I live in a fairly scripted ministry world. Leading two identical worship services each Sunday will do that to you. The Sundays I preach at Wildwood flow into similar channels. I prepare a message, create slides for that message, develop a thorough outline to guide the audio/video crew through my message, and then I deliver it within a tight 35 minute window in both worship services. I love this format, and do not dread the planned nature of our normal hour long worship services.
As I was driving over to the prison for night three of my series, however, I felt the Spirit of God leading me to abandon my plan and preach on something entirely different that night. Inside the prison, I did not have an AV crew to coordinate with . . . I did not have a bulletin with my sermon title and verses already printed on it . . . I did not have slides to change . . . so I decided to follow the Spirit’s lead and trash my already completed message in lieu of different one. My original sermon came out of the New Testament, but God was nudging me in the direction of the Old. My original sermon was more theological in nature, but God was leading me to be more practical and challenging. So, I trashed my original message and began allowing the Spirit of God to write a new message for me to deliver that night. Driving 75 mph down the turnpike toward the prison, I started composing a new message in my mind . . . a message that was not fully written until after it was delivered to the inmates that night.
The new message centered around Jacob and Esau in Genesis 25:29-34. In this passage Esau makes quite possibly the most lop-sided trade in history. He traded his birthright (which gave him money, power, and blessing) for a bowl of stew. I talked about how stupid it was for Esau to trade something so valuable for something so transient. This message no doubt hit home with the congregation, as every man in that room was incarcerated for making a similar bad trade at some point in their lives. Though their situation is more obvious than ours (in some ways), all of us can relate to this principle. Sin always tempts us to make bad trades.
On that night in the prison, I spoke for about 30 minutes about the temptations and effects of making bad trades in our lives. As I was thinking through this message on the drive over, however, I knew I could not leave these men with just a cautionary tale . . . I needed to simultaneously bring them hope as well, but I was not exactly sure how to end the message. Since I was writing the message somewhat as I went, about 2/3 of the way through my message, I invited the worship team to come up and lead us in the singing of a couple of songs as we all pondered the impact of Esau’s example. About halfway through the second verse of the second song, the Lord brought the following passage to mind:
But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave for free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. . . And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God. – Galatians 3:25-29, 4:6-7
At the conclusion of the second song, I stepped back up to the podium and reminded everyone in the room that the inheritance we have traded away because of our sin has been restored to us because of the Son. What happened next is hard to describe. A sense of joy filled the room where remorse and sorrow once dominated just moments before. It was as if Jesus had shown up at that moment to set the captives free . . . and not just the captives in the prison issue coveralls . . . the captive who is writing this post as well. The Gospel truth was liberating to us that night. The Law incarcerates us by showing us our sin and reminding us of it’s consequences, but the Gospel unlocks the gates, removes our shame, and gives us back the inheritance we once lost! After expounding on this blessed truth, we concluded with another worship song which may have been the most joyous time of worship I have ever been a part of.
I am so thankful that God led me to change my message that night, and I am so thankful that He authored the perfect conclusion to the message as well. The sermon was off my script, but on Jesus’s script and He gave me His words pointing to His Gospel at just the right time.
I want to praise God for that Thursday night in prison. He took a perfectly good sermon and had me lock it up in solitary, so His Gospel might walk the yard and set the captives free.