The Agony and the Honor
By Daniel Schantz
I rose from my chair and shuffled over to the pulpit. My hands were shaking and my voice wavered. “I’m sorry,” I said to the congregation, “but I have nothing for you today. I just couldn’t come up with a sermon.”
Members of the audience stared at each other in bewilderment.
Then I awoke, relieved to find I was just having a nightmare, one that I have had on and off all my life—that I am stepping into the pulpit unprepared, the ultimate disgrace.
Writing sermons is the hardest writing I ever do; it is exquisite agony, second only to income tax forms. It takes me days to put a sermon together, and every step is like undergoing a root canal. I have never been able to “wing it” like some gifted preachers. I have to labor for every word I find.
I knew this day would come, and then one day, it did.
The Worst Time
“We would like for you to preach about “The Power of God” the elder said, on the phone. “That’s our theme for this quarter.”
The end of the college year is the worst time for a teacher to work on a new sermon. Students are driving me to the brink of lunacy:
“Can I turn my paper in late, my roomy spilled cappuccino on my keyboard?”
“I need to talk. My boyfriend spoke to another girl, I am devastated!”
Academic advising is under way, a tedious ordeal for me. Unplanned meetings pop up.
“This meeting will be to decide when to have our next meeting.”
I worked on my sermon in snatches . . . 10 minutes here, 10 minutes there, but the week flew by and suddenly it was Saturday night. All I had was three pages of scribbles.
“I’m going to bed early,” I said to my wife. “My allergies are killing me and I’m exhausted.”
“Did you get your sermon done?”
“Not even close. I’ll work on it in the morning.” I popped an antihistamine and headed for bed.
I wake up every morning at 4:00 without the help of an alarm clock, a habit I inherited from my father. But due to the antihistamine, I didn’t waken until 6:30. That left me with just enough time to eat breakfast, dress, and get on the road. No time for study.
As I drove south, I stole glances at my notes, spread out on the seat beside me, trying to make some sense out of them. I had no outline, just a hodgepodge of Scriptures and random thoughts. The car slalomed down the road, the wheels hitting the buzz strips, sounding like a sawmill.
I arrived at the church with five minutes to spare, stuffed my notes into my jacket pocket, and fired off a prayer: Lord, if you don’t help me here, I am about to bring dishonor to your name.
The Worst Sermon
I can usually tell in the first five minutes of a sermon if it’s going to work, but within two minutes I could see this sermon would be the humbler of a lifetime, and I suddenly felt ill. Allergies had shut down my brain, and I struggled for the simplest words. There were long pauses in my sermon, while I tried to interpret my chicken scratches. A half page of notes was missing. I forgot the punchline to my only good illustration.
The audience reflected my struggles. They were restless. Checking their watches. Reading the printed program. Stretching and yawning, shamelessly. Shifting in their seats. Whispering things like, “Where did they find this yokel, anyhow?”
About 15 minutes into this travesty, I decided to euthanize the sermon out of regard for my victims. My face was hot with shame. I glanced at the exit and planned my escape. I won’t even shake hands, I said to myself. I will zip out that door, leap into my car, and roar away, and never come back to this church, ever again.
I chopped the sermon off abruptly. “Let’s stand and sing our invitation hymn, just the first verse of page 131.” One verse was all this sermon deserved.
No sooner had we started singing than a young mother on the left side of the audience stepped into the aisle, and strolled down front, her husband and two children behind her.
“Let’s sing the second verse.”
On the second verse a middle-aged man on the other side stepped into the aisle. His wife and teenaged children in tow, he marched down front to join the other foursome.
“Let’s sing the third verse.”
No one responded on the third verse, so I motioned for the congregation to be seated. An elder came and took statements of faith from the families and prepared for the baptisms.
I was in a state of shock. Eight people had come to be baptized at the end of the worst sermon I have ever preached in my life.
The Greatest Power
I had a 90-mile trip to think about what I learned from this experience. I tried to imagine what God was teaching me, perhaps something like this: So, Dan, do you get it now? It’s not about you. It’s not about eloquence or perfection. It’s about my Spirit, working through my Word, no matter how clumsily it is presented. I can use even your failures to bring honor to me, for my power is made perfect in weakness.
Without even knowing it, I had illustrated perfectly the theme the church had given me, “The Power of God.”
Daniel Schantz is professor emeritus with Central Christian College of the Bible in Moberly, Missouri.