In my three years of doing ministry in Sydney, I've written and preached about fifteen to twenty sermons, which means that I'm still a very, very young and inexperienced preacher. And in my endeavor to become a a better preacher, I've noticed that whenever I go back to read one of my sermons, if it's older than six months, I end up hating it and wondering how anyone could have ever let me read THAT on the pulpit.
You might have experienced this same phenomenon, especially if you keep a journal. Have you ever gone back to read something you wrote a long time ago and start feeling the flush of embarrassment, like "How could I have thought or written those things?" It's a sign that you are growing as a person and maturing in thought and intellect. In the case of my past sermons, it's a sign that I've growing and maturing as a preacher.
Now don't get me wrong; as far as I know I haven't ever preached heresy or mis-exegeted the Bible, or at least not grievously. I get my sermons checked by people before delivering them, but I do learn to go deeper into the text, to apply the passage better to the congregation that I'm speaking to, and to use more vernacular.
And because of this, inevitably after every preaching gig I have, the thought that always pops into my mind is, "I want a mulligan." I want a do-ver. I messed up the main point, I thought of a more relevant way to apply the passage, my illustration made no sense and went around and around in a confusing way, I looked down at my notes too often and didn't engage the congregation with my eyes.
But lately, I had read the book of Acts, and had a thought about Acts 7, where Stephen gives a speech before the Sanhedrin. Many scholars say that this sermon, of the 25-30 found in the book of Acts, is the most significant because it so clearly explains the universal scope of God's salvation plan in Jesus.
My thought about the sermon was, this is perhaps one of the best sermons recorded in the whole Bible, and possibly one of the most important ever preached in all Christendom... but what came out of it? Stephen's audience became enraged at what he was saying, accused him vehemently of blasphemy, and rage-stoned him on the spot. Could there have been a more negative response to a sermon than that?
Contrast this with another sermon from the Bible. The prophet Jonah, in his book, preached possibly the shortest, worst sermon, ever recorded. In Jonah 3.4, this was the extent of his message, "Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned." That's it! No illustrations, no points, and no word of grace. Yet what came out of that? Immediately in the next verse, it said, "The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth." Jonah hadn't even proclaimed a word of hope, yet the Ninevites believed and repented!
Now, I know that neither of these are examples of typical sermons that a preacher would give on a Sunday, but in these message, you couldn't have a greater contrast in the proportion between sermon quality and sermon success. I doubt you could find a prophetic word today better constructed than Stephen's magnificent biblical exposition of redemptive history, and I doubt you could find a preacher who cared less about his audience than Jonah. Yet I doubt you could find a more discouraging response than Stephen's Pharisaical accusers and I could you could find a more impassioned repentance than that of the wicked, amoral Ninevites.
What I mean to say from all this is that ultimately God accomplishes his will through his word. Every preacher is an imperfect, sinful person. We are not infinitely wise and we don't know the hearts of our people perfectly the way that Jesus does. Moreover, most regular preachers have to craft their sermon each week while keeping up with all of his other demands and responsibilities in the church. I at least have the luxury of having weeks and months to prepare my sermon.
But as inadequate and rushed our work is, we have the comfort and assurance of knowing that we have a perfect God who works out his will through imperfect people. And how do I know this?
What happened immediately after Stephen's preaching in Acts 7? He was lynched by a mob of hardened, ungrateful, unloving people who hate God and reject the Holy Spirit. But what happened right after that in the next chapter? Stephen's death triggered a great persecution against Christians all across the city of Jerusalem, and as a result Christians were driven out of Jerusalem and scattered all across the surrounding regions of Judea and Samaria. It's like you had this great field of dandelions that you tried to stamp out and destroy, but instead you scatter the seeds through the wind to all the nearby fields, and you end up spreading the plant even further because of that.
So was Stephen's speech really a failure? Or was his martyrdom, seemingly the ultimate defeat, actually a profound victory because it was used by God to bring his good news to all the world? Remember who else bore witness to the whole thing? Saul, the guy who later became the greatest missionary and the one who brought the gospel to the entire Roman empire?
As a young preacher, I know that by God's will I'm going to grow and improve. But I also know that God will use my work, however good or bad, however rushed or imperfect it is, for his will. And that's a great comfort that motivates me to trust in him, depend on him, and be faithful to him, giving him my best. I hope that you, whether you're a preacher or just a layperson who leads Bible studies and disciples people in church, can take comfort in this truth as well, and let it motivate you to serve him with joy, regardless of what results you seemingly produce.