When I say sermons and trembling go together, I speak both as a giver and as a hearer of sermons.
When I read verses such as “The words of Jeremiah … to whom the word of the Lord came …” (Jeremiah 1:1), I tremble. I remember how Quakers got their name:
““Quaker” emerged as a derisive nickname for Fox [the founder of Quakerism] and others who shared his belief in the biblical passage that people should “tremble at the Word of the Lord.” (link)
A sermon is speech in the name of God. I get anxious if, for several months, I haven’t heard a sermon which made me tremble – regardless of whether I was comforted or disturbed.
Recently a Christian asked me how I prepare sermons.
I said after turning the scriptures over-and-over in my mind; after much study of the texts and current events; after studying the audience.
Tomorrow, I’m to deliver the sermon at the Sunday morning service. I’m to preach from the lectionary. There are four texts. They are from the books of Jeremiah, Psalms, 1 Corinthians and the Gospel according to Luke. I can choose one of them, or I can speak on all of them.
In the recent past, I’ve had deep conversations with some members and shallow conversations with others. I know some through their sermons, some through their articles on our website. I know about some through what they post on social media.
So, I read the assigned texts. I read about current affairs. I read my audience. I turn everything over-and-over again. I read commentaries about the texts and introductions to the books they’re taken from.
I do all that under the conviction that sermons and trembling go together; while pleading with God to send me his words like he did to Jeremiah.
But I never say, “God told me to tell you this.” Why? Because I know I can delude myself and others. So, I expect my listeners to test my words.
I expect them to test what I say because they are Christians, people who believe God speaks through sermons, people like the Bereans:
“Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11).
I’ve not been satisfied with a single sermon I’ve ever preached (John Stott once said the same thing – this is another reason why I think sermons and trembling go together. See also my Should we wear hats to church services in which I discuss Annie Dillard’s views in this matter.)
Why do I continue? Because I’m on the schedule. And because I know the weariness that comes from sermon preparation and delivery is less than the weariness which comes from refusing to preach:
If I say, “I will not mention him,
or speak any more in his name,”
there is in my heart as it were a burning fire
shut up in my bones,
and I am weary with holding it in,
and I cannot.