I was 21, a college senior, engaged, and had been called into the ministry. But so far, no opportunities to preach had opened up. After all, I was attending a Methodist college with plans to be a Baptist pastor. Not exactly standard preparation.
Then, Pastor Everett Wilson of Rock Creek Baptist Church outside Double Springs, Alabama, called. Could I preach for him on the Sunday prior to Christmas? Wow. Could I!
Here’s what happened.
After Margaret Henderson and I spent Saturday night at my folks’ farmhouse, that Sunday morning we drove to Rock Creek, arriving in time for Sunday School. Hey, no one had told me the preacher did not have to attend Sunday School!
We sat in with the young people, which was our custom at West End Church in Birmingham, our home church, and it seemed the thing to do. What I did not count on, however, was my presence intimidating the teacher. So, she took the easy way out.
She asked me to teach.
Now, I was eager to do anything that even remotely seemed like ministry, and here was an opportunity. I seized it.
Not a good idea. Here’s why…
That week I had been working 12 hour shifts at the National Shirt Shop, a men’s clothing store in downtown Birmingham. Each morning, I would ride the bus downtown, work from early to late, then ride the bus back to the apartment. By the time I got home, I was worn to a frazzle and had no energy or brainpower left for studying for a sermon or even thinking about it.
Eventually, I made the decision that for that sermon I would read the Luke 2 text and make comments upon it. That sounded easy. Anyone could do this, right? After all, didn’t I know this story backwards and forwards? Hadn’t I heard it all my life? Couldn’t I do this with one hand behind my back?
Maybe so. Except for one thing.
I should never have taught that Sunday School class.
I said everything in that little classroom I’d planned to say in the sermon.
When preaching time came, I was drained. I had nothing more to say.
My sermon lasted all of five minutes. I was miserable trying to come up with appropriate insights on the Christmas story–ones I’d not already talked to death in that classroom–and could not muster a one.
After church, some nice man came up and thanked me “for that little talk.”
I was humiliated.
To this day, when someone approaches me after a sermon to thank me “for that talk,” it feels like a put-down, whether it was meant that way or not.
Now, here’s what that experience taught me…
The Lord doesn’t mind letting His young preacher fall on his face. In fact, that may even be part of the plan.
At Columbus Air Force Base, a flight instructor told me when each new class of students arrived straight from the academy, the first order of business was to take each one aloft and scare the pants off him. The instructor would put that T-37 through all kinds of rolls and spins, stalls and loops, until the student lost his breakfast. When they landed, the young cadet had to clean up his mess.
There was method to this. “We want to put the fear of God in him. We want him to know what this plane can do and to motivate him to work hard at getting it right.”
The humiliation that Christmas Sunday left an indelible print on my soul. I came away thinking….
–I don’t ever want to enter the pulpit unprepared again.
–I do not want to do anything before preaching that will leave me tired or empty; the most important thing I will do this Lord’s Day is to preach God’s Word.
–If I’m having trouble coming up with a sermon, there are people in every direction who would be glad to help.
Let me expound on that last point. For the college years, I’d been living off campus and studying for classes alone. Anyone can tell you that is a terrible way to learn a foreign language, but I tried it (and brought home average grades as a result). So, when I began preparing sermons, the thought of asking someone for help never occurred to me.
That’s one reason I keep urging young pastors to find mentors and to pick their brains. Don’t try this alone! God has put a wealth of resources around you, but they wait to be asked. That’s also the reason I respond so readily when young pastors ask for my help. I want to do for them what I wish someone had done for me.
How many Christmas sermons have I preached in the last half century? At least 150. But I will let you in on something….
I still approach the task with a sense of awe and inadequacy. I pray, “Lord, this is Your story, Your gospel. I am unable to do this without your presence and leadership. Please help me.”
I’m determined never to enter a pulpit of any church, large or small, with my system on cruise control or automatic pilot. I must never assume the Lord will give me a sermon when I stand to preach just because I’ve been doing this over half a century.
These days in retirement, my wife Bertha will tell you I get just as “up” (and even jittery) before preaching in a tiny church as before a large one. The size of the congregation has nothing to do with anything. What matters is my assignment.
After all, declaring the gospel of Jesus Christ at any time is the greatest privilege ever. Doing it at Christmastime is as good as it gets.
Lord, help me to do it right.