On Doing Ordinary Things
It has come as kind of a shock to me, now that I am a pastor and preaching on a regular basis, that the vast majority of the sermons I preach will be rather ordinary. I will study hard and pray hard and work hard, I’ll get started early in the week and give it a couple of days to germinate and give it another look-through early on Sunday morning, and at the end of it all I will have a rather ordinary sermon. Not a bad one, but an ordinary one. It certainly won’t be the sermon I had envisioned when I first sat down with my Bible and a cup of hot coffee on Monday morning. In my mind I’ve got these visions of greatness; before me on the pulpit I’ve got this reality of ordinariness.
Last week a friend asked me how my sermon had gone and I said, “Somewhere between being receiving a standing ovation and being pelted with dead cats.” That seems to about capture it, because honestly, I don’t know. It’s not like the people were weeping and throwing themselves to the ground in sorrow and repentance, and it’s not like they all just got up and left. Their response was as ordinary as my sermon—some people expressed gratitude, a couple of people offered correctives or improvements, and the majority said nothing while showing nothing out-of-the-ordinary.
I guess when I had considered preaching I figured I’d be able to knock it out of the park every Sunday—that if I began early enough in the week and gave myself enough time to study I would always be able to put together an amazing sermon, or an above-average one at least. If I just put in the time, I would be able to do something extraordinary and put together something sublime. But even in those weeks that I can dedicate a full 30 or 40 hours to sermon preparation, Sunday rolls around and I find myself wishing for just another week or just another two weeks, to iron out the kinks and get the sermon where I hoped it could be.
This month I am preaching through the second half of Ephesians, a text that really deals with the ordinary Christian life. What does it look like to live a life that has been transformed by this gospel of grace through faith? Paul lays it out in all its ordinariness. It is not a life of doing things that makes all the world take notice and declare your virtues, but a life of quiet, humble service and a long, slow growth in godliness. And yet I still find myself hoping to write extraordinary sermons on being ordinary. Until now I had missed the irony.
I was comforted to read that Philip Ryken has long since stopped trying to be more than ordinary, or at least he has seen the value of taking joy in the ordinary or mediocre. Michael McKinley recently heard Ryken say that “as long as he had been faithful, he didn’t spend a lot of time worrying about whether or not it subjectively felt like his sermon had gone well.” He pointed to the Westminster Larger Catechism:
Q: How does Christ make intercession?
A: Christ makes intercession, by his appearing in our nature continually before the Father in heaven, in the merit of his obedience and sacrifice on earth, declaring his will to have it applied to all believers;Answering all accusations against them, and procuring for them quiet of conscience, notwithstanding daily failings, access with boldness to the throne of grace, and acceptance of their persons and services.
And isn’t that a remarkable thing! Our persons and services are accepted on the basis of Christ’s intercession; our ordinary sermons are precious in his sight.
The many years of writing articles on this blog should have prepared me to accept ordinary efforts. After all, the nature of the blog is such that I simply cannot make every article exactly what it could be if I had all the time in the world. I typically have just 40 or 50 or 60 minutes to take my thoughts from words and phrases bouncing around my brain to words typed out and posted on the Internet. Many of these things could be said much better, but that is not the nature of the medium and it’s not the reality of life. So I do what I can.
I guess the same is true of preaching. The reality is that I need to be standing in the pulpit at Grace Fellowship Church on Sunday morning at 10 o’clock and by then I need to have a sermon prepared. Between then and now I may have days of quiet study at my desk and I may experience an unusual sense of God’s grace. Or between then and now I may have to spend days counselling and parenting and evangelizing and everything else that life brings. But that pulpit and those Christians will be there on Sunday morning and I need to be ready. I will not be as ready as I’d like to be, but I will be as ready as the Lord wants me to be.
I am coming to see that the beauty of the ordinary sermon is that the Lord is pleased to use even it, which drives home the lesson of 1 Corinthians 2:
And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.
Beneath and behind and inside those ordinary sermons is the extraordinary God who specializes in displaying his power through my weakness, my ordinariness.