So I went to preach at a church in Benton, Arkansas, on Sunday night. They’re having one of those get-a-different-preacher-every-Sunday-night-for-a-month-revival kind of deals. I was honored to be asked. I’m a little familiar with this church. I’ve preached there twice before during the tenures of the two previous pastors. Good people in that church.
Anyway, during the worship service one of their members gets up to do a musical/recitation kind of thing. But before he does his thing, he shares a little story about how God moved him to get more deeply involved in serving God in the church and out. He said it started with a sermon a guest pastor preached to that church several years ago. It was a sermon called “Kingdom Math” based on the story in John 6 of the little boy who gave his sack lunch to Jesus—a lunch Jesus used to feed a multitude. “What’s in your pouch?” asked the preacher. “It may not seem like much to you, but in Jesus’ hands little becomes a lot and small things like a child, five biscuits, and a couple of minnows are worth more than we can imagine. It may not figure in the world’s view of things, but that’s kingdom math. Give Jesus what you have and just see what He can do with it.” The man said he was so stirred by that story and that sermon that God used it to change his life and to move him to invest even what he thought were little things into the kingdom of God. Guess what? The preacher he was talking about was me.
To tell the truth, I was taken aback by it. So many times it feels like we're preaching to hard hearts and brick walls. So many times we preachers feel like we might as well be shouting into an empty well. Maybe like me, you've had the experience of preaching a sermon you thought would surely touch a particular individual's life only to have that person tell you after the sermon, "I hope people were listening today, preacher. We've got some folks who sure needed to hear that." Sheesh! I know what God said through Isaiah—that God’s word will never return void, never come back empty once it’s spoken. I know that, but I don’t often see the evidence of it in my own life. Sure, preaching is not fully God’s word; it’s got a lot of the preacher’s words and biases and attitudes mixed in with it. But God’s word is usually in there somewhere. And it’s nice to know that now and then God’s strong word somehow cuts through my feeble words, lands on somebody’s heart, and comes back with some return for God and His kingdom. I was encouraged.
Let’s face it, we preachers speak so many words, preach so many sermons, we can’t even remember them, let alone expect any lasting remembrance on the part of the parishioners who must endure those words Sunday by Sunday, year after year. I know the old analogy that just as well-fed people can't tell you every meal they’ve ever eaten, parishioners can't tell you every sermon they’ve ever heard. But it doesn’t mean they haven’t been well-fed along the way. So it’s nice, now and then, to know that a sermon hit a bulls-eye in somebody’s heart, that God gave it life beyond the hours it took to prepare it and the 20 minutes it took to preach it, that it actually made a difference in a person’s life and in the kingdom of God.
I just wanted to share this to encourage the preachers who read it. Hey, it doesn’t come back empty after all! What you say, how God uses your words, is making a difference in the lives of many of the people who hear you. Keep it up. Don’t grow wearing in doing (and preaching) well. You may not see much come of it just yet, but one day you will. And if you don’t hear it much this side of heaven, I suspect you will hear it for sure on the other side. It will amaze you and astound you. It will stir yet more praise and glory to God. And in spite of the fact that God wipes away our tears in heaven, when you hear what a difference your words actually made, you’ll probably sit down and weep with thanksgiving and joy. All that preparation, all that teaching and preaching: it doesn’t come back empty after all.
So I went to preach yet another time in a revival service, and guess who came away most revived.
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it (Isa. 55:10-11).
*A footnote for you non-preachers who read this: every now and then, you’d give your pastor a real lift if you’d let him/her know how God used one of his/her sermons in your life.