I was preaching in a beautiful white clapboard Presbyterian Church in a small Texas town recently. The speaker for their consecration service got ill at the last minute and I agreed to fill in. I adapted a sermon I had preached a few months before to the week and the occasion. I was very tired, having overbooked the weekend with teaching a Lay Speakers Course all day Saturday, preaching their closing service, and then going to do a workshop on finding hope in the holidays that Sunday afternoon at my home Church.
I knew I might be in trouble the night before when I went to bed and, as I lay my head down on the pillow, my ears were ringing. This is a warning sign for me that I am overtired. But I got up and drank some coffee and drove the hour and a half to the church. I preached a children’s sermon to which the children actually seemed to be listening. Then it came time for the adult sermon. I felt a little low energy but tried to rise to the occasion, with the Holy Spirit as my helper of course. The only problem was that, for the first time in all my years of preaching, when I got to the end, I forgot it.
I had nothing. Except the memory that I had an ending that I couldn’t remember. I did remember that a professor of theater I had recently invited to address my Introduction to Preaching class had told us that you should always “Fill your pause with a meaningful thought.” Not just “one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi…” The only problem was that the only meaningful thought I had at the moment I can’t share in this blog.
What to do? I avoided the deer in the headlights facial expression in favor of what I hoped was a dramatic pause with meaningful eye contact. And then, it came to me- “Oh, yeah, the boat story.” And I was on steady ground again.
I shared this nightmarish experience with a preacher friend a few days later. He said, “What you should do if this ever happens again, is pause, look at everyone dramatically and say “You know, in the end it all leads to Jesus, ” and then sit down. He continued, “And you can be sure somebody will come up to you afterwards and say “That was the most meaningful ending of a sermon I’ve ever heard!”
“In the end, it all leads to Jesus,” is an especially good ending for sermons during Advent, when, more than ever, our culture needs to be reminded that all of our decorations and gift giving and holiday receptions lead to Jesus. If we are too tired out with social obligations to remember that ending, maybe we’d be better off not overbooking ourselves this Advent so our ears are ringing, not with fatigue but with a more joyful sound.