Over the past several months, whether at work, church, a friend's house, or home, I have witnessed a number of finished projects. Wooden oak floors being restored to their original warm luster. An aged, beat-up stairwell with slippery steps patched, painted, and safe once again with new non-slip treads. Stained glass windows that once adorned a church installed into the RPTS library. A gorgeous, handcrafted circulation desk for the library installed near those windows. Café-style tables with thick walnut tops delivered for students to study and visit over. Double-hung, insulated windows replacing broken, single pane ones. New carpet with soft padding underneath laid down to create a warm den.
In each of these situations, I did not witness much - if any - of the work being done. I just saw the final product. But each time, one thing was clear. The project testified to the hard work and knowledgeable craftsmanship of the laborer. The work done left you with the confidence that if you were to see another project done by these individuals, you would find the same level of competence.
Such should be the case with each sermon the preacher brings to the people of God. The people listening should have confidence that the minister has worked hard to bring them a well-constructed message. For as Paul told Timothy as he labored at the church in Ephesus, “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth" (2 Tim. 2:15). This admonition suggests at least five ways preachers can improve their craft.
Remember you are to be a laborer. The word for workman (ἐργάτης) that Paul uses is a word for a common field laborer. They were men who knew how to work with their hands and get a job done. These are the type of workers that Jesus told us to pray for in Matthew 9:36-38, where the Lord uses the image of laborers going out into the fields and harvesting the grain as a reminder in part of what a pastor should be. Men preparing sermons need to sweat over exegeting and understanding the text, work with the grain of it to shape a message, and expend energy in getting ready for and then delivering the sermon.
Do not be ashamed of the effort, quality, or repair of your work. The word for "diligence" (σπουδάζω) implies the idea of hard labor, endeavoring to excel, and exerting one's self in study. The preacher has to set the time aside and guard it in order to prepare his sermons. He should always be at work on their quality.
I have a friend who has a large workshop where he does excellent woodwork. A while back, he made six screens for my home office. I enjoyed watching him measure, design, choose the wood, carefully mark, cut, sand, prime, paint, trim the screening to fit, and cord the windows. He “accurately handled” the wood throughout the process (I helped him a bit but mostly served as a "kerf catcher" as he humorously called me.) One of the things that I also noticed is that if he made any mistake, he was able to fix it. Similarly, if a preacher makes a mistake along the way in interpreting or applying the text, he should listen to and respond appropriately to correction.
Keep learning your trade. Just as a craftsman continues to learn how to make a better product, so the preacher needs to keep growing in his abilities. He should discuss his preaching with mentors and friends. He should regularly read books on homiletics. He should not be ashamed to take a class, attend a seminar, or participate in the Simeon Trust to develop further in his abilities. As a homiletics professor, I regularly tell my students that I am still learning and that I am one of them, a laborer with fellow laborers.
Small changes can make a big difference. Tweaking a message is part of the work of sermon preparation. Some common areas where sermons can be adjusted are working on transitions; using a turn of phrase instead of generic or dry language (For example, a preacher could say of Genesis 45, “We see here Joseph forgiving his brothers.” However, stating it “Like a king, Joseph pardoned his brothers” uses the imagery already in the text to communicate more effectively.); changing plain statements to ready application (Instead of “God will forgive you if you ask” the preacher can more directly command, “Seek the Lord’s mercy!”); adding a tone of pleading (“Seek the Lord’s mercy. Cry out for it!”).
Try portions out on others. Often you find that craftsmen have associations or guilds where those skilled in the same trade get together to foster the sharing of ideas, techniques, and insights. Sadly, pride can often prevent preachers from benefitting from the input others in a similar way could give them. In this text of 2 Timothy 2:15, a simple truth is that we have one preacher speaking to another. Preachers should be in conversation with mentors and friends about their preaching. Preaching a little of their message to a fellow pastor before they get behind the pulpit can help sharpen their craft.
The "seal of approval" a preacher ultimately seeks for his work is not from the congregation but, as Paul told Timothy, he should labor diligently to be shown "approved to God."