I was talking with my wife ahead of Sunday about my sermon this week. My overriding feeling was that it was a bit of a duffer. I don’t aim for them, but I readily accept and am okay with the fact that not every sermon I preach is not going to be A-grade material. Periodically, I will preach a barely passable one – dare I admit, even a total dud – and such is the way it is. There isn’t a preacher alive who pulls out a slam dunk every week without fail.
So, up I stand to deliver what I consider to be less than my finest sermon. I preach through the passage, hoping that something will happen (I don’t know what) to miraculously lift the material. I plod on through it, get to the end of the meeting, and quite frankly, I feel absolutely nothing. Whatever unction is meant to be, there didn’t seem to be any of it!
As I finished up and went to pack away my things, somebody in the church marches up to me and told me that they have been finding our series in Revelation the most helpful they have had in ages and that sermon was just the latest example. Somebody else came up to tell me how it has been particularly helpful to them in some specific circumstances. Someone else came to talk to me about how they had been blessed by it. Everything I felt about the sermon – by all accounts from those listening – was wrong.
By contrast, there have been other occasions at which I have stood up to preach and – as very rarely happens for me – I felt extremely confident in the message I was about to deliver. Not confident that I would deliver it brilliantly, or anything like that, but that the message was just the right one for the church at that time. The explanation I felt was good, the illustrations helpful and the application utterly on point for our people.
So, I stand up to deliver this A-grade sermon. This, I thought, is just what we need to hear. I finish up the meeting and begin to pack up my stuff. I expect someone, somewhere will tell me how moved they were, how challenged, how helpful maybe. But there is nothing except tumbleweed. Nobody says anything. I might dare to ask my wife on the way home, hoping maybe she will affirm how awesome it was. She did not. Not that she thought anything was bad, just that she was largely nonplussed. It was alright, maybe not one of your best.
And, as counters to both of those, there have been times when I thought my sermon would land really well and, as I expected, it seemed to do. There have been other times I felt my sermon would bomb, and so it came to pass. Which is, partly, why I assume the way I feel about any given sermon is probably right. My feelings are right enough of the time to make me believe they are usually right when, in fact, they are not right even half of the time. But who continues to believe, with any degree of certainty, what fails to be correct less than 50% of the time? An idiot, perhaps? That and (I suspect I am not alone) and awful lot of preachers.
So, why am I sharing this with you? Ultimately to say that we cannot trust our feelings as reliable guides on what the Lord is doing. Don’t get me wrong here. I am not saying feelings don’t matter. I am merely saying that they are not a reliable guide when trying to assess what the Lord is doing. The times I felt absolutely nothing, the Lord has often blessed. The times when I felt like ‘something was happening’ turned out that not much was happening at all, so far as I could tell after the fact.
The point being, we shouldn’t assume that our feelings give us any real insight into what the Lord might be doing. Instead, we should preach the Word with confidence – even the ones we feel are right duffers – knowing that the sovereign God, whose Word we are trying our level best to handle well, will not allow it to return to him void. He will do with it whatever he wants to happen with it.
And I know I say this a lot, but God’s sovereignty helps us here. If everything that happens is under God’s sovereign guidance, he has sovereignly determined that we would preach that shocker. Somehow, in ways I struggle to understand, He is more glorified by even our terrible sermons than had we not preached them at that time. Exactly what he’s doing with them, and how they glorify him most, I have no idea. I only know, if it happens, it will ultimately do something to bring God more glory than had it not.
Which, and here is a thought to encourage or depress you on that same front, God is therefore more glorified by the fact that a Joel Osteen sermon was preached than were it not. No doubt, the glory isn’t in the content of the sermon itself, which the Lord specifically is not pleased about. So, the glory that ensues from it must come from other things that happen as a result. Exactly what, and exactly how and where, I don’t know. I only know, if it happens, it brings more glory to God because it did than had it not. And that must include Joel Osteen sermons too, in all their gospel-mangling, depressingly unbiblical fullness.
How can God be more glorified by what is evidently sinful or fundamentally blasphemous happening than had it not? Well, we don’t need to look any further than the cross for the answer. The most sinful, blasphemous, anti-God act imaginable was the very mechanism God used to redeem his people. He was clearly more glorified through that heinous act of sin than had it never happened. And there is no question he ordained it. He may not have been glorified by the specific sinful desire and actions of those who actually crucified Jesus, but the results of that action – and the willing submission of the Son to all that was required to redeem his people – most certainly did. And the subsequent addressing of sin and all its consequences did too. And the countless numbers who have been saved because of it did too. The things that glorified God through it could go on and on.
And so, if crucifying the Son of God was ordained by God and ultimately brought him glory, terrible Joel Osteen sermons (or, insert whatever false teacher you prefer here) – despite their evident lack of merit – somehow bring more glory to God than had they never been preached. That is, ultimately why the Lord allows them – even ordains them – to be. But if such is true even for such heinous, scripture-abusing sermons as those, even my terrible sermon duffers don’t quite hit those heretical heights (at least, I don’t think). And if that is true, then the Lord is more glorified because I preached them than had I not because he ordained they would be preached. And, perhaps in a perverse way, I find that deeply comforting.