Editors note: I continue to be out of town this week so forgive this article being a little shorter that usual.
One of my books that is of great personal value, is a clothbound edition of Unspoken Sermons by George MacDonald.* The title alone is romantic but it has come to mean more to me recently in the midst of the current pandemic. My year tends to reliably run along a well laid out cycle and one of the recurring points is two weeks in the summer where I serve as a camp pastor. As an avid indoorsman camp is something of a trial, a literal wilderness experience. But the distance from my beloved comforts of home is ameliorated with the opportunity to preach twice daily. This year while working from home I was afforded the opportunity to study and prepare more than before. Surgeon style with a cigar in hand I studied and wrote with the full use of my library. No dragging a few key books to the office and banging out outlines under the micromanagement of a well meaning but obtrusive boss for me this year. I was prepared as never before. soaked in the text and was ready. And now…
I have ten unspoken sermons of my own. Initially I felt it a waste. A small one but still. I am not one to file sermons away and then pull them out and rehash old material years later. And yet, as I considered, it was not a waste. Sermons are to be faithfully preached even if only one person is listening. And in this case that one was me. What a glorious opportunity to plumb the depths of the Sermon on the Mount and the Life of Joseph. God’s Word does not return void and I was well fed off of it. In the will of God those particular sermons will not be spoken out loud. But they will be preached. They will be preached in my own life in how I live. They will be preached in conversations. And possibly parts of them will be preached when I revisit the texts in coming years. A foundation has been laid in my own heart and any future study and teaching of those texts will build upon it.
Unspoken Sermons are beautiful things. MacDonald wrote his with the goal in mind not to pack in doctrine or knowledge but to encourage believers to live, to work out their salvation. I was not to preach my own sermons with my voice, but with my life. Sanctification, a goal of preaching, has happened and with it God has been and will continue to be glorified.
I was talking with a pastor before he was to take a sabbatical, and he related to me how he has a hard time simply reading his Bible and not outlining it for a sermon. And I get that, Scripture is not just “for them,” it is for the preacher as well, and years of practice can create ruts. But I wonder how beneficial would it be for us to all have unspoken sermons. At the very least it is humbling. It might even serve to clear out some un-doctrinal cobwebs that have been collecting. But to take something meant for others and be forced to turn it on yourself, seems to me, to be a very healthy practice.
The old axiom goes, “Never preach a sermon until you have preached it to yourself.” It sounds nice but I think very easy to gloss over. A short personal inventory while preparing, “am I applying and repenting on this issue?” And we can easily conclude, “yes” or if we are in a rush, “well enough.” Or, possibly worse, see an opportunity to be self-servingly “open and transparent.” I am sure many preachers do the hard work, of reflecting well on a text and their own sanctification before they get behind a pulpit. But I know of myself, at least, the temptation is always at hand to prepare for “them” and to neglect my own instruction first. In God’s grace I was spared that temptation. The Puritans called the pulpit The Sacred Desk. What I had taken to be my ordinary desk was instead a literal form of what the Puritans wrote. At the time I had not realized that I had just mounted a personal sacred desk, where I wrote and studied for unspoken sermons, that only I would hear.
*I am well aware of his terrible theology, I have read the book. But on occasion he is brilliant. He was incredibly formative for C.S. Lewis and that alone is good enough for me. The Curdie books are excellent, and though the universalism was a real problem Lillith still moved me to tears.