Certainly the flowers cannot be brought to the full measure of their beauty without knowledge of botany, but the eyes of the wise gardener will always be upon the results to be achieved, upon the flowers that are to bloom. The preacher's duty is not merely to produce a good sermon according to all the rules of homiletics which as a student he has learned from his excellent teachers and the fine books he has read-triat's not his object in preaching, not his primary object. His big job is to produce flowers for the garden of God, to have a harvest to present to the King. His knowledge of Scripture, of history, of human nature all these things are simply tools to use. He will be saying to his hearers, "This do, and thoushalt live" (Luke 10:28).
Think for a moment, not of the time you spend in preparing a sermon thinking about it, praying about it but of the time others will spend listening to it. Suppose you have only two hundred people in your congregation and you preach to them for half an hour once a week. You have taken one hundred hours of their time. That is as much as twelve whole days of eight hours each for one individual.
Think of the heartbeats in a hundred hours of a man's life. Think of the quantity of human life that you have demanded from people to stop and listen to you. "Dost thou love life?" asked Benjamin Franklin. "Then do not squander time, for that is the stuff life is made of." Is there enough material in that sermon of enough importance to warrant your going to any one man or woman in the congregation and saying, "I would like to have two whole weeks of your time to bring you certain truths and blessings which I have here in my heart"? What I have to say ought to be pretty important if I make a request like that. Think of the responsibility that a preacher carries if he has five hundred or a thousand people in his congregation! Yet, in spite of all this, some of us and I am with you, fellow preachers, some of us sometimes fill up a half hour with a lot of pious twaddle. You know we do. And that's the word for it, a lot of unimportant pleasantries, a lot of thin, tasteless, powerless, hopeless, human inventions. Certainly, when a man has given me part of his life I should use it to bring him the great things of God's law, the mighty revelations of His Word, the eternal promises of the holy gospel.
Let's put it this way: Would you go to a man and say, "Let me have two weeks of your life," and then just joke and laugh and fool around all that time? Are the things said to the congregation important enough to take to each individual and buttonhole him and say, "Sir, I have something to say to you"?
A sermon should bring to maturity with tremendous earnestness, all that is best and greatest in the man who preaches it. We should be able to say, "This is my ripest judgment, my best thought, my supreme aspiration; and I believe it with all my heart." How clear it is from Scripture that the sermon should be the highest output of the preacher. Of Jesus it is written: "Seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain: . . . and he opened his mouth, and taught them" (Matt. 5:1, 2). And that supreme sermon of the ages, the Sermon on the Mount, came forth from the mouth of Jesus because it was in His heart. It was called forth by the need of the people "and seeing the multitudes ... he opened his mouth, and taught them."
And so today the need of man is the occasion of the sermon, the reason for the sermon, the reason for all our preaching. If by some sort of spiritual Xray you and I could look into the heart of every person in our audience when we rise to speak, would it not change our preaching? Would it not give us more enthusiasm, more earnestness, more carefulness, more sympathy? Wouldn't it shame us out of our listlessness, our dullness, our perfunctory officialism?
Suppose you could see that tomorrow, next week, someone in your audience is going to die, and he is hearing his last sermon today but doesn't know it. Suppose there is someone there whom the shadow of a great sorrow is just about to grip, and he doesn't know it. There is a man who is going to lose his wife before the week rolls around. There is a child who is going to be motherless before next Sabbath. There is a woman who may discover the infidelity of her husband before you have a chance to speak to her again, and all her life will come tumbling down around her like a house of cards; the future will be desolate. What do you have to say to these people?
In 1953 Mrs. Richards and I spent Christmas Eve in the State Hotel in Christchurch, New Zealand.
O my friends, preach the great themes of the Scripture. Preach the great truths. You don't have time in this world for anything else.
We were very hungry and went to the dining room for dinner. I will never forget the wild hilarity of the party that was going on there. Someone tried to put a dunce cap on me. Everybody was drunk or wanted to be, and all were really having a great time. The Queen had just landed in New Zealand, and of course you know that New Zealand is more British than Britain itself, and the people were surely glad to see her. They were happy, the whole country was happy. And so they were celebrating in this way. Of course we were happy to be there too, for it is a wonderful and beautiful land. My wife said that if we were to live anywhere outside the United States, it would be in New Zealand. I believe it's about the most beautiful country in the world, though of course one says that almost every time he sees some beautiful place.
There we were that night. Everything was pleasant as a Christmas Eve should be. Of course, it was midsummer down there, and a beautiful clear night it was. The moon was bright, and there wasn't a storm from one end of New Zealand to the other. That night a railroad train was speeding northward from Wellington, filled with Christmas merrymakers hurrying home for the holiday. On it were several of our own Seventh-day Adventist young people going to the camp meeting at Haskell Park, near Auckland. There were few highway crossings; there was no danger or was there? About halfway up to Auckland, just to the west, is a high volcano, supposed to be inactive. In its ancient crater is a lake covering about fourteen acres, which is frozen over most of the time, summer and winter. The outlet of this lake was blocked with a great wall of ice which, as far as anyone knew, had been there for centuries. This very night, for some unknown reason, that wall of ice gave way and the water from that lake rushed down the mountainside carrying mud, ashes, stones, and great rocks weighing many tons. When the water and debris came to the railroad bridge, it carried the bridge away. It took out the highway bridge also as it rushed on to the sea just as the train drew near.
A truck driver who had discovered the destruction just in time tried to flag down the train with his flashlight, but it was too late. On the train rushed with its merrymakers into the bridgeless river, where all of that great trainload except those in a few cars at the end were hurled to death amid the grinding boulders and carried on into the sea. In just twenty seconds more than 140 people lost their lives that Christmas Eve, among them two of our own young men. The tragedy threw the whole nation into mourning. The joy of Christmas and the Queen's arrival was changed into a great sadness, and well it might be. It was a terrible, terrible blow.
Do you know the first thing that came to my mind when I heard the awful news in the morning? I wondered whether anyone I had preached to during the previous three days was on that train. What had I said that would help him to meet eternity? That was what I was thinking about. Had any of those people been in my meetings? What had I said?
Dr. Charles Reynolds Brown, dean of the Divinity School of Yale University, was among the other preachers who were delivering their messages in the cities of the San Francisco Bay area on Easter Sunday in 1906. All the churches were crowded. On the next Wednesday, at five-fifteen in the morning, a severe earthquake reduced much of San Francisco to a burning ruin. Many of the people whom Dr. Brown and other ministers had addressed that Easter Sunday went to bed wealthy and happy on the night of April 1 7. The next morning they awoke if they awoke at all-penniless and amid ruins. Many of them found themselves surrounded by devouring flames that couldn't be stopped. In his very fine book The Art of Preaching, which I hope you will read sometime, Dr. Brown says that he asked himself, "What kind of sermon did I give my congregation last Sunday to fit them for facing that ordeal, the destruction of San Francisco?" That was the first thought that came to him. This same minister tells of one of his own experiences in preaching one Sunday night on the subject of "The Everlasting Mercy" and that's a wonderful subject too. At the close of the service a young man, a cashier in a big financial institution, came up to him and confessed that he had taken $2,800 from the company's till and that they were just about to discover the theft. The day of reckoning was just ahead; maybe in a few hours, maybe in a day or two, his dishonesty would be exposed. He was considering changing his identity, fleeing in an attempt to get away from himself and his crime, or committing suicide, rather than to face the disgrace that was sure to come. Thinking to find some help in making a decision, he had dropped into this church and heard Dr. Brown preach on "The Everlasting Mercy." After the service he went to the minister, and they discussed the situation until after midnight. Out of that long conference a plan was devised and carried out, in which the young man confessed his sin and crime and made restitution of the stolen money through several years of self-sacrifice. The officials of the company were very kind to him, and he made a complete recovery not only of his financial position but of his manhood. Dr. Brown says, "Suppose the preacher had been trifling that night with some fringe of truth!"
O my friends, preach the great themes of the Scripture. Preach the great truths. You don't have time in this world for anything else. You don't know who might be in your audience. Suppose, through lack of preparation or lack of genuine feeling and earnestness, Dr. Brown had been unable to make the mercy of God and of man real to that cashier so that he had gone out into the darkness and committed suicide. I tell you, preacher friends, it is a serious thing to preach. Many eternal decisions for right or wrong, for life or death, are in our hands.
Harold M. S. Richards was founder and speaker of the Voice of Prophecy radio broadcasting program. This article is taken from his book Feed My Sheep published by Review and Herald Publishing Association in 1958.