(If we wait until we can do everything perfectly, we will still be sitting here when the Lord returns. Let us be up and doing.)
“Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men” (Colossians 3:23).
“Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might” (Ecclesiastes 9:10).
A minister who was interviewing for a position on the staff of my church said, “If I come as your (whatever the position was), I would not make any changes for the first year, but spend that time building relationships.”
That was it for me. We have work to do, I thought. Relationships are good, but they may be built and must be maintained in the midst of doing the work the Lord has given us.
Stephen Dill Lee, well-known Confederate general who later became the founding president of Mississippi State University and served as a deacon at nearby Columbus’s First Baptist Church, once resigned from the church’s deacon board. He said, “When I was in the service, my approach was always to charge, charge, charge. Go forward. But these deacons don’t want to do anything.”
The minutes of the deacons from those years, the early 1900s, indicate that some prevailed upon General Lee and he agreed to stay on. Then, he chaired the church’s building committee that tore down the 1838 sanctuary and built the 1908 edifice which still stands. He was a get ‘er done leader.
“If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing poorly.” That has always been my philosophy.
Some of us have a running dispute over that little adage. My wife Margaret’s version goes, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.” Our friend Annie insists that her approach is, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing.”
I imagine that at one time or other, each of those has its application.
Margaret points out that my philosophy–if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing poorly–seems to endorse shoddy work. To the contrary, it’s saying “Even if we cannot do it perfectly, it’s still worth doing.” I’ve drawn many thousands of cartoons for various publications over a half century, but not a one was perfect. Likewise, I suppose I preached five thousand sermons, all of them flawed in one way or the other. But they were worth doing.
Had I delayed until the cartoon was perfect or the sermon was without some weakness, we’d still be looking for the first one.
Recently, during my reading of several Civil War books, I’ve been struck by a life lesson demonstrated by the generals on both sides of the conflict.
Some generals were accused of inaction, not because they were afraid, but because they were perfectionists. They had to have everything “just right” before engaging the enemy.
General George McClellan seems to have been such a leader. Put in charge of the Federal forces early in the War, he is said to have done a masterful job of planning and preparing his troops, organizing his forces, and inspiring his men. What he did not do well was actually engage the enemy with his armies and win battles.
Despairing of his inaction, President Lincoln pulled together some of the generals to formulate a plan. He commented, “If General McClellan does not want to use the army, I would like to borrow it for a time.”
He was removed and replaced by a succession of leaders until Lincoln found the one he was looking for: General U. S. Grant.
Grant was a “gung ho” fighter. His style contrasted with most of his predecessors (as well as with the Confederate generals) who liked to wage a battle, then pull back and lick their wounds for a time, regroup, reorganize, make new plans, etc. That method of warfare guaranteed that the conflict would go on and on, turning it into a marathon.
Grant’s plan was to keep pressuring the enemy. Once he pulled back to reorganize, you kept coming at him, giving him no respite, no relief, no time to get his people together to formulate new plans. By hounding him relentlessly, you made your enemy deplete his resources and run out of troops, all of which forced the war to an end more quickly.
Eventually, that’s how Grant led his forces to victory over the great Robert E. Lee.
In “Grant Takes Command,” a wonderfully readable volume by eminent historian Bruce Catton, Grant is seen as frequently frustrated by his own generals who would not move until every detail was in place. He would send a courier with a message: “Move out against the enemy tomorrow at sunrise.” The courier would return with the reply: “Unable to comply. The cavalry finds the going slow crossing the swamp. Will not be in place until sunset.”
In World War II, the U.S. Marines gave to the world the expression “gung ho!” Wikipedia identifies this as a corruption of a name for a Chinese organization which originally meant something like “work together” or “work in harmony.” However, the Marines turned it into a battle cry, a spirited call to action. Even today, we speak of certain people as “gung ho” types.
Are there church leaders waiting until all the factors are right before beginning a ministry? They should learn about faith.
By faith Abraham went out not knowing where he was going. By faith Noah built a boat far from the ocean. By faith Moses walked away from Pharaoh’s house without any assurance the Israelites would welcome him in. By faith John the Baptist stood in the desert and began preaching.
James B. Sullivan, leader of Southern Baptists’ Lifeway ministry when it was still called The Sunday School Board, once told of a church in Mississippi whose old minutes he had been reading. Sometime around 1900 they decided to construct a new building. However, they needed more money and chose to wait until they’d raised enough. Then the First World War came along and that was followed by inflation of the 1920s and the Depression of the 1930s, and then the Second World War. The 1950s were unsettled with people moving about the country and the 60s saw racial riots and a loss of confidence in the government and the Viet Nam war. Dr. Sullivan said, “At last report, that church still had not built their building.”
Waiting until all the conditions are just right.
The call to “get ‘er done” in the Lord’s work is based on a number of factors….
–the urgency of the hour.
–the reality of spiritual warfare.
–the need of our loved ones and those in darkness.
–the brevity of life.
–the will of God.
A young man I once knew was trying to establish a ministry in his apartment complex. Interviewed by a reporter, he was quoted as saying he had no intention of telling anyone the gospel of Jesus until he had been there a solid year, that he was trying to build up their confidence in him.
I wrote him a letter.
“My friend, I have been doing such a ministry in my apartment complex in Jackson, Mississippi, and have found that the turnover rate for residents in these establishments is very high. In fact, around 30 percent move in or out every year. I suggest that there is no time for you to enjoy the luxury of ‘earning their trust.’ You need to get on with the business of telling them about Jesus.”
I never heard back from him.
So, what are we waiting for? A better economy? Good weather? All the bad guys to go away? A warm feeling?
The Bible says, “He who watches the wind will not sow and he who looks at the clouds will not reap” (Ecclesiastes 11:4).
Let’s get on with it. Get ‘er done.
“Is there a word from God?” (Jeremiah 37:17)
Any one can “get up a sermon.”
When you are first beginning in the ministry, the “art”–if you want to call it that–of finding, creating, and building sermons seems mysterious and difficult. In time, however, you work out the formula for sermons and your life becomes less stressful, sermon-building easier.
“What is the formula for sermons?” someone asks.
There’s no one formula, but each preacher works out his own according to his own style.
It goes something like this…
Take a random verse of scripture: “Some of the scribes answered and said, ‘Teacher, you have spoken well.” (Luke 20:29) Can we build a sermon on that? You bet. Nothing to it, if all we want is a sermon.
Start with the scribes. They are scriptural authorities, experts on the law as a result of their history of copying manuscripts for use by individuals and congregations. Because they had hand-written everything the Scriptures had to say, people came asking what the Word says about this or that. If anyone knew, they would. So, when the scribes heard Jesus teaching, they recognized He was right on target with His teaching, and they said so. So, we have (our first point) The testimony of the scribes.
Then, there is the matter of what our Lord was saying to them that evoked this compliment. Jesus is addressing the matter of the resurrection to the Sadducees, a religious group that took only the first 5 books of the Old Testament as their Bible and were smugly convinced that no teachings, nada, zero, about Heaven and hell were to be found there. Jesus gave them two things: a teaching right out of Heaven itself for which there were no scriptures and He alone was the only Source, and an insight from their own Scriptures that was so perfect even the scribes applauded Him. So, second point, we have Truth from the Lord.
And finally, because every sermon needs at least three points, we can ask, “What more needs to be done?” because the very next verse says, “They did not have courage to ask Him anything else.” So, perhaps the third point could be: The courage to go forward, that is, to act on what He has said.
That was strictly a randomly selected verse. And, with a few more hours of study, prayer, and reflection, we could end up with a fairly decent sermon.
If that’s all we’re looking for.
Or, here’s another very quick take on the verse right before that one, Luke 20:38 “Now, He is not the God of the dead, but of the living; for all live to Him.” Three possibilities are: 1) a common misconception–the dead are dead and that’s that; 2) a scriptural revelation–God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and 3) an incredible interpretation–He is not the God of the dead but of the living.
It’s simple once you get the hang of it.
Is that the Word from God your congregation needs to hear and which you need to deliver?
Just because it’s from Scripture does not mean it’s God’s word for the moment.
That, incidentally, is the problem I personally have with preachers deciding to “preach through the Bible.” It assumes that any sermon you bring from any text is God’s Word for your flock for that Sunday. And that, I venture to say, my friend, is sheer foolishness.
Spending years preaching verse-by-verse through the entire Bible will keep you in the Old Testament far longer than you will want to stay. You will struggle to find pegs on which to hang the gospel. You will be tempted to strain at metaphors and types and images and to spiritualize stories in order to bring in Jesus. And–strictly my opinion here, now–you will forever burn your people out on a large portion of Holy Scriptures. Some of those stories and prophecies and teachings they will never want to see again because you simply could not handle them.
Don’t be insulted, please. It’s a rare preacher who can preach an interesting sermon from certain chapters in Leviticus or Judges or Isaiah. Put another way, not all preachers can preach everything in the Word. Some of it requires far more in-depth study and mental skills than most of us have.
Having gone out on a limb here in urging preachers not to “preach through the Bible” as though each part’s preaching values were equal to all other parts, I might as well go the rest of the way….
The reason many preachers decide to preach through the entire Bible on a verse-by-verse basis is strictly ego. They want to say they have done it. They want to stand before a gathering of other preachers and orate about the power of God’s Word and announce that they themselves spent a full five years (or more!) preaching through the Word, and that God blessed their church in unusual ways as a result. Personally, I’d want to get the testimony of some of his deacons as to the truth of the last statement.
I cannot find anywhere in Scripture where we are commanded to preach everything else in Scripture. We certainly do not see Paul preaching Esther or Song of Solomon. There is no indication Peter or Timothy ever preached through some of the more obscure Old Testament books.
Do not read something into this not intended. I believe all the Bible is inspired of God and thus profitable, as Paul told Timothy (II Timothy 3:16-17). But inspired not in the same way or for the same purposes.
Let the Holy Spirit lead you. If He says to preach verse-by-verse through the Bible and He will make it fit the needs of your people, go for it! But don’t do it to prove a point, to satisfy some urge within you, or to show up a critic.
Rather than try to turn your Bible into a magical one-size-fits-all book of sermons, pastor, try seeking out God’s message for your people one day at a time.
1) Ask the Lord. “What do you want me to preach on the 21st of the month, Father?” Or, one that I have prayed: “Lord, you have heard every Mother’s Day sermon ever preached, and inspired most of them. Show me what you would have me to say to my people on that day.”
2) Seek His will. Read Scripture with your heart tuned to getting His answer. Read the newspaper, listen to the news, observe goings-on around you every day alert to the messages the Lord is sending your way. Stay logged on to Him.
3) Humble yourself. You may know the original languages, you may have incredible oratorical gifts, and you may be gifted at eliciting responses from your people. But the question is not can you do this without Him, but “What does the Father wish to say to His children?”
4) Wait on Him. To get the answer, you might need to quieten your spirit and shut down your systems and be still before Him. Make up your mind you are through preaching “nice little sermons you carved out of Scripture all by yourself,” and from now on you are going to preach only the messages God gives you. And if you cannot tell the difference, your problems are bigger than we can address here.
5) Be willing to adapt. God is a lot more skilled at sermon-building and interest-creating than we preachers will ever be. He is the Creative God. So, once you know the text and the basic message, ask Him how He wants it preached. And once again….
Be willing to wait before Him.
The problems with this kind of sermon-building (and the reason some preachers do not take this route) are numerous…
–it takes time. You cannot start this conversation with the Lord on Friday night before you are to preach it on Sunday. (The problem there is not God’s; it’s ours. It takes us time to think through these matters, to process what He says, to get our own preconceived ideas out of the way, to listen to the Spirit, and then to rehearse the preaching of this message repeatedly until we can do it well and faithfully.)
A popular preacher once told a large gathering of us pastors, “We hear of preachers who spend an hour in preparation for every minute they spend in the pulpit. Not me! Give me a Bible and a notebook, lock me in a room for two hours, and I will have you a sermon!” Naturally, he received a chorus of amens for that bit of foolishness.
All that preacher did was to say he had mastered the art of sermon-building. But God does not give His specific messages for specific congregations to preachers with a formula.
The Lord gives His message to those who seek Him, who wait upon Him, who are willing to do His will.
About the lazy prophets of Jeremiah’s day, God said, “If they had stood in my council, then they (could) have announced my words to my people, and would have turned them back from their evil way and from the evil of their deeds” (Jeremiah 23:22).
Getting specific direction from the Lord for a message may mean a little more work, requires a little more humility and prayer and study, and takes a little more time than “two hours with a Bible and a notebook,” but the end result is far more wonderful, more inspiring, and more fruitful.
You end up with the kind of fruit that lasts (see John 15:16).
Finally, let’s note the difference in a “sermon” and a message from God…
They may look and sound just alike. In fact, the average layman will not know the difference. (Pray that your pastor search committee can!) Both celebrate the Word of God and may honor the Lord Jesus and be used of God. But one is special….
–It has an edge to it.
–It connects with people at their deepest level.
–It provides an intersection in their lives, forcing them to take a good look at themselves and make a decision about God.
–It leaves them forever changed. Even those who reject the Lord’s message will know they have heard from God and will not soon forget this experience.
Brethren, let us go for the gold. Let us aim for sermons that deliver the message of Heaven to earthbound men and women in need of salvation. Let us settle for nothing less.