The Hardest Sermon To Preach
It is quite common to hear ministers say that the hardest sermons to preach are the sermons for Christmas and Easter. They say that it is very difficult thing to come up with a message to match the overwhelming beauty and power of those great Christian holy days.
I do not share that feeling. In fact, Christmas and Easter are so rich in spiritual power, so filled with fascinating stories, and so joyous and triumphant in their thrust that the hardest thing for me to do on such occasions is to keep from preaching too much and too long!
For me the hardest sermon to preach is the sermon for Thanksgiving. Of course, it is not so hard to get up into the pulpit on Thanksgiving and talk about the beauty of the earth or the hardships of the Pilgrims or the President’s Thanksgiving proclamation or to give some kind of harvest homily. That’s not so hard, but that’s not preaching either. Preaching is not historical observation or topical commentary. Preaching is a personal word of witness. It is human words attempting to open up the revelation of the Word of God. It is allowing the Spirit of God to move into one’s heart in such a way that that one will, in utter honesty, express the truths discovered through the inspiration of God. And that is precisely what makes the preaching on Thanksgiving so hard. You see, when my heart reaches out to touch God’s heart on Thanksgiving, I am forced to confront my own sin of pride—and that is very hard to do. And if I am going to preach, truly preach, on Thanksgiving, I have to acknowledge the sin of pride to you—and that’s not easy for me to say and it is not easy for you to hear, for my guess is that pride is a problem for you, too. But let me try to spell that out anyway.
First, let’s be honest enough to admit that pride is a problem.
Pride takes different forms in my life. For example, I see in my life what I would call “pride of place.” That is the desire to be on top. Shakespeare in “Macbeth,” has the line “Vaulting ambition which o’er leaps itself.” I understand that. There is in the Presbyterian Church a book produced called The Statistics of the General Assembly. In that book are listed all of the churches in our denomination, together with how many members they have, how many people they have gained or lost that year, how large their Sunday School is, and how well they do in terms of their stewardship. Among preachers, that book is commonly called “The Wishbook,” because preachers leaf through the pages and say: “I wish I was the pastor in that church…I wish I were the pastor in that church.” Well, you know, I don’t sit around looking through that book and wishing. Our church is practically at the top. So I don’t use “The Wishbook.” But the fact is that there are lots of other preachers out there who are wishing that they were where I am. And I hate to confess this to you, but I rather enjoy that. I enjoy being on top. That’s pride of place. It’s a problem for me. Maybe it’s not a problem for you, or then again, maybe you will be willing to bend down far enough to see if the shoe fits to try it on.
Also, I see in my life what I would call “pride of face.” That is the desire to look good. Did you hear the story about the preacher who was an avid golfer? When he learned that an especially beautiful and challenging golf course had opened nearby, he became consumed with the desire to play it. However, the course was so crowded that he could not get on. He appealed to the golf pro for help, and the pro told him that the only available tee time was at 11:00 the following Sunday. So the preacher told his official board that he had been called away on urgent church business and he assigned his associate minister to preach, and he went out to the golf course—by himself, of course, because he didn’t want anybody to know what he was doing. He got ready to tee off on the first hole. Just then St. Peter and St. Michael looked down from heaven and saw him there. St. Michael cried: “Look what he is doing|” St. Peter replied: “I see, and I’m going to punish him for it.” Just as the preacher drew back his club to hit the ball, St. Peter made a dramatic gesture. The preacher swung and the ball took off straight down the fairway, rising, rising. Then it began to descend in its flight, hit the ground, bounded four times, rolled up onto the green, and right into the cup—a hole in one! St. Michael said: “I thought you said you were going to punish him.” St. Peter grinned and said: “I did punish him. Who is he going to be able to tell about it?”
Pride of face, you see, is the desire to look good and to let other people know it. I discovered that attitude in myself. Early in my ministry, after the service, when I would go to the door, the people would come by and say wonderfully flattering things about my sermon. While I confess that I enjoyed that, I also wanted to appear humble. So I developed a properly humble response to make to each person. I would say: “Thank you. I hope it was helpful.” To every person I would respond “Thank you, I hope it was helpful.”
One day, an older lady came by, took my hand and said: “Preacher, what a glorious day this is!.” And I replied, “Thank you, I hope it was helpful.” You see, I was so busy trying to look good and enjoying it, that I didn’t even listen to what she was saying. That pride of face can be destructive. Do you know what the emblem of that kind of pride is? A flaming ulcer rampant on a sea of high blood pressure.
Then I see in my life what I would call “pride of grace.” That’s the desire to be popular. I think of the college sophomore who said to one of the freshmen: “The trouble with you is that you are too conceited. I used to be like that, but now I’m one of the nicest guys on campus.” That’s a tendency we have, isn’t it, to curry popularity by seeing our own shortcomings in a different light. I fall into that trap. I find myself thinking that everybody is slow, but I am thorough; that other people are lazy, but I know my limitations; that other people overstep their bounds, but I take initiative; that other people are bull-headed, but I have the strength of my convictions; that other people are apple-polishers, but I am a team-player; that other people get ahead by getting lucky breaks, but I get ahead by hard work. That’s the pride of grace. It’s like the donkey in G. K. Chesterton’s depiction of Palm Sunday. Chesterton says that the donkey thought all the applause on Palm Sunday was for him! That kind of prideful thinking has been a problem for me. What about for you?
But if pride is the problem, then let’s be faithful enough to admit that Thanksgiving is the solution.
You see, with the inspiration and insight of God’s Word, I have learned that the only way to offset pride is to gain the attitude of gratitude. I have learned that the only way to undermine our sinful arrogance is to give ourselves to true thanksgiving. The Psalmist writes: “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits.” To say those words is to recognize our indebtedness to God in life—and to recognize our indebtedness to God is to shatter that sinful sense of pride in us. 364 days a year we listen to the siren song of pride, but Thanksgiving Day jerks us back to reality. It forces us to remember the benefits of God in our lives, benefits we neither earn nor deserve.
I think of my parents. I did nothing whatever to earn them, and I certainly don’t deserve them. I am forever indebted to God for giving me to them. I could never write a check large enough to repay my parents for all they have given me. And, of course, the most priceless gift of all that they have given me is the gift of knowing and loving and serving Jesus Christ in my life.
I think of my own family. Emerson said that those who truly love us are those who hear everything we have to say, accept the rich grain, and then with the breath of kindness blow all the chaff away. Our families are those who put us up like fine pictures, always in the best light. That’s what my family does for me. They challenge me to grow especially in my faith, and I am encouraged by that. They kid me unmercifully, and I love it. They love me regardless—even when I have to work on Thanksgiving Day—and for that I am grateful. No way could I ever repay the debt that I owe them.
I think of this nation. It was Phillips Brooks who said: “I do not know how one can be an American, even if one is not a Christian, and not catch something with regard to God’s great purpose for this great land.” How true. I can never see the flag, or drive by the Capitol, or sing “America the Beautiful” without experiencing a lump in my throat and whispering a prayer of thanks to God for allowing me to be an American. It is a debt too great to repay. I have done nothing to earn it or deserve. I can only thank God for it.
You see Thanksgiving reminds me that I am indebted to God for everything. I am rather like that newspaper editor who was known to have a fortune of half a million dollars. He was sitting with his friends one day and they asked him how he had accumulated so much money on a newspaper editor’s salary. He said: “Four things. First, I have always worked very hard. Second, I have saved everything I didn’t spend on necessities. Third, I have made some very cautious, conservative investments. And fourth, I had an uncle who died and left me $495,000!” Well, I look at my own life and I become convinced that all I can say is that I have a Father, almighty and loving and gracious who has given me everything. And when you begin to take hold of that, it shatters your sinful pride and builds in you the attitude of gratitude.
Let me see if I can say it in a way you won’t soon forget. There is a Methodist minister in Ohio—his name is Mike Waffles—who has served for 20 years in a church adjacent to the Ohio State Penitentiary. Sunday mornings he preaches at his church and Sunday afternoons he goes to minister in the penitentiary—and the prisoners love him. Well, the church he serves, in recognition of his long pastorate, gave Mike Waffles and his wife a six-week trip to Europe. That Sunday, he told the prisoners of his good fortune and that he would be away from them for a while. They were very happy for him. They gathered around him and began to congratulate him. They slapped him on the shoulder and shook his hand and even hugged him. Then they had a little going-away party for him. At the end they brought out a hastily-wrapped package and they said: “This is a going-away present for you. It’s not much, and we don’t want you to open it until you get home. But remember it’s the best we have to offer.” He was overcome. He took the gift, and went home, and he and his wife opened the package. Inside were his wallet, his wristwatch, his pen, his tie clasp, his comb, his glasses. You see, in hugging and jostling him, they had picked his pockets—then put it all back in the package and gave it to him. It was the best they had to offer.
That’s the way I feel at Thanksgiving—like a pickpocket. I go through life picking the pockets of God. The best that I am and the best that I have to offer Him is only that which I have taken from Him in the first place. Do you want a text for that? I Corinthians 4:7. “What have you that you did not receive? And if you received, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?”
So. . .
This is a hard sermon to preach, and I don’ t know that I’ve done with this effort all that I might have done. But it has been good for my soul to do it.
And I hope it will be of some blessing to yours…