Over the chancel of our seminary chapel the words were inscribed in the Greek language of the New Testament – “Preach The Gospel” (κηρύξατε τὸ εὐαγγέλιον). These words from the 16th chapter of St. Mark were a reminder in every daily chapel service of what we were training to do.
It is all too easy for those called to the work of preaching and teaching God’s Word to take an airborne flight into the everlasting “busyness” of “running” the church as they say. It may seem more relevant to run off to every trendy workshop out there than to drill into the hard wood of sermon preparation. To be sure, the work of the church at large needs attention, especially mission work and worker training. The larger fellowship of the church and ministry needs to be cultivated. We ought not be arrogant little islands obsessed only with our own little fiefdoms. There are many things worthy of our attention in the local congregation and in the church at large.
But the statement of our Lutheran Confessions still holds true: “Nothing so attracts people to the church like good preaching.” The apostles noted their own calling “to prayer and the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). Without it, as Luther put it, you get sermons that wouldn’t attract a dog from behind a warm stove, a melancholy clatter of words rather than the green pastures and still waters of the word. God’s people, whether they always appreciate it or not, need the preaching and teaching of law and gospel – the clear proclamation that the wages of sin is death, and that the undeserved gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. It is the joyful proclamation that God Himself set foot in our world to live and die and rise for us, to reclaim us as His own.
In Herman Melville’s novel, Moby Dick, as Captain Ahab hunts down the great white whale, everyone is running around doing a million things on board ship, many of them important things and needed things. But one guy is just standing there on a perch which the sailors called the pulpit. He seems to do very little. But he’s not lazy. He’s the harpooner. They all know, and he knows, that if he wears himself out with a million other things, he will not be ready – he will not be able – to fire his harpoon accurately when the time comes. The harpooner needs to wait quietly, to concentrate, to be ready to fire.
In a similar way, a pastor needs to be constantly in prayer and the word of God. Any pastor will tell you how easy it is to hurry and scurry, to hustle and bustle, and to let “the one thing needful” fall by the wayside. To feed the flock nourishing spiritual food rather than junk food, he needs to labor and wrestle in the secret place, in prayer and the Holy Scriptures – for his own soul and the souls of his people. What’s the thing those airline attendants tell you to do if the emergency oxygen masks drop from the ceiling? First put your own mask on, and then assist the person next to you. If you are passed out yourself, you are no good to anyone else. So it is with the study of God’s word – a task more intense than it may seem. Rip the word “office” from the pastor’s door and inscribe the word “study.”