So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom. (ESV)
2 Timothy 4:1-2,6
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word… For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. (ESV)
Perspective in life is important. I am one of those people that seems always in need of having my feet to the fire, which is perhaps why God has blessed me with a keen sense of my mortality. This is a gift from which we can learn so much, as long as we don’t allow ourselves to be driven to despair. When I was a young man, it was that sense of the temporality of life that drove me to desperate repentance, as a teen it drove me (with a little help from John Piper) to be determined not to waste my life, and now as a pastor it urges me to attempt to preach every sermon as if it were my last.
It is frighteningly easy when you are preaching week after week to begin to feel in your sermon prep the way you do about everything else in life. We begin to feel invincible, immortal. The steady beat of time falls on deaf ears. It is when I find myself in one of those moments that it seems God is most likely to stir me to preach, in Baxter’s words, as a dying man to dying men.
So what does it look like to preach every sermon as if it were your last? Here are five things to consider:
I. It must be faithful
Any pastor knows how easy it is to develop a laundry list of topics we would like to unleash on our congregations if our chances to preach were running out. But preaching this week as if it were our last sermon is not so much about “letting the sheep have it” as it is about knowing that I will soon stand before the Lord and give an account for how I presented his word. Therefore, the safest practice for a preacher in an uncertain world where we get into accidents and receive surprise diagnoses is to continue to faithfully exposit the Scriptures. This means no eisegesis. No twisting the text to make the most of the opportunity. We don’t know tomorrow. Only the Lord does, so we must be faithful. It is the Spirit working through the Word that brings life and changes hearts – it will be this way tomorrow, the week after, and every week after that until Jesus comes back. The Word will carry on, even if I am gone.
II. It must be patient
This is closely connected to faithfulness. Urgency must never overpower the patience that should mark pastorally-driven, Spirit-dependent preaching. This requires that we realize when we preach that God uses us, but he does not need us. His purposes will not fail. His kingdom will not cease when I step away from the pulpit.
III. It must be urgent
We must be patient. But if we are to preach each week like it is our last sermon, there is also an urgency that should mark our preaching. We are patient because the future is in God’s hands, but we are also urgent because the future is in God’s hands. When expounding a text of Scripture, it should be obvious in the clarity of the exposition, the passion in the deliverer, and the sharpness of the application, that this is an urgent word from the Lord to which we must respond. It is possible for preaching, under the guise of being faithful and patient, to fail to urgently bring people to a point of crisis. God’s word should be treated for what it is – bread for the starving, living water for the spiritually parched, life-giving prophecy for dry bones.
IV. It must be delivered as if you mean it
The very urgency that is required by the nature of Scripture as God’s revelation to us, should also shape us homiletically. If a sermon was our last, I think we would understand the urge to preach it like we mean it. A lot of the idiosyncrasies found in our niche of preaching culture would go out the window if we knew a sermon was our last. Perhaps that is a lesson we need to take to heart on a weekly basis. Let the text shape you, who God made you, and then let it flow out of you.
V. It must be replicable
Preaching every sermon as if it were your last means preaching in such a way that others can learn from and follow your example. There is something healthy about preaching in such a way that can be taught, a way which can be learned from you by the preachers of tomorrow. Does our preaching help people not only understand the text, but understand how to understand it? (Do you understand?) Is our preaching marked with Biblical theology that helps others build a blueprint of the Bible in their minds? Does our preaching display faithful patience, while preserving appropriate urgency, all the while delivered as by one who has himself been affected by the text? If you would preach every week as if it were your last, then you must be preaching to your replacement.
These are the lessons that I have been reflecting on. And if you preach or hope to have a future preaching, I hope you will put these things into practice in every opportunity that you have to teach the word of God to others, whether that be in a small group, a Sunday school class, or 1-2-1 over coffee.
Be faithful, be patient, be urgent, be real, and keep your eye on the future beyond you.