It was one of those Sundays where nothing went right.
Attendance was way off, with many people apparently away for the weekend. The hymns were slow and the choruses just dragged along like a funeral service. Everyone acted like they were depressed. From where I was in front of the congregation, nobody seemed to want to be there.
And the preaching? Well, that was the worst part of all. Even though I had prepared thoroughly and felt ready to preach, things just didn’t work out. The introduction fell flat. The main points of the message that had seemed so luminous in my study turned out to be tawdry and irrelevant when displayed in the broad daylight of public worship.
For a minister, it’s the worst feeling in the world. You’ve got 25 minutes to fill, and your congregation looking expectantly at you waiting for some glowing word of the Lord. And you’re just trying to string two sentences together that make some kind of sense.
A friend of mine told me he was preaching the other day and realized shortly into the message that he was in trouble. The words just weren’t coming to his mind. The outline he had carefully developed vanished from his memory. Then, to make a bad situation worse, he forgot the central illustration of the message. In its place he started in on another that he recalled from a previous sermon. But the second one really didn’t fit the point he was trying to make.So he did what all of us do from time to time. He shoehorned it in. He twisted it around and hemmed and hawed and somehow made the illustration work. Let me tell you from experience, that kind of thing is hard work. That’s certainly how my friend found it. He told me he started sweating, his face turned bright red and, alhtough he continued to preach, on a deeper level of his consciousness he was praying hard that the Lord would just see him through it all.
I laughed when he told me the story, but I was not laughing at him. I knew exactly what he was talking about. My regular prayer is, “Lord, deliver me from blather.”
I once was in a service where the guest preacher told a very funny joke. He went on and on, building up to the climax. The whole congregation was on the edge of their seats. Then, he forgot the punchline! And in panicked confusion he reached blindly back into his memory and pulled out the punchline of another, totally unrelated joke: “That’s not a rat,” he blurted out, “That’s a possum!” The congregation looked at him in silence for a moment, then turned to each other in confusion and said a collective, “Huh?” The preacher himself laughed out loud, trying to encourage the congregation to laugh along with him. It was a losing battle. He knew something had gone wrong, but wasn’t quite sure what. He looked at me, and I shrugged my shoulders. “Maybe they just didn’t get the joke,” I reassured him when he returned to his seat.
Preaching is hard work, and it often doesn’t go as well as we preachers would like. But here’s the astonishing thing. It really doesn’t matter.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s no excuse for preachers not preparing, and preparing thoroughly, to preach. The presentation of God’s Word to our congregations is the most important thing we do. Week in and week out, whatever else we do, we must do that faithfully.At the same time, human nature being what it is, there will be those Sundays where we just don’t do as well as we would like. And those are the days God’s sovereignty is seen most clearly.
The Sunday I felt badly about? One of my friends, who didn’t know how poorly I felt the sermon had gone, spoke to me later in the week. That sermon, he said, really touched his heart. I needed to hear that, he said.
My friend who forgot his illustration? He told me later that a woman in the congregation e-mailed him a few days afterward telling him how thought-provoking the message had been for her. In fact, it had served as the starting point for some deep spiritual discussions for her and some colleagues.
And the one who forgot the punch line? He is a well-loved and deeply respected minister, whom our congregation would listen to any time, just because of who he is. They know his life; his words are secondary.
That’s the way with preaching, and with preachers. The services where we don’t exactly know what is happening or how we will get through them, really don’t matter. The whole thing is in the Lord’s hands, anyway, and the best any of us can do is simply to trust Him in it. He has a way of making it all work out.