In the life of a child, there are many “firsts.” We may speak of his “first word” or “first cake” and many other initial achievements and experiences. We remember these because they are significant and new and exciting. But we also recall them to see how far we’ve come. Think about your first step and now look back at all those you’ve taken since. It’s pretty amazing when you think about it. In the same way, it is a momentous occasion in the life of a pastor-to-be to preach his first sermon. And since I don’t necessarily have a mom and dad to throw the celebration, I’ll have to give my own. I would like to share with you my first sermon.
But really not my first sermon, but God’s great mercy in my preparation. Indeed, His hand was strong and His words proved true. It all began one Thursday evening…
I showed up to the Elder’s meeting at church after my soccer game. I was a bit tired from our pathetic loss, but excited for this time with the elders. These gatherings are hands down THE BEST training for any young man in pastoral ministry, guaranteed. (Apparently my pastor agrees.) Of course, that depends on the elders, but given good elders, it will be the most vital and fruitful time in the life of any whippersnapper. Before the meeting got started, a fellow Pastor’s College student turned to me and said, “So you ready to preach next Sunday?!” I gave a deer-in-the-headlights look as this was news to me. The other students turned their attention my way as I gave a smile like he was surely kidding. But he wasn’t. The email of the preaching schedule had gone out the day before and I was in the dark. I was to be preaching on 2 Corinthians 1:1-11 in less than 10 days. Now, I knew that I would open our series through the letter with this text, but figured it wouldn’t happen until the end of January, if not February. I had spent some time studying this portion of Paul’s letter, but I didn’t have a clue what I would say from it. This is highly unusual as I frequently have something to say about anything. Thus, my dilemma had begun. I was to be preaching for the first time in a week and a half on a text I didn’t hardly understand. Not to mention that it was the first Sunday after college students arrived back from their Christmas break and we’d certainly have new visitors.
To supply some appreciation for the text, Paul begins his letter with this praise:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort.
Yet I was in much discomfort through my present circumstances. And this was the Lord’s will. Paul goes on to say that he experienced much affliction so that he might comfort those in any affliction with the comfort he received from God. My major concern was that I was preaching through a portion of God’s word that I hadn’t experienced. How could I relate to the people as Paul did, and then really feed them God’s Word? But this very thing the Lord God did. Though I won’t share all the affliction and comfort I experienced that week, I want to share some.
First, I want to share of a dream I had a few nights before I found out I was to preach. I won’t go into detail, but to put it simply, I woke up with a shriek and I don’t talk in my sleep. I was absolutely terrified and called out to God for mercy, pleading as I laid stiffly afraid in my bed. God was my only refuge in that time.
Another example can be seen in my constant struggle to know God as Father, not as Master. In this battle I wrestle to see myself as a son and not a slave, lacking any degree of His acceptance. But that week in my Pastor’s College curriculum, we read one of the sweetest summaries of justification and sonship in Calvin’s Institutes. God used these words to comfort me greatly, and the other men as we discussed them in class. (I would share them, but they’re read in the sermon.)
To continue, a truly gracious and fruitful example of God’s comfort is seen in a call I received late one night. God used my affliction of slavery mentioned above to comfort another brother. The Lord gave me an opportunity to practice exactly what the Apostle Paul did and spoke about in 2 Corinthians. This was a blessing in so many ways. (This story is also mentioned in the sermon.)
In addition to all this, I spent all of Saturday at the church house in preparation. It was quite a long day, broken up during the evening for dinner with my mom who came down for the service. By way of much prayer and study and consideration of our congregation, the Lord was giving me a message for His people. But around the time I went back to the church house after dinner, I began to get this growing pain in the left side of my chest. It quickly spread through my left arm and my thoughts wandered to my condition. As it relates to tension, I’m in the zone when faced with great pressure needing immediate attention, but I don’t deal too well with long periods of steady stress. Being the alarmist worry-wart I am, I began thinking I might be in for a heart-attack. I’ve always seen the old man on TV grab his left arm and fall to the ground. Though I wasn’t old, I’ve had some strange heart irregularities in the past and wondered if this might be related. (This story makes sense in light of the whole rabies scare exactly a year ago.) But I decided it wasn’t important to say anything, especially to my mom who would have freaked out. I would just preach the sermon and pray that God would take care of me. Well, after a few hours the pain only increased. A little after midnight I went home thinking that by putting the sermon aside it would go away. Well, waking up in the middle of the night to the same aching proved me wrong. I wrestled around on the couch (mom got my bed) for a few hours before I woke up to the same discomfort as the night before. With the distress signal going off in the back of my mind that something’s wrong, I went on my way to the church to finish formatting my sermon. (It’s always helpful to be able to read your notes.) But the whole time that I had been hurting, I had also be calling out to God for mercy and comfort. I was truly facing something that I was completely entrusting myself to God for. I remember falling asleep by meditating on the words, “God of ALL comfort.” And about as I arrived at the church house the pain had left me. Praise God! I don’t know why or how, but God had comforted my soul through all the affliction so that I didn’t stress out and truly believed that He would comfort me. The very words I was studying to preach were my strength and hope.
Further, if you believe it, God continued His mercy toward me. In situations where I have to prepare and perform in any way, I become super anxious and quite high-strung. As Pastor Baker had us bow on our knees for the pastoral prayer, mine were shaking. But I continued to dwell that my Father is the God of ALL COMFORT. This wasn’t limited to the life-threatening persecution that the Apostle Paul faced or the upside down crucifixion of Peter. And again, God’s Word proved true in ways I had never believed it, for He comforted me in that time. I was completely calm walking up on the stage and began my sermon with poise. There wasn’t a tremor in my voice and my hands were steady. This surely could only have been God’s doing.
So I’m writing this amazed as I reflect on God’s faithfulness in so many ways. It’s honestly the case that I probably received more benefit and up building by His Word than all those who heard me. He was a stronghold in time of need. So I direct you to my first sermon with a full testimony of God’s work in me. I don’t want you to think that because of God’s work in me through preparation it is something special. It’s not. But if you’d like to listen, you can download it here. I hope that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ might comfort you in your affliction as He did me.