Last Minute Sermon
Tom French - Crusaders
Just a warning, this post gets a bit into the weird goings on of hearing the voice of God. I suspect some people will think it is strange, some will assume it is untrue, some will say it’s all subjective so how can you know, some will believe it all. Whatever you think, I just wanted to give you a heads up, so you know I know how strange this all might seem.
Every now and then I have a dream that I have to preach a sermon and I’m totally unprepared. The last time I had a dream like that I spent the whole dream trying to find the passage in the Bible while everyone watched. In the end I never found it. They’re not the most fun dreams in the world. Perhaps they’re my own version of the classic, turning up to work naked dreams.
One day I was at a school for my job and I had to get up and give a chapel talk off the cuff. After that the dreams stopped for a few years, but they came back. In real life the threat of an unprepared sermon was always looming. In April, it happened.
I had been asked to speak at Soul Survivor in Melbourne, Canberra (which was actually held in Goulburn), and Sydney. One talk was to be on 1 Peter 1:13-16, and I planned to give that talk at all three, plus an extra one in Sydney. The 1 Peter talk was to be on holiness. The plan was to ask people who aren’t Christians if they would like to become a Christian and challenge people who are Christians to live like they are Christians.
Seeing as we’d have to unpack the small issue of the Bible’s concept of holiness it felt like a pretty big task but I was up for the challenge. For about a month I wrestled with how to do it. I wrote one version of the talk that I rejected. A day before I was to fly to Melbourne I got another version of the talk figured out. I finished that a few hours before I flew and emailed it to Em (who was already in Melbourne). When I arrived I asked her what she thought. She said it had issues. She was right. I was going to have to write a new talk.
We arrived at Soul Survivor in Melbourne at about 1am on Friday morning, I was due to speak at 11am on Saturday morning. As I had no talk, Friday was talk writing day. I spent much of the day praying, asking God to make it clear what I should be speaking on. While I was listening to the Sunday morning preacher, I felt like maybe I should speak on Job. There was a Bible study I had done on Job back in 2013 that I had been holding on to since then because I thought it could make a good blog post.
I sat down and looked at my notes from the Job Bible study. They were pretty sparse, but I got the idea. I said, “God, is this the talk you want me to preach?” I didn’t get a sense one way or the other. That afternoon I went for a drive, because that’s how I write talks. I drive around and talk out loud and usually, that’s how I find my talk. On this drive, I drove for about an hour and a half. I couldn’t find the talk. But I did have a Coke and a Twirl so that was good.
That night, as the preacher was preaching I was struck again by the idea that maybe I should speak on Job. But, I remembered, I couldn’t find a talk on Job. A few other things from that night’s talk stuck out for me. One thing the preacher said was that God calls us to obedience, not to success, so in fact obedience is success. The other was a story that she told about a church in the UK that celebrated acts of courage even if they weren’t successful. It’s good to celebrate courage.
I came out of that talk still with no more clarity about what to speak about. While I was getting a bit stressed, I did know that I had a backup talk that I could do if nothing else worked out. At a youth event the previous month I had given a talk on freedom, so if all else failed I had that one up my sleeve.
That night I warned Aaron, the director of Soul Melbourne that maybe I wouldn’t be doing the talk that I was meant to do. He prayed for me in my stressed state, and I felt immediately calmer. I went to bed and decided to pray about it and place it all before God in the morning.
When I woke up the next morning, I read my Bible, I prayed, and I asked God what to do. I thought, “My job is to tell people what Jesus has done for them, and give them an opportunity to commit their lives to him if they’d like to.” The freedom talk I had up my sleeve did just that. The good news of Jesus is what I was there to tell, and this talk told that good news. I resolved to preach that message. It felt like the right decision. I spent the rest of the morning preparing to preach that message, and I gave it. It got a good response and a small bunch of young people said that wanted to recommit their lives to Jesus. I was very happy!
I left Melbourne happy and resolved to get my 1 Peter talk figured out for Goulburn which was coming up in a few days time. During this time I figured out a talk that I was happy with. It dealt with holiness, it was for people who were Christians and people who weren’t. It did everything I had been asked to do, and I felt good about it. Done.
The morning after we arrived home from Melbourne, Em and I drove to Goulburn for Soul Survivor Canberra. We both had seminars to lead at 9am, and then I was up to preach at 10:30am. I was ready.
Right before we were meant to start the main meeting where I was to preach, the Soul Survivor team gathered to pray. They prayed for me that I would speak well. One woman prayed that I would feel free to say whatever God wanted me to say. When we finished praying, this same woman said to me “I think God gave me a picture for you. Like you’re being constrained, like Gulliver tied town by the Lilliputians. God wants you to be unconstrained. Be free when you preach, feel free to go off script and just say what God wants you to say.”
I smiled and said thanks and assumed it was just encouraging words. But as the meeting started and we started singing, I thought about what she said, and I asked God what he might be saying. I started to feel as if God might be saying “Do the Job talk.” But I didn’t have a Job talk. I had never written the Job talk.
As I stood there trying to decide which talk to give, I remembered the talk from Melbourne about how obedience is success, and how we celebrate courage. I wanted to just do the talk I had written, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I should be free to go off script, to do the Job talk. I prayed, a lot, and came to the conclusion I should probably do the Job talk. I figured if I felt like God was asking me to do the Job talk and I didn’t do it then I was being disobedient, even if he wasn’t asking me. I would be violating my conscience. I figured I should have courage and trust that God can speak through me even if I am very unprepared. I should do the Job talk.
I turned to Em, shaking and nervous, and said, “I’m thinking of speaking on Job.”
“Do you have a talk on Job?”
“Ok. You should talk to Matt.”
I turned to Matt, who is the Director of Soul Survivor in Canberra and Sydney, and said, “I feel like maybe I should do a talk on Job.”
He said “Ok. I trust you. Go for it!”
Noooo! I was hoping he’d say “No” and I’d just have to do the one I’d prepared.
30 seconds later I was up on stage to preach a message I hadn’t written on one of the most challenging books of the Bible. No worries! I was definitely going to need God to give me a hand.
And he did. I preached on Job, and I didn’t die.
In the end, the talk I gave did not all come out of thin air. The skeleton of the talk came from the Bible study I had written in 2013 and I had thought of one of the illustrations the previous week. Still, it was a pretty crazy experience.
After it was all over a few people got prayer, I got to pray with one young guy, and I felt pleased that it was all over.
And I never want to do that again.
When I made it to Soul in Sydney the following week, I finally got to preach the message on 1 Peter I had been planning to preach. I’ll stick that on the podcast in two weeks.
Preaching totally unprepared is not something that I think is good practice for a preacher. I have heard many people who just “trust the Holy Spirit” and their talks are often terrible. I think God speaks as much through your preparation as your execution. The best way you can know what to say is to do the work to know what God has said in his word. That means reading, praying, studying, researching, listening, contemplating. Preaching without preparation, in human terms, is dumb.
But I’m pleased I did it, and I’m pleased God came through. I don’t feel like I hero, I feel a bit embarrassed because I know preparation is so important. Perhaps that’s part of what God was teaching me. Preparation is important, trusting him is more so. He speaks how and when he wants to, I just serve him.