The Awe of Preaching

William Barclay (1907-1978) once said, “For me to enter a pulpit has always been a literally terrifying experience.” This was the William Barclay who was a popular professor. This was the William Barclay who excelled at preaching on both radio and television. This was the William Barclay who, determined to make the best biblical scholarship available to the average reader, authored the Daily Study Bible, a set of commentaries on the New Testament that is perhaps the most popular commentary series ever written. And yet he said, “For me to enter a pulpit has always been a literally terrifying experience.” Barclay was talking about the “awe” of preaching. If we ever lose that, we need to stop preaching altogether. The awe of preaching evolves from several sources.

The awe of preaching, first of all, grows out of an awareness of our own inadequacies. Paul captured this truth with his reminder that “we have this treasure in jars of clay” (2 Co 4:7). To speak of God’s power when we so often feel weak, to speak of God’s plan for the family when we know the sometimes hidden shortcomings of our own family, to speak of faithfulness when we may be ready to give up ourselves — our own inadequacies often bear down upon us like a heavy weight whenever we approach the pulpit. It is no wonder Karl Barth once said, “Who dares, who can preach, knowing what preaching is?” And we might add, “knowing what we are.”

The awe of preaching also grows out of a recognition of whom we represent. I think the reason Isaiah 6 has emerged over the centuries as one of the preeminent passages in God’s Word is because it so accurately describes our feelings as we approach the pulpit to preach about the holy, sovereign, omnipotent God. Who can refrain from voicing Isaiah’s testimony when we come into the presence of a holy God: "I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty" (Isa 6:5). Who are we to talk about a holy God?

In addition, the awe of preaching grows out of the understanding of the potential of what we are doing. Paul reminded the Corinthians that “God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe” (1 Co 1:21). Famous Presbyterian preacher Clarence Macartney (1879-1957) once said that that he had learned to care less about preaching a good sermon and more about preaching a sermon that will do some good. That is a lesson we need to learn as well. The sermon is not just “a nice little talk.” The sermon is a proclamation of God’s Word that can render great change. Lives can be transformed by the preached word. Homes can be restored by the preached word. Choices that reap great benefits for the kingdom of God can be prompted by the preached word. We must never forget that a sermon is a powerful thing. Therefore, we must be fully prepared as we approach the pulpit, determined not to miss another opportunity to touch lives through the power of the proclaimed word.