How does our vision of the Scriptures as the Word of God affect our vision for preaching, and for what God does by His Spirit through the means of preaching? In many contemporary British Churches, our vision for what goes on (or perhaps, should go on) in preaching is pretty shallow, and so such a question barely makes sense. We might expect to meet with God through the music, but surely not in preaching??? A sermon is easily dismissed as one opinion among many equally valid opinions. But if that preaching is shaped and informed by the Word of God, that simply will not do. But even if we avoid such crass thinking, we may still rarely feel inspired at the prospect of a sermon. We can feel at liberty to sit in judgement on what is being said (even when we do see the link between sermon and Scripture), and our expectations can be tragically superficial!
This is so very different from the days when the Church understood the Scriptures to be the Word of God and had unshakeable confidence in their being written and interpreted in a way that was intrinsically trustworthy. In those days, the corporate reading and preaching of God’s Word was much more prevalent, and congregations often demanded daily sermons (occasionally scheduled at 5 am). In those days too, preachers were described in terms that we would find alarming. One 16th Century preacher, for example, sees a role and responsibility for preachers that sounds downright dangerous to our ears:
‘We see how God, who could in a moment make perfect his own, nevertheless desires them to grow up solely under the education of the church. We see the way set for it: the preaching of the heavenly doctrine has been enjoined upon the pastors. We see that all are brought under the same regulation, that with a gentle and teachable spirit they may allow themselves to be governed by teachers appointed to this function … As He was of old not content with the Law alone, but added priests as interpreters from whose lips the people might ask its true meaning (Mal.2:7), so today He not only desires us to be attentive to the reading [of Scripture], but also appoints instructors to help us by their effort … it is a singular privilege that He deigns to consecrate to Himself the mouths and tongues of men, in order that his voice may resound in them’.
Is this some kind of power-play, an attempt at manipulating a congregation so as to increase the preacher’s influence, or put them beyond the reach of criticism? In our cynicism, we might dismiss it as such. In fact, such thinking was widely agreed on by preachers and congregations alike, and was underpinned by the powerful idea that the Holy Spirit is at work in and through the preacher such that a sermon shaped, defined and informed by the Scriptures creates a situation in which the voice of God is heard echoing in the words of that preacher. There is a profound sense in which this can itself be called the word of God, so Heb.13:7, ‘Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you’ (see also I Thess. 2:13).
This of course raises the question of what do I expect from those who preach to me? What do I think is happening when I listen to preaching? Do I think that I am merely hearing someone’s opinion about what a passage means and how it should be applied? Or am I anticipating something more? Am I expecting to be confronted with the Word of God?
But we should come prepared and anticipating that God will speak to me during a sermon; that something will happen that will take this moment above what can be explained in simply human categories. The words are from the mouth of a preacher (and a very human preacher at that), and yet their impact suggests that Someone Else is actually speaking to me, and applying His word to my heart and mind. This ‘incarnation’ by the Spirit of the Divine Word in human form continues as the act of preaching takes on this added dimension, through which a sermon becomes more than merely human words. Such an expectation would certainly change the way in which we approached an act of corporate worship; how we prayed for ourselves and each other, and the preacher; and the attention we would give to sermons.
And God’s word (for that is what true preaching has the potential to become) calls reality into being. In the beginning God spoke, and it was as He declared it to be. So, as Ezekiel prophecies life to the valley of dry bones, they are brought to life (see Ezek.37:1-10). The proclamation of the Word of God achieves what it articulates. His Word changes things, shapes things, transforms darkness and chaos into life and light. It is the word of God that calls faith into being, that calls Christ-likeness into being, that changes and transforms situations and characters and relationships. Preaching is not just something I might (or might not) go away and put into practise. Preaching can become something through which God changes us in and during the very act of hearing and receiving His holy Word. I should step out from under the preaching of the word of God a different person as a result of my encounter with His Word. Why? Because God has spoken, and His word is living and active...
Imagine a Church where that was the frequent experience of preaching…
 Calvin, Inst 4.1.5, emphasis added; The Institutes has a footnote pointing the reader to Calvin’s sermons on I Samuel, where such preachers are said to be ‘the very mouth of God’. Elsewhere Calvin argues that in every sermon there are 2 ministers: the external minister who preaches the Word, and the internal preacher (the Holy Spirit) who guides the Word into the hearts of those who hear.