The acclaimed Italian operatic tenor Luciano Pavarotti was a nervous wreck before every performance. Perhaps this would be the day that he would finally fail? Backstage, before mounting the platform, Pavarotti would routinely breathe the words, “I go to die.”
This was no false humility. A video from a documentary of the tenor’s life showed him in the green room saying those words before he stepped on stage to sing the famous Nessum dorma, portraying a prince’s determination to win the hand of a cold princess—or die in the attempt. According to a profile in The New Yorker:
The tape provides a closeup that no audience member ever gets, and it reveals a physical exertion and fear of failure known at certain moments to aerialists, matadors, surgeons, soldiers. Just before the climax of the aria—the B-natural scream—a look of terror sweeps across Pavarotti’s huge, sweating face. His eyes bulge, his jaw squares, and then, at the precise moment when he releases the final note—a direct hit—the eyes betray not pleasure but the most exquisite sense of relief. He has done it again.
Every gospel preacher can relate to this feeling of dread. Or at least we should. As one of my seminary profs used to say: “The most frightening piece of real estate on the face of the earth is the space behind a pulpit from which God’s servant proclaims God’s word.” It is holy ground, and therefore it is not unreasonable to approach the pulpit whispering, “I go to die.”
Death, it turns out, is central to the task of preaching. It is the crux, you might say. It’s not insignificant, for example, that pulpits are made of wood, like the Cross itself. Good, old-fashioned ones even resemble a casket—the place where one goes to be buried with Christ. But unlike the speechless corpse, the crucified preacher has something to say: “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again!”
Maybe it was the soaring arias of our recent Messiah performance that brought Pavarotti to mind as I entered the pulpit this past Sunday. Because it was Christmas Eve, the church was jam-packed, and I felt the familiar sense of dread: How can my words possibly do justice to the wonder of Christ’s incarnation? Recognizing some individuals who seldom show up but who came this time to please their mothers, I felt a special weight of responsibility to preach with a compelling measure of pathos. It was then, as I grabbed my Bible and ascended the steps to the platform, that Pavarotti’s idiom flashed through my mind, “I go to die.”
Why is the preacher’s “death,” that is, reaching the end of ourselves—the end of our cleverness and sufficiency—a necessary ingredient of gospel preaching? It’s because God’s word has the inherent power to evoke faith. It conveys the dunamis of God, a regenerative potency that raises the dead. It is why Paul says in 1 Corinthians 2:2-5, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.”
Gospel preaching is a different species from any other form of oratory or vocal performance. While “positive thinking” may be the stock-in-trade for managing fear and apprehension—the whimsical optimism that sets one’s jaw and shoots for the stars—gospel preachers have a different calling. The scandalous “word of the cross” leads us into the pulpit week by week, humbly embracing our weakness and inadequacy, to speak on behalf of the Crucified One.
And when we do, we can be assured that the Lord will empower our feeble words by his Spirit to animate the souls of men and women. Even those who only come to church on Christmas Eve.