
I recollect hearing a magnificent sermon by a pastor-preacher of the present day whom I esteem most highly. It was stunning. It did not stop being stunning when, upon later reading several commentaries on the same book of Scripture in preparation for my own sermons, I discovered all the points he had been making, some of them in very similar language.
I recently prepared a sermon on a certain text, and happened to read both Spurgeon and Sibbes on the same portion. I was not so much struck by the similarity as by the uniformity at points, as Mr Spurgeon reproduced – sometimes point for point and example for example – the excellent insights and applications of Mr Sibbes.
Read Whitefield and Matthew Henry and you will be struck by the likenesses, remembering that Whitefield often relied entirely upon Matthew Henry for his exegetical help. I do not think I do any disservice to Stuart Olyott when I report that I have heard him say more than once, when his preaching has been praised, that he has made his reputation by doing nothing more than rendering Matthew Henry in modern English. Those who know Mr Olyott will understand that he is underselling himself, but neither is he lying.
So, what is the deal? We do not want to be mere performers who go on to a stage to read another man’s lines, without any engagement with the truth. We might be sincere, but that truth – even if it really is truth – is likely to flow out of us lukewarm rather than hissing hot if it is second-hand truth, if we are merely passive conduits for the fruits of another man’s labours. So then, do we simply turn our back upon the studies and sermons of men who have gone before?
We must never simply run through another man’s sermons as if they were our own. Simple honesty forbids that. But, when opportunity permits and as duty requires, let us make our way into the vineyards of our bookshelves and e-resources, and glean the best of the fruit; spend time around those vines that have produced the sweetest and juiciest fruit of past years. Press down the grapes and soak prayerfully in the best of the past, and let it seep into us.
There may be times when we must stand up and say that we have been compelled – and not by casual laxity – to adopt a certain framework or reproduce a certain structure or employ a certain illustration, and we might unashamedly do so. There may be times when nothing written before seems to help us, either because no one else is working the way we are, or because we are trying to prepare a sermon, not write a book or lecture, and we tread even more carefully and prayerfully as find ourselves more alone than usual. There may be times when something nestling in the back of our mind conditions us in the labour of preparation or springs to life in the act of preaching, and we may never be aware that we were replicating some giant (or, indeed, pygmy) of the past. There may be times when we make mistakes and rely overmuch on other men and not enough upon the God of salvation, and there may be times when – out of a misguided zeal – we ignore the means that God has provided and wonder why God does not simply fill our minds with good things on the spot.
If we are wise, we will be ministerial magpies, quick to pluck the brightest treasures from the hoards available to us and take them into our own homes and make them our own. Then when we preach, each of us must be the man that God has made us, in dependence on the Spirit of God, preaching the Christ of God, our minds well-stocked with exegetical and applicatory cream, our hearts full of good matter, our words pouring out of our own full souls under the influence of the Holy Spirit into the souls of the people who are sitting in front of us, whose hearts we have prayed would also know those gracious heavenly influences, men and women facing challenges that we know and have come to understand, needing encouragements and exhortations and rebukes that a man from another place or time simply cannot provide, needing to be shepherded by the particular under-shepherd that the Great Shepherd of the sheep has appointed for this particular time and place. Yes, God has brought you into the kingdom for such a time as this, and for such a place as this. Therefore, be like a scribe instructed concerning the kingdom, able like a householder to bring out of his treasure things new and old (Mt 13.52).