I've done enough funeral services and weddings over the years to know that the Gospel is most often met with a yawn and polite indifference than glad acceptance. Being told that you are sinful, that you stand in a place of impending judgment before a holy God, and that nothing you can do in-and-of yourself makes a bit of difference does not go down well. I'm sure that is what has led to the efforts by some to repackage the message in less offensive ways. But the reality is that even when the cold, hard facts are presented with sweetness (and they should always be presented with love and grace) they are still cold, hard facts. And most of the world ain't buying.
Praying for the sermon I am going to be delivering is a regular part of my prayer life. I regularly remind myself that no matter how gripping my introduction, no matter how insightful my thoughts, and no matter how convincing my argument, it all falls apart without the work of the Spirit. And I gladly admit that - I don't want to be responsible for trying to change the hearts and minds of people. Certainly I play a part - as is true of any pastor and teacher - but God's work through His Word is what ultimately makes the difference.
Typically on Sunday mornings I take some moments before the service and again before the sermon to confess my own inadequacy and ask God for His empowering. But this past week I found myself being a bit faithless, and the lesson learned is worth sharing.
A younger couple visited us on Sunday morning for the first time. I was on my way to the front of the auditorium immediately before the service began and greeted them. The husband told me that they were looking for a church and had heard good things about ours. Afterwards, I saw them talking to a family in our church and came to find out that one of our teenage girls had extended an invitation to attend to this man, who was one of her high school teachers. (Bravo for her, by the way!)
I preached from Romans 8:18-25 on Sunday: Future Glory and Present Pain. I explained the Gospel, talked about our future resurrection, spoke about heaven, and felt that from my standpoint I had done a decent job of explaining and applying the text. But as I saw this couple leaving, I thought to myself that they probably wouldn't be coming back. I saw nothing in our service or in my sermon that would be attractive to people who, if they typical middle-class unchurched folks, were probably looking for more than biblical exposition.
For some reason this stayed with me and on Monday morning I felt a sense of rebuke. I was making an assumption not only about these people, but about the power of God to minister to them. We do have people who visit us and it is clear sometimes from their reactions that we're "not for them" (by their standards). But that's not a guarantee. While the road is narrow and there are few that find it, there are still those few, and in my quick response I had dismissed the very thing for which I pray each week.
It was a good reminder to me, and I determined that no matter what the outward response was, I still needed to trust in God's power. But my lesson-learning was not complete.
On Tuesday morning the man who had visited called our office and asked if he could stop by and pick up a copy of the book we had given out for Father's Day (Jerry Bridges' Transforming Grace). Marilyn, our secretary, told me about the call. I was somewhat surprised, as I had offered him a book at the end of the service and he had declined. He would be coming by at a time when I was out for a lunch appointment, but I was grateful that he was coming by.
When I returned from lunch, Marilyn told me that not only had he stopped by to get the book, but he was extremely positive and almost excited about the service, and in particular the fact that I taught from the Bible for 35 minutes. He gave Marilyn his name and address (I wrote him a letter thanking him for his visit and sharing some information about our church) and made it quite clear that he intended to come back.
So take that, Peter.
The passage I'll preach from this week includes that great chain of salvation's process, beginning with being foreknown and ending with being glorified. I'm praying that this couple comes to know Christ as their Savior. If God should have us be a part in that, I hope I get to baptize them. I might tell them - and our church - the lesson I learned about a sovereign God who, without telling me first, works in the hearts of people.
The application goes beyond just visitors and lost people, though. The same thing is true as we minister to our flock. Change and growth are invisible in the short-term. Only God knows what is going on inside the hearts of people when we preach. So let's continue to do our job of study and preparation, and let's continue to confess our own inability to change people. But let's remember that God has promised to honor His word. That came home very vividly to me despite my unbelief.
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