When Preachers Talk, It’s God Who Speaks

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I was in my customary pew—right side, fourth row from the rear—waiting for the sermon to begin. At the front of the sanctuary, the preacher stood up from his chair, took two steps toward the pulpit, then stopped, spun around, reached back, and grabbed something from the armrest. He did this so quickly, with such fluidity, hardly breaking his stride to the pulpit, that I don’t think anyone else caught it. But I caught it. Standing in the pulpit, he glanced my way and we shared a tiny smile; he’d forgotten his Bible.

I thought of the silliness of preaching. “We have this treasure in earthen vessels,” said the apostle Paul (2 Corinthians 4:7, NKJV). The gospel is treasure, but the agents who preach the gospel are distressingly human. There is a clay-pot earthiness to every preacher that ordination does not eliminate.

I thought of that preacher who felt the need to tell his congregation—as if they didn’t already know—that he and his co-pastor were flawed humans, just like anyone else. “We all make mistakes,” he said. “We all have cracks in our armor. And me and Pastor Rick, we have seen each other’s cracks.”

Preachers have cracks. The gospel is treasure, but the people God calls to preach the gospel are as flawed and sinful as everyone else. We need to listen to our preachers with an awareness of their humanity. 

But we should also listen with a sense of jaw-dropping awe. Jesus did not merely authorize his disciples to preach about him; he said that in their proclamation he himself would be speaking: “He who hears you hears me” (Luke 10:16, NKJV). Pastor and theologian John Calvin considered the minister to be the mouth of God. I thought about my friend up there in the pulpit, grinning sheepishly because he’d nearly forgotten his Bible. His was the mouth of God.

I thought about how Protestants cannot believe the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation—that the bread and the wine become the actual body and blood of Christ. But we believe something equally miraculous. We believe that a sinful human being stands in the pulpit and opens his or her mouth, and out comes the Word of God.

I wondered how I ever mustered the nerve to preach, and I prayed for my brother up at the pulpit, an earthen vessel stitched with cracks, as he began his sermon, and I found myself listening to the Word of God.

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This sounds like an overgeneralization to me. While I hold the words of clergy in high esteem, I cannot accept at face value that when the pastor speaks, God speaks to me. God may speak to each of us in different ways. I must use discernment when listening to the pastor, lest I be led in accepting what the pastor says is automatically God's voice to me. God may be speaking something different to me, perhaps even contrary to what the pastor may have said. As Christians, especially those of us who are laypersons, we still need to use our brains, the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and other Christian brothers and sisters  in interpreting, and responding to what comes out of the pastor's mouth. The priesthood of all believers is not invalidated by the role of clergy.