What will you do the next time you do not have a preacher? Oh, I am not talking about planning for an upcoming Sunday when you, or your pastor, will be absent, or when multiple teaching elders are unavailable. I am talking about when it becomes apparent 10 hours or 10 minutes before Sunday morning that the man called to preach simply cannot do it.
In such a situation, you have a few options. You could call on someone to preach something already prepared. Such preparation includes having a sermon ready, but it could also mean calling on a “prepared” person who could open a text and give a faithful exposition. Elder-qualified pastors and Bible teachers would fall into this category. And one of the best Resurrection Sunday expositions I ever heard came from a seminary professor who was called to preach 10 minutes before service as the teaching pastor lay ill in his office—literally, he was writhing in pain on the floor. (He’s okay now).
Extreme moments call for extreme measures. And churches shouldn’t be surprised that in a fallen world where clay pots preach the glories of God that sometimes those vessels of dust cannot stand and speak. Yet, knowing that, we can still be caught off guard, or in need of immediate relief. And this last weekend was such a case in our church.
What We Did When the Preacher Couldn’t Preach
As many readers of this blog know, I am not a full time blogger—hence, the regular but not absolutely consistent blog schedule. Day to day, I have the joy of serving at Occoquan Bible Church, located in Northern Virginia. Since 2015, I have been pastor for preaching and theology. So, most Sundays I am the one standing up and preaching.
At the same time, we have a deep bench of gifted preachers. And if you check our website, you will find messages from Ben, Rod, Jared, Dave, Ron, and Jeff. All of our elders have preached multiple times to our church. And by conviction, we do this because we believe the pulpit is the Lord’s, not man’s. It is God’s Word that is preached, not our own. And it is the faithful preaching of God’s Word that builds his church, not the gifting of any one pastor. For that reason, we intentionally share the pulpit. And by design I preach about 40 times a year, not 52.
Accordingly, in every other instance where one of our elders has been stricken—and with Covid their have been many—another brother has stood up. This happened twice last month. And when it does, we flex and obey and figure out a way. So far, we have been able to recruit another gifted teacher to step up and feed the flock the Word of God.
But this last week, it was different. After a persistent and worsening sore throat led me to the doctor on Friday, I had a negative Covid-test, a negative strep-test, plus meds and the prayers of the saints (more on that below). As a result, I had confidence that things would improve. And for a few fleeting moments on Saturday that seemed possible. By Saturday night, however, it was impossible. My condition was not improving. Every time I swallowed, pain. Every word, pain. Pain, pain. So painfully, I texted my fellow elders and told them I couldn’t preach. That was 12 hours before service.
So what now?
To cut out the dialogue that ensued, I’ll get to the conclusion. We decided to preach the only book of the Bible that is also a sermon—the book of Hebrews. (A case could also be made for Ecclesiastes).
As Hebrews 13:22 says, “I appeal to you, brothers, bear with my word of exhortation, for I have written to you briefly.” Though there may be other interpretations for the author’s “word of exhortation,” many have understood this to mean that Hebrews is a sermon written as a letter—a sermonic letter or epistolary sermon, if you will.
Believing Hebrews to be a full sermon, therefore, complete with introduction, exposition, application, and benediction, and seeing that it is an exemplary model of biblical exposition, argument, and warning, and encouragement, we decided to forego the following
- re-preaching an old sermon,
- playing a recording of sermon,
- forcing an elder to stay up all night to craft a new sermon,
- having someone else preach my notes,
- or using notes from any online sermon platform (I’ve addressed sermon plagiarism elsewhere).
Under such circumstances, I wouldn’t fault anyone for employing any of these options. And under such circumstances, the absence of a preacher doesn’t let pastors off the hook. Church isn’t closed because the pastor is sick. Hungry sheep still need the Living Word of God. And pastors will find ways to feed the flock, even if the original plans fail.
With that in mind and with a commitment to the sufficiency of God’s Word, we decided to be what my friend Eric Bancroft calls “boringly biblical.”
The Blessing of Being Boringly Biblical
Only, it was anything but boring. To a church that loves God’s Word and gathers each Sunday to hear God’s voice, our church found the simple reading of the sermon to be of profound edification. I missed the service, but I haven’t missed the response.
God’s people delighted to hear God’s Word. Because it was his Word. They were not bored with it—which is a testimony of God’s grace in their lives. They were thrilled with it. And in this way, as I sat in the Emergency Room while the service was ongoing (more on that in a second), our church heard the best sermon I (n)ever preached.
Gloriously, in the absence of our church’s teaching pastor, the presence and power of the Word was heard in the inspired, inerrant Word of God. Indeed, Hebrews, Ecclesiastes, along with Deuteronomy (a collection of three sermons), and the sermons of Jesus may be the only perfect sermons ever preached.
I certainly have not preached a ‘perfect’ sermon. Yet, by not preaching Sunday and by not being able to fill the pulpit with another gifted preacher from our church, we introduced our church to Hebrews as the best sermon about Christ in the Bible. And for that, God gets all the glory.
And in sharing this testimony, I do so for two reasons. First, to express gratitude to God for giving us this chance to “test” his Word and to find it totally fulfilling. Second, to encourage others that the next time you, the preacher, can’t preach, or you, the church, can’t fill the pulpit, pick up the book of Hebrews and read it—all of it. It not only gives a vision of Christ’s grace and glory, but it models for us the way Scripture should be preached. It is a whole Bible exposition that leads to Jesus and calls us to follow him and not shrink back.
That’s a message we all need, especially when there is no one to preach the Word (cf. Amos 8). And if you want to see how it was done, you can find the whole sermon, forty nine minutes and sixteen seconds, here.
A Post Script
This morning I write with a throat almost entirely devoid of pain, and with hope of preaching next Sunday. And that’s a good thing.
Principles and polices created by emergencies usually do not work well. And thus, while God blessed his people with the straight forward reading of Hebrews, most weeks people need heavy doses of Bible reading and exposition. God gave teachers to the church to feed the flock (Eph. 4:11–16). And next week and every week going forward, we will plan for preaching that includes exposition. But if we learned anything this week, such planning always depends on the sovereign will of God. See Proverbs 16:1, 9.
Now the postscript. I write this morning without pain, not because the pain wasn’t that bad Saturday, but because of the procedure that took place as our church gathered Sunday morning. As my wife prepared for church, she urged me to get help. And so I drove to the ER.
As I would learn, the pain was caused by a Peritonsillar Abscess (a pus-filled sac, near the tonsil, which causes pressure and pain in the back of the throat). You can look it up online if you like. It used to be called quinsy, and historians believe George Washington died from this condition. I learned that at 4 in the morning when I couldn’t sleep.
So it can be serious, but with modern medicine it is readily treated. But treatment is brutal and not without risk—as my doctor pointed out. For the treatment for quinsy is lancing the abscess by puncturing the sac with a large needle. Not fun. But not joyless either. For the relief set before, I would gladly endure the needle. Still, I needed more than mere stoicism. And that’s where the saints at OBC, who I knew were praying for me, were at that moment praying for me.
For, as I sat in the ER with a doctor preparing to put a needle down my throat, the voices of the saints were offering their praises and prayers to God. And as I watched later, one of those prayers was for me, by name. And I can’t determine the timing exactly, but within minutes (or seconds) of the prayer for my recovery, the doctor had lanced the abscess, eliminated the pressure, and almost instantly removed the pain.
In the grand scheme of physical ailments, this was not a large one. But in the heavenly assembly, it was. In offering this prayer in the assembly of the saints, God gave an answer at almost the exact same time that it was offered. Such is a testimony to God’s grace and the way he works in his world.
Again, like our emergency sermon, we shouldn’t draw a whole theology of prayer from this event. For instance, such an instantaneous healing shouldn’t be seen as the norm. Often, prayers are answered only as they are offered over a long period of time.
Similarly, we should be slow in calling it a miracle—at least not on par with the miracles of the Bible. Rather, by God’s everyday and everywhere presence and power, he providentially hears prayer and grants healing—always as he deems best. This is not miraculous, even though it is majestic. In the Lord’s perfect providence, he reigns over all, superintends everything, and delights to answer his people’s prayer.
One last caveat. We shouldn’t reduce this ‘healing’ to the simple power of medicine—remove the problem, remove the pain. Medicine too, when it is not made a god, is a gift from God. And medicine, as in this case, is often used by God to bring about our healing.
Still, it was more than medicine that brought about this healing. And how do we know that? Because we read Hebrews.
In Hebrews we learn that in the assembly of the saints, gathered at Mount Zion (Heb. 12:22–24), the priestly people of God offer prayers that go behind veil. Though God is not seen when we worship, he is present and he hears us and his prayers come before him as incense. In truth, God always hears us, but during gathered worship God is especially near. Moreover, because Christ the great high priest is on the throne (Heb. 1:1–14; 5:1–10), living to intercede for us (Heb. 7:25), we his needy people can know that he hears our prayers in our hour of need. As Hebrews 4:14–16 puts it,
14 Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
If ever the “time of need” was sealed on my heart, it was Sunday. For in the moment that the saints prayed, the Lord answered—and the timing was not mere coincidence. It was providence.
On Sunday, I missed the best sermon ever preached at our church. But I did not miss the presence and power of God restoring health and bringing relief through the hands of the doctor and the uplifted prayers of the saints. Both of these things were needed on Sunday, and I share this today, to offer praise to God and to encourage you to read his Word, gather with his saints, and trust God for his timing. He hears our prayers, especially those that are brought before the Lord in gathered worship.
Church, do not forsake the assembly of the saints (Heb. 10:24–25), and pastors in such gatherings continue to offer up the burdens of your people. The gathered church needs teachers, but it also needs intercessors. Lord, may this episode help me to be the latter and as much as the former.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds
P.P.S. If you want to hear the greatest sermon ever preached, go here. If you want to hear a faithful, but far from perfect sermon next week, just come to 3700 Old Bridge Road, Woodbridge, VA. That’s where the saints of Occoquan Bible Church will gather to hear the Word and pray.