“My own way of expressing myself almost always disappoints me. I am anxious for the best possible, as I feel it in me before I start bringing it into the open in plain words; and when I see that it is less impressive than I had felt it to be, I am saddened that my tongue cannot live up to my heart.” ~Augustine
Augustine the preacher penned these words more than 1,600 years ago. And from time to time I, too, feel his great pain. Not all the time; not every single Sunday; not even every month or so. But there are times when I am almost crushed by a painfully horrible sermon that I’ve delivered.
The old joke goes that the only thing worse than finishing a sermon and realizing it wasn’t very good is just getting started preaching a sermon and realizing it isn’t very good.
I was there this past Sunday. I don’t know what it was. I think I tried to say too much in too short amount of time. I think I tried to do too much. I think the subject matter (Exodus 34:7b) was too complex and difficult. Maybe I was distracted by some heavy things we had just finished discussing in our Bible class. Maybe I was a little travel logged from the drive home from our family Thanksgiving back to Amarillo that was made a bit longer by the blowout in Bowie. Maybe it was the sparse, sparse, sparse crowd in our worship center. Maybe it was none of those things at all. But for whatever reason, or reasons, nothing was flowing. Nothing was communicating. Ten minutes into the sermon, I couldn’t wait for it to be over. And I just knew 650 other people in the room were feeling the same way.
When it was over, I couldn’t hardly pray with our brother who had walked down to the front to ask for the prayers of our church family. I found myself asking God to forgive me instead of him, to help me instead of him. It’s the first time I’ve ever welcomed a person responding to the sermon by grabbing that person’s hand and begging God to help me.
And I sat there through most of our communion time wondering how weird it would be if I stood up one more time — to the shock and horror of the congregation, no doubt — to apologize for delivering such a poor sermon. I don’t think it was a homilitical homicide, as my friend Jason Reeves says about really catastrophic sermons that can set a church back several decades theologically. It wasn’t like that. It just wasn’t very good.
I had great hopes for the sermon. I was prepared to preach about the utter holiness of our God and the utter repulsiveness of our sins against that holiness and the unexplainable gift of his grace and forgiveness that allows us to dwell in his presence anyway. I was ready. But it just fell flat. And it was crushing me. My tongue didn’t live up to what was in my heart. I felt I had really let everybody down.
I walked to my study — pitiful, pathetic, sad — and was greeted by an email from one of our teenagers at Legacy, a great young man with an eager spirit for our Lord, getting ready to finish school now at ACU and enter the ministry. He wrote the email from Fort Worth at 11:15, right in the middle of my lousy sermon:
Allan, you’re probably preaching right now but I want to say something to you. Years ago, you challenged this church at Legacy and me to consider others. You spoke of how it didn’t make sense for anyone to take communion alone. You encouraged us to move, and some did, but you instilled something in my heart and soul that I will never forget. We don’t have to be alone in this life, we don’t have to do it on our own.
This morning I was encouraged by the Spirit to go sit by a brother of mine who was by himself. I know the Spirit compelled me, encouraged me, and supported me to do it past all the lies that Satan was filling my head with.
You know this, but you have made a difference in my life and I am blessed to call you a mentor, a brother, and a friend.
Thank you for being bold enough to spur people on to act. You are a servant of God and I am blessed to have you in my life. I want to tell you that I have been praying for you and am intentionally praying right now that the words from your mouth will encourage Central and others to believe in the Spirit and act. To be bold! To know that God is with them and that they are not doing it alone.
Reading this young man’s email didn’t cause me to smile. Reading it a second and third and fourth time didn’t bring me to laugh out loud. It buckled my knees and brought into sharp focus my own pettiness and shortsightedness, my own sin in the presence and service of God. It reminded me that every sentence I speak from the Word of God will serve an eternal purpose that I’m not always going to recognize. It reminded me that our Father is in charge of our sermons, not our preachers. He alone inspires, he alone speaks, he alone puts his Word exactly where it needs to go and when it needs to go there and he alone causes it to grow and bear Kingdom fruit to his eternal glory and praise.
Who am I, sweating out a sermon that I don’t think stacks up to my standards, when 300 miles away a young man is begging God in trusting faith to use my words, no matter how poorly written or delivered, to encourage the saints? Who am I? I am shallow and weak. I have a big ego and a low self esteem, a terribly dangerous combination. And I can get really defensive. I take things way too personally and I worry a lot.
And when I get in a really weird place — not every single Sunday, not even every month or so — our God sends a divinely ordained messenger to lift me up and remind me of who I am and who God is. This is God’s work, not mine. These are his sermons, this is his Church, not mine. Thank you, Lord, for not destroying me. Thank you, God, for reminding me and encouraging me. Thank you for using me at my best and at my worst.