Three Things I Learned From Preaching My First Sermon
Ever since I published my first book, I’ve done sporadic speaking gigs. I have gotten to speak at law schools, preschools, men’s retreats, and non-profits. it is a joy to communicate about what matters, and it’s even more rewarding to have conversations afterward about how the Spirit showed someone something new about God’s glory or Christ-centered living.
I am a garden variety introvert, and growing up I was utterly horrified of public speaking or being on the receiving end of public attention. When I was put on the spot, I would glow red and shut down and I wanted to hide under a rock.
The Lord has continually placed opportunities in front of me to inoculate me to my former fear. Notice that: God didn’t allow me to avoid my fear — he moved me through it. (That’ll preach, but that’s for another time.) Through repetition and exposure and the comfort of Christ, I now not only enjoy speaking but truly delight in the opportunity to do so.
A few weeks ago, I was invited to preach at our church. As one of our elder/pastors, I have taught in various ways at our church but I’ve never preached from the pulpit. I jumped at the opportunity, excited and knowing full well I had just committed to something bigger than me. I felt the weight of feeding our congregation with the Word of God, and I pictured their faces as they gathered to hear their hope.
I learned a ton from the experience of preaching my first sermon, and I’d like to share three things I learned for the benefit of rookie preachers like myself:
1. “Are You Nervous?” (Be a Conduit)
Prior to our first of three services, my wife and friends asked me if I was nervous. They asked while wincing, as if they were asking someone about their terminal cancer. The subtext of their question was this:
Do you know what you’ve gotten yourself into?
I was in over my head, and I knew it. I had spoken before, but I had not preached — and I knew the two were drastically different. While (for the Christian) speaking should be very similar to preaching in that God is glorified, the Bible is the ultimate source of truth, and the message is Spirit-led, I knew that preaching to be much more than speaking. Preaching is the delivery of a word from God for a people. I was one of their pastors, and now it was time for me to open my heart to receive a word for our people and to open my mouth to declare it.
So was I nervous? Only slightly — and let me tell you why. I knew the task before me was bigger than me. If the sermon depended upon my charisma and intelligence, the congregation was doomed. Brad Larson was not fit for the task. If, on the other hand, my sermon depended upon the Spirit of God revealing the glory of Christ through the Scriptures, I was to be a conduit. I can be a conduit, I thought. So I prepared and prayed and prepared and prayed and then I showed up to be God’s conduit — bent and blemished though I may be.
Powerful sermons aren’t powerful because they’re delivered by powerful preachers, powerful sermons are powerful because they magnify the glory of the Most High.
2. The Hidden Danger of Topical Messages
We record our sermons via video and audio, and as painful as it was to watch my sermon, I knew it was necessary. To me, it was like an athlete watching film to figure out what they did right and did wrong so they can make adjustments.
I was a bit disappointed.
My sermon was called Monday in Light of Easter Sunday. It was a topical sermon on the integration of faith and work, a topic near and dear to my heart. I have thought long and hard about the theology of work.
The reason I was disappointed after watching and considering my sermon is this: it wasn’t Christ-centered enough. Specifically, what I mean is that I gave a sermon on the theology of work — and that’s helpful to be sure — but I regret that despite my efforts to do so, I had not glorified Jesus and delighted in him as well as I wished I would have.
There is nothing wrong with topical sermons, but there is great temptation to moralize or to overemphasize application. Topical sermons are, by nature, aimed at exploring a certain subject from a Biblical perspective. The risk in topical sermons is overemphasizing the topic at hand and underemphasizing the greatness of God in all things. I may have erred here.
3. The Joy of Expository Exultation
I am borrowing the term “expository exultation” from John Piper. He recently published a book by the same name, and the premise is this: Christian preaching is worship under the Word of God.
Preaching is not speaking. Preaching is not oratory. Preaching is not performance. Preaching is worship.
Despite my sermon not being exactly what I hoped it would be from a Christ-glorifying perspective, delivering my sermon was a deeply worshipful experience. I remember singing with the congregation prior to the sermon to All Hail King Jesus, the collective voices of my church family rising boldly to our King. I recall the faces of people I dearly love in the crowd. The Spirit was on the move.
Accountability and Great Joy
For those of us blessed to preach and teach, here is the goal:
Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God. (Acts 20:26-27)
If God has called you to preach, he has not called you to declare the entertaining counsel of God. He has not called you to declare the palatable counsel of God. He has called you to preach the whole counsel of God.
There are times when we will fail to do that. There are times when we will make stupid offhand remarks or get lazy in our study. There are times when we will be tempted to cower from difficult texts and truths. Some day, we imperfect heralds of the gospel will stand before God to give an account for our preaching (Hebrews 13:17). On that day, we must practice what we preach. We must plead the righteousness of Christ over our sins and failures in the pulpit.
What I really learned from my first sermon is that C.S. Lewis was right when he said this:
I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation. It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete till it is expressed. (CSL, Reflections on the Psalms)
Preaching is corporate rejoicing in the Lord. It is an expression of great joy in God as we remember who he is and what Christ has done for us.