The Impossible Possibility of Preaching by John L. Drury

Pete is a master preacher. He is a person in whom natural ability, cultivated skill, and divine gifting are woven into a beautiful preaching life. I had not seen Pete for a few years when we were assigned the same table at the wedding reception of a mutual friend. Pete wasted no time, asking me immediately, “How do you like preaching every week?” I quickly answered, “It’s hard, but I love it.” Then he asked me a question I’ll never forget: “Have you run out yet, John?” I didn’t understand the question. “Well, you will,” he explained, “And that’s when you’ll be ready to preach.” I still didn’t get it—until a few months later, when it happened. I ran out. And Pete was right: that’s when I was ready to preach!

I invite you to think with me about the human poverty of preaching as it makes room for the divine riches of revelation. We are poor in our resources for preaching. God is rich. I want to explore this by means of a central thought: preaching is both impossible and possible. True preaching of the Word of God is a human impossibility. But what is impossible with us humans is possible with God. Wesleyan preachers ought to remember this human impossibility of preaching even while we count on its divine possibility.

Why do Wesleyans in particular need to be reminded of the impossible possibility of preaching? Wesleyans embrace an optimism of grace. On the one hand, we are optimistic. Wesleyans reject a pessimism that thinks humans cannot be radically transformed in this life. On the other hand, we are graciously optimistic. Wesleyans reject an optimism of nature that thinks humans transform themselves. Our optimism is fueled by our confidence in God and what he can do. Now I believe this Wesleyan perspective to be the better part of wisdom. But we are perpetually tempted by it to slide into an optimism of nature. So we must be reminded again and again that our confidence rests not in ourselves but in the living God.

What does this have to do with preaching? When God calls us to preach he calls us to proclaim his Word. We are invited to speak not just about God but on behalf of God. We are God’s ambassadors, through whom he is making his appeal to the world. Who is equal to such a task? The possibility of speaking truthfully for God lies with God himself, not us. We must rely on God’s grace when we speak on God’s behalf.

The stakes are high. When we do not remember the impossible possibility of preaching, we begin to assign blame. We blame ourselves for our lack of skill, and thereby reduce preaching to a mere technique to be mastered. We blame our people for their lack of response, and thereby treat preaching like some high art or academic enterprise that some people just don’t get. We might even blame God for calling us to this task yet not sufficiently equipping us for it. And when we tire of blaming, we stop expecting God to be at work in preaching, settling for mere human instruction and other tasks we know we can control.

Instead of blaming or settling, we are called to rely on God’s grace. But what does it mean to rely on God’s grace in preaching? Our Wesleyan optimism might tempt us to easy answers. For instance, relying on God’s grace might be taken to mean that everything hangs on the personal piety of the preacher. If I’m close to God, then my preaching will be his Word. Now preachers ought to be close to God. But we all know that such closeness is no guarantee that our sermons will be the Word of God for our people. So something more is going on than just the personal piety of the preacher.

I am tempted to say that this “something more” is just a mystery. Maybe God just shows up when and where he wants and there’s nothing we can do about it. But that is not satisfying, nor is it true. For God has in fact revealed himself. Jesus is the definitive “when and where”—the one in whom God shows up. And so it is in him that we come to glimpse how human impossibility and divine possibility intersect. Jesus was crucified, manifesting the depths of our human poverty. No possibility remains for one who is dead. And yet God raised this Jesus from the dead, manifesting the heights of divine possibility even in the midst of human impossibility!

Now my sermon is not Jesus, who is the very incarnate Word of God. But in Jesus we see how God works. The pattern of this divine work applies to preaching. God initiates, giving us his Word. God graciously invites us to obey his Word. And our obedience culminates in trusting God to act when we cannot. This is the pattern of God’s work in Jesus Christ. Why would we expect something completely different from God’s work through the preaching of his Word?

One might reasonably object to this reminder of our human impossibility. Doesn’t this demoralize the preacher? Doesn’t it leave us without any sense of responsibility for the results of our preaching? That is certainly a risk. Preaching already feels nearly impossible to some of us. I do not wish to discourage my fellow preachers. Rather, I want to deliver them! It seems to me this reminder may deliver us from the inevitable despair that accompanies the lie that everything rests on me and my ability. And it may also deliver us for our human task, which is to be faithful to the Word God has given us. When we remember our human impossibility, we are freed to make full use of our human creativity, because we embrace our humanity for what it is.

How does this reminder shape the preaching life? At the very least, I can testify to how it has helped deliver me from anxiety and for creativity. When I ran out of stuff to say, I started praying, “Lord, I can’t do this. But you can. And because you can, somehow I can too.” This prayer freed me to stop trying so hard to preach and to start falling in love with preaching. I stopped focusing on the product (sermons), and focused more on the practice, life and art of preaching. And the more I realized how utterly human I am, the more human my sermons became—and so more enjoyable to prepare and hear. It was then that this broken human vessel was ready for God to do his thing. Perhaps my story is utterly singular, though I doubt it. Regardless, I am certain that this reminder is true: preaching is both a human impossibility and a divine possibility. And I am confident that Wesleyan preachers who remember this will feel less discouraged and more free!

John L. Drury is an Assistant Professor of Theology and Christian Ministry at Wesley Seminary. Follow him on Twitter.

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3 thoughts on “The Impossible Possibility of Preaching by John L. Drury

  1. This was a fantastic article on preaching. I found it liberating in the sense that it was a reminder that preaching is about grace, that God is able to work in and through a preacher to communicate to his people.

    I particularly liked your prayer: “Lord, I can’t do this. But you can. And because you can, somehow I can too.” I might just print that out and put it on the wall of my office!

    Thanks for writing John!