The Preacher and His Hearers*

Guest Writer Sabine Baring-Gould

“The kingdom of heaven is like a certain king, which would take account of his servants” (Matthew 18:23).

I have been a good deal abroad, over the continent of Europe, and whenever I am in a little country inn, I make a point of going into the room where the men are smoking and drinking wine or beer, and hearing their opinions on the politics of the day, and of their country. Now, my experience tells me that in country taverns in France, and Germany, and Belgium, and Switzerland, and Austria, the main topic of discussion is—the parsons.

I have not been much about in this way in England, but I have an idea that it is pretty nearly the same here. What I have heard often said is this, “Nothing easier than to preach!” “Ah! they are always preaching at us, it is a pity that they do not preach to themselves.” “Ah! if they would only practice what they preach, we would listen more readily.”

Today I am going to preach to the preacher, to myself, at least in the first part of my sermon, and you may sit and listen. After that, I will have a word with you. In today’s Gospel we hear that the king will take account of his servants, that is, God will take account of all those who are His servants, first with those who are His special ministers, the clergy, and preachers of His Word, and second, of those who are the hearers.

Now, let me see what God expects of a preacher, and what I ought to be and to do. Paul says: “We preach Christ crucified” (1 Corinthians 1:23). That is the first thing I am bound to do. I must remember to do that. Then, Luke says that Jesus was “mighty in word and deed” (24:19), and as Christ has sent us even as He was sent by the Father (John 20:21), so must we preachers be mighty, as far as we can, both in word and deed. We must speak boldly and vigorously, and we must act in the same way: we must practice what we preach.

That is a great deal expected of us. If we were only to preach up to the level of our own lives, it would be easier. But the preaching goes first; we must preach the highest virtue, and then try to live up to that.

John the Baptist was set before us as an example of a preacher, and “he was a burning and a shining light” (John 5:35). We preachers must give you doctrine which not only shines but also burns; we must not only enlighten your minds by teaching, but also burn your consciences. We must instruct the intellect, and warm and fire the heart. That is requiring a great deal of us. “He makes his ministers a burning fire” (Psalm 104:4) says David, and Paul quotes his words approvingly (Hebrews 1:7). It is a pleasant thing to enlighten, but to burn is not so pleasant. Yet that is what we preachers are bound to do, we must not speak to you smooth things, but those things that will sting you and make you arise and cry out. Not only what you like, but a great deal that you do not like. That is what is demanded of a preacher.

Then again he must not “use the Word of God deceitfully” (2 Corinthians 4:2), twisting it to enforce what is not God’s truth, but his own fancy. We read that at the trial of Christ there were found two false witnesses who declared that Christ had said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days will I build it up” (Matthew 26:61; 27:40). Now when we look at John’s Gospel (2:19), we find that He did say this. How, then, were they false witnesses? They were false witnesses because they gave His words a meaning He never intended them to have. He spoke of the temple of His body (2:21); they made His words apply to the Temple of Jerusalem.

Moses desired that his preaching might be as the dew. “My doctrine shall drop as the rain, my speech shall distil as the dew, as the small rain on the tender herb, and as the showers on the grass” (Deuteronomy 32:2). Very pleasant it would be to speak so that one’s words came down like the dew, or even as the small rain on the tender grass. You would like that, and so would I. You would hold up your heads like the flowers, and drink the dewy doctrine in. But stay! “As the showers upon the grass” as well, says Moses. It will not do for the preacher to speak only gently; his words must come pattering about your heads like a driving April shower, when you will shrink from the rain and hide to get out of the way. The preacher must pour out on you a good strong shower of hard words.

But that is not all. He must use the Word of the Lord as a sword. “The Word of God is quick and powerful, and sharper than a two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and of spirit, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). How will the hearers like that? The preacher must not ask that, he must use the Word as it is given him, whether his hearers like it or whether they do not.

There was at one time at Coimbra two famous preachers, and all the town ran to hear them; but some thought A was the best preacher, and some thought that B was the best. It was discussed among the professors of the University, and then it was found that they were divided—some liked A, and others preferred B. Then an old professor spoke, “I will tell you what I think. I have heard them both, and have formed my opinion. When I have listened to a sermon by A, I come away highly pleased with the preacher; when I come away from a sermon by B, I am heartily disgusted with myself.” Then you see which was the true preacher. A sought his own glory and to show his talent; B only considered the souls of those to whom he was speaking.

And now I have said what a preacher ought to speak, and also how he ought to act. I do not think it is so easy a matter, if he be a faithful preacher.

Now, then, I turn to you, the hearers. “Be you not hearers of the Word, but doers” (James 1:22). The word preached you will not profit unless you take hold of it.

One day Agilmund, King of the Lombards, was riding past a river. At that time it was customary for heathen mothers to drown those of their children whom they did not care to rear. He saw floating down the rapid stream a number of little crying babes in baskets in which they had been cast in. The king’s heart was touched, and he went to the edge of the river where there was a pool and an eddy, and he knelt down and held out his spear to the children; then one of them extended his little hands and clasped hold of the spear, and clung to it, and the king very gently and carefully drew the spear to him with the little fellow holding tight to it. But all the other babes merely cried and sank into the water. Then he carried home the child in his arms, adopted him as his son, and made him his heir to the kingdom.

Now all the preacher can do for you, swimming down the great river of time, threatened with death, is to hold out the Word to you. He cannot save you. He cannot do more for you than that. You must lay hold and cling tight to the Word.

But why do I say the preacher? It is Jesus Christ Himself who extends the Word to you, and He will save you if you hold fast to it. He will bring you through the waters, and land you in His country, and exalt you to His kingdom.

“How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher?” (Romans 10:14).

Copyright © 2014 Alexandra Lee

Photo Credit: Flamborough Head Light, East Yorkshire, England

*Adapted from Sabine Baring-Gould [1834-1924], The Village Pulpit, Volume II. Trinity to Advent / A Complete Course of 66 Short Sermons, or Full Sermon Outlines for Each Sunday, and Some Chief Holy Days of the Christian Year (London: Skeffington & Son, 1886), sermon 59. Quotes, scriptural locations, photos, links, emendations added.


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