In seminary, one of my professors mentioned that the average pastor will preach about 4,000 sermons. For a young student looking ahead to a (DV) long ministerial career, it sounds like a lot.
The other day, in a moment of curiosity, I clicked “get info” on my sermons folder: 1785 files. I’m quickly closing in on the half-way mark. It makes sense. I’m moving into the latter stages of middle-agism, and about half-way between ordination and social security. (Pastor’s don’t generally retire.) Of course, I could get hit by a livestock truck later today. But, if God allows it, I will continue to preach for another 20-30 years. That will be about 1500-3000 more sermons. I’ll come in right about 4,000 by the time I’m done.
Some day will be my final sermon. I may or may not know about it at the time (See “livestock truck” above).
I remember the same professor saying that any sermon could be my last – or the last for one of my members. Usually, a person doesn’t realize it is the last sermon they will hear. I’ve seen people suddenly taken ill, or faithful members who have gradually lost their strength, and even those who were violently forced from this world. Except in rare circumstances, I don’t see people who say, “This is my last sermon, pastor. Make it a good one.”
But, because any sermon could be the last, I try to make them all good. It could be their last sermon before dying. It could be mine. But the truth is, we are all dying people. Every sermon is a sermon to the dying. The good pastor will preach that way. Like a dying man to dying people. (Another saying of my professor)
I’ve had a few sermons over the years that didn’t work out. Preachers know what I mean: you start preaching, and realize almost immediately that this sermon (which looked so brilliant on the page) is academic lecture. It is a fine treatise on theology. But it has nothing to say to a person facing death. It gives no consolation. It is an essay, not a sermon.
One Sunday I had the sermon printed, in the pulpit, and ready to go. Five minutes before the service started, I realized that the sermon was all wrong. I had missed the point of the Gospel reading entirely. I was about to burden my congregation with a law-filled harangue, that had none of the promises of God regarding forgiveness of sins. How had it happened? Ask any preacher – it happens. Mercifully, I caught it in time. That sermon was put in the round file without ever seeing the light of day.
Looking back at sermons over the years, I’ve managed a few that really stand out. (At least for me.) My wife remembers a few that she thinks were really good. My children love nothing more than to quote my sermons back to me – usually by way of rebuke for something I’ve done or said. Nothing brings repentance to a preacher like the preacher’s own words.
Most of my sermons are what I’d call “meat and potatoes” sorts of things. They feed and keep alive. One blends into the next, but that doesn’t make them expendable. My goal in preaching is to remind myself of how very sinful I am, and how much I need the forgiveness of sins. If I’m not even connecting with my own heart, how much am I connecting with others?
Every sermon needs to give the life of Christ to people. For some reason, he chooses sinful men to bring that Word to the world. It’s a testimony to the power of God’s Word that it ever happens at all. I’ve been honored almost 1800 times to step into a pulpit and proclaim that Word. I’ve got a little more than 2,000 sermons to go. And the more I preach, the more I realize how much I have to learn. Perhaps by number 4,000. I will be able to say “I finally understand the proper distinction between Law and Gospel.” Although, at this point, I will settle for becoming like the little children that Jesus blesses – I will know nothing, but just trust that Jesus knows enough for both of us.