““Once in seven years I burn all my sermons; for it is a shame if I cannot write better sermons now than I did seven years ago.” John Wesley
Upon returning home after my dad died, I found a collection of notes and outlines from sermons I had delivered back when I was a teenager. As I read through them, it was as if I was having an out-of-body experience. “Did I really say that?” was a common thought that kept popping in my head.
If I could have found every person who had happened to hear one of those messages, I would have apologized on the spot.
Did they contain gross errors? Not necessarily. Often it was a matter of how I said something — or the dogmatic certainty about issues that I no longer was dogmatic about it.
Those were messages I had preached when I was 15-17 years old. At the time I was re-reading them I was about 27 years old. Much had changed in ten years. Now that I’m 40 years old, I can assure you that even more has changed.
I’m simply not the same person I was when I was a teenager. I’ve added a few decades of life experiences, got married, started a family, lived through dry seasons, conducted funerals, counseled suicidal people, met good people from difference denominations … the list could go on.
In short, I’ve grown up. And by the Lord’s mercy, will continue to grow.
I’ve never been a big fan of recycling old sermons; but I wouldn’t be dogmatic about it (insert smiley face). God’s word never changes, but I do. Those old sermons reflect where I was at a certain place and time. In many respects, they were influenced by my immediate surroundings — the people I was interacting with, conversations I had over coffee.
A good sermon has some of the preacher’s soul in it. The soul I’m speaking of is that part of the preacher that is informed and challenged by the context of their ministry. Recapturing that soul five, six, or seven years later may not be possible.
Could the words still be true? Certainly. But what will be missing is the intangible ingredient of speaking timeless truth to a specific moment.
Karl Barth once described preparing to preach as having a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. In other words, we must listen to God’s voice and the voices around us. Our task is to bridge the world of God with the world we live in.
Of course, I haven’t always waited seven years to burn a sermon. Sometimes that happens within 24 hours!