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Listen first!

He appointed twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons.

Since preaching is so vital to the health of the churches, we should rejoice in the proliferation of preaching training courses over the past 35 years. The Cornhill training course in London – which has trained so many – has been replicated in Glasgow and Belfast; there also exist numerous more local courses, such as our own TEAM (“Training for East Anglia Ministry”). But what happens on these courses?

You might think that they are about communications skills: speaking with emphasis, using spicy illustrations, modulating the voice, drawing people into the narrative, generally talking like Ted. But in fact, the vast bulk of the time is given to studying the Bible. Books are read in depth as well as in overview, and the students are helped to grasp the heart of Bible passages, so that they can communicate them really clearly. The students are trained to speak for God by learning how to be listeners to Him.

It’s striking that when the Lord Jesus called the Twelve and commissioned them to preach (often paired in Mark with the casting out of demons, as if to say that in preaching the hosts of darkness are being driven back), He first called them to be with him. They needed to learn from Him, before they could preach.

It was this learning, in fact, that made them into such effective preachers. In Acts, we read how when the authorities saw the courage of Peter and John and realised that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and took note that they had been with Jesus. (Acts 4:13)

Christian preaching is preaching the Bible. Communications skills have value, but a preacher who is a brilliant speaker but serves up their own ideas rather than scripture is a menace. We must come to the Scriptures first before we can speak to others. As the bishop asked me at my ordination service, “… are you determined, out of the said Scriptures to instruct the people committed to your charge, and to teach nothing, as required of necessity to eternal salvation, but that which you shall be persuaded may be concluded and proved by the Scripture?”

This is why, in preparing sermons, the bulk of the preacher’s time is spent reading the Bible, to ensure that what he’s saying really is true to the passage. Hold us to this task!

In Mark’s gospel, it is when a deaf man is given his hearing that he begins to speak (Mark 7:31-37). In his Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary, Professor C E B Cranfield remarks: “We may well see in the order here (first ears, then tongue) a reminder that it is only as the Church hears the Word of God that it has anything worthwhile to say.”