I am going to bring floodwaters on the earth to destroy all life under the heavens, every creature that has the breath of life in it. Everything on earth will perish. But I will establish my covenant with you, and you will enter the ark—you and your sons and your wife and your sons’ wives with you. You are to bring into the ark two of all living creatures, male and female, to keep them alive with you. Two of every kind of bird, of every kind of animal and of every kind of creature that moves along the ground will come to you to be kept alive. You are to take every kind of food that is to be eaten and store it away as food for you and for them.”
Noah did everything just as God commanded him.
My third Sunday as a new pastor in Atlanta, I was preaching and feeling great about the sermon. I had prayed and studied. I had prepared a careful outline of the text, and I felt confident that my sermon was a theological masterpiece, loaded with exceptional insight into the Scriptures.
As I was preaching, the Holy Spirit spoke to my heart and said, “Tell them about Joe Reed.”*
I thought, “Joe’s story doesn’t fit with my outline.”
I continued to preach, and the Holy Spirit said, “Tell them about Joe Reed.”
Again, I thought, “Joe Reed’s story has nothing to do with my sermon. It won’t illustrate anything I’m speaking about this morning.”
The Holy Spirit said again, “Tell them about Joe Reed.”
I thought again, “There’s no way to fit that into this sermon.”
While continuing to speak, I scanned my carefully planned outline and couldn’t see any place to fit Joe’s story into the sermon.
And, the Holy Spirit said again, “Tell them about Joe Reed.”
So, I reluctantly obeyed this strange leading. “I’m reminded of a young man in our former church on Cape Cod…” I told the story of Joe Reed and how he came to know Christ. I thought to myself, “See, Lord, that story doesn’t fit.”
I clumsily transitioned back into my sermon outline and continued. I was preaching from the first chapter of John’s gospel where Jesus saw Nathaniel and said to him, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Phillip called you.” Suddenly, Nathaniel, who had been skeptical of Jesus’ Messiahship, recognized that Jesus is real.
Adding Joe’s story to the sermon had made me feel less than pleased with the overall message, but many people made commitments to Christ following the sermon. As I met briefly with each person who had come to the front of the sanctuary to share their commitment, one of the young women in line said to me, “I’m Terry’s sister.”
I looked down the line of people thinking to myself, “Which of these people is Terry?” I couldn’t remember having heard the name. So, I asked, “You’re who?”
She said again, “I’m Terry’s sister.”
I asked, “Terry who?”
“Terry Reed. The wife of Joe Reed, the man on Cape Cod whose story you told.”
I was amazed to learn that Terry Reed had grown up in Alabama in a Southern Baptist church. She had been in youth choir and had faithfully attended youth group, but she didn’t know Jesus personally. She left home, went to a university, and strayed further and further from church. Finally, she moved to Cape Cod, met a man, and moved in with him. He was a likeable guy but not interested in God.
Terry was homesick for the South and didn’t know where to find any southerners. Somebody mentioned that they were attending a Southern Baptist church right there in Chatham. She thought, “Southern Baptists on Cape Cod?” So, she came to the Bible study we were having in our home. She met Jesus there.
Now, she had a new problem. She knew Jesus, had received the Holy Spirit and was under conviction about sin in her life. She realized, “Oh, no. According to Scripture, sex outside of marriage is sin. I’m not supposed to be living with a man I’m not married to.”
Terry came to us and asked, “What am I supposed to do?”
Susan and I explained, “You have to move out.”
She said, “I can’t. We share the rent and everything. We can’t afford two apartments in Chatham.”
I said, “You can’t afford to disobey God.”
“But, what will we do about the rent?”
“It’s better to die than to sin. There are people who will take you in. We’ll work with you. You can do something. You have to get out of that situation. You can’t just keep on sinning.”
“What if we live together, but we don’t sleep together?”
“Don’t con yourself. Just get out of there.”
So, she did. This, of course, did nothing to endear me to her live-in boyfriend. Joe Reed didn’t think I was the greatest guy on earth. But, he agreed to meet with me and I had the opportunity to introduce Joe to Christ.
As I had mentioned in my sermon that morning, Joe had found it difficult to make his commitment to Christ public in a community where many had known his former way of life. But, by God’s grace, he did so. Joe and Terry eventually got married and became very active in our church on Cape Cod.
The morning of my awkward sermon with the story of Joe Reed, Terry’s sister had just arrived in Atlanta from Alabama. The night before, she had gone to a bar, met a man and had gone to his apartment to spend the night with him. She felt guilty when she awoke the next morning and decided to go to the nearest Baptist church. She looked in the phone book and found our church.
She was sitting in the back of the church as I preached about how God knows us and He knows where we come from and He sees what we’ve done. As I spoke, she was thinking to herself, “Sure! I don’t even know if there is a God. If there is a God, I’m sure He doesn’t know who I am. I bet He doesn’t know I’m here this morning.”
All of a sudden, I started talking about her brother-in-law. She had no idea who I was. She hadn’t been close to her sister in years. I had only been in Atlanta a few weeks and didn’t even know that she existed. But, God knew her and made Himself real to her.
We’re not dealing with a theory; we’re dealing with the living God. I wasn’t comfortable telling Joe Reed’s story in the context of my sermon that morning. I didn’t want to obey God by sharing the story. I felt foolish immediately after sharing the story. God will often lead us to do things that we’re not comfortable doing.
I find it humorous to hear someone say, “The Holy Spirit is a gentleman, and He will never lead you to do something that is not comfortable for you.”
I always think to myself, “Which testament is that in?” …Not the Old Testament or the New Testament. Suppose God had come to Noah and said, “Noah, how would you feel about building a really big boat? Is this something you’ll be comfortable with? Your neighbors will all laugh at you and since you’re a farmer, you’ll have to do it in your spare time.”
God does not speak to people in this way. God asks very hard things of His people all through Scripture. Look at what He asked of His Son. Jesus said, “Father, if there’s any other way, please let this cup pass from me. Nevertheless, not my will but yours be done.”
If we’re going to be led by the Spirit of God, we’re often going to be stretched way beyond our comfort zone. But, God is so utterly faithful. When He puts us in a position of having to depend completely on Him, we see His grace and power at work in a glorious way, and in a way for which we cannot possibly take credit.
When I understood that Terry Reed’s sister had been in the service and was the reason God told me to tell that story, I got chills. After greeting each person who had come forward, I turned around and said to the congregation, “Some of you remember, I mentioned Joe Reed in my sermon today. I had no idea why I was supposed to share that particular story, but I shared it because I felt the Lord wanted me to share it. Now I know why. This is Joe Reed’s sister-in-law. Terry Reed’s sister is here this morning. This is her first time at this church. She has just arrived in Atlanta. She’s here this morning, and God used the story about her brother-in-law to touch her heart. She has come to commit her life to Christ.”
Sadly, some of the congregation assumed I was joking. My saying, “I didn’t know she was here,” was more than they could believe. They were unaccustomed to God moving in this way. Other people simply thought, “That’s weird,” and didn’t really process the implications. Still others thought, “Who’s Joe Reed?” They weren’t even tuned in during the sermon.
But, there were some of us in church that morning who realized afresh that we had just met with God. We recognized that He had done something not humanly possible. This is not clairvoyance; it’s obedience. We all need to do what He tells us to do. We need to say what He tells us to say. We must learn to listen to God’s voice and recognize it when He speaks to us.