Bible in hand, I walk with palms sweaty and heart pounding to the front of the sanctuary. I look at their faces, some are bored, some expectant, but all hopeful for something bigger than themselves and better than their lives. There goes Ray, whose wife left him 5 years ago because of his addiction to heroine. She took the kids and he took a nose-dive. He shows up at church periodically, seeking a high to intoxicate him enough so he won’t want to get high. What am I going to say to Ray? There, way in the back of the sanctuary is Rosie, the cynical 17 year old who would rather be sleeping on a bed of nails than listening to my sermon. Her parents threaten to take away her car if she doesn’t attend church. Rosie stopped really listening to sermons 2 years ago after she had an abortion. She slouches, crosses her arms, and listens to her iPod, every once in a while muting it to hear if anything I say will make living more attractive than suicide. What do I say to Rosie? There in the second pew with the big smile is Lois. She loves to “praise the Lord,” to use her words, but her puffy eyes and staring into space reveal the heartache her atheistic, verbally abusive husband is inflicting. She would do anything for him, but he treats her like trash. She is fearful and running from the question that keeps haunting her, has God abandoned me? What do I say to Lois?
The words God gave me to share this Sunday morning and the manner with which I say them stand between Ray, Rosie, and Lois and the demons of seductive addiction, hopeless despair, shameful regret, and extreme disappointment that are set on devouring them. What can I the preacher do in moments like these facing demons like these that are suffocating people like these? I have no sword, I have no six-shooter, I have a sermon. A sermon! Words woven together with the fabric of biblical truth and the thread of contextual realities. A sermon! 3500 words spanning 30 minutes to a group of people who are gazing at me, waiting for me, daring me to say something that will make God and his kingdom more real to them than the very real pain and problems that are sure to show their ugly faces again after the Sunday clock strikes 12:00. No one can see it but I’m shaking in my shoes, doubtful that this sermon will be enough to protect these people from these demons on this day.
My sermon looks like an underdog against the demons that have attached themselves to the people I love. What is worse, I am wrestling with some of my own demons like the one on my shoulder who whispers in my ear before I stand up to preach “who do you think you are…you have nothing to offer these people…you are more messed up than they are…do you really think your words, of all things, can make a lick of difference in their lives?” Once I snap that rascal off my shoulder another appears. This one reminds me of my successes in hopes that I will rely more on the power of my words than the power of God through my words. With an even harder flick, I get rid of this demon too.
The preacher stands between heaven and hell, hope-hungry people and the demons we know all too well. Who in their right mind would dare to stand up and speak out with odds like these? Who has the audacity to believe that grace-filled, truth-painting, Spirit-anointed words really can do something good to people whose hopes are hanging by a very thin thread? I the preacher, despite the odds, dare to believe that God just might show up and use the so-so words of this so-so preacher to transform so-so people into disciples who change the world. And so I open my mouth to release the words God has given me, knowing full well that if he doesn’t bring the dead bones of my mediocre words to life they won’t live and bring life to the dead. But God does show up, sometimes in ways I expect to see him but usually in ways I do not. On any given Sunday it’s hard to see exactly what God is “up to” through the sermon. But the cumulative impact of sermon after sermon after sermon, spoken with love to the same group year after year, is much more visible. These people before me seem a bit more faithful, more hopeful, more committed, more reliable, more selfless, more victorious than they did a few years back. The reason? God is here. Though the demons may seem bigger than my words, these monsters are no match for the God who hovers over the deep of the sermon and those who hear it.
Ray, Rosie, and Lois are leaning up in their seats. God is using my words to restore what they lost in the fall. Before the sermon is over I have already decided to give it a go again next week.