Preacher, do your preparation. But remember: God may have other plans…

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Sunday, 0800

We were ready to go. I had carefully and prayerfully prepared my next sermon in “The Relationship Challenge” series. The manuscript was on the iPad. The Powerpoint loaded into Dropbox. I headed out the door and drove to Gateway ready for our 0930 service. I was relaxed and ready to go – a good thing after the previous week had been filled with a few additional diversions. I had prepared well and was ready to deliver this sermon, but as events unfolded it was clear that God had other plans.

As always, we met together with the elders and musicians for prayer before the service. Before we joined in prayer, Elder Mark mentioned an email he had received that morning. A person from Switzerland, whose son is working with a mission in Iraq… The email told how ISIS has taken over their town. ISIS was moving from house to house, finding the Christians, and asking the children in the families to denounce Jesus. When the children refused, they were killed. It spoke of the terror faced by Christian families, how in the face of such evil they had chosen to remain in their town to be the voice and hands of Jesus. The email asked us to join in prayer for the deliverance of Northern Iraq from ISIS, and for strength, courage and endurance for the Christians in the area, who were faced with the demand to convert, or die.

We were all well prepared, but God had other plans…

It seemed right to us to read the email in full before a prayer of intercession. So we prayed that God would be with us, that Jesus would be honoured, and we went to start the service.

Elder Mark started the service reading from Psalm 107, reminding us of God’s faithfulness even in the hardest of times. “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, his love endures forever…”

It was a good start, but it crossed my mind right there how this was leading in to a sermon on relationships. I let the thought pass…

First bracket of songs were done, and I was on the deck praying through some pastoral issues. After that, I started to read the email to the congregation. My intention was to pray again when I had finished reading. As once more I read about the grave situation of these Christian people, the deaths of little children, the evil of ISIS, I sensed the congregation was also burdened with their plight. I thought, ‘instead of me being the only one to pray, maybe it’s best just to let people from the congregation pray, and I will close the prayer when it seemed right to do so’. So I asked people to pray. Jason quoted Psalm 46, asking God not only to protect his people, but to change the hearts of those who were perpetrating such evil. Cam prayed, Jeremy prayed, Elder Mark prayed – and read from Rev 7 where those persecuted during great tribulation – the multitude of people in white robes – stood victorious and full of praise before the throne of Christ the Lamb.

Thinking about it later, it seemed that in a few brief seconds as someone was praying, I processed more than a few second’s worth of thoughts. My mind was drawn to Psalm 73: the dissonance between the writer’s deep faith and the ugly presence of evil, the tension that created in his mind, his lack of capacity to understand, his unshakable trust in the Lord’s faithful covenant presence.

In those few seconds I felt a strong conviction that I should leave my prepared sermon, and instead preach – right then – from Psalm 73. Rationale came quickly: It would certainly harmonise with everything else that was happening; it would speak directly to the burden of the email; it would address some of the questions people at Gateway may have had; it would point us right to God’s faithfulness; it would call us to faith in times of threat and uncertainty.

With the hymn writer George Croly, there were ‘no angel visitants, no opening skies’. But I believe God’s Spirit was leading me to do something very different. I had never preached without notes. I had never preached extempore. Such a thing would normally freak me out just a little. But while someone was praying, I looked up Psalm 73. I could see a sermon introduction, several points of teaching and application, clear lines to Christ, and a close. There it was. So I said “Lord, please led me, I am am in your hands.”

For the next 20 minutes or so, I preached a sermon on Psalm 73 which sounded a lot like any sermon I would write on Psalm 73, just that it had been written yet. My major points were

  • Evil is real and its presence is confronting and disturbing. We should not be surprised if we do not understand how evil might enter our lives vv.1-16
  • We will never be helped if we cut God out of the picture. The Psalmist was comforted by God’s presence v.17
  • It may look as though evil has won the day, but in the grand scheme of eternity God will bring justice to those who do evil. Martin Luther King Jnr once said, “The arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Rev 7 reminds us that human history, our history, is in the hands of a loving Saviour. The Lamb who is also the victorious King.
  • The Psalmist was comforted with God’s faithfulness, but there is no indication that his life circumstances changed. Sometimes, all we have, and all we can do, is to trust God and throw ourselves on his mercy. This helped the Psalmist, and it will help us
  • God’s faithfulness is seen in his presence. It is good for us to be near God (v.28), and even better that he remains near us. All through the Scripture we hear that glorious prepositional assertion: I will be with you. This was comfort for Abraham, for Moses before Pharaoh, for Joshua, for King David, for shepherds on a hill who heard of “God with us”, for the church facing a universe of uncertainty with the certainty of Jesus’ presence “I am with you always, even to the very ends of the earth” (Matt 28:20)

I am still amazed at how it all unfolded. I am deeply grateful that in the midst of such disturbing news, God answered the prayer that we would honour him and that Jesus would be glorified.

God is his own interpreter. He took the events of the day, the thoughts and prayers of our hearts, and led us to a place we did not think we would go, but at the end of the service we were very glad he had taken us there. God wanted the focus to be not just a sense of solidarity and loving concern for the grave situation of Christians in Iraq. He also wanted us to focus on the greater reality that Christ stands above it all, and even out of the most terrifying circumstances, he will ultimately lead his people to victory.

Did God do something different at Gateway yesterday? Yes. And no.

It was definitely a different experience for me, and I don’t know when and if that will happen again. But it was not a new thing for God: he is always with us, he is always present, he always blesses people who turn to him in faith. It’s just that yesterday he expressed that in a different way, and took us to where he wanted us to be, and not where we thought we were going to go.

As preachers, we make plan our work. We take our task seriously. We exegete, we research. We write and apply and then preach as best we can. These are excellent disciplines. But we always need to remember that our sovereign God is the sovereign God. On any day we need to be ready to follow should he make it clear there’s somewhere else we need to go, and something else we need to say.

“The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD.” (Proverbs 16:33, NIV)