The Quartersawn Sermon
Preachers love pulpits. We dream of Calvin’s crowned pulpit with the spiral staircase, Spurgeon’s rail pulpit in London, Palmer’s marble pulpit in Columbia, or the “high pulpit” of the Independent Presbyterian Church in Savannah. But my favorite is the pulpit I have the privilege to fill each Lord’s Day. It’s made of hand-carved, quartersawn oak. Once the furniture makers’ lumber of choice, quartersawn boards are milled perpendicular to the tree’s growth rings, like hands on a clock. Craftsmen value quartersawn lumber because it is stronger, lovelier, and costlier, which incidentally, are three essential elements of a good sermon.
Since a quartersawn board is cut at 90 degrees to the grain, it is less prone to bend and bow than plain sawn wood. It’s stronger. In the same way, a good sermon must be strong. Gospel preaching must be powerful. Pulpiteers may be tempted to manufacture this power by screaming and pounding the pulpit or crying on cue or displaying their learning with cloudy philosophical musings and psychobabble. But Paul instructed the young pastor Timothy to seek another source for force in his preaching, saying “preach the word” (2 Timothy 4:23). Paul knew that true power in preaching, the power to save souls and rattle the gates of hell, is found in the word of God and the cross of Christ which is, “the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18). Thus, a sermon will only be as powerful as it is biblical. The preacher’s great task each Lord’s Day is simply to tell God’s people what God has said in his word. As Charles Spurgeon said, “The word of God is like a lion... all you have to do is let the lion loose.”
But even a textually faithful sermon is powerless to “pierce to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow...”(Hebrews 4:12) unless the Spirit unsheathes the biblical blade and wields it as only he can in his gracious soul-surgery. This anointing of the Spirit, this unction, can only be found in prayer. The congregation longing for power in the pulpit must plead with the Spirit to breath upon the bones each Sunday. The preacher yearning for the pulpit and the hearts of his people to burn white-hot with Zion’s fire must fetch the holy flame on his knees in prayer throughout the week. True power in preaching flows from the word and Spirit of God.
But quartersawn oak isn’t just strong, it’s beautiful because it exposes the tree’s medullary rays radiating from the center. Many call quartersawn oak “tiger oak,” for these stripes. In the same way, preachers should strive to craft sermons that are both biblical and beautiful, for a beautiful gospel ought to be beautifully proclaimed. But what makes a sermon lovely?One homiletics professor of mine said, “Words are the colors with which we paint.” Indeed, if we are to attempt to convey the glories of God and the horrors of sin, we must be wordsmiths, cultivating a vibrant linguistic palette. Rather than relying upon the same worn-out words and threadbare phrases, preachers have to fight for fresh expression. Like a waiter cracking pepper onto a patron’s steak, ministers should season their sermons with rich language to help their people savor the flavors of God’s word. Like Egyptian hieroglyphs, our sermons ought to contain word pictures that, as Neil Stewart said, “turn the ear into an eye.” Our Master used earthy illustrations to illuminate, intensify, and beautify his preaching. Jesus told stories of seeds, coins, sheep, vineyards, and flowers to tack God’s truth to the corkboard of the human heart. So should we.
But no sermon can be called “beautiful” that is not brimming with Christ. Again, Spurgeon said, “A sermon without Christ… is a mistake in conception and a crime in execution. However grand the language it will be merely much-ado-about-nothing if Christ be not there.” Jesus is altogether lovely, the Fairest of Ten Thousand, the Bright and Morning Star, “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Hebrews 1:3), the image of the invisible God in whom the “whole fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Colossians 1:9). He is the Lion of Judah come to “destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8) and the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29) by bearing the guilt and shame of his people on the cross. If the Lamb will be all the glory in Emmanuel’s land, the lamp of the New Heavens and New Earth, he must be radiant in our preaching.
Outside of antique shops, quartersawn furniture is hard to come by. If it’s so strong and beautiful, why isn’t it more common? Because the milling process is laborious and expensive. Because quartersawn oak is costly. The same is true of good preaching. Sermons that are beautiful and strong don’t happen on accident. They are costly, born of a Davidic conviction in the preacher’s soul to never offer to the Lord that which “cost [him] nothing” (2 Samuel 24:24). Quartersawn sermons are the result of many hours of discipline and diligence in study and in prayer. To say “yes” to a sermon worth preaching requires saying “no” to other good things in a given week, convinced that Samuel Miller was right when he said, “The pulpit work of a gospel minister is his great work.”
May we preachers be convinced of the grave duty and joyous privilege of heralding the word of God. May we be driven to work long and hard at our pulpit craft, pouring ourselves out as a drink offering upon the faith of God’s people. May our hearts be filled with love for those to whom we speak and to the one for whom we speak. May those in the pew demand and receive quartersawn sermons which are powerful, beautiful, and costly. And may it please the Spirit to strike our pulpits that streams of living water would pour forth from them unto the salvation of sinners and the glory of Jesus Christ.
Jim McCarthy is the Senior Pastor of the First Presbtyerian Church in Hattiesburg, MS
Podcast: "Sermon Plagiarism"
"The Pastoral Heart of Bunyan" by Jacob Tanner
"Repentance and Faith: Preaching Tips from à Brakel" by Jonathan Holdt
Words to Winners of Souls by Horatius Bonar
Why Johnny Can't Preach by T. David Gordon
A Workman Not Ashamed: Essays in Honor of Albert N. Martin, ed. by David Charles and Rob Ventura