The Worst Sermon

The Worst Sermon

In the last post I shared about how I learned to look at the big picture in preaching.  I recently engaged in a class to improve preaching.  The discussion among those who were part of the class made me remember the worst sermon I ever preached.  It was, without a doubt, awful, but the lesson I learned in the process was invaluable.  Let me tell you about it.

The Setting

When I began preaching, we used to have a morning and evening worship services, with different messages in each.  That meant that I had to write two sermons every week, and have them ready for delivery.  So, it was a great relief when I could invite a guest to preach.  That was the setting for the worst sermon in my life.

I invited a church planter who had spent a year with us, and then launched his own church in a nearby community, to preach in an evening service during advent.  Since I had the evening “off” from preaching, I scheduled a meeting in the afternoon with a group of people strategizing about some aspect of church ministry.  As I entered the meeting, at about 3:00 in the afternoon, I got a call.  Something had come up, and our guest would not be there that evening.

My first response was disappointment.  But after that, I quickly said, “I’ll pull something out of the file,” a reference to my cache of old sermons.

A Pathetic File

I ended our meeting at 4:00 pm, and went home to go through my files to choose an appropriate sermon for advent.  Unfortunately, everything in the file was, by my evaluation, pretty bad.  Outlines were sketchy, and I couldn’t remember many of the illustrations.

So, what to do?

I chose one that I thought I could redeem with a little work–but it was now 5:00 pm, one hour from the worship service time.  I quickly ran through the message, and headed back to church.

The Worst Sermon of my Life

bad sermonThe sermon was an exposition of the Isaiah passage that predicted that the Messiah would be Immanuel, God with us (Isaiah 7:14).  As the service moved toward the sermon, I got increasingly nervous.  I felt like I had little to offer the people that evening.  For about 20 to 25 minutes, I said nothing that was fresh, nothing that was new, and felt like I was just repeating over and over, “God is with us.”

The custom at that time in the church I was serving was to go to the back door at the end of the service to shake hands with people as they left.  Instead of doing that, I walked right out the back door, out to my car, and went home.  I felt embarrassed, and figured that if I never preached again, it would be okay with me.

The After Story

Here’s the after story.  A group of women in my church would travel to each others’ homes on Thursday evenings to play a card game together.  A group of 4 women were traveling in a car on the way to the game, when they were suddenly struck by a speeding driver.  Though none of them was injured seriously, the car was badly damaged; so badly that the call went out for the”jaws of life” machine that would literally tear the doors off the car.  It took around 30 minutes for that tool to arrive.  Once it did, they were set free from the mangled automobile and brought to the hospital, where they were treated and sent home.

I didn’t know about this experience until  later, when one of the women called me and told me the story.  As part of the story she said, “The only thing that kept me sane as we were waiting for the jaws of life was that I kept repeating over and over, ‘Immanuel, God is with me.'”

What I Learned

bad preachingI got off the phone and went to my study and went to my knees in prayer.  I confessed that my need to impress people with sermons was sinful and wrong.  And I thanked God for the lesson here: that it is God who applies the message with the power of the Spirit–not me.

That’s the lesson.  God can use whatever you preach.  Though we are called to prepare well, and do our part in the process of touching the hearts of people, the ultimate effect of our work is done by the Holy Spirit.  He applies it to the individual lives of our listeners.  A good lesson.