Sunday was an interesting day for me as I preached at a ‘homecoming’ service. I won’t get into all the details except to say this: I received far more feedback than usual about my sermon. Part of the reason for this is that there were far more people present than usual because of the event.
Knowing that the congregation would swell dramatically, and that there would certainly be unbelievers present, influenced my preparation and thought process leading up to the big day. By my standards I actually kept the sermon relatively short – around 30 minutes, whereas I usually preach between 30 and 40 minutes (I was at the low end of the sermon length spectrum). This will come into play shortly.
Most of the comments I received were overwhelmingly positive and extremely encouraging. But there was one guy. The one guy that’s always there no matter where you are preaching. He’s walking past me in the hallway. He’s almost past me. He stops and turns around.
‘Good sermon,’ he says. ‘A little long, but good.’
When someone makes such a comment all kinds of thoughts immediately race through my mind simultaneously. How should I respond? I have about 5 seconds to answer that question. I give a pretty safe reply, while being sure to challenge his statement just a bit:
‘I left out two points,’ I said. ‘It could have been a lot longer.’
‘Really?’ he asks.
‘Actually it may have been three points, but at least two,’ I said.
To which he replies, ‘Well, I’m a [denomination extracted, I’ll let you guess that one] and we don’t really have sermons, we have messages. And they’re usually about 10 or 15 minutes long.’
‘To be honest with you all of the preaching that has influenced me, and the best sermons I have heard, have often been between 40 minutes and an hour,’ I added.
I wanted to add more, but I could tell he wanted the conversation to be over.
‘Thank you for coming,’ I said. Conversation over.
Now I could go on a diatribe about sermon length, but I’ll try not to. The main issue for me is this: whether a sermon is short or long doesn’t matter so much as the content and the power of the sermon. He wasn’t interested in either. From everyone else, dozens of them, I was hearing things like, ‘I think that sermon may change my life’ or ‘my brother was here visiting today and that was exactly the kind of message he needed, we’ve been praying for something like this.’ But then there was that one guy. You know, that one guy. Every preacher knows him.
For the preacher, or at least for me, that one guy’s comment will stick with me more than rest. It put a damper on all of the glorious things that happened Sunday. If I didn’t write about it here, only my wife and I would know about it. I was smiling, I was trying to answer questions and encourage people. But in the back of my mind I am thinking, ‘Was my sermon really too long? Are all the compliments just people being cordial? Did I bore everyone to sleep?’
I knew I didn’t bore everyone to sleep. The observant preacher can read the congregation. You know when they’re getting restless, and 90% of them were fully engaged. But you have to take criticism seriously. You have to at least open yourself up to the possibility that the criticism is right and true. You have to evaluate.
But here’s the reason I share all of this: My mind drifted back to a statement of Martyn Lloyd-Jones. To my knowledge, the quote isn’t available in print. Rather, it is from a question and answer session the Doctor participated in after giving his now famous lectures at Westminster Seminary that became the basis of the book, Preaching and Preachers. I bought the CD’s of this Q&A from the MLJ Recordings Trust years ago, but they are now available for free HERE (you have to sign up to listen, but the membership is free). In CD form the session was called MLJ ‘In the Hotseat,’ but it is now simply called Questions & Answers under the Preaching and Preachers section.
A question was posed to the Doctor about the judging of a sermon by the preacher to be a success or failure. Lloyd-Jones’ response to the question was precise and helpful. He referenced 1 Corinthians 4:3-4,
1 Corinthians 4:3 But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. 4 I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me.
That, he says, is the ideal for the minister. And he is absolutely right. Now Lloyd-Jones was a very wise man, and he was quick to add that no minister will ever live out this ideal – we’re too proud, to concerned with what others think about us. Yet, he said, this is what we should be striving for.
We are not justified by our performance as a preacher, or in any other human realm. We are justified by Christ. He is, as it were, our judge. Not only does my standing before God, and the calling to which he has called me, not depend on the judgment of me made by others – it doesn’t depend on the judgment I make of myself.
That’s the test. After you have stood up to preach the gospel, can you go home and say to yourself, ‘The Lord is my judge and I am justified in Christ.’ No sermon will ever be perfect, but Christ has paid for our sin and failure. This is all the more reason we should be preaching the gospel – we need the gospel – the preacher needs the gospel every Sunday in order to be able to live with himself. He needs it to humble him when the comments pet his ego. He needs it to encourage him when men condemn us. If you need this message every Sunday, your people need it as well.
Let me share another relevant Lloyd-Jones comment, this time from his Studies in the Sermon on the Mount. He comments on Matthew 6:2-3,
Matthew 6:2 ¶ “Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing…
Now this is a different context of course. We are talking about the giving of alms. But it is quite relevant. First, he comments on the sounding of a trumpet that your righteous acts might be seen and acknowledged by others:
The wrong way to do this is to announce it…In effect they are engaging a trumpeter to go before them to say: ‘Look at what this man is doing.’ The wrong way to do these things is to proclaim them, and to draw attention to them…(p. 297).
That’s plain enough, but he then begins to press the next verse, which says that the right hand is not to know what the left hand is doing:
In other words, do not announce to others in any shape or form what you are doing. That is obvious. But this is less obvious: Do not even announce it to yourself. That is difficult. It is not so difficult for some people not to announce it to others. I think that any man with even an element of decency in him rather despises a man who advertises himself…Yes, but what is so difficult is not to pride yourself because you are not like that…[and] immediately you become a Pharisee…Note that our Lord does not stop at saying you must not sound a trumpet before you and announce it to the world; you do not even announce it to yourself…In other words, having done it in secret you do not take your little book and put down: ‘Well, I have have done that. Of course I haven’t told anybody else that I have done it.’ But you put an extra mark in a special column where exceptional merit is recorded. In effect our Lord said: ‘Don’t keep these books at all; don’t keep spiritual ledgers; don’t keep profit and loss accounts in your life; don’t write a diary in this sense, just forget all about it. Do things as you are moved by God and led by the Holy Spirit, and then forget all about them (p. 298).
You see, this is very common for the preacher. He will never say to someone, ‘Boy, I preached a great sermon Sunday’ to anyone in his congregation. He might not even say such a thing to his wife. But he will certainly say it to himself. So much for, ‘I do not even judge myself.’ Too many preachers become their own judges when we should be saying, ‘It is the Lord who judges me.’ We won’t sound the trumpet to others, but we will sound it to ourselves when no one else is looking.
What’s the answer to this? Lloyd-Jones writes this:
There is only one answer, and that is that we should have such a love for God that we have no time to think about ourselves. We shall never get rid of self by concentrating on self. The only hope is to be so consumed by love that we have no time to think about ourselves. In other words, if we want to implement this teaching we must look at Christ dying on Calvary’s Hill, and think of His life and all he endured and suffered, and as we look at Him realize what he has done for us (Ibid).
The gospel is the answer to pride.
But it’s also the answer to the depression that often comes along with preaching (which, by the way, is also likely an issue of pride). I’ve heard Tim Keller say something to this effect: “The Bible says that ‘he who by faith is righteous shall live.’ And the preacher who by his preaching is righteous (i.e. justified by his preaching) will die a thousand deaths every Saturday night.”
I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t live up to all that I have written here. If I did I most likely wouldn’t be writing this particular post. I would have moved on. But in a way writing this post is helping me to do precisely that. It happened. Now it’s over. Move on, place your focus on Christ, submit to the Spirit, and carry on. My ledger doesn’t count anyway. The ledger that count belongs to God, and Christ has assured that my name is in it. As one of my old teachers likes to say, not only my person, but my performance, is covered in him. How else could God ever say, ‘Well done, thou good and faithful servant’?
Was my sermon good or bad? I preached the gospel. Let the Lord be my judge. I only pray that he will let me live to preach the gospel again.