For all their hard-headedness and miserable failures, the people of Israel whom Moses was called to lead did get a few things right along the way. Tucked between complaints about their leader, gripes about what God was or was not providing, and looks back toward Egypt with longing eyes, there are moments of clarity that show that, for at least that moment, they get it. One of those moments is in Deuteronomy 5:27, when the people say to Moses, “Go near and listen to all that the Lord our God says. Then tell us whatever the Lord our God tells you. We will listen and obey.” Their words reveal some expectations about the job description of their preacher that the people of God still have today—at least on the days when we get it.
The Israelites assume that hearing from God requires intimacy, nearness, and some intentional effort on the part of the preacher that has as much to do with proximity to the message Giver as it does clarity about the message given. On their best days, what the people of Israel assumed, needed, and expected their preacher to do was the same thing our people assume, need, and expect us to do: they needed their preacher to get near to God—near enough to hear God’s voice, to sense God’s heart, to discern any differences there might be between what the preacher wanted to say and what God needed the preacher to say. Israel knew their preacher needed to hear from God if that preacher was going to have anything worth saying to them.
I think our people know that too. They may not communicate it as clearly as the Israelites do in Deuteronomy 5:27, but they know they need a preacher who will lean in, getting close enough to God to hear what God has to say. That’s part of the job description not just for Moses but also for every man and woman who has been called to proclaim a word from the Lord. Preparation for proclamation always involves leaning in. It always involves listening for the divine voice. Always.
Leaning in and listening is partly a practice of personal and corporate spiritual formation and partly a practice of disciplined preparation. In The Call to Preach, I share a few specific practices for disciplined preparation. The call to preach is the call to prepare, but it really could be said that our preparation practices or methods are means for going near, leaning in to God and the text, so that we are close enough to hear God’s voice, feel God’s heart, and discern God’s words. That’s part of the job description.
The call to preach is the call to prepare, but it really could be said that our preparation practices or methods are means for going near, leaning in to God and the text, so that we are close enough to hear God’s voice, feel God’s heart, and discern God’s words.
The Israelites understood and articulated in Deuteronomy 5:27 that the preacher’s job is to listen for us and then to speak to us. The Israelites expect the preacher Moses not only to hear a word from God but also to bring it back to them. All of it. The way they see and say it here, that’s part of the job description for a preacher. For all the times the Israelites got it wrong, they get it right here. We preachers don’t have anything worth saying if we haven’t gotten it from God. When God gives it, we give it to God’s people—with clarity, and passion. That’s part of the job the Israelites expected their preacher to do. It’s an expectation our hearers have as well.
Every preacher dreams that when we’ve gone near, heard a clear word from God, and delivered it to God’s people, the hearers will always be attentive and receptive. Our dream and hope and prayer is that our hearers today will have the attitude, “We will listen and obey.” On our best days, the dream is a reality. The word heard is the word proclaimed. The word proclaimed is the word received. The word received becomes the word lived. On our best days, when we really get it, that’s what happens. I’m just optimistic enough to believe that it can happen every Sunday, or Wednesday, or Saturday night, or whenever it is you are given the chance to preach. So keep leaning in, listening well, and proclaiming with confidence the word you’ve heard. If you do your job well, you just might get a few chances to see some dreams come true.
Read more from Pastor Steve Estep in his new book, The Call to Preach: The Art of Sermon Preparation.