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One of the greatest struggles you have as a preacher is to make sure that when you're preparing a sermon, that it is the Lord's thoughts, His sermon, His outline that you are preaching -- instead of your own contrivance. I faced that struggle on Memorial Day. I had spent a month looking at Colossians 2 and just couldn't find a sermon there. I knew I could go to a dozen preaching websites and find probably 50-60 sermons from that passage. But I really balk at the thought of just plagiarizing someone else's thoughts even if they are really, really good.
Don't get me wrong. I've heard that in 2000 years of preaching, there really isn't anything new. Someone else has probably seen the same outline in the same text beofre. Then again, I also know the Word of God seems to never cease to show me new things, so I wonder if we might still be able to get fresh insights in a fresh way from the same revelation. Oh well, that is the subject of another article sometime....
Anyway, I had just about given up on Colossians 2 and decided to drag out my favorite Memorial Day sermon. Then at the last possible moment, the weeks of looking at that passage suddenly came to fruition. I ended up having a 2-part sermon "How to Finish Well" which divided naturally into Part 1: "Receive the Light" and Part 2: "Reject Satan's Deceptions."
While focused on this second message, I began to realize that there is one deception that seems to plague most of our American churches. It is a loss of the sense of awe -- a living in the spiritual moment -- when we are engaged in worship. We love to see people and fellowship and laugh. That is great. Our church is particularly good in people ministering to people -- which takes a huge load off the church staff. People pray for one another. That's awesome!
But there is something missing in most of our churches. When is the last time you saw people rushing to the auditorium because they didn't want to miss out on meeting with God? When was the last time you saw people stop their visiting and chit-chat because a hymn of praise was being sung and they wanted to add their voice to "How Great Thou Art" or "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing?" When was the last time you saw most of the people in a church eager to attend a second service on Sunday -- in the afternoon or evening -- because they realized that the preacher had put just as much effort into hearing God's voice and laying out a way to explain God's thoughts for that service as he did for the morning worship? When was the last time that most people in an audience were taking notes because they realized the treasures of God were even more important to store up than the money they put into their bank account on payday? Forty years ago, I remember that there was something different about a church building. My parents taught me that a special reverence -- a special kind of behavior -- was in order when I was in that place. I don't see that same thing today. Don't get me wrong -- I'm not asking for rigid rules of behavior in church. Nor am I saying that joyful fellowship isn't a good thing. I'm just wondering what we have lost in reverence and awe for our God.
David said in Psalm 42:4 -- "When I remember these things, I pour out my soul in me: for I had gone with the multitude, I went with them to the house of God, with the voice of joy and priase, with a multitude that kept holyday." David was experiencing a time of real spiritual depression. Do you know what one of the signficant things that got him through that time was? It was remembering the times he had gone to CORPORATE worship and MET GOD THERE!
This week, one of the guys in our church was a real encouragement to me. He remembered a key phrase from my last sermon and he was starting to evaluate the activities in his life not on the basis of whether anything was wrong with them, but by asking "what's right with this activity?" It was helping him learn to select the excellent instead of just the good. He was growing in spiritual discernment. That excites me as a pastor and as a man when I see other men actually putting the Word of God into practice in their lives. But I can tell you from 30 years of pastoral experience that most people in most churches don't remember what the sermon was about by the time they've finished lunch.
I spoke recently with a relative that was on his way back to Haiti. They found 300,000 dead after the earthquake, but that many more are still missing. On the grounds of their church there, 2500 people sleep on the ground outside the church covering themselves with plastic at night. They wear pretty much the same thing every day except for Sunday. But on Sunday, these people--with no homes, with significant family loss, and with seemingly little hope--put on their Sunday best to go to church. Men in sweltering heat in Haiti wear a suit and tie. Women and children don the best clothes they have. Why? Because they believe that they are going to meet with God. They believe they need to show reverence for the One with whom they are to meet. They don't chit-chat in church. They don't whisper little phrases back and forth to their spouse or their buddies. They hang on every bit of the Word of God that comes from the preacher's mouth as he reads and then expounds upon Scripture.
Isn't it interesting that those who have seemingly little blessings will have more to remember in their times of depression? They will remember that they basked in the presence of God. Is it not also interesting that those with air conditioned homes, comfortable recliners, a plethora of restaurants catering their culinary delights can go to the house of God and treat the time of worship with such familiarity? Where are you on that continuum? Are you -- am I -- missing something massively important because I fail to see corporate worship for what it was meant to be? Or in my soul can I be a part of God's people gathering around the center of the camp where the Shekinah pillar of fire burns brightly in the midst of the dark word? Can I wait there quietly and expectantly for what God will say? Will I respond joyfully and sing a response from my heart that comes from the depths of my soul -- instead of singing words from a hymal and then 30 seconds later not even realize what I sang?
May God help us to gather around the Shekinah fire again. May we regain the sense of awe and majesty that God deserves. God help us.