I regularly tell my ministerial partners at Northway that no Sunday morning can afford to be wasted, no worship service can be approached as if it were unimportant or inconsequential, and no sermon is ever just an empty exercise that can be approached without passion, conviction and even urgency. If it is the Lord’s Day, then we have just got to be “on our game.” Walter Wangerin Jr. understands. He says that he paces before he preaches.
On the night before I preach, I pace—back and forth in my room, mumbling sermonic thoughts, testing them, scorning a hundred thoughts, exulting in one or two that shine like coin, investing those. I grow breathless when I pace. I make strange noises. But the house must be as silent as death. And the mighty God must stand by to save me, because there surely will come great waves of doubt to drown me, and then I will splutter, “Help me, Lord!” and gasp, “What do you want me to say?”
… It is Christ who saves. But in human community, it is this particular vessel whose voice, whose person, and whose preaching proclaim that Christ… and so on Saturday night, I worry: Will they hear it? Will they let the hard word hurt them, the good word heal them, the strong word lead and redeem them? …So I pace. [http://www.sermoncentral.com/pastors-preaching-articles/walter-wangerin-jr-why-i-pace-before-i-preach-1070.asp]
Richard Baxter (1615 – 1691), the English Puritan preacher, once said: “I preached as never sure to preach again, and as a dying man to dying men.” He understood all too well how the eternal could very well hang in the balance in the life of someone who was sitting in a pew whenever he preached, and so he never took the assignment lightly. He knew that his words about who God is, and what God has done for us in Christ Jesus, and what God expects of us, could be the very last that a person ever heard before they actually faced God, and that gave him great pause.
It was the goal of every sermon that Richard Baxter preached to point people unswervingly to Jesus Christ so that they might know the way of salvation and “flee” to Him. To this end Richard Baxter practiced what the Puritans called “plain preaching.” Joel Beeke, the President of the Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary up in Michigan, explains that the “plain preaching” of the Puritans had three primary characteristics: first, it “addressed the mind with clarity,” second, it “confronted the conscience pointedly,” and third, it “wooed the heart passionately.” That’s a pretty high standard for the sermon every Sunday morning, but how could it be lower when you think about what at stake?
This came home to me this last Sunday with some real force. When I got back to the office after lunch, there was a phone call informing me that a man who had been in worship with us just hours before was now in the ER at the hospital on life support and was not expected to survive for long once he was unplugged. He had gone from worship to a restaurant down the street from the church for a lunch with his family, suffered a massive stroke and would be gone without regaining consciousness before the afternoon was over. And it made me think about the worship service that had filled the last hour of his life – the hymns that were sung, the Scriptures that were read, the prayers that were offered, the Lord’s Supper that was celebrated, the message that was preached. Had somebody pulled me aside and told me that someone who was going to be with us in church that morning would be dying that afternoon right after the service was over, would I have changed anything? Should I have said or done something differently?
I’ve always liked the old story that’s told about the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther. Working in the garden one afternoon, a wild-eyed man rushed up to him to breathlessly announce that he had it on very good authority that Jesus Christ was going to be coming back within the hour! “What are you going to do” the man demanded to know of Luther? And turning back to his work in the garden, Luther answered, “Well, I think that I’ll do my very best to finish hoeing this row.”
I take this to mean that if we are already doing what we know that are called to do, then it doesn’t require drastic adjustments at the last minute to right the ship or correct the course. The whole message that I preached “unaware” last Sunday as “a dying man to a dying man” can be found on the church webpage (www.northwaychristian.org – follow “worship” to “sermons”). But this is what I said in its conclusion –
What God want of us as human beings is pretty basic. God want us to “know” Him (I Corinthians 1:21; Galatians 4:9; I John 2:13). “This is our goal in life, that we might be God-centered in our thoughts and …God-honoring in all that we do” (Wells 15-16). And nothing gauges the depth with which this is actually happening in us better than does gratitude. Giving thanks in everything is God’s will for us in Jesus Christ because there is simply no better test of our spiritual condition than this; no better way to take stock of how God-centered and God-honoring our lives are becoming.
Thomas Erskine, the 18th century Scottish theologian, said that “in the New Testament religion is grace and ethics is gratitude” (Hunter 121). And there you have Biblical Christianity in a nutshell; grace – what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, and gratitude – the response we make to God from the heart. And to be able to give thanks to God in all things is evidence that we “get” this; that we know God is really there, and is hard at work in even the most tangled circumstances of our lives and in the most difficult situations of our world to bring about His good and loving purposes. Our capacity to give thanks is directly proportionate to the degree to which we are actually trusting God with our lives and our world no matter what’s going on around us and in us.
I wouldn’t have changed a word. And in my meditation for my friend who died on Sunday afternoon, I talked about a hymn that we had sung together in our Thanksgiving worship service on Sunday morning.
After singing about his harvest home on Sunday morning, when he would be safely gathered in, free from sorrow, free from sin, in God’s presence to abide, quite unexpectedly on Sunday afternoon Brady actually passed into it, his “glorious harvest home,” and that’s where Brady is this afternoon. The Lord took Brady as part of His harvest home, and that’s where Brady will be, with the Lord, until that day when we as part of His harvest too will step into the Lord’s presence to abide in our final harvest home. As the angels told the women at the tomb on Easter Sunday morning, “Why are you looking for someone who is alive among the dead? He is not here” (Luke 24:5-6). And because he belonged to the Risen Christ by faith, neither is Brady.
When everything that’s said and done on Sunday morning in worship points unswervingly to Jesus Christ who is the Savior, then you’ve broken and shared the Bread of Life that the church has been given, and there are no regrets. DBS+