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The water analogy
In a parched, water-thirsty land, the Lord compares his Word to the effect of snowfall or a spring rain:
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my Word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. — Isaiah 55:10-11
To picture the Word as engaged in a cycle, going out and returning, implies that God intends to pursue a dialogue with us—not a lecture but an ongoing conversation that ranges widely and penetrates to the things of the heart. His side of the discussion, at least, will bless us powerfully, if only we will listen.
The fundamentals of preaching
This text serves as a foundation for a theory of preaching. We should conceive of the sermon, not as the word of the human messenger, but as the proclamation of the King to His subjects, His gracious provision of water to thirsty, dehydrated souls. Either preaching is that, or it is nothing.
Consequently, the primary attention we give to sermon preparation and homiletic improvement must focus on the message, not the delivery. Voice pitch, the rate of speaking, volume, one’s physical appearance, stance, facial expressions, and gestures all have their part to play, but none of them is so crucial as the content. Without a Word of the Lord, all else is trivial and ultimately meaningless.
The message has priority
That’s why Paul tells the Corinthians that the message of the cross is wisdom from God and has power, and that is true even if a fumbling, stumbling message-boy communicates it. Eloquence is not the power behind the gospel, nor are tightly structured and logically arranged paragraphs. Its true power is Christ crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2).
The message has a profound effect, first on the messenger, then on the hearers. This is true even if the messenger is a hypocrite and the hearers stubbornly refuse to heed. Jesus promised that the coming Spirit would convict the world regarding sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:8). In other words, the Word (the sword the Spirit wields, according to Ephesians 6:17) has two edges: to bless and to curse, to heal and to destroy. It has the pent-up potential of a 45-caliber automatic.
Release the power
Preachers who are aware of that potential should concentrate the bulk of their sermon preparation and the attention of their hearers in sermon delivery on the content of their message. The incidentals, all of those external things I mentioned earlier, usually take care of themselves. Water—whether you pour it, spray it, splash it, or allow it to dribble out—will still refresh the flowers and restore the human body struggling to reach the next oasis. Deliver it! How you do it is not the point.