ON THE CHOICE OF THE TEXT.
I TRUST, my brethren, that we all feel very deeply the importance of conducting every part of divine worship with the utmost possible efficiency. When we remember that the salvation of a soul may hang, instrumentally, upon the choice of a hymn, we should not consider so small a matter as the selection of the psalms and hymns to be a trifle. An ungodly stranger, stepping into one of our services at Exeter Hall, was brought to the cross by the work of Wesley’s verse. — “Jesu, lover of my soul.” “Does Jesus love me?” said he: “then why should I live in enmity to him?”
When we reflect, too, that God may very especially bless an expression in our prayer to the conversion of a wanderer; and that prayer in the unction of the Holy Spirit, may minister greatly to the edification of God’s people, and bring unnumbered blessings down upon them, we shall endeavor to pray with the best gift and the highest grace within our reach. Since, also, in the reading of the Scriptures comfort and instruction may be plenteously distributed, we shall pause over our opened Bibles, and devoutly seek to be guided to that portion of Holy Writ which shall be most likely to be made useful.
With regard to the sermon, we shall be most anxious, first of all, respecting the selection of the text. No one amongst us looks upon the sermon in so careless a light as to conceive that a text picked up at random will be suitable for every, or indeed, for any occasion. We are not all of Sydney Smith’s mind, when he recommended a brother at a loss for a text, to preach from “Parthians, and Medes, and Elamires, and the dwellers in Mesopotamia;” as though anything would do for a sermon. I hope we all make it a matter of very earnest and serious consideration, every week, what shall be the subjects upon which we shall address our people on the Sabbath morning and evening; for, although all Scripture is good and profitable, yet it is. not all equally appropriate for every occasion? F13 To everything there is a season; and everything is the better for being seasonable. A wise householder labors to give to each one of the family his portion of meat in due season; he does not serve out rations indiscriminately, but suits the viands to the needs of the guests. Only a mere official, the slave of routine, the lifeless automaton of formalism, will be content to snatch at the first subject which comes to hand. The man who plucks topics as children in the meadows gather buttercups and daisies, just as they offer themselves, may act in accordance with his position in a church into which a patron may have thrust him, and out of which the people cannot eject him; but those who profess to be called of God, and selected to their positions by the free choice of believers, will need to make fuller proof of their ministry than can be found in such carelessness. Among many gems we have to select the jewel most appropriate for the setting of the occasion. We dare not rush into the King’s banquet hall with a confusion of provisions as though the entertainment were to be a vulgar scramble, but as well-mannered servitors we pause and ask the great Master of the feast, “Lord, what wouldst thou have us set upon thy table this day?”
Some texts have struck us as most unhappily chosen. We wonder what Mr.
Disraeli’s rector did with the words, “In my flesh shall I see God,” when lately preaching at a village harvest home! Exceedingly unfortunate was the funeral text for a murdered clergyman (Mr. Plow), from, “So he giveth his beloved sleep.” Most manifestly idiotic was he who selected “Judge not, that ye be not judged,” for a sermon before the judges at an assize. Do not be misled by the sound and seeming fitness of scriptural words. M.
Athanase Coquerel confesses to having preached on a third visit to Amsterdam, from the words, “This is the third time I am coming to you,” Corinthians 13:1 — well may he add, that he “found great difficulty in afterwards putting into this discourse what was fitting to the occasion.” A parallel case was that of one of the sermons on the death of the Princess Charlotte from, “She was sick and died.” It is still worse to select words out of a miserable facetiousness, as in the case of a recent sermon on the death of Abraham Lincoln, from the sentence, “Abraham is dead.” It is said that a student, who it is to be hoped never emerged from the shell, preached a sermon in public, before his tutor, Dr. Philip Doddridge. Now the good man was accustomed to place himself immediately in front of the student, and look him full in the face, judge therefore of his surprise, if not indignation, when the text announced ran in these words, “Have I been so long time with you, and yet hast thou not known me, Philip?” Gentlemen, fools sometimes become students, let us hope none of that order may dishonor our Alma Mater. I pardon the man who preached before that drunken Solomon, James I of England and 6 of Scotland, from James 1:6, the temptation was too great to be resisted; but let the wretch be for ever execrated, if such a man ever lived, who celebrated, the decease of a deacon by a tirade from, “It came to pass that the beggar died.” I forgive the liar who attributed such an outrage to me, but I hope he will not try his infamous arts upon any one else.
As we would avoid a careless accidental pitching upon topics, so would we equally avoid a monotonous regularity. I have heard of a divine who had fifty-two Sunday sermons, and a few extra ones for holy days, from which he was wont to preach in regular order, year after year. In his case, there would be no need that the people should entreat that the same things should be spoken to them on the next Sabbath-day, nor would there be much wonder if imitators of Eutychus should be found in other places beside the third loft. It is not very long ago since a clergyman said to a farmer friend of mine, “Do you know, Mr. D — I was turning over my sermons the other day, and really the parsonage is so damp, especially in my study, that my sermons have become quite musty.” My friend, who although he was churchwarden, attended a Dissenting place of worship, was not so rude as to say that he thought it very likely; but as the village venerables had frequently heard the aforesaid discourses, it is possible they were musty in more senses than one. There are persons in the ministry who, having accumulated a little stock of sermons, repeat them ad nauseam, with horrible regularity. Itinerating brethren must be far more subject to this temptation than those who are stationed for several years in one place. If they fall victims to the habit, it must surely be the end of their usefulness, and send an intolerable death-chill into their hearts, of which their people must soon be conscious while they hear them parroting forth their time-worn productions. The very best invention for promoting spiritual idleness must be the plan of acquiring a two or three years’ stock of sermons, and repeating them in order again and again. As we, my brethren, hope to live for many years, if not for life in one place, rooted to the spot by the mutual affection which will grow up between ourselves and our people, we have need of a far different method from that which may suit a sluggard or an itinerant evangelist.
It must be burdensome to some, and very easy to others, I should imagine, to find their subject, as they do whose lot is cast in the Episcopal establishment, where the preacher usually refers to the gospel or the epistle, or the lesson for the day, and feels himself bound — not by any law, but by a sort of precedent — to preach from a verse in either the one or the other. When Advent and Epiphany, and Lent and Whitsuntide, bring their stereotyped round, no man needs to agonize at heart over the question, “What shall I say unto this people?” The voice of the church is clear and distinct, “Master, say on; there is your work, give yourself wholly to it.” There may be some advantages connected with this prearrangement, but the Episcopalian public do not appear to have been made partakers of them, for their public writers are always groaning over the dreariness of sermons, and bemoaning the sad condition of a longsuffering laity who are compelled to listen to them. The slavish habit of following the course of the sun and the revolution of the months, instead of waiting upon the Holy Spirit is, to my mind, quite enough to account for the fact that in many churches, their own writers being judges, the sermons are nothing better than specimens of “that decent debility which alike guards their authors from ludicrous errors, and precludes them from striking beauties.”
Be it then taken for granted, that we all feel it to be most important, not only to preach the truth, but to preach the right truth for each particular occasion; our effort will be to descant upon such subjects as shall be best adapted to our people’s wants, and most likely to prove a channel of grace to their hearts. Is there any difficulty in obtaining texts? I remember, in my earlier days, reading somewhere in a volume of lectures upon Homiletics, a statement which considerably alarmed me at the time; it was something to this effect: “If any man shall find a difficulty in selecting a text, he had better at once go back to the grocer’s shop, or to the plough, for he evidently has not the capacity required for a minister.” Now, as such had been very frequently my cross and burden, I inquired within myself whether I should resort to some form of secular labor, and leave the ministry; but I have not done so, for I still have the conviction that, although condemned by the sweeping judgment of the lecturer, I follow a call to which God has manifestly set his seal. I was so much in trouble of conscience through the aforesaid severe remark, that I asked my grandfather, who had been in the ministry some fifty years, whether he was ever perplexed in choosing his theme. He told me frankly that this had always been his greatest trouble, compared with which, preaching in itself was no anxiety at all. I remember the venerable man’s remark, “The difficulty is not because there are not enough texts, but because there are so many, that I am in a strait betwixt them.” Brethren, we are sometimes like the lover of choice flowers, who finds himself surrounded by all the beauties of the garden, with permission to select but one. How long he lingers between the rose and the lily, and how great the difficulty to prefer one among ten thousand blooming lovelinesses! To me still, I must confess, my text selection is a very great embarrassment — embarras de richesses, as the French say — an embarrassment of riches, very different from the bewilderment of poverty — the anxiety of attending to the most pressing of so many truths, all clamoring for a hearing, so many duties all needing enforcing, and so many spiritual needs of the people all demanding supply. I confess that I frequently sit hour after hour praying and waiting for a subject, and that this is the main part of my study; much hard labor have I spent in manipulating topics, ruminating upon points of doctrine, making skeletons out of verses and then burying every bone of them in the catacombs of oblivion, sailing on and on over leagues of broken water, till I see the red lights and make sail direct to the desired haven. I believe that almost any Saturday in my life I make enough outlines of sermons, if I felt at liberty to preach them, to last me for a month, but I no more dare to use them than an honest mariner would run to shore a cargo of contraband goods. Themes flit before the mind one after another, like images passing across the photographer’s lens, but until the mind is like the sensitive plate, which retains the picture, the subjects are valueless to us. What is the right text? How do you know it? We know it by the signs of a friend. When a verse gives your mind a hearty grip, from which you cannot release yourself, you will need no further direction as to your proper theme. Like the fish, you nibble at many baits, but when the hook has fairly pierced you, you will wander no more. When the text gets a hold of us, we may be sure that we have a hold of it, and may safely deliver our souls upon it. To use another simile: you get a number of texts in your hand, and try to break them up; you hammer at them with might and main, but your labor is lost; at last you find one which crumbles at the first blow, and sparkles as it falls in pieces, and you perceive jewels of the rarest radiance flashing from within. It grows before your eye like the fabled seed which developed into a tree while the observer watched it. It charms and fascinates you, or it weighs you to your knees and loads you with the burden of the Lord. Know then that this is the message which the Lord would have you deliver; and, feeling this, you will become so bound by that scripture that you will never feel at rest until you have yielded your whole mind to its power, and have spoken upon it as the Lord shall give you utterance. Wait for that elect word, even if you wait till within an hour of the service. This may not be understood by cool, calculating men, who are not moved by impulses as we are, but to some of us these things are a law in our hearts against which we dare not offend. We tarry at Jerusalem till power is given. “I believe in the Holy Ghost.” This is one of the articles of the creed, but it is scarcely believed among professors so as to be acted on. Many ministers appear to think that they are to choose the text; they are to discover its teaching; they are to find a discourse in it. We do not think so. We are to use our own volitions, of course, as well as our understandings and affections, for we do not pretend that the Holy Ghost will compel us to preach from a text against our wills. He does not deal with us as though we were musical boxes, to be wound up and set to a certain tune; but that glorious inspirer of all truth deals with us as with rational intelligences, who are swayed by spiritual forces congruous to our natures: still, devout minds evermore desire that the choice of the text should rest with the allwise Spirit of God, and not with their own fallible understandings, and therefore they humbly put themselves into his hand, asking him to condescend to direct them to the portion of meat in due season which he has ordained for his people. Gurnal says, “Ministers have no ability of their own for their work. Oh! how long may they sit tumbling their books over, and puzzling their brains, until God comes to their help, and then — as Jacob’s venison — it is brought to their hand. If God drop not down his assistance, we write with a pen that hath no ink: if any one need walk dependently upon God more than another, the minister is he.”
If any one inquire of me, “How shall I obtain the most proper text?” I should answer, “Cry to God for it.” Harrington Evans, in his “Rules for Sermons,” lay’s down as the first, “Seek God in prayer for choice of a passage. Inquire why such a passage is decided upon. Let the question be fairly answered. Sometimes the answer may be such as ought to decide the mind against the choice.” If prayer alone should not guide you to the desired treasure, it will in any case be a profitable exercise to you to have prayed. The difficulty of settling upon a topic, if it makes you pray more than usual, will be a very great blessing to you. Praying is the best studying. Luther said so of old — “Bene orasse est bene studuisse,” and the well-worn proverb will bear repeating. Pray over the Scripture; it is as the treading of grapes in the wine-vat, the threshing of corn on the barn floor, the melting of gold from the ore. Prayer is twice blest; it blesseth the pleading preacher, and the people to whom he ministers. When your text comes in answer to prayer, it will be all the dearer to you; it will come with a divine savor and unction altogether unknown to the formal orator to whom one theme is as another.
After prayer, we are bound with much earnestness to use fitting means for concentrating our thoughts, and directing them in the best channel.
Consider the condition of your hearers. Reflect upon their spiritual state as a whole and as individuals, and prescribe the medicine adapted to the current disease, or prepare the food suitable for the prevailing necessity.
Let me caution you, however, against considering the whims of your hearers, or the peculiarities of the wealthy and influential. Do not give too much weight to the gentleman and lady who sit in the green pew, if you are so unfortunate as to possess such an abominable place of distinction in a house where all are on a level. Let the large contributor be considered by all means as much as others, and let not his spiritual infirmities be neglected; but he is not everybody, and you will grieve the Holy Spirit if you think him to be so. Look at the poor in the aisles with equal interest, and select topics which are within their range of thought, and which may cheer them in their many sorrows. Do not suffer your heads to be turned by respect to those one-sided members of the congregation, who have a sweet tooth for one portion of the gospel, and turn a deaf ear to other parts of truth; never go out of your way either to give them a feast or a scolding. It may be satisfactory to think that they are pleased, if they are good people, and one respects their predilections, but faithfulness demands that we should not become mere pipers to our hearers, playing such tunes as they may demand of us, but should remain as the Lord’s mouth to declare all his counsels. I return to the remark, think over what your people really want for their edification and let that be your theme. That famous apostle of the north of Scotland, Dr. Macdonald, gives an instance to the point in his “Diary of Work in St. Kilda:” — “Friday, May 27. At our morning exercise this day, I read and gave some illustrations of Romans 12, which afforded me an opportunity of stating the connection between faith and practice, and that the doctrines of grace are according to godliness, and lead to holiness in heart and life. This I deemed necessary, as from the high ground I had occupied for some days past, I was afraid the people might veer towards Antinomianism, an extreme as dangerous as Arminianism, if not more so.” Consider what sins appear to be most rife in the church and congregation — worldliness, covetousness, prayerlessness, wrath, pride, want of brotherly love, slander, and such like evils. Take into account, affectionately, the trials of your people, and seek for a balm for their wounds. It is not necessary to go into minute details, either in the prayer or in the sermon, as to all these trials of your congregation, although this was the custom of a venerable minister who was once a great bishop in this neighborhood, and has now gone to heaven. He was wont, in his abundant love to his people, to give such hints as to births, deaths, and marriages, in his flock, that one of the Sunday afternoon’s enjoyments of his constant hearers must have consisted in finding out to whom the minister referred in the various parts of his prayer and sermon. This was tolerated, and even admired from him — from us it would be ridiculous: a patriarch may do with propriety what a young man must scrupulously avoid. The venerable divine whom I have just mentioned, had learned this particularizing from the example of his father, for he was one of a family in which the children, having observed that something particular had occurred during the day, would say to each other, “We must wait till family prayer, when we shall know all about it.” But I digress; this instance shows how an excellent habit may degenerate into a fault, but the rule which I have laid down is not affected by it. Certain trials will occur, at particular junctures, to many in the congregation, and as these afflictions will invite your mind into new fields of thought, you will do ill to be deaf to their call. Again, we must watch the spiritual state of our people, and if we notice that they are falling into a backsliding condition; if we fear that they are likely to be inoculated by any mischievous heresy or perverse imagining; if anything, in fact, in the whole physiological character of the church should strike our mind, we must hasten to prepare a sermon which, by God’s grace, may stay the plague. These are the indications among his hearers which the Spirit of God gives to the careful, observant pastor as to his line of action. The careful shepherd often examines his flock, and governs his mode of treatment by the state in which he finds it. He will be likely to supply one sort of food but sparingly, and another in greater abundance, and medicine in its due quantity, according as his practiced judgment finds the one or the other necessary.. We shall be rightly directed if we do but associate ourselves with “that great Shepherd of the sheep.”
Do not, however, let us allow our preaching right home to our people to degenerate into scolding them. They call the pulpit “Coward’s Castle,” and it is a very proper name for it in some respects, especially when fools mount the platform and impudently insult their hearers by holding up their faults or infirmities to public derision. There is a personality — an offensive, wanton, unjustifiable personality — which is to be studiously avoided; it is of the earth, earthy, and is to be condemned in unmeasured terms; while there is another personality, wise, spiritual, heavenly, which is to be aimed at unceasingly. The word of God is sharper than any twoedged sword, and therefore you can leave the word of God to wound and kill, and need not be yourselves cutting in phrase and manner. God’s truth is searching: leave it to search the hearts of men without offensive additions from yourself. He is a mere bungler in portrait painting who needs to write the name under the picture when it is hung up in the family parlor where the person himself is sitting. Compel your hearers to perceive that you speak of them, though you have not even in the remotest degree named them, or pointed them out. Occasions may possibly occur when you may be bound to go as far as Hugh Latimer, when speaking upon bribery — he said, “He that took the silver basin and ewer for a bribe, thinketh that it will never come out. But he may not know that I know it, and I know it not alone; there be more beside me that know it. Oh, briber and bribery! He was never a good man that will so take bribes; nor can I believe that he that is a briber will be a good justice.” Here was as much prudent reticence as bold disclosure; and if you go no further than this, no man dare, for shame sake, accuse you of too great personality.
In the next place, the minister in looking after his text, should consider what his previous topics have been. It would be unwise to insist perpetually upon one doctrine to the neglect of others. Some of our profounder brethren may be able to deal with the same subject in a series of discourses, and may be able, by a turn of the kaleidoscope, to present new forms of beauty with no change of subject, but the most of us, who are of less fertile abilities, will find it best, to study variety, and deliver ourselves upon a wide range of truth. I think it well frequently to look over the list of my sermons, and see whether any doctrine has escaped my attention, or any Christian grace has been neglected in my ministrations. It is well to inquire whether we have been too doctrinal lately, or too barely practical, or too exclusively experimental. We do not desire to degenerate into Antinomians, nor, on the other hand, to descend to be mere teachers of a cold morality, but our ambition is to make full proof of our ministry. We would give every portion of Scripture its fair share in our heart and head.
Doctrine, precept, history, type, psalm, proverb, experience, warning, promise, invitation, threatening, or rebuke — we would include the whole of inspired truth within the circle of our teachings. Let us abhor all onesidedness, all exaggeration of one truth and disparagement of another, and let us endeavor to paint the portrait of truth with balanced features and blended colors, lest we dishonor her by presenting distortion instead of symmetry, and a caricature for a faithful copy.
Supposing, however, that you have prayed in that little room of yours, have wrestled hard and supplicated long, and have thought over your people and their wants, and still you cannot meet with the text — well, do not fret about it, nor give way to despair. If you were about to go a warfare at your own charges, it would be a very miserable thing to be short of powder, and the battle so near; but as your Captain has to provide, there is no doubt that all in good time he will serve out the ammunition. If you trust in God, he will not, he cannot, fail you. Continue pleading and watching, for to the industrious student heavenly help is certain. If you had gone up and down idly all the week, and given no heed to proper preparation, you could not expect divine aid; but if you have done your best, and are now waiting to know your Lord’s message, your face shall never be ashamed.
Two or three incidents have occurred to me which may seem rather odd to you, but then I am an odd man. When I lived at Cambridge, I had, as usual, to preach in the evening at a neighboring village, to which I had to walk.
After reading and meditating all day, I could not meet with the right text.
Do what I would, no response came from the sacred oracle, no light flashed from the Urim and Thummim; I prayed, I meditated, I turned from one verse to another, but the mind would not take hold, or I was, as Bunyan would say, “much tumbled up and down in my thoughts.” Just then I walked to the window and looked out. On the other side of the narrow street in which I lived, I saw a poor solitary canary bird upon the slates, surrounded by a crowd of sparrows, who were all pecking at it as if they would tear it to pieces. At that moment the verse came to my mind — “Mine heritage is unto me as a speckled bird, the birds round about are against her.” I walked off with the greatest possible composure, considered the passage during my long and lonely walk, and preached upon the peculiar people, and the persecutions of their enemies, with freedom and ease to myself, and I believe with comfort to my rustic audience. The text was sent to me, and if the ravens did not bring it, certainly the sparrows did. At another time, while laboring at Waterbeach, I had preached on the Sunday morning, and gone home to dinner, as was my wont, with one of the congregation. Unfortunately, there were three services, and the afternoon sermon came so close upon the back of the morning, that it was difficult to prepare the soul, especially as the dinner is a necessary but serious inconvenience where a clear brain is required. Alas! for those afternoon services in our English villages, they are usually a doleful waste of effort. Roast beef and pudding lie heavy on the hearers’ souls, and the preacher himself is deadened in his mental processes while digestion claims the mastery of the hour. By a careful measuring of diet, I remained, on that occasion, in an earnest, lively condition, but to my dismay, I found that the pre-arranged line of thought was gone from me. I could not find the trail of my prepared sermon, and press my forehead as I might, the missing topic would not come. Time was brief, the hour was striking, and in some alarm I told the honest farmer that I could not for rite life of me recollect what I had intended to preach about. “Oh!” he said, “never mind; you will be sure to have a good word for us.” Just at that moment a blazing block of wood fell out of the fire upon the hearth at my feet, smoking into one’s eyes and nose at a great rate. “There,” said the farmer, “there’s a text for you sir — ‘Is not this a brand plucked out of the fire?’” No, I thought, it was not plucked out, for it fell out of itself. Here was a text, an illustration, and a leading thought as a nest egg for more. Further light came, and the sermon was certainly not worse than my more prepared effusions; it was better in the best sense, for one or two came forward declaring themselves to have been aroused and converted through that afternoon’s sermon. I have always considered that it was a happy circumstance that I had forgotten the text from which I had intended to preach. At New Park Street, I once passed through a very singular experience, of which witnesses are present in this room. I had passed happily through all the early parts of divine service in the evening of the Sabbath, and was giving out the hymn before sermon. I opened the Bible to find the text, which I had carefully studied as the topic of discourse, when on the opposite page another passage of Scripture sprang upon me like a lion from a thicket, with vastly more power than I had felt when considering the text which I had chosen. The people were singing and I was sighing. I was in a strait betwixt two, and my mind hung as in the balances. I was naturally desirous to run in the track which I had carefully planned, but the other text would take no refusal, and seemed to tug at my skirts, crying, “No, no, you must preach from me. God would have you follow me.” I deliberated within myself as to my duty, for I would neither be fanatical nor unbelieving, and at last I thought within myself, “Well, I should like to preach the sermon which I have prepared, and it is a great risk to run to strike out a new line of thought, but still as this text constrains me, it may be of the Lord, and therefore I will venture upon it, come what may.” I almost always announce my divisions very soon after the exordium, but on this occasion, contrary to my usual custom, I did not do so, for a reason which some of you may probably guess. I passed through the first head with considerable liberty, speaking perfectly extemporaneously both as to thought and word.
The second point was dwelt upon with a consciousness of unusual quiet efficient power, but I had no idea what the third would or could be, for the text yielded no more matter just then, nor can I tell even now what I could have done had not an event occurred upon which I had never calculated. I had brought myself into great difficulty by obeying what I thought to be a divine impulse, and I felt comparatively easy about it, believing that God would help me, and knowing that I could at least close the service should there be nothing more to be said. I had no need to deliberate, for in one moment we were in total darkness — the gas had gone out, and as the aisles were choked with people, and the place everywhere crowded, it was a great peril, but a great blessing. What was I to do then? The people were a little frightened, but I quieted them instantly by telling them not to be at all alarmed, though the gas was out, for it would soon be re-lighted; and as for myself, having no manuscript, I could speak just as well in the dark as in the light, if they would be so good as to sit and listen. Had my discourse been ever so elaborate, it would have been absurd to have continued it, and so as my plight was, I was all the less embarrassed. I turned at once mentally to the well-known text which speaks of the child of light walking in darkness, and the child of darkness walking in the light, and found appropriate remarks and illustrations pouring in upon me, and when the lamps were again lit, I saw before me an audience as rapt and subdued as ever a man beheld in his life. The odd thing of all was, that some few church-meetings afterwards, two persons came forward to make confession of their faith, who professed to have been converted that evening; but the first owed her conversion to the former part of the discourse, which was on the new text that came to me and the other traced his awakening to the latter part, which was occasioned by the sudden darkness. Thus, you see, Providence befriended me. I cast myself upon God, and his arrangements quenched the light at the proper time for me.
Some may ridicule, but I adore; others may even censure, but I rejoice.
Anything is better than mechanical sermonizing, in which the direction of the Spirit is practically ignored. Every Holy Ghost preacher, I have no doubt, will have such recollections clustering around his ministry. I say, therefore, watch the course of Providence; cast yourselves upon the Lord’s guidance and help. If you have solemnly done your best to get a text, and the subject does not start up before you, go up into the pulpit firmly convinced that you will receive a message when the time comes, even though you have not a word at that moment.
In the life of Samuel Drew, a famous Methodist preacher, we read, “Whilst stopping at a friend’s house, in Cornwall, after preaching, a person who had attended the service, observing to him, that he had, on that occasion, surpassed his usual ability; and other individuals concurring in the opinion, Mr. Drew said, ‘If it be true, it is the more singular, because my sermon was entirely unpremeditated. I went into the pulpit designing to address you from another text, but looking upon the Bible, which lay open, that passage from which you heard me speak just now, ‘Prepare to meet thy God, O Israel,’ arrested my attention so forcibly as to put to flight my former ideas; and though I had never considered the passage before, I resolved instantly to make it the subject of my discourse.” Mr. Drew did well to be obedient to the heavenly direction.
Under certain circumstances you will be absolutely compelled to cast away the well-studied discourse, and rely upon the present help of the Holy Spirit, using purely extempore speech. You may find yourself in the position of the late Kingman Nott, when preaching in the National Theater, New York. In one of his letters, he: says, “The building was filled full, and mostly with young men and boys of the roughest type. I went with a sermon in my mind, but; as soon as I came upon the stage, greeted with a ‘Hi! hi!’ and saw the motley and uproarious crowd I had to do with, I let all thoughts of the sermon go, and catching up the parable of the Prodigal Son, tried to interest them in that, and succeeded in keeping most of them inside the house, and tolerably attentive.” What a simpleton would he have been had he persevered in his unsuitable prelection! Brethren, I beseech you, believe in the Holy Ghost, and practically carry out your faith.
As a further assistance to a poor stranded preacher, who cannot launch his mind for want of a wave or two of thought, I recommend him in such a case, to turn again and again to the Word of God itself, and read a chapter, and ponder over its verses one by one; or let him select a single verse, and get his mind fully exercised upon it. It may be that he will not find his text in the verse or chapter which he reads, but the right word will come to him through his mind being actively engaged upon holy subjects.
According to the relation of thoughts to each other, one thought will suggest another, and another, until a long procession will have passed before the mind, out of which one or other will be the predestined theme. Read also good suggestive books, and get your mind aroused by them. If men wish to get water out of a pump which has not been lately used, they first pour water down, and then the pump works. Reach down one of the Puritans, and thoroughly study the work, and speedily you will find yourself like a bird on the wing, mentally active and full of motion.
By way of precaution, however, let me remark, that we ought to be always in training for text-getting and sermon-making. We should constantly preserve the holy activity of our minds. Woe unto the minister who dares to waste an hour. Read John Foster’s “Essay on the Improvement of Time,” and resolve never to lose a second of it. A man who goes up and down from Monday morning till Saturday night, and indolently dreams that he is to have his text sent down by an angelic messenger in the last hour or two, of the week, tempts God, and deserves to stand speechless on the Sabbath. We have no leisure as ministers; we are never off duty, but are on our watchtowers day and night. Students, I tell you solemnly, nothing will excuse you from the most rigid economy of time; it is at your peril that, you trifle with it. The leaf of your ministry will soon wither unless, like the blessed man in the first Psalm, you meditate in the law of the Lord both day and night. I am most anxious that you should not throw away time in religious dissipation, or in gossiping and frivolous talk. Beware of running about from this meeting to that, listening to mere twaddle, and contributing your share to the general blowing up of windbags. A man great at teadrinkings, evening parties, and Sunday-school excursions, is generally little everywhere else. Your pulpit preparations are your first business, and if you neglect these, you will bring no credit upon yourself or your office.
Bees are making honey from morning till night, and we should be always gathering stores for our people. I have no belief in that ministry which ignores laborious preparation. When traveling in Northern Italy, our driver at night slept in the carriage, and when I called him up in the morning, he leaped out, cracked his whip three times, and said he was quite ready. Such a rapid toilet I hardly appreciated, and wished that he had slept elsewhere, or that I had to occupy another seat. You who are ready to preach in a hop, skip, and jump, will pardon me if I take a pew somewhere else.
Habitual mental exercise in the direction of our work is advisable.
Ministers should always be making their hay, but especially while the sun shines. Do you not find yourself sometimes wonderfully ready at sermonizing? Mr. Jay said that when he felt in such a condition, he would take out his paper and jot down texts and divisions of sermons, and keep them in store, that they might serve him at times when his mind was not so ready. The lamented Thomas Spencer wrote, “I keep a little book, in which I enter every text of Scripture which comes into my mind with power and sweetness. Were I to dream of a passage of Scripture I should enter it, and when I sit down to compose I look over the book, and have never found myself at a loss for a subject.” Watch for subjects as you go about the city or the country. F14 Always keep your eyes and ears open, and you will hear and see angels. The world is full of sermons — catch them on the wing. A sculptor believes, whenever he sees a rough block of marble that there is a noble statue concealed within it, and that he has only to chip away the superfluities and reveal it. So do you believe that there is within the husk of everything the kernel of a sermon for the wise man. Be wise, and see the heavenly in its earthly pattern. Hear the voices from the skies, and translate them into the language of men. Always a preacher be thou, O man of God, foraging for the pulpit, in all provinces of nature and art, storing and preparing at all hours and seasons.
I am asked whether it is a good thing to announce arrangements, and publish lists of projected sermons. I answer, Every man in his own order. I am not a judge for others; but I dare not attempt such a things, and should signally fail if I were to venture upon it. Precedents are much against my opinion, and at the head of them the sets of discourses by Matthew Henry, John Newton, and a host of others, still I can only speak my own personal impressions, and leave each man to be a law unto himself. Many eminent divines have delivered valuable courses of sermons upon pre-arranged topics, but we are not eminent, and must counsel others like ourselves to be cautious how they act. I dare not announce what I shall preach from tomorrow, much less what I shall preach from in six weeks’ or six months’ time, the reason being partly this, that I am conscious of not possessing those peculiar gifts which are necessary to interest an assembly in one subject or set of subjects, for any length of time. Brethren of extraordinary research and profound learning can do it, and brethren with none of these, and no common sense, may pretend to do it, but I cannot. I am obliged to owe a great deal of my strength to variety rather than profundity. It is questionable whether the great majority of list preachers had not far better burn their programs if they would succeed. I have a very lively, or rather a deadly, recollection of a certain series of discourses on the Hebrews, which made a deep impression on my mind of the most undesirable kind. I wished frequently that the Hebrews had kept the epistle to themselves, for it sadly bored one poor Gentile lad. By the time the seventh or eighth discourse had been delivered, only the very good people could stand it: these, of course, declared that they never heard more valuable expositions, but to those of a more carnal judgment it appeared that each sermon increased in dullness. Paul, in that epistle, exhorts us to suffer the word of exhortation, and we did so. Are all courses of sermons like this? Perhaps not, and yet I fear the exceptions are few, for it is even said of that wonderful expositor, Joseph Caryl, that he commenced his famous lectures upon Job with eight hundred hearers, and closed the book with only eight! A prophetical preacher enlarged so much upon “the little horn” of Daniel, that one Sabbath morning he had but seven hearers remaining. They doubtless thought it “Strange that a harp of thousand strings, Should play one tune so long.” Ordinarily, and for ordinary men, it seems to me that pre-arranged discourses are a mistake, are never more than an apparent benefit, and generally a real mischief. Surely to go through a long epistle must require a great deal of genius in the preacher, and demand a world of patience on the part of the hearers. I am moved by a yet deeper consideration in what I have now said: it strikes me that many a truly living, earnest preacher, would feel a program to be a fetter. Should the preacher announce for next Lord’s day a topic full of joy, requiring liveliness and exaltation of spirit, it is very possible that he may, from various causes, find himself in a sad and burdened state of mind; nevertheless he must put the new wine into his old bottle, and go up to the wedding feast wearing his sackcloth and ashes, and worst of all, this he may be bound to repeat for a whole month. Is this quite as it should be? It is important that the speaker should be in tune with his theme, but how is this to be secured unless the election of the topic is left to influences which shall work at the time? A man is not a steam engine, to run on metals, and it is unwise to fix him in one groove. Very much of the preacher’s power will lie in his whole soul being in accord with the subject, and I should be afraid to appoint a subject for a certain date lest, when the time come, I should not be in the key for it. Besides, it is not easy to see how a man can exhibit dependence upon the guidance of the Spirit of God, when he has already prescribed his own route. Perhaps you will say, “That is a singular objection, for why not rely upon him for twenty weeks as well as for one?” True, but we have never had a promise to warrant such faith.
God promises to give us grace according to our days, but he says nothing of endowing us with a reserve fund for the future. “Day by day the manna fell; Oh, to learn this lesson well!” Even so will our sermons come to us, fresh from heaven, when required. I am jealous of anything which should hinder your daily dependence upon the Holy Spirit, and therefore I register the opinion already given. To you, my younger brethren, I feel safe in saying with authority, leave ambitious attempts at elaborate series of discourses to older and abler men. We have but a small share of mental gold and silver, let us invest our little capital in useful goods which will obtain a ready market, and leave the wealthier merchants to deal in more expensive and cumbrous articles. We know not what a day may bring forth — let us wait for daily teaching, and do nothing which might preclude us from using those materials which providence may today or tomorrow cast in our way.
Perhaps you will ask whether you should preach from texts which persons select for you, and request you to preach upon! My answer would be as a rule, never; and if there must be exceptions let them be few. Let me remind you that you do not keep a shop to which customers may come and give their orders. When a friend suggests a topic, think it over, and consider whether it be appropriate, and see whether it comes to you with power.
Receive the request courteously, as you are in duty bound to do as a gentleman and a Christian; but if the Lord whom you serve does not cast his light upon the text, do not preach from it, let who may persuade you.
I am quite certain that if we will wait upon God for our subjects, and make it a matter of prayer that we may be rightly directed, we shall be led forth by a right way; but if we are puffed up with the idea that we can very easily choose for ourselves, we shall find that even in the selection of a subject, without Christ we can do nothing. Wait upon the Lord, hear what he would speak, receive the word direct from God’s mouth, and then go forth as an ambassador fresh from the court of heaven. “Wait, I say, on the Lord.”