Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen. The Word of God that engages us today is from Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians: “Finally, brothers, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored, as happened among you, and that we may be delivered from wicked and evil men. For not all have faith” (2 Thess. 3:1-2, ESV). Throughout the New Testament, the Apostle Paul mentions how much he prays for other people. In a letter to a young pastor, Paul says, “I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day” (2 Tim. 1:3). And, in the opening verses of First Thessalonians, he writes, “We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers” (1 Thess. 1:2).
Prayer is an important, essential task of a pastor’s work. In fact, according to the Apostles, preaching and prayer are the most essential aspects of a pastor’s calling. As they told the early Church in Jerusalem: “It is not right that we should give up preaching the Word of God to serve tables…. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the Word” (Acts 6:2, 4).
But do you know that pastors need prayer too? That is what Paul asks for in our epistle: “Finally, brothers, pray for us, that the Word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored, as happened among you, and that we may be delivered from wicked and evil men. For not all have faith” (2 Thess. 3:1-2). Pray for us, Paul says. Pray for me and my fellow missionaries—Sylvanus and Timothy. Pray for my fellow pastors, my fellow preachers of the Word. Throughout his letters, Paul constantly appeals to his hearers to pray for him (cp. Rom. 15:30; 2 Cor. 1:11; Phil. 1:19; Phm. 22; Eph. 6:18-19; Col. 4:3-4).
Preachers have a particularly difficult calling. Consider this: your lawyer or accountant could give you very bad advice that costs you a lot of money. A doctor or nurse could botch up an operation and leave you maimed or dead. But the work pastors do could be the difference between heaven or hell for their hearers. As my father used to say, “A doctor can mess up your life, but a pastor can mess up your soul!” No wonder, then, that the Bible warns pastors that they will have to give an account of their shepherding to God on Judgment Day (Heb. 13:17; cp. Jas. 3:1).
So “pray for us.” Pray for me! Pray for my family. Pray for our health, safety, peace, joy, and prosperity. Yes, pray for the preacher. Yet, above all, pray for my preaching! For that is what Paul urges: “Finally, brothers, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored, as happened among you” (2 Thess. 3:1). In other words, Paul asks people to pray for the preaching so that the Word of God may spread and many people may come to believe in Jesus.
I don’t know what you think, but the preaching task is anything but easy. It requires hours of preparation through prayer, study, meditation, reflection, and writing. You don’t just read your Bible passage, say a quick prayer, and then sit down at the computer and have the words just flow out of you. Creativity doesn’t spark on demand. As a newly minted pastor straight out of seminary once complained: “The prophet speaks only when he is inspired. The parish preacher must speak whether he is inspired or not.” Quite honestly, the longer I serve in ministry, the more difficult preaching becomes. Year after year we hear the same Scripture readings read in church on Sunday. How do I say something fresh and new that remains relevant? And if your ministry pace is too fast, it’s hard to find the necessary peace to write.
At times like that, my friend and fellow pastor, Bryan Wolfmueller, suggests that while many pastors and their people may imagine the sermon like an exquisite four course meal prepared by a fancy chef—with salad, appetizers, main course, and dessert—perhaps the sermon is more like a meal thrown together by a mother with whatever ingredients she has an hand. With dirty diapers to change and skinned knees to kiss, moms are busy! So sometimes all that your mother can manage in the kitchen is to reheat leftovers in the microwave or slap some peanut butter and jelly on two slices of bread. Food isn’t always exciting. Sometimes it’s routine—even boring. But it still feeds you and gives you the nourishment that you need.
Maybe preaching is a little bit like that too. Some messages are better than others. Often, to my amazement, the sermons that I think are going to be homeruns fly right past me, while the ones I worry are going to go foul end up being hit out of the park. I cannot tell you how many times I have said to Lisa, “This week isn’t going to be a very good message,” only to have a dozen of you tell me, “Wow, pastor! That’s one of the best sermons you ever preached!” At other times, I am confident that my message is going to be amazing, only to see my audience looking at their watches and shuffling their bulletins.
Quite memorably, in one of the first sermons I ever preached, doing pulpit supply while still a seminarian, my own Grandad fell asleep halfway through my message. (To be fair to me: it was an evening service!).
Even the Apostle Paul, perhaps the greatest missionary ever to live, was not known as a particularly impressive preacher. Indeed, Paul’s opponents claimed, “His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech of no account” (2 Cor. 10:10). But Paul defended his lack of “lofty speech” (1 Cor. 2:1). “For Christ did not send me… with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power” (1 Cor. 1:17).
Pastors do not preach in order to entertain. That doesn’t mean they should set out to be boring, but sometimes it cannot be helped. Nor is it a requirement that a sermon satisfy your curiosity about theology or ancient history. While pastors should not be lazy about learning and growing in their knowledge of God’s Word, intellectual stimulation does not guarantee a good sermon. Pastors especially do not preach in order to make people like them (at least, not if they’re doing the job Jesus gives them!). In fact, quite the opposite: if pastors faithfully preach the Word of God, it will be impossible for them not to offend people by what they say. The Gospel is offensive to those who do not have ears to hear. Telling people what they want to hear instead of what they need to hear is actually the sign of a false prophet, not a good preacher. As Scripture warns: “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Tim. 4:3-4).
At the end of the day, the sermon isn’t about the pastor, his personality, style, or approach. The sermon is about Jesus dying on the cross for our sins and rising again to give us eternal life. As St. Paul said, “We preach Christ crucified…” (1 Cor. 1:23). If you want to be entertained, go to a movie. If you want to be fascinated, read a book. If you want pop psychology, watch Dr. Phil or Joel Osteen. My job—my calling from Christ—is to proclaim the Word of God so that you hear and believe in Jesus. My role is to plant the seed and wait for God to make it grow.
So I need your prayers. Pray for the preacher, but pray also for the preaching. In Ephesians 6, Paul asks “that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the Gospel” (Eph. 6:18). So pray that God gives me the words to say so that I don’t get stuck with writer’s block. Here’s another good verse: “At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the Word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison—that I make it clear, which is how I ought to speak” (Col. 4:3-4). So, taking a cue from Paul, pray for my preaching to be bold and clear so that the message is not dense or confusing. We want God to open the door of people’s hearts to hear, receive, and believe the Word—not to be shut out by poor preaching.
Pray also for my protection. “Pray for us…, that we may be delivered from wicked and evil men. For not all have faith” (2 Thess. 3:2). All Christians have a big target on our backs. But pastors are in particular danger. When persecution breaks out against the Church, one of the first things the authorities do is to round up and arrest the pastors. “Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.” So pray that even when our message is unpopular, unwelcome, or even illegal, we may still have boldness to speak as God commands. “Not all have faith” (2 Thess. 3:2). In the words of the Prophet Isaiah, “Who has believed our message…?” (Isa. 53:1, NIV). Very few indeed. So pray!
I pray for you. You pray for me. And Jesus prays for all of us. The same Lord who died and rose again for your salvation is the same Jesus who, even now, prays for you up in heaven. “Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us” (Rom. 8:34). On the night of his betrayal, Jesus prayed for himself and his disciples in the Upper Room (John 17). He also prayed for you. “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word” (John 17:20). In other words, Jesus prayed for those who would believe in him through the preachers’ word. That means Jesus prays for us.
We live and pray—and preach—in the confidence that our sins are forgiven and we have eternal life because Jesus died and rose again. That is a wonderful message! The Bible calls it Gospel, or Good News. So instead of complaining about all the bad news we hear in the media, pray for your pastor so the Good News may go out instead! In the name of the Father and of the Son and of T the Holy Spirit. Amen.