All I wanted at the time was a simple answer to a humble question. Maybe the question wasn't exactly humble, but I wanted a simple answer nevertheless. The question was, How many really great preachers are there in the world?
After all, as preachers, preaching is our business, so to speak; and we, like everyone else, are susceptible to such flights of vanity that perhaps include the thought that we might be one of the great preachers....
For example, in my first church there was an old elder named Elmer. As a young minister, I looked up to him. As I greeted the people after the service, Elmer shook my hand warmly and said, "Pastor, that was a great sermon. The best I ever heard." Imagine how that affected me. I thought I had arrived, preaching great sermons so early in my career. An elder had complimented me—me, on my preaching! I reasoned that he, of all people, knew great preaching when he heard it.
Then about the middle of that week, it hit me. I had preached a great sermon (Brother Elmer, God bless him, had said so), so I knew I had to repeat the feat in my upcoming sermon. I can tell you now, I was nervous. Anyone, I supposed, can preach one great sermon. But two in a row?
The fateful day arrived. I was feeling the pressure. I preached the sermon and following the service, as I greeted the people, I kept an eye out for Brother Elmer. Sure enough, he came and shook my hand warmly and said, "Pastor, that was a great sermon. The best I ever heard." Wow! To preach two great sermons in a row was next to impossible, but I had done it.
This went on for some weeks. Then we had a Bible college musical team that came to our church. We gave the entire service to the young people for a splendid concert. As I greeted the people leaving church that morning, old Brother Elmer grabbed me and like an old friend said, just as if I had preached the sermon, "Pastor, that was a great sermon. The best I ever heard."
I discovered what everyone in the congregation knew, that old Brother Elmer was full of raspberries. At any rate, my stock in his compliments fell so low I was forced to sell them.
Several years later, at a different church, I again stood in line greeting the people leaving the church. In line was six-year old Billy. As I reached out to shake his hand, Billy looked up into my face and said, "Preacher, when I grow up I want to be rich so I can give lots of money to the church."
"Well, Billy," I said patronizingly, "That is wonderful. I'll pray for you."
Now, I could have left it right there and all would have been well with the world. But I had to take it one step further, which was one step too many.
"Billy," I said with a St. Francis of Assisi smile beaming down on him, "Why do you want to give money to our church?"
"Because my daddy says, you're the poorest preacher our church has ever had."
Who said honesty is the best policy?
You would think I might have learned my lesson, but No.
Just a few weeks ago, my wife and I were driving home from the worship service, and I was feeling my homiletical oats. The service had been wonderful. But that was not what was making me feel so good. If I say so myself, and I guess I will, the sermon had gone wonderfully. It was one of those times when everything flowed just as you want it. I was impressed with my delivery! I went from point to point with the greatest of ease. I was, I believe, in rare form. A preacher knows when things are falling into place. I felt good about that sermon and I thought I would explode in the car. The problem was, my wife did not even mention the sermon.
"It was a nice service, wasn't it?" I plied.
"Yes, I guess it was a nice service," she replied cooly as she looked out of her window.
Then she was silent. She did not catch my cue. I could have left it there. But did I? No. I had to ask a question. "Honey," I queried, "how many really great preachers do you think there are in the world?"
Let me point out right here that wives (at least the one I married) have not quite mastered the art of dodging difficult questions in the expert way some of their male counterparts have. If a wife asks her husband questions such as, "Honey, how old do I look?" Or, "Am I getting fat?" every husband knows that this is the time to play expert "dodge ball."
But the silence in the car only prompted me to put the question to her again. "How many really great preachers are there in the world?"
Without even looking at me she said, "Honey, one less than you're thinking of right now."
I got, I guess, the simple answer to my question.