I decided to visit that small church on the corner to check things out and see if the people there were crazy, as others had told me. I figured I had nothing to lose. My parents already thought I was crazy as a sixteen-year-old to be studying the Bible so much instead of partying with my friends like a “normal” teenager. Besides, the pastor’s daughter was cute, and the pastor was known for stirring things up with his unorthodox style of preaching. If nothing else, the visit would be entertaining, and who knew if I might get a date with the pastor’s daughter?
I don’t know what that pastor saw in me, but he immediately took me under his wing. I shadowed him, watching his every move in church. Thirty-five years later, my first experience with his preaching is seared into my consciousness. I had to find a way to preach like this man preached. The pastor was known for his edgy sermons, which I loved but others hated. He preached exactly what he thought the church needed, and a few months after I got there, the congregation decided it was time to look for a new pastor. Preaching can be funny like that—doing a great job can get you into a world of trouble.
The time for my pastor’s last sermon was about a week away. I got a call from him and asked him about that last sermon. He said he had already preached it. I asked him, “What about Wednesday night?” and he simply replied, “Well, you are going to preach that one.” I remember being stunned. “Me? Preach a sermon? On the last big night of your pastoral ministry in the church?” I had been a Christian less than a year. I thought I had no business saying anything. I had no training to preach. To this day, I am amazed at the risk my pastor took and at the faith he had in me. He must have seen the raw calling to preach in my life. Before my mind could say no, my mouth said yes.
I had never prepared a message before. I poured myself into the Scriptures and prayed, seeking God for a word especially designed for the occasion. Pastor was leaving us, and my heart was broken. Many were hurt in the church. There seemed to be so much division stirring. One faction wanted the pastor to leave, and the others resented them for it. Was this the way church was supposed to be. As I studied, I realized I needed to forgive the people who wanted to harm my pastor; my own resentment was hardening my heart. I remember the words of Eph. 4:32 jumping off the page as I studied, coming to life in my heart: “And be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.” I wept in my room as I read that verse. It melted my heart. I experienced release from my unforgiveness and a refreshing peace as the Holy Spirit’s presence moved in my heart. I realized I had found my text for Wednesday night. There needed to be forgiveness in God’s house before the pastor departed. Those words had cleansed me, and now I felt more able to preach them to others.
The notes from that first sermon have long since yellowed and disintegrated. I really don’t remember all the passages of Scripture I shared, but I will never forget the people’s reaction. As I preached, the soft sound of sobbing could be heard. Was I that bad? The sound got louder, and people began to openly weep as they responded to the Scripture passages being preached. As I progressed, people began to put their hands over their faces and bend over crying with emotion. The word of God was melting hearts, and the Holy Spirit was actively at work convicting the hearts of people who needed to forgive. People began to stand up and confess aloud their hardness of heart and their need to repent. They were publicly asking others to forgive them and crying out to God. So much for my carefully prepared sermon! At some point, the pastor walked up behind me and whispered in my ear, “Keep it up—keep it going!” I thought to myself, “Keep what up? I really don’t even know what’s going on here.”
The night ended with a commissioning prayer for the pastor and one stunned teenager. I had just preached my first sermon, and I had had an encounter with transformational power. I had seen what could happen when calling meets opportunity and need. That was it—I knew the rest of my life would be devoted to preaching. I do my part, and He does His part. God doesn’t need much—a willing heart, an open vessel and child-like faith.