Several years ago, when I first started at George Fox University, one of my colleagues asked me to preach at the church where he was serving as interim pastor. It was to be a Thanksgiving message. I gladly agreed. A few days before I was to speak, I started to prepare the sermon but was promptly interrupted by the demands of my new job.
The day before my preaching engagement I was drawn into an epic event for Oregonians – the “Civil War” football game between the Oregon University Ducks and Oregon State University Beavers. Adding to the drama was the fact that Robin Smith, another new friend and colleague, was the mother of OSU’s new star quarterback, Jonathan Smith. The Beavers won in double-overtime by a score of 44-41. I went to bed, gratified that my colleague’s son had pulled off the victory for his team.
The next morning I awakened to the sound of knocking. My wife, Dianne, got up to answer the door, thinking it was our daughter who had spent the night at a friend’s house.
Her voice rang back to the bedroom in singsong fashion …
“Oh Chuck … it’s Larry …
“He’s here to give you a ride to church …
“Where you’re preaching … THIS MORNING!”
I threw off the covers and dashed for the closet, grabbing the first dress shirt I saw. I had one leg in my pants when it hit me: “I HAVE NO SERMON!”
I jumped to the desktop computer, my hands trembling from the adrenalin that was flooding my system. It took the aging PC an eternity to boot up. My mind raced to think of an old sermon I could adapt to the occasion.
“I did a series on Romans awhile back,” I panted. “I could pull the sermon on Romans 8 … we can be thankful that ‘there’s no condemnation in Christ!’”
The printer jammed – twice.
Finally I was dressed and ready to go, with a freshly printed (and wrinkled) copy of the sermon.
Dianne was alone, calmly sipping a cup of coffee that she brewed in the time it took me to get dressed and print the sermon.
“Larry went on to church,” she said, handing me the directions he had scribbled on a scrap of paper. “He said to get there as soon as you can.”
I hurled down the highway, holding the steering wheel in place with my left knee and making fitful edits to my notes.
I wheeled into the parking lot and landed in the first empty space I came upon.
Then something unimaginable happened as I walked into the sanctuary: a warm, soothing calmness washed into my spirit.
The sanctuary was starting to fill with parishioners. Larry was sitting alone on the front pew. He didn’t look up from his reading of the bulletin when I slinked up next to him. He just laughed and said, “The last time I forgot to preach, I didn’t remember it until Monday.”
Before the sermon, Larry performed a dedication for infant twins and their joyful, adoptive parents.
I was struck by the fact that I was about to speak of our own adoption as God’s children: “So you have not received a spirit that makes you fearful slaves. Instead, you received God’s Spirit when he adopted you as his own children. Now we call him, ‘Abba, Father’” (Rom. 8:15).
I was struck as well by the selection of songs, all of which spoke to different themes that I would soon share in my message.
The message flowed from my soul. It was meant for that group of people at that particular moment in their respective histories. I wondered what would have happened had I preached the message I set out to prepare the week before.
I closed with an illustration that I gleaned from Leonard Sweet’s Homiletics … about a woman named Karen, who was expecting her second child. The sonogram revealed it was a girl. The pregnancy seemed normal at first.
Michael, Karen’s 3-year-old son, began a relationship with his unborn sister by singing to her every night before he went to bed.
During the delivery there was trouble, and Michael’s new sister was in grave condition. She was rushed to the Neonatal Intensive Care unit at St. Mary’s Hospital in Knoxville, Tenn. The infant grew weaker as the days passed, and the doctor began to prepare Karen and her husband for her death.
All the while, Michael kept asking to see his sister. He wanted to sing to her. The hospital staff was reluctant to admit a 3-year-old into the unit for fear of infecting the patients. Finally, at the beginning of the second week, they dressed Michael in an oversized sterile robe and brought him to see his sister. Some of the medical personnel became angry and demanded that Michael leave immediately. But his mother protested, “He’s not leaving until he sings to his sister.”
Michael cautiously approached the bassinet where his tiny, ailing sister lay … and he sang his song, the same song he had sung to her every night before he went to bed.
“You are my sunshine, my only sunshine, you make me happy when skies are gray. You'll never know, dear, how much I love you.”
You remember how the song ends … “Please don't take my sunshine away.”
Woman’s Day magazine called it the “miracle of a brother's song.” The doctors simply called it a miracle. Karen knew it was a miracle of God's love.
The next day, when they thought they would be planning a funeral, they brought Michael's sister home. She had responded immediately to the familiar voice of her brother.
We too know the familiar song: God’s song of unconditional, unending love. It is the song that God has been singing to us all our lives. But there’s so much to distract us and drown out the sweet, soothing music.
On that Sunday morning, Nov. 22, 1998, God sang this song anew … to me … and then to a group of beloved disciples who never knew their guest preacher that day almost missed a divine appointment.
Professor of Pastoral Studies
Vice President and Dean
George Fox Evangelical Seminary