There are weeks, are there not, where you look out at the church, you announce the passage you will be preaching and you think, why have I done this to myself? Yesterday was one of those Sundays.
Our practice, as a church, is to have our tea and coffee before the service to welcome people as they arrive. During this time, a new couple were in the church we had not seen before. Which is lovely. And no doubt hopes get raised that here may be people who might want to settle and join us in time.
Then there was the family who have been coming for a short time who definitely are interested in joining us long term. They have said as much. There they were with their two young boys. This is great.
There were also folks who have been coming a while, who are not yet in membership, for various reasons, who we are hoping to move in that direction. They are not native English-speakers and so translation is always required. That’s no problem, we have that. But obviously, things get lost in translation sometimes and we have to do our level best.
Then there was the fact that we have our summer slowdown in force. Pertinent as far as Sunday meetings go, this means the Sunday School teachers are on a break and the kids remain in throughout the service. It helps the children learn to sit through a full sermon and service and it gives the teachers a rest and opportunity to sit in as well. This usually works perfectly happily. I am also told this was the week various young children decided they were particularly keen to start taking notes of the sermon. Of course it was!
There were a few other things going on too but this should suffice to set the main scene. The guy leading the service welcomed everybody, outlined the broad sweep of the service for everyone and then duly handed over to me to read our passage and preach. It bears saying we are committed to systematic expository preaching through books of the Bible as our main mode of teaching so we were simply taking the next passage before us. I get up and announce the reading from Deuteronomy 22:13-30. Go ahead and look that up – everything will suddenly make sense.
All of that is before you even get to what I actually had to say about that passage. There are certain things that are, let’s say, unavoidable. You simply cannot preach that passage faithfully without landing on certain things it would usually be impolite to speak of in public. If you are really curious, you can see how I handled it here if you want (the sermon starts around 10:55, but you don’t need to listen to it for the rest of this to make sense).
As I got up to preach that passage, looking out at the faces in front of me – the children in front of me – I thought to myself, why have I done this to myself? Of course, I know exactly why. This was the next passage in the book we are preaching through and therefore what had been scheduled many months beforehand for this given week. But why did this passage have to land this particular week?
But you know as well as I do, right? Because God is sovereign. We preach systematically because we believe God should set the agenda for the church. And as the one who sets the agenda week by week based on how he has order his Word – rather than based on whatever theme we have decided the church might need to hear – he sovereignly determines when those passages will be preached and who will be there when we do so.
Is that passage what I would have preached if I knew who was going to be there that morning? Not on your nelly. But it is the passage the Lord gave us to preach that morning. So, preach it we did.
And as you would expect when God is sovereign over these things, the passage I would choose not to preach happens to be one that he spoke to people through. The visiting couple were people I knew when I was a child in Birkenhead who were there to see what that little tearaway they knew 30 years ago was up to now. That family looking in to join are specifically coming to us because we don’t shy away from preaching this sort of passage and its implications. Those Sunday School teachers taking a break were all breathing a sigh of relief, knowing that we use whole-church curriculum and they weren’t the ones to teach this to the children directly (I think the overwhelming feeling was: rather you than me mate!) And more than a few people spoke about how helpful they found it, despite it being a passage none of us would naturally pick.
Of course, the Lord does not promise that every time you are faced with a difficult passage – in his sovereignty – it will turn out that way. It may just be the difficult passage you are preaching happens also to be a week when your prep really wasn’t up to much and your sermon barely seems to land at all. It may be the week that someone new turns up and takes the hump because you preached the passage (just the next one in the book you’re preaching through) that you suspected would offend them. It may be the week those visitors who came to look in determine they won’t be coming back. But the message remains the same: God is sovereign. If it’s what he has determined is to be preached to those specific people at that time, it is what it is. Namely, the Word he would have those specific people hear at that particular time for reasons that may not be known to you, might be known by them and are certainly known by him.
Which is why next week, we will do the same thing again. The passage that we planned to preach months ago – the very next one in the book we are preaching through – we will preach regardless of who may be sat in front of us. It is why we will press on even if the passage is particularly difficult to understand, apply or get our heads around culturally. It is why we will persist regardless of the ultimate outcome.
We are called to preach the whole counsel of God, not just the bits we like or the passages we find easier to understand. We take 1 Timothy 3:16-17 seriously and, therefore, do not skip over bits that might feel a bit awkward for us. We trust that the Lord orders these things ahead of us, knowing what will be preached when and who will be there when we do it. We are called to preach and apply his Word in our context and trust that the right people will be there to hear it. We trust that whatever results may come through it, those results are not our doing – they are above our paygrade – any outcome is up to the Lord. So we will keep preaching whatever comes next, and to whoever is in front of us, because in the end, God is sovereign.