"Preaching is an art in which a studied, professional sinner tells the less studied sinners how they ought to believe, behave, and serve." Calvin Miller, on Preaching
At the risk of offending this excellent author, I would adjust his statement to read, "Preaching should be an art...", because much preaching isn't portrayed this way. Preaching has become a profession. Slick presenters with the perfect smile, designer jeans, and their latest best-seller in hand, prostitute themselves to the ever fickle crowd.
For preaching to be truly great, the wise man must not boast in his wisdom, nor the learned in his learning. Great preaching wells up from a humble heart.
Great preaching is recognised, not proclaimed
"'Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.' For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends." 2 Corinthians 10:17-18 (ESV)
As Paul addressed the Corinthian church, he made it clear who it was that was approved; the one who was not self-commended, but instead carried the commendation of God.
To do this, Paul borrowed from Jeremiah:
Thus says the Lord: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord.”
Jeremiah 9:23-24 (ESV)
It is helpful here to note that God does not negate the wisdom, might, or riches of these men; he simply states that these three gifts are not worthy to be the source of their boasting. Without a doubt, there are many 'wise' preachers, many 'mighty' preachers, and a few 'rich' preachers, but preachers under these categories have only one valid boast - the character and delight of God.
Great preaching is rooted in a knowledge of God and His delights.
Great preaching always points away from the pulpit.
Great preaching calls people to lift their eyes from the preacher to the God of the preacher.
Great preaching springs from a man who has a healthy assessment of his place before Almighty God.
As Paul instructs the church in Rome about the context of God's administered grace, he calls each one to use their gift in proportion to the grace they had been given.
For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.
Romans 12:3-8 (ESV)
Great preaching always follows a time of sober judgement.
The introduction to this article called for two actions: (1) Beware of the word 'greatness' and (2) Test your heart. Now we come full circle.
Preacher: Beware of the word 'greatness'. Do not commend yourself, instead work diligently for the commendation of God. If you must boast, boast in the Lord. Cast before your people a lofty vision of God that leaves them gasping. Build phrases and sentences to shape hearts, not fill Twitter feeds.
Maybe it is fitting here to finish with the words of C. H. Spurgeon, that Prince of Preachers:
To be laughed at is no great hardship to me. I can delight in scoffs and jeers. Caricatures, lampoons, and slanders are my glory. But that you should turn from your own mercy, that is my sorrow. Spit on me, but, oh, repent! Laugh at me, but, oh, believe in my Master! Make my body as the dirt of the streets, but damn not your own souls! (Spurgeon: Sermons 4.56)
So, what makes a preacher great?
His subject matter, his preparation, his delivery, his life, and his humility.
As stated in my opening comments, these five subjects are by no means the only factors that could be taken into consideration. Yet these are the ones most impressed on my heart over the last few years. I trust they may be of some help in your considerations of the noble task of preaching the Word.
When all is said and done, God alone is truly great! It is the work of God alone that raises a man up, and the work of God that humbles him to the ground.
Preacher: Let God be great in your preaching. Let the Gospel shine in your exhortation. Do this, and despite the numbers that know your name on earth, your preaching will be great!
To the praise of His glory!