Are you ever afraid when you preach? Maybe as you make ready to mount your pulpit? I hope so! If you’re not, then I’m afraid of you and consider you a danger to the ministry. Forty-five years after I preached my first sermon, I still feel fear every time I preach—and I’m so glad I do!
I almost can hear somebody thinking right now, “Isn’t pastoral ministry about helping people to live beyond their fears?” Somebody else is thinking, “Our Savior says, ‘Do not fear, only believe,’ and John wrote, ‘Perfect love casts out fear'” (see Mark 5:36 and 1 John 4:18). I know all those verses and a whole bunch more just like them; but I tell you I’m still afraid every time I preach, and I think you should be, too!
You see, I’m not at all persuaded that the idea of fearing God is some Old Testament relic. In our New Testament understanding of God, we want to remember God is not fear but love and, again, that “Perfect love casts out fear.”
Really smart preachers who know who they are, whose they are and who called them demonstrate that by a healthy dose of fear. Come with me to that day when Isaiah stepped into the temple after King Uzziah died. There in the temple, Isaiah was face-to-face with the incomparable contrast between his own sin and God’s pure, holy glory. Isaiah also saw smoke billowing throughout the space, suggestive of God’s power to consume (see and compare Isa. 33:14 and Ex. 19:18, for instance). Isaiah feared that he would be destroyed because he was in the presence of the purest of all beings. He announced woe on himself; he was in deep trouble.
Preacher, have you ever thought about the fact that these are the first words out of Isaiah’s mouth about himself in his whole book? They are the words of a fear-filled man announcing a prophetic, well-deserved woe on himself? Isaiah first had to face his own sin-filled nature and rampant uncleanness before he could worship God as he should.
Sometimes I still wear the gold college ring my student congregation bought me for graduation. Every time I slide it onto my finger, I am forced to recognize our University of Mobile motto from Proverbs 1:7: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” It is smart to be afraid sometimes.
The number of times the Bible extolls “the fear of the Lord” as a virtue is not beyond number, but it is high. It happened at the foot of Mount Sinai when, “It came to pass on the third day, in the morning, that there were thunderings and lightnings, and a thick cloud on the mountain; and the sound of the trumpet was very loud, so that all the people who were in the camp trembled” (Ex. 19:16). When Jesus came down among us, things actually get worse. When He stills the storm, “they feared exceedingly!” (Mark 4:41). At the Transfiguration, “they were greatly afraid” (Mark 9:6). On resurrection morning, the first witnesses to the empty tomb “said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (Mark 16:8). So, now tell me, dear preacher-reader, that we ought not to be afraid!
Let me give you two reasons why preaching with fear is important. The first is that what we are called to do is stand in God’s place and announce His message. Surely we must all know we, too, are men with dirty mouths. The second is that we are filled with this holy-awe kind of fear because God just might choose the moment we preach to do something totally amazing and beyond any human understanding one more time. It’s a glorious and good thing to be afraid at a moment such as that.
So, preach in the words of Puritan Richard Baxter, “Preach as though never sure to preach again, a dying man for dying men!”