One day a shepherd grabbed some feed to give to his sheep. Upon returning to the barn the shepherd checked the feed container and realized to his dismay that the feed he provided was the wrong kind, not what he had intended to feed them. It would poison his sheep if they digested it in large quantities. He had one option: Run back to the place where the sheep were feeding, shoo them away, and get rid of the bad feed.
As the shepherd came near the sheep he noticed they were eating the food rapidly, seeming to enjoy it more than ever. None of them appeared to have been adversely affected. The shepherd was left to conclude that this must have been the best meal that they have ever had. His fears about providing the wrong feed must have been unfounded.
A few weeks later, the sheep died.
Pastors can be like that shepherd. We never want to believe that we actually botched a sermon. Many of us are desperate for encouragement. This desperation can make us take refuge in compliments that ought to stir up concern.
I have preached really bad sermons, bad enough to make me want to head straight to the sound engineer and tell him to “accidentally delete that one”. I know that they are never quite as bad as I think they are (especially in moments of discouragement), but I have preached bad sermons. I have emphasized the wrong points. I’ve allowed my mouth to carry me far from the biblical text. I’ve even preached everything truthfully, but with the wrong tone. In summary, I have botched sermons. You probably have too.
You might also know what typically happens after one of these “clunkers”. Just as you are mentally handing in your resignation to pursue your dreams of becoming a firefighter, one of your members pushes his way toward you. You can tell by his face that he has a fire burning within him. You assume it is probably criticism. Much to your surprise, it’s excitement. He informs you that this was the best sermon that he has ever heard. And he says to you, “God really spoke to me through that message!”
In that moment you thank your sovereign God that he takes shoddy sermons and uses them for His glory every Sunday. You tell yourself that maybe the sermon wasn’t so bad. So, you head to your car with your wife, grinning from ear to ear, because God used a jar of clay once again.
Truthfully, this is the case every week, “good” sermon or “bad”. Even the best sermons I have prepared are only a pale representation of His infinite beauty. God speaks through finite, sinful human beings. That’s astonishing. And I want to keep taking comfort in this fact. I want to always remember that no matter how well crafted a sermon is, if God doesn’t speak it’s powerless.
But I’m also beginning to wonder if I may be taking solace for my bad sermon too quickly. Maybe a faithful shepherd ought to also be sure to check the feed. Just because the guy said, “God really spoke to me through that message,” it doesn’t mean that He necessarily did. What one church member thinks was a good sermon may be merely an emotional reaction and not true spiritual conviction. Error can easily masquerade as a word from on high. Just because the sheep like the feed doesn’t mean it’s nutritious.
That’s why I’m going to be certain to ask a follow up question. Instead of just saying, “Praise God that He used that sermon,” I’m going to ask for specifics. Rather than simply finding refuge in human words of encouragement, I need to make certain we’re both finding refuge in truth. I need to be open to the fact that if I really did “kind of blow it” in the pulpit, some sheep might have taken some bad feed. A faithful shepherd will probe a little further before he celebrates.