What Makes a Sermon Powerful – Haggai 1:12
By: Alistair Brown
Those who preach regularly soon learn humility. What makes preachers humble is that the effort and time spent crafting a sermon seems to have no correlation with the response of the people.
For example, I remember working really hard to perfect one sermon series. I studied the scripture passages over and over. I read all the commentaries for background. I put in hours shaping each message. The response from the congregation? Nearly zero. Nothing, other than the usual ‘Thank you’ and ‘Nice message.’ I didn’t want to hear ‘nice message;’ I wanted that sermon to be awesome, life-changing, the most moving message they’d ever heard. I put in so much work and the people should have been super excited. They weren’t.
On the other hand, I also remember a sermon with which I’d never been comfortable, not from the first moment of studying the text to putting words down on paper. Worst of all was trying to preach it. Right in the middle of the sermon I knew it wasn’t working. I wasn’t being clear, and no-one was following me with either their heads or hearts. Three times at least I nearly stopped preaching. I was on the edge of walking out of the pulpit, and apologizing for sending everyone to sleep.
I didn’t. I kept going. And to my complete amazement, after the service was over more people than ever before thanked me profusely for that sermon. It had helped their thinking. It had moved them about their walk with God. And so on. I had never previously had such deep appreciation.
Another sermon that clearly had a powerful effect was another bad sermon. It had been a stupidly busy week, I hadn’t had enough time to prepare well, but at the last minute scribbled down some ideas and preached as well as I could. In my judgment it wasn’t awful but certainly not special. But it was special for the people who heard it. At the end one man – someone normally shy and reserved – stood up in front of everyone and said how much that message had meant to him. Others murmured their agreement and later said similar things to me privately. Everyone had been helped, and they were grateful for the sermon.
Sometimes I’d do everything in my human power to make a sermon great, but it wasn’t. Sometimes I couldn’t see anything good about a sermon, but others did.
Here is my point. The effectiveness of a sermon doesn’t lie in the preacher’s power. Ideally there should always be good preparation, but spiritual power doesn’t come from the careful crafting of the message or the immense oratory of the preacher. Power, effectiveness, blessing, transformation is the work of God.
That comes through very clearly in the response to Haggai’s prophecies from the people who had prioritized making themselves comfortable in their own homes but failed to rebuild God’s house.
12 Then Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, Joshua son of Jozadak, the high priest, and the whole remnant of the people obeyed the voice of the Lord their God and the message of the prophet Haggai, because the Lord their God had sent him. And the people feared the Lord.
These words describe a remarkable response to Haggai’s message. The people were transformed, revolutionized in their thinking! The leaders and “the whole remnant of the people” turned back to God with a willingness to put right the things that were wrong in their lives. One sermon, and it changed the destiny of these people and the destinies of generations that came after them.
Why did this sermon, these prophecies, have such a powerful effect?
1. The people heard God speak.
All kinds of legal documents are written by people who have no power at all. They are skilled people, very knowledgeable and very clever and precise with words. But it’s not their words, not their phraseology, not even their impressive ideas that give the document power. The power comes from the signature at the bottom because it’s that signature which tells people whether the words in that document carry authority.
That’s true of a law signed into force by a president. It’s true of a will signed by a benefactor. It’s true of a contract for a house signed by the purchaser. The force of the document is not because of who pens the words but the authority of the one who stands behind them.
These people heard Haggai’s words, but at a deeper level they heard “the voice of the Lord their God.” They might have been interested or even impressed by Haggai, but they were challenged and changed by God.
Exactly the same happened when Jonah went to Nineveh. He’d tried to run away, got thrown overboard, swallowed by a giant fish, and then dumped back on shore with a fresh command to preach in Nineveh. But Jonah was never better than a reluctant prophet. He had no love for the Ninevites and didn’t want to see them pardoned. So he offered no great hope when he finally walked the streets of the city and spoke his message.
Jonah 3:4-5 says:
“Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, ‘Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.’ The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.”
“Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown” was one of the most uninspiring sermons ever preached, and should never have brought a dramatic response. Yet it may go down as one of the most effective sermons of all time, for the report is that every person in Nineveh repented and changed. Why? There was no great oratory from Jonah. But the people heard God – they “believed God” – and that was transformational.
Jonah, Haggai, and many others from biblical times to the present day have found that power lies with God, and only with God.
As a pastor I gradually learned to give more and more time to preparing my sermons. I don’t suppose it was ever enough, but I prioritized that work as the years went by. Preaching was the only thing I did every week that touched every church member’s life, and it deserved careful and thorough work.
But I also learned that lives would be changed only if people heard God. No preacher can speak directly and relevantly to every person. No preacher has sufficient wisdom for every situation. No preacher can simultaneously bring comfort and rebuke to people going through different experiences. No preacher can forgive sin. No preacher can give eternal life. No preacher can tell people to leave their present work and become a missionary to the ends of the earth.
But God can do all that. When God takes the preacher’s words and applies them with divine authority to the sinner’s heart, people repent and are changed. When God takes the preacher’s words and applies them with divine authority to the disciple seeking God’s will, a life is redirected to a new and glorious cause. And so on.
The world needs great preachers. Of course it does. But great preachers are those who allow God to use their gifts and their words so he is encountered, so his voice is heard, and so his will is obeyed.
The destiny of the Israelites in Haggai’s day was changed because God’s voice was heard.
2. The people recognized that God had sent Haggai.
The gospels are full of glimpses that people recognized something different about Jesus.
Luke 4:29-30 tells how the crowd who heard Jesus’ sermon in the synagogue got furious about his message:
“They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff.But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.”
Matthew 7:28-29 sums up the reaction at the end of the Sermon on the Mount:
“When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.”
John 6:68 is Peter’s response when many people were deserting Jesus:
“Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.’”
People sensed something special about Jesus. God was with him in an unusual way.
“No surprise about that,” you might say. “After all, he was Jesus!”
Yes, he was. But in a lesser but still significant way, the same can be true about any God-anointed leader.
In Haggai 1:12 we are told the Israelites in Jerusalem “obeyed the voice of the Lord their God and the message of the prophet Haggai, because the Lord their God had sent him” (italics added).
Haggai stood before them. Haggai spoke the words. But they recognized God had sent him. What he said was God’s message. Now they not only believed in God but also believed in Haggai.
That’s exactly how the people of Israel eventually responded to Moses when he led them out of captivity in Egypt, parted the Red Sea, and they crossed over to safety while the Egyptian army died as the waters crashed back into place over them.
“And when the Israelites saw the mighty hand of the Lord displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord and put their trust in him and in Moses his servant.” (Ex. 14:31)
They put their trust in Moses… That sounds strange, but there is a right way of trusting in a leader who clearly speaks for God.
Leaders like that show characteristics like these:
- They’re not just gifted, they’re godly. Being highly skilled is no proof someone knows God. But when someone is known to walk with God, to commune with God, to pattern their life God’s way, that person is worth listening to.
- They’re not just informed they’re inspired, and they’re not just inspired they’re informed. Learning needs to be matched with anointing. Anointing needs to be matched with learning. Knowledge matters so leaders know what is truth, but knowledge needs the power of the Spirit for it to be applied to human hearts.
- They’re not just faithful, they’re fearless. I have known pastors who preach very acceptable sermons week after week. But they never preach the unacceptable sermons, the messages people don’t want to hear but desperately need to hear. It is remarkable what God can do with someone who is unafraid and unconcerned about their own reputation, and will teach and preach the word of God no matter whether people like it or not.
There is much more to leadership than only these few things, but people like that – gifted and godly; informed and inspired; faithful and fearless – are people others will follow. Those who hear their words will hear much more than the preacher or the prophet; they’ll know that God has sent that person.
3. The people at last feared God and obeyed his word.
Through the years I have often heard people pray “Lord, I want more of you…” or “Lord, I want you to have all of my life.” There is nothing wrong with those prayers, but when I see those people later give God little thought and live without care for his will, I wonder how much they meant the words they’d prayed. Were they truly laying everything before God, willing to change anything God showed was wrong, ready to accept his will and obey no matter where he took them and what they were to do? Or were they saying what they’d like to be true without a firm resolve for it to be true?
The people who heard Haggai’s prophecies resolved to live differently. They “obeyed the voice of the Lord their God” and “the people feared the Lord.” Those two parts belong together. When they recognized they were dealing with the Lord their God, at last they submitted and dedicated themselves to doing whatever God said.
There is a humorous urban legend which begins with a radio message from a large ship at sea which has seen something dead ahead on radar.
The message goes out: Divert your course 15 degrees north.
The reply comes back: No, you divert your course 15 degrees south.
Now, with anger the message is sent: This is the naval commander of the western fleet. I am ordering you to divert your course 15 degrees north.
But the reply is resolute: No, I can’t do that. You divert your course 15 degrees south.
A furious message follows: I am a battle cruiser with immense firepower, and I have powerful support vessels alongside. You are right on our course. I demand that you divert 15 degrees north.
A steady reply comes back: This is a lighthouse. Your call.
The story is a myth, but it has a lesson. We don’t yield until we recognize someone or something greater than us. Pride. Stubbornness. Laziness. Self-interest. And a host of other things make us unwilling to change. But there comes a moment when we realize we are in the presence of a power greater than we are, and we must submit.
That’s the point the people had reached. For years they’d pushed God and God’s priorities aside. They’d laid the foundations of God’s temple. But cold winters and wet springs soon diverted their interest to building their own homes. That was wrong, they suffered failed harvest after failed harvest but never saw that their suffering was because they’d refused to give God his rightful place.
Until, that is, Haggai preached and until they heard God’s voice through Haggai. Now the fruitlessness of their impoverished existence made sense. Now they realized they had set their lives against God. Now they saw only disaster lay dead ahead.
They feared God and now they obeyed God.
They will soon find that fearing and obeying God is life-giving. Like someone breaking free from addiction experiences pain but finds liberty, so submitting to God is a sacrifice that brings freedom.
God is no tyrant who exploits, but a loving Father who delights for us to be his children and enjoy his blessings. To live in fellowship, in communion, with him is the greatest of joys.
For the people around Haggai, a new beginning lay just ahead. There would be cost, not least lots of hard work. But the outcome would be worth every moment of labor.
Living for God isn’t easy, but it is good. To hear, to obey and to fear God is truly life-giving and a joy that lasts right into eternity.
 Though people have asserted the story is true, there is no basis to it. The story even has its own Wikipedia page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lighthouse_and_naval_vessel_urban_legend