Whether you are retired or still actively pastoring, try reducing your sermons to ten that mean the most to you. Ten sermons that basically say everything God has laid on your heart. Quite a challenge!
Dr. Perry Hancock is the longtime executive of the Louisiana Baptist Children’s Home in Monroe. This week, on campus to sketch the children and talk to them, I had several visits with this great friend. I was his and Tanya’s pastor in New Orleans, so we go back a ways.
At one point, Perry said, “I’m down to ten sermons which I preach all over.” In a different church every Sunday, many for the first time, he does not need to reinvent the wheel each week in the way of a pastor of a congregation, God bless ’em!
He added, “I do have to keep up with where I’ve preached them so I won’t repeat myself when they invite me back!”
We laughed. I know that feeling, being retired.
How many sermons do I have, I wondered. Of course, as with every pastor, I have a Bible full of messages preached over some 55 years of ministry. I’ve preached through the 28 chapters of Acts at least twice and could do it again. (The first time, when still in my 20’s, toward the end of that long year, a deacon said, “Preacher, you’re about to Acts us to death!” I said, “The famous ACTS-murders!”). I have informed my new wife, “Honey, I cannot repair a car or build you a back porch, but I can give you a Bible study on Ephesians right now!” We laughed. She’d been married to a good preacher for over half a century, so she knew how that is.
Anyway, here are my “ten best sermons,” so to speak. Or, a better way of stating it is: These messages form the heart of what God has called me to preach to His people.
One. FAITH. My most effective sermon, if I’m any judge, the one I’ve preached most often. I call it “Regardless.” The texts include Luke 18:8; Hebrews 11:6; 2 Corinthians 5:7 and so many other verses. Those who follow Jesus will always have unanswered questions, obstacles, opposition, fears, etc. Faith means trusting/obeying Him regardless of the negatives. The person who will not step out in obedience until he gets all the facts, all his questions answered, everyone on board, and all his feelings calmed will still be sitting there when the death angel swoops in. “We walk by faith, not by sight.”
Those who serve the Lord Jesus may not see in this lifetime what God has accomplished through them. I remind veteran Christian workers (like Dr. Hancock), “You do not know what God is doing through you.” True, we see a great deal, but mostly the fruit is invisible, within human minds and hearts, and will be revealed only at the Judgement.
If we cannot handle that, if we insist on digging up the seed we planted yesterday to see why it hasn’t come up, we will grow impatient and quit. Only people of faith will still be standing by at the end to see what God has done and to behold His glory.
Two. PRAYER. I love the story of blind Bartimaeus as recorded at the end of Luke 18. It illustrates so many excellent points about faith and prayer. The blind beggar surely looked awful, needed a haircut a year ago and a bath the year before that, but there was an intelligence about him. In fact, I think of him as the smartest man in Jericho. Remaining quiet and keeping his ears open, he came to the conclusion that Jesus was “The Son of David,” the Messiah. And once he heard that Jesus of Nazareth was nearing the city, nothing and no one was going to keep him from getting to Jesus.
When He came near, the Lord asked, “What do you want me to do for you?” All this time, Bart had been asking for mercy, a broad category. Now, the Lord asks him to get specific. What precisely do you want? There’s a great lesson in prayer there.
Perhaps the best insight to this story is that Bartimaeus had no way of knowing that this would be his last chance to meet Jesus. Even though Jesus had been through Jericho many times, this would be his final trip to Jerusalem, where He has a date with a cross. Bart could have said, “Jesus has been through here often. He’s still a young man, and I’m sure He’ll be back. One of these days, I’m going to call on Him.” In doing that, he would have missed the opportunity of a lifetime.
Three. CHOICES. Based on Jeremiah 29:11, I call this “Five Things God Wants You to Know About the Rest of Your Life.” What’s funny is that the first time I preached that sermon was at the children’s home during their annual banquet of the LBCH family of supporters. The Lord gave me that message as specifically as He has ever done anything. It has been refined and tweaked and improved on repeatedly, and—here’s the fun part–Perry Hancock tells me he preaches a version of the same message. “Except I’ve got it down to four things!” We laughed.
1. God has big plans for your life. Both Heavenly plans and earthly plans.
2. He’s not going to tell you what they are. The good, you would mess up if you knew in advance what was coming. And the really tough, you couldn’t handle. Imagine you are young Joseph and you were told that within a year, your brothers would seize you and sell you to slave traders, your father would be told a wild animal had killed you, and you would end up a slave, then eventually a prisoner. So, God does you a huge favor by not telling you the plans He has for you.
3. He’s getting you ready for the future right now. Which explains the trials.
4. Your job is to be faithful today where He has placed you. To bloom where you are planted. There will be none of this “I will start serving the Lord just as soon as I’m married.” Or single. Or rich. Or living somewhere else. He who cannot serve the Lord in Sodom cannot serve Him in Samaria.
5. God will not force His plans, His blessings, upon you. So every day of your life, get up and choose God’s plan for yourself for that day. “Have thine own way, Lord.”
Four. REJOICE ANYWAY. The text for this is Habakkuk 3:17-19, three of the most wonderful verses in your Bible. As in Luke 10:20, the Lord is telling us to not limit our joy and rejoicing to our circumstances, either positive or negative, but to give thanks at all times.
God’s people have a gold standard for this in Acts 16 where Paul and Silas had been arrested and beaten and thrown in prison. Locked in stocks, their backs open wounds, they were miserable. And yet, in their great pain, they did not complain: “Oh Lord, where are you? Why have you deserted us?” They knew God was still in charge and that they were right where He had placed them. So we have the amazing Acts 16:25. “About midnight, they began praying and singing hymns to God. And the other prisoners were listening to them.” The jailer was listening too, which explains what happened when God sent an angel with a jail-sized earthquake that night and busted the chains and broke the doors off their hinges. God did a mighty work in Philippi that night because two servants chose to sing rather than to complain. They rejoiced in the middle of their pain. People who do such are either into denial or they know something really big.
The world is always watching to see how you and I handle adversity.
Five. UNASHAMED. The text is Romans 1:16, “I am not ashamed of the gospel….” So much of the Lord’s instructions to the disciples in Luke 10:16ff (see below) involves not being ashamed to speak up for Him. They should not fear the opponents, the critics, the powers, but are to be bold in their witness.
Some of the best witnesses for Jesus I know have to battle their fears in order to get the words out. The fear of rejection, of ridicule, of embarrassment, they seem endless. And, the believer who thinks that he/she alone is fighting such a battle is buying into a lie out of hell, that everyone else has this all down pat and you alone are the only one still struggling. The enemy loves to isolate us, in the same way as a stalking lion does his prey in the African savannah.
People fear confessing Christ and being saved. Christians sometimes fear confessing Christ before the world and bearing a witness. Only the bold witnesses please God. Scripture says Jesus endured the cross by despising the shame, the word literally meaning “to think down upon it.” Jesus could have been embarrassed to hang on that cross. He does not have to put up with such ungodly treatment. “But He died alone, for you and me.”
Six. LOVE. Luke 6:27-35 is all about loving our enemies, perhaps the hardest thing the Lord ever required. Clearly, to our Lord, love is not an emotion so much as an action. Over and over in John 14 and 15, He pointed out that to love Him means obeying Him.
“Love is something you do” is the gist of this message. And exactly what actions does He want us to do? Four are given in this passage, ways in which we can express love to those who “hate us, curse us, mistreat us, hit us, take what is ours, etc.” We are to: Do good, bless, pray, and give. When we do these four things, loving the very people who are trying to do the worst things to us, 12 amazing things happen:
–God is honored, Jesus is pleased, and the Holy Spirit is able to use this situation.
–The devil is infuriated, the enemy (the one doing these things to us) is puzzled, and critics of the church are silenced.
–The church itself is blessed, Christians going through hard times see how we act and are inspired, and outsiders are drawn to Jesus.
–Finally, we ourselves are blessed, our anger goes away, and according to 6:35, our reward in Heaven is great.
Seven. A WILLING GOD. “I am willing,” Jesus told the leper in Mark 1. I find that typical of the Lord Jesus throughout His earthly ministry and thus so like the Heavenly Father.
Staying with Mark’s Gospel, in chapter 2, the Lord forgives the paralytic of his sin without even being asked. He was willing to forgive. In chapter 3, in spite of the taunts and daring of the hypocrites and knowing full well the trouble it would cause, Jesus still heals the man with the withered hand. He was willing to bless.
God is for us, declares Romans 8:31. In fact, the first 30 verses of that amazing mother lode of Scriptural insight assures us that God the Father is for us, God the Son is for us, and God the Spirit is for us.
Throughout Jesus’ earthly ministry, we see how willing He is to bless and love, to heal and give and forgive. He said, “Fear not, little children. It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.” Not willing that any should perish, we are told, but that all should come to salvation. On and on we find this throughout Scripture.
I love how 2 Chronicles 16:9 puts it. “The eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the earth, that He may strongly support those whose heart is completely His.”
Even on the cross, while His executioners are still at their work and the crowd taunts and jeers, and some spit upon Him, Jesus prays, “Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.” Did anyone ever love in such a way, to such a degree?
Eight. THE CHURCH. In Matthew 16:18 our Lord says, “I will build my church.” He is both owner and operator of the church. I call the sermon “Doing Right By the Church,” from a story of an elderly lady who told me she knew she was saved, but she had erred in getting away from the church as a young adult. She had raised her son without the benefit of the church, she said, and “I really came to regret that.” She said to me, “Pastor, I haven’t done right by the church.”
Scripture teaches in many places that whatever we do to the church (the people of the Lord, from ‘the least of these’ to ‘the saints’ to the preachers), Jesus takes personally. Some of the texts include Matthew 25:40,45 as well as Matthew 10:40 and Luke 10:16. Then the wonderful Hebrews 6:10.
The church is the very Body of Christ, we are told. And the Bride of Christ. The household of faith. The family of God. This does not sound like something we can dismiss as easily as people seem to want to do. How we treat the church, we are treating Jesus.
The Lord knew we could not live for Him in isolation in this fallen world. We need one another. So, when He saved us, He added us to the body.
Nine. EXPECTATIONS. Matthew 10:16-42 is the magna carta of our service for the Lord Jesus. He pulls no punches, but lays it all out there in the open, saying, “This is what you can expect.” And it’s far tougher than most of us have been told.
Our Lord sends us out like sheep in the midst of wolves. (Do you know what wolves do to sheep?) Things are going to be rough for you, He says. Some of you will be arrested and tried, persecuted and scourged, even killed. You will be put on trial for your faith. And when that happens, this is no time for one of your “ten best sermons,” friend. The Holy Spirit wants to do the preaching that day. The point is simply this: Caesar ain’t coming to your revival. So, the Lord needs a few people willing to get arrested for their gospel ministry and put on trial. Then, when the high court judge, perhaps even the man Caesar himself, says to you, “Tell us what you have been preaching,” that is your chance. This is how these people hear the gospel message.
Repeatedly, Jesus says the servant is no better than the master, the pupil not greater than the teacher. So, you see how they treated Jesus; expect the same. So, wise up, stand up, speak up, and see what God wants to do with you.
Ten. Little Things. Matthew 13:31-32 presents the parable of the mustard seed, illustrating how God loves to get big results from small beginnings. This principle is found throughout scripture. When He got ready to start a nation, He began with old Abraham. When the time came to deliver that nation from Egypt, He called on 80-year-old Moses. When He began to achieve salvation, He sent a Baby. Zechariah 4:10 asks, “Who has despised the day of small things?” The answer of course is, we do. We want celebrities, huge numbers, glamour, glitter, excitement.
However, we learn from Scripture that when God gets ready to do something great, He loves to start small with ordinary people (see I Corinthians 1:26), using any method He pleases, and take His own good time about it (see 2 Peter 3:8). Only people of faith will still be standing by at the end to see what God has done, and to behold His glory.
I used to pray that God would “do something big today in the worship service” or in that revival service. Eventually, I changed the prayer. “Lord, do a little thing in this service. Something with Thy hand upon it which will change forever the lives of thy people.”
Often, in the opening service of a revival, I tell the audience, “There is a sure-fire way to judge the effect of this revival. The first step is to wait one hundred years.” After all, someone may decide to start reading his Bible every day, another one to start praying seriously, and another to become a generous giver. At that moment, that person’s world has just changed. In time, the effects will spread out into their families and beyond. A hundred years later, one will be able to see massive changes for the good that have results from the small decision made in that single revival service. It’s how God works.
We will not despise the day of small things. We will be faithful in the little things (see Luke 16:10).