7, 200. That’s a rough calculation for how many sermons the pulpit in my church has seen. Over the last seventy years that accounts for two sermons a week, Sunday morning and night. There’s a been a few closures for weather, but not many. And that doesn’t even count the Wednesday night lessons, and the revival meetings, or the funerals.
No one has been there for all of those sermons, of course, except for the pulpit. Imagine the stories it could tell about the good, bad, and ugly over the years of the church. No one has been there for all of them, but there are few who have been there for a large majority of them! When I step into that pulpit on Sundays I’m reminded that as I stand there, I don’t stand alone. Surrounding the pulpit I stand in on Sundays is all the baggage left from 70 years of church life. Every pastor who has filled that pulpit has left a little piece of himself with the hearers, and as pastor I need to be aware of the baggage that I carry with me in the pulpit.
As members sit in the pews and listen, they too are surrounded by the baggage of all the pastors they have sat under in their life. There might have been a pastor who used the law to beat them up and make them feel unworthy without preaching the grace of the gospel. There might have been a pastor who only preached grace and never showed them the hardness of their hearts without God. Some pastors might have been to relaxed, telling jokes and using the pulpit to make themselves feel good. Still others might have been impersonal, preaching to their people without knowing them. A pastor might be a fine pulpiteer, but left after moral failings, or didn’t have a pastoral heart, or preached in anger instead of grace. Perhaps a pastor didn’t lead with honesty and used people for his own ends. Whatever it is ,when a pastor stands in the pulpit to proclaim God’s word, he is surrounded by the baggage of the many of the pastors who have come before him in the church. It’s foolish to ignore the reality that the words we preach have to make it over, around, and through all that baggage to reach people’s hearts and minds.
It’s not only others baggage of course, it’s our own as well. Every pastor has words he wishes he could take back, decisions that didn’t go as planned, and even the general burden of being a leader that contribute to the baggage we carry into the pulpit. Both things we can control like our leadership styles and things we can’t like our age affect the way that people listen to us. The mistakes we make, the arrogance we carry, as well as the successes we have are all types of baggage that follows into the pulpit.
If a pastor imagines himself wheeling a piece of luggage behind him as he steps over the bag from the history of the church, and looks out at people surrounded by baggage of their own, how can he be sure that words he preaches reach the hearts of those listening?
Preach God’s Word not yours. This seems like a no brainer, of course, but it’s one that every pastor should be reminded of. It’s far to easy for a man gifted with eloquence and a great mind to turn to himself for wisdom to offer the members. Man’s wisdom might serve good for a while, but it will bounce off the baggage and come right back to him as empty as when it left his mouth. When we preach the word of God we can be sure that God’s word never returns void (Is. 55:11). God’s word can bust through any baggage that a person carries with them, for it sharp and effective, even dividing between thoughts and intentions of the heart.
Preach to your people, not someone else’s. A shepherd who knows his sheep will know the trials that they face, the burdens they carry, and over time will know some of the baggage they carry. As he labors in his study, the names and faces of his people should flood his heart and mind as God guides him in crafting the message. Mark Dever has said that a pastor’s most important book should be his membership directory, second only to the Bible. Peter advised his hearers to “shepherd the flock of God among you” (I Peter 5:2), not the flock down the road or the flock you wish you had. By taking time to know our flock, we tell them that they have value, and God can more easily guide our hearts and mind as we prepare.
Leave it in God’s hands The sides of my pulpit are worn smooth from years of pastor’s leaning on them as they preach. The very fact that my pulpit has seen seventy years worth of sermons reminds me of the fact that the fate of the church does not rest in my hands. The church existed for 113 years before me, and will exist after I’m gone should the Lord tarry. When I preach I don’t have to worry if I have a down week, or wonder if I have been persuasive enough. My job as a pastor is to preach God’s word and then let Gods word do it’s work. Over the years this pulpit has seen fare more gifted preachers than I, and far better leaders, and maybe one or two more handsome, even. My job as pastor is to plainly present the message of God’s word and leave it up to Him to do the work of getting to people’s hearts.
It might feel to a pastor like they are preaching behind a wall of baggage every week to people who are surrounded by their own baggage. But no matter how high or hard the barrier, we know that God’s word can penetrate. Baggage in the pulpit is unavoidable, so a pastor must learn to stand on the Word of God so that the faith of those listening might rest in the wisdom of God and not the wisdom of men.