When the prophets Nahum, Habakkuk, and Malachi stood up to preach, they began with the words, “The burden of the Lord.”
That was a dead giveaway this was not going to be a sweet little devotional filled with funny stories and touching vignettes. The men of God were about to drop a heavy load from their hearts into the laps and onto the shoulders of their audiences.
It took me a long time laboring in the Lord’s vineyard to figure something out. The burden God gives His preacher for some problem, some people, or some cause is every bit as much a gift from Him as the blessings of salvation. And it becomes my starting place.
Starting place for what? I’m glad you asked.
The burden God gives you, pastor, is your beginning point for three things….
1. The vision God will give you for your work begins with a burden.
I like to think of the time we wrestle with a problem (i.e., the burden) as the equivalent of digging downward for the foundation of a mighty building. The deeper we dig–the more the problem burdens us, the longer we struggle with it, and the more it pains us–the greater will be the structure that eventually gets erected there.
You’ve seen the signs: “Watch this site. A new office building will be erected here.”
Well, post one of those signs on the burden God has given you: “Watch this site. A new visionary structure will go up here.”
What is your burden, pastor? What bothers you most in your community, your church, your world? What robs you of sleep at night and will not leave you alone?
–For Bill, a young minister in our church, it was a run-down trailer park near the airport where he had spotted forty or more needy and neglected children.
–For Tobey, it was the homeless of our city, sleeping on the streets and under bridges and overpasses.
–For Kay, it was the troubled women with their small children. Often they were abused by husbands or boyfriends and had no place to go.
–John’s burden was the seafarers who come to our port from all over the world and for whom no one was doing anything to welcome them and tell them about Christ.
Each of these disciples of Jesus were given visions as to what they could do to correct that problem. But first, the Holy Spirit allowed them to wrestle with the sadness, the wrongness, the injustice, the neglect of the people on their hearts.
Every vision for ministry begins with a burden for some hurting people.
2. The strongest sermons you will ever preach will begin with a burden.
I stood before a seminary class three weeks ago and said to the roomful of young ministers: “I am not here because I know a great deal about worship leadership. I am here because I feel a great burden about worship leadership.”
As I write this, tomorrow morning I will stand before another class of seminarians and say, “I was not asked to teach this class because I know a lot about interpersonal relationship skills. I am here because I feel a great burden for ministers with poor interpersonal relationship skills.”
To my mind, that is the starting place for my best sermons and most effective ministry.
As a pastor, you’ve been invited to travel out of state and address a group of people involved in the Lord’s work. You were assigned no topic, but were told to speak on anything on your heart. You have the entire range of years’ of sermons to choose from. Question: what should you talk about?
Answer: Talk about–that is, preach about–whatever bothers you most.
That’s where your strongest focus should be. That’s what will engage your fullest resources. You will get more excited about this than anything else you could have chosen.
What you must not do is choose a sermon you preached for your people that went over well, which made you think it will work at another venue. It might; it may not.
Asking “what is your burden?” is not to suggest that anything that bugs you must automatically be “of God.” We are not talking about pet peeves or “what bugs you.”
We’re speaking of burdens from the Heavenly Father.
Remember when Jesus told Simon Peter three times to “feed my sheep”? That’s John 21.) Thereafter, that became Peter’s focus, his burden, and his mandate from the Lord.
In the same way, the Lord told Saul of Tarsus–about to become the Apostle Paul–that he was to be the Lord’s chosen vessel to the Gentiles, and that in fulfilling that mission he would suffer many things for Jesus’ sake (Acts 9:15-16). Bringing the gospel to the Gentiles thus became his burden, his mission, and his life.
Yesterday as I write, I preached in a church in North Mississippi, filling in for the pastor who was preaching a revival in another church. As always, I went to the Lord in prayer to ask what I should preach. The impression on my heart was not a new thing. It was not an idea I had not thought of, although it may well have been so. However, as a rule, since I’m preaching in churches where I never or rarely preach, the Holy Spirit leads me to preach messages He has previously given me. Each is different, of course, because no sermons are memorized and each situation varies.
I could have chosen some passage in the Word where the Lord has given me an inspiring insight. There certainly are plenty of those. However–and this is my point–the strongest sermons a pastor can preach are those that stem from a heavy burden he carries in his heart.
The sermon I preached was the story of “Blind Bartimaeus” (Luke 18:35-42), a lesson on the neglected of society who need us to see them as individuals, to listen to their cries, and to bring them to Jesus.
3. The burden is your starting point for strong prayer and focused waiting upon the Lord.
When the Lord gave Bill the burden for the sad trailer park near the airport with its broken-down trailers, troubled families, and neglected children, he did two things: he began asking the Father what He wanted to do there, and he talked to his pastor (who happened to be me).
That was the starting place. If a burden for a people-group is to be considered a “gift” from the Lord, then the obvious thing to do is head right back to the Throne Room and ask Him, “Father, what are you saying? What would you have me to do?”
Then, wait for His answer.
While you wait, you continue praying, keeping the matter before Him.
And while waiting and praying, you watch. The Lord may send you ideas and opportunities for small steps toward the direction He is leading.
Bill decided to stop by the trailer park one day and ask the woman manager how things were among the residents, if any church was ministering to them, and if she would be open to his doing something. He was careful to volunteer or promise nothing. He was merely getting information while praying and waiting on the Lord.
Little by little, we (Bill and the leaders of the church) went through whatever doors were open to us. And in time, Bill was given a vision for a full-scale ministry in the Dixieland Trailer Park.
In this case, the work came to its greatest fruition under the minister (another seminary student) who succeeded Bill. It became the finest example of community ministry I experienced in any of my six pastorates, this one involving some sixty volunteers from our church and annually reaching many children and adults for salvation.
So, pastor–or church leader!–where is your burden? What people group is being neglected in your community? Who has the Lord placed on your heart?
Once you know the answer to that question, I have five suggestions for you….
1. The two worst things you can do with this burden are:
a. Slough it off as too much, too dangerous, too risky, too costly, too anything. Your faith is on the line here.
b. Hand it off to someone else. I’ve had church members tell me, the pastor, of their burden for some group in the community and ask us to get the church to form a ministry to them. But it does not work that way. The person to whom the Spirit gives the burden will receive the vision and the call, but only if he/she is obedient and shows themselves faithful.
2. Hand it back to the Father. Tell Him, “Lord, show me what to do with this.”
The parents of Samson who, told they were going to have this unusual child, prayed, “O Lord, please let the Man of God whom You sent come to us again and teach us what we shall do for the child who will be born” (Judges 13:8).
3. Share the burden with a few others as the Spirit leads.
Choose well. The wrong person can pour ice water over that fire the Holy Spirit has ignited within your heart.
4. Wait on the Lord.
Do not run ahead of Him. Do not conclude that, as I have heard, “Wherever there is a need, there is a mission field, and the nearest Christian is the missionary.” That’s completely wrong, as it assumes that every believer is to do everything. We are to wait upon the Lord and follow His direction.
5. In the meantime, take baby steps. While praying and waiting, focus on gathering information, asking questions, and listening to anyone with similar ministries in other places. This keeps the matter alive in your heart, and prepares you for the moment the Holy Spirit decides you are ready for a full-blown plan for reaching those people.
A burden can be a mighty fine thing. It can be a gift from God and the first step toward a world-changing ministry, in the hands of a faithful disciple…like you.