We know that God’s word is living and active and that God uses it for the purposes he intends. Every preacher goes into a sermon with an aim of what he would like God to do in the hearts of his listeners, but often God has other ideas. The Holy Spirit uses the Word of God to change people. There is no way we can say that change is due to preaching skill or rhetoric.
One of my main jobs is as a preacher. I have the privilege of explaining and applying God’s word to people most weeks of the year. As an organised person, I plan my preaching programme well in advance. I can tell you which sermon series I am preaching for every Sunday in 2021, and in detail including texts and themes up to Easter.
Yet I am constantly surprised at people who have heard my sermons telling me that they really needed to hear what I had to say that particular week. I prepared the sermon, most likely, a few weeks beforehand. In many cases I had no idea who would be there to hear that sermon and I had not written it to help the specific person who came to me afterwards. Yet God used the sermon to impact people in ways I could never intend.
Let me give you two recent examples:
- A man who had never visited my church before came when I preached on the passage where Elijah raises the dead in 1 Kings 17. My sermon emphasized that death hurts us because it is unnatural, and it pained Jesus as well. Yet we can be confident in the One who has power over death. This man had scheduled to meet his friend, who was dying, that very afternoon and didn’t know what to say to him. This led to a great conversation I would never have anticipated.
- Someone who was in the middle of a messy divorce, whom again I had never met before, heard a sermon from earlier in 1 Kings. The main idea was that God shows such grace in sending prophets to people in dark times, even sending the powerful Elijah to the kingdom of Israel under Ahab. This man was in dark times and frustrated and struggling, and he was struck by how gracious God is to him even during those times. Again, this was what he needed, yet not what I planned.