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What preachers can learn from waiters
God’s word is a feast, and preachers can learn from the example of a good waiter.
One of my fondest memories as a child was visiting my grandfather’s restaurant in the heart of Melbourne. The alluring aroma of fresh herbs, simmering pasta sauce, and oven-baked garlic bread greeted your senses as you opened the front door. The scents of Sicily coupled with the sound of chinking wine glasses and joyful chatter provided the perfect ambience to enjoy his homegrown meals.
My family’s passion for great food gave me the idea of one day running my own restaurant. At age six I even sketched my own business plan: serve all meals in the shape of a happy face. Who wouldn’t want their pancakes, bacon, and eggs turned into the perfect smile?
Needless to say, my “happy faces” restaurant never took off! However, years on, now serving as a pastor, I see a correlation between my role as a preacher and that of a waiter serving an outstanding meal.
One of the most common metaphors for God’s word is food. David praises God for his word, which is ‘sweeter than honey’ (Ps. 119:103). Jeremiah ate and delighted in God's word (Jer. 15:16). Like newborn infants who cry for milk, so our lives are to be characterized by a desire for God’s word, which is our pure spiritual milk (1 Pet. 2:2).
The food metaphor emphasizes a special understanding of the Bible: God’s word is to be savored. A great meal is pleasing to the taste and satisfying to the soul. This picture of God’s word as food finds its fulfillment in Christ.
When Jesus feeds thousands with a little boy’s lunch, it’s more than a parlor trick to show his power; it’s a prophetic sign revealing his personhood. Jesus is the true bread, come from heaven to offer eternal life for all who hunger and thirst (John 6:51).
God’s word is to be savored.
A loaf of bread offers temporary sustenance for physical existence—but Jesus is the living bread who provides satisfaction and true life. He came to cancel our debt of sin and give us his righteousness and new life—only in him are our deepest appetites for acceptance, purpose, and fulfillment satisfied.
However, food must die to be of value. Plants and animals are killed so we can live. Jesus is the true bread, whose flesh was killed on Calvary so hungry sinners can live.
Jesus therefore invites us to “feed on” his flesh and drink his blood (John 6:54)—a call to feast on him in such a way that his life fills every part of our being. We look to Jesus as the all-sufficient provider, whose word of life is “true bread,” offering all we could ever need and desire.
This helps immensely in understanding my role as a preacher of God’s word. My call is not merely to transfer knowledge, prepare people for an exam, or lift spirits with a motivational pep talk. I am a waiter, called to present God’s word to eager guests for the fame of the head chef.
How can a preacher present God’s word like a good waiter? There are four ways:
1. A good waiter personally delights in the cooking of the chef
A waiter needs more than an understanding of the menu; he must experience it.
Through his relationship with the chef, the waiter pays close attention to every ingredient, not only to gain knowledge, but also to taste and enjoy it.
I am a waiter, called to present God’s word to eager guests for the fame of the head chef.
As a preacher it’s tempting to approach God’s word with our guests in mind. We read a passage and immediately seek ways to explain, illustrate, and apply for our people—but our role is to savor God’s word first. His word must always be applied to ourselves before anyone else. The Psalmist declares, “taste and see the Lord is good” (Ps. 34:8) because he has delighted in God’s word firsthand.
2. A good waiter understands the guests
In some of the best restaurants, the waiters take time to know their guests, asking if they’ve eaten there before and what kind of foods they enjoy. This helps a waiter suggest items that cater for their needs as well as introduce them to new flavors.
I’d never advocate “consumer-driven” preaching, but as teachers we must have a clear understanding of our audience whenever we open up the Scriptures. This is evident in the writings of Paul, who conceded the Corinthians were only ready for “milk” (1 Cor. 3:2). He had the full intention of introducing them to high-grade steak, but only after their palate had matured. In the same way, we may have grand visions of what we’d like to put on the table (insert big doctrine and exegetical brilliance), but we must serve in the interest of our people’s growth, which always begins where they are.
3. A good waiter never adds to or subtracts from the chef’s meal
You know what we call a waiter who messes with the head chef’s main meal?
A good waiter shows honor to the chef (and the guests) by preserving the contents and presentation of the meal, delivering it to the table exactly as the chef intended.
Far too many pastors today have lost confidence in God’s word. Gripped by a desire for human approval, preachers leave out hard texts and avoid difficult truths, exchanging the balanced diet of God’s word for junk food.
A good waiter shows honor to the chef by preserving the contents and presentation of the meal.
The gospel is powerful to save (Rom. 1:16) and condemns those who add or take from it (Rev. 22:19). Whenever we meddle with the word, we malnourish our people and mock God.
Our call is to preach the word in and out of season (2 Tim. 4:2). This means working hard in the text—taking note of each word, the style of writing, the flow of argument, the tension, the question, and the imagery in the narrative. We also explore the historical and biblical context, aware of the cultural biases that we bring to the text. We wrestle with the text, point people to Jesus, and ask God to speak his extraordinary words through our ordinary mouths.
4. A good waiter points the gratitude of the guests to the chef
A good waiter can receive thanks for his hospitality, but always points praise for the meal back to the chef.
In the same way, preachers give God the glory for the beauty of his word. It’s tempting to think my words reach hearts and change lives, and some listeners are prone to lift up preachers to godlike platforms. But it’s always God’s word that bears the fruit. The art of preaching is from start to finish a work of God, who sets alight his word by his Spirit. It’s no small thing to be used as a jar for his treasure, but the fact that God can use a donkey to get his message out (Num. 22:28) should keep us humble.
We can give thanks to God for his grace in allowing us to preach his word, and when we see lives transformed we have all the more reason praise our God, whose word always achieves exactly what he intended it to do (Isa. 55:11).