I know I promised to address the “rest” of Matthew 11:28, and I am working on that article. It’s taking a bit longer than I expected. In the meantime, I thought I would share the following personal story. No matter how sincere we are in our efforts, not every sermon turns out as we might wish.
This is a different kind of article for me. You might call it a confession of sorts, or simply me getting something off my chest that I do not feel very comfortable about and have no better way to deal with than to share it.
I recently preached in a relatively small rural church in the west-central part of the state (Georgia, USA). I knew some of the members before I went there, but as far as I know, none had ever heard me preach except my wife and the two guests who accompanied us.
I preached on the knowledge of God. As I prepared for the sermon, the message came together without any real difficulty, since this is a theme central to my preaching. I had the message finished by mid-week, but for some reason, began to feel like the message may have been missing something.
Originally, the message spoke to the belief that the knowledge of God is fundamental to all other doctrine. I believe that, if we get the doctrine of God wrong, then all of our other doctrines will be suspect. Everything rises and falls with the accuracy of our knowledge of God.
Proverbs 9:10 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.
The sermon emphasized that our concept of God must be rooted, not in what we have been taught by preachers, teachers, or even parents, or by what we have gleaned from the media or even our own personal experiences, but from what the Bible actually says about God. As Christians, we should be able to justify our theology (theo – God, logy – knowledge) by referring to the Bible itself.
As the week progressed, I began to think that the message was incomplete. I thought, “If I am going to emphasize correct knowledge of God based on the Bible, shouldn’t I include some of that correct knowledge?” This thinking eventually led me to re-write the sermon so that it included particular items of theology. I prepared a handout that included these points and supporting texts. (Download both sermon and guide at end of this article.)
In hindsight, I realize that the sermon was too technical and too “heavy” for the circumstances. At the time, this did not appear to be a problem. Although no member of this particular church had heard me preach, some members of the church had heard from friends and relatives who had heard me preach, because I had served at a nearby church for two years. Therefore, my reputation having preceded me, I did not feel the need to be reserved. But I was wrong.
After the service, the gentleman who had asked me to come fill the pulpit that Sunday came up to me smiling. He said he enjoyed the sermon, but then added, “You scared them to death!”
Caught off-guard by the comment, and because I was busy greeting people as they left, I did not ask him to be specific about what he meant. Nevertheless, both he and the chairman of deacons asked if I would come back to preach sometime. To date, that invitation has not arrived, and I reservations that it ever will.
After reviewing the message for that day and after talking to someone familiar with the congregation of the church, I believe the people were probably right to be “scared.” I truly believe that all that I said in the sermon is the truth based on Scripture, but sometimes the truth can be scary and very intimidating, especially when it is not presented tactfully. I ignored that counsel on that particular morning.
I believe I probably scared them first by my reference to idolatry. In this part of the sermon, I actually diverged from my notes, which almost always gets me into trouble.
I believe that for most people, their concept of God comes, not from sincere Bible study, but is actually a collage of ideas gleaned from preachers, teachers, movies, and songs, including old hymns and new pop Christian music. If most church members were asked to justify their beliefs about God with Scripture, I believe most would really struggle. I don’t have any concrete evidence for this other than my own experiences and observations.
I also believe that if our concept of God is built on any resource other than God’s revelation of himself in Scripture, then we run the risk of worshiping a god who comes mostly from the imagination of either our teachers or ourselves. Such a god is not the true God of the Bible, but an imaginary god, making us guilty of idolatry.
However, I should have been wise enough to realize that the pulpit of a church who had never had time to build trust in me was the wrong context in which to present such complex doctrine.
A second point which contributed to the people being “scared” concerned the immutability of God and how that immutability relates to prayer.
First of all, I pointed out that God is immutable; that is, He does not change – not even His mind. I then quoted from two scriptures.
Mal. 3:6 I the LORD do not change…
Num. 23:19 God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind.
In my notes, I ended this section by pointing out that circumstances do not affect God’s plans. He never reacts to circumstances, because all that happens in the world is part of His unfolding eternal plan.
Under almost any condition, especially within the context of a Sunday morning sermon, this was relatively heavy information. The problem is that, once again, I wandered away from my notes.
I added that, since God does not change – not even His mind – then our prayers would not change His mind. Our prayers do not change God’s mind about the circumstances of our lives because first, the Bible says God does not change His mind, and second, all that occurs is a part of God’s eternal plan.
This is mind-blowing stuff for most people whose favorite mottos include “Prayer changes things.” I explained that while it is true that prayer does produce change, the change does not take place in God, but in us.
If we stop and think about it for a little while, we should come to realize that this has to be true.
What does God know and when did He know it? The answer is that since God is omniscient, He knows all things. Since He never changes, then He has always known everything. He never learns, because learning causes change. We would have to assume that, since God knows the end from the beginning, then He would certainly know everything in between.
Of course, even as with the question of idolatry, the theology of God’s omniscience and immutability is not the question here. The question deals with the effective and edifying presentation of the truth of Scripture.
One of my primary concerns is that I will inadvertently preach something that is not truth. For that reason, I take great pains to study any scripture with as much detail as possible with the resources available, praying that God will guide my study and prevent me from error.
In this case, however, there is a perception that, not only did I err, and that I erred with intention, which places me in the category of false teacher. This is what is bothering me and prompted me to write this “confession.”
My goal in preaching is not to scare anyone, but to lift up, to exalt, and to praise the name of God, our Father, and to proclaim the good news of Christ as Lord and Savior. I believe that, for too long, we have ignored the knowledge of God in favor of the joy of salvation, cherishing the gift much more that the Giver. For that reason, my preaching is founded on the proclamation of the truth of who God is as revealed in Scripture and in the life and witness of Jesus, the Christ.
In this case, my efforts may have done more harm than good. However, the episode is past, and I can scarcely take back my words or relive the moment. It is in God’s hands. I pray He will use the word proclaimed to encourage and edify the lives of the people of that church and community.
I also pray that He will make me a better preacher, more aware of not only the message, but of the hearers.