While the Lord created the world ex-nihilo, I have found that the Sunday sermon does not come the same way. It is hard work -- even on those weeks you think it is going to be "easy."
Take last week.
Tuesday morning Shannan and I flew to Pennsylvania. Wednesday night we were back home. I was hoping for "prep time" time on the plane. Didn't happen! 17D was comfortable enough as coach seats go, but my seat-time was devoted to other essential tasks. Ditto for the hour I spent in 13C.
That's okay. I wasn't worried. I had visions of a simple, but helpful devotional message. I am not talking "Christian-lite," just a message that is a little easier to prepare but still brings encouragement to the heart. That was the plan, but somewhere on my way to Sunday I got the idea for a message entitled, Independence Day (pay attention to that title, I am just now seeing how apropos it was).
When I got going Thursday morning little did I know that I was in for a Lewis & Clark expedition and a roller coaster of emotions. By Saturday night, I had invested 30 hours on that message and I was a borderline head case.
How can a guy spend 30+ hours working on a sermon? It goes like this:
1. Study the passage carefully.I take this part very seriously. We're talking God's Word here, not Dr. Seuss. I sought the advice of wise mentors as I examined Acts 17:16-31:
- F.F. Bruce: The Book of Acts
- David G. Peterson: The Acts of the Apostles
- R.B. Rackham: The Acts of the Apostles
- Richard N. Lonenecker: The Acts of the Apostles
2. Consult with historical and cultural scholars.My focus this past Sunday had to do with how our faith intersects and at times conflicts with our love for country. I was in deep water. I needed to surround myself with people who were a heck of a lot smarter than me:
- Sydney E. Ahlstrom: A Religious History Of The American People
- Greg Boyd: The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power Is Destroying The Church
- Ross Douthat: Bad Religion: How We Became A Nation of Heretics
- Thomas S. Kidd: God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution
- Ira Stoll: Samuel Adams: A Life
- Gary Wills: Under God: Religion And American Politics
3. Pray, re-examine the passage, and ask God for the Big Idea.
I used to play hide-n-seek with my kids. I was really good at hiding. When the kids could not discover my lair I would hear a chorus of "Give me a sound please!" That's how I felt on Friday and Saturday morning; "God, can you just give me some kind of sound that I'm getting close!" "What is the message in this passage?" I felt like I was driving in a thick fog.
4. Ride the emotional roller coaster.I felt great on Thursday -- and why not? I had all day to work on the message. Still, I prayed the big prayer, "Lord, would you give me this message by noon." Noon came and went as fast as South Florida thunderstorm. No message. At the end of the day, still no message. I went home "defeated" but buoyant. It was after all only Thursday.
Friday (Independence Day) I felt lousy. My health was great, but it was the 4th of July. The rest of the city was enjoying backyard barbecues while I was wandering around my office like a wilderness prophet. I had no clarity. I was tired and I was frustrated. I walked home about 5:00 p.m. for a little family cookout, then went back to my study.
Saturday morning I felt great (sleep is a powerful medicine). Once again, I asked God for a noon delivery and this time it seemed like my prayer would be answered in the affirmative. "Seemed" was the operative word. I was oh so close, but it would be 4:45 p.m. before I called it quits for a little dinner break before heading back to the study once again.
5. Stand and deliver. Sunday morning I got back to the office about 5:00 a.m. to work out the final details.
The Big Question: What can a very independent nation learn from a very dependent man?
1. We need God ... He does not need U.S. Acts 17:24-25
2. God has given U.S. a unique place in history ... He's done that for every nation. Acts 17:26
3. Our greatest need is not a Christian nation ... it is Christ. Acts 17:27,30
4. Our greatest power is not political ... it is spiritual. Acts 1:8; 16:6f
The Big Idea: We make the most of our independence when we live in dependence.
I know there are some people who think that preachers have it easy. Not the guys I run with. They are a hard-working, passionate lot. The Sunday message is just one of the weekly challenges they face. And it is a challenge. I appreciate the way Andy Stanley puts it:
I live with the constant pressure that only those of us who do what we do fully understand....Think for a minute about the most stressful part of your job, the part that is the make-or-break for you financially. Imagine having to do that every week on a stage in front of your family, friends, strangers, and people who don't particularly like you. Imagine not having the option to call in sick or reschedule because you weren't quite ready for the presentation.
That's preaching. And it is probably the reason I have a love-hate relationship with my job. At times there is nothing more frustrating than preaching. It is a weekly spiritual grind of seeking God for a word for his people. Then Sunday comes. Despite the reservations about how it might be received or how God might use it, in that moment I feel like I have the greatest privilege and the the greatest job in the world.
Remember my message title? Independence Day. (Clever huh?) Preaching is God's reminder that every day -- particularly every Sunday -- is my Dependence Day. It seems God is constantly trying to teach me how to live what I preach.
The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us,for “‘In him we live and move and have our being'. Acts 17:24-28 ESV
- You can click here for a pdf of the Sunday keynote. The sermon will be available soon.
- "I live with the constant pressure ..." from Andy Stanley, Deep And Wide: Creating Church Unchurched People Love To Attend. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing. Page 227-28.