Pastor Ed blinked and looked at the invitation again. It was not his imagination. The big church on the highway wanted them to preach the sermon at their tenth anniversary. They wanted to pay him ten thousand dollars as an honorarium for the day’s work. And their invitation included a list of things that they were hoping he would see fit to include in his message that day.
Ed rubbed Rex’s ears as he read the list. The leaders of the big church wanted to be congratulated on their success. They wanted to be told how good it was that they had brought so many believers together so quickly. They wanted to be assured that the Lord’s blessings would continue to flow into their church because they were continuing to do the Lord’s work in a way he liked. Smiling gently, Ed took up a pen and a piece of stationery and wrote a polite letter, thanking them for their invitation and telling them that he probably was not the preacher they wanted for this special day.
He had not always been called Pastor Ed. When he first came to town, he had been Pastor Lee—Pastor Edward Lee when a first name was required. He had preached faithfully at the same congregation for thirty years. Some years it had grown; other years its membership had declined. Some families moved to other towns. Some faithful members had died and were buried in the local cemetery—Pastor Lee had conducted their funerals. He had taught adults and children, he had baptized new members, and he had brought members together in the church to talk through their disagreements and reconcile their conflicts. He had raised a son, Larry, who had gone to school and learned to be a pastor, then had come home to take his father’s place. Ed was semi-retired; he and Larry took turns preaching. With his son’s acceptance as Pastor Lee, the father had become affectionally known as Pastor Ed. Never had he sought the label; he never even particularly liked the blend of respect and familiarity. But he accepted the reality that his son was the leader of the congregation. He sat on the sidelines, pitched in to help once in a while, and allowed people to think of him as Pastor Ed.
The town’s population had been growing the last few years. First, some families had moved their way to get farther from the city. New houses had been built on the edge of town. Then new businesses appeared along the highway: fast food restaurants, and gas stations, and a motel, and then a Walmart. All the congregations had grown at least a little, but the new church on the highway had gathered many of the new families, as well as people who drove in from other towns around the county to see what the fuss was at this new church on the highway.
Now they wanted Pastor Ed, the longest-serving pastor in town, to help them celebrate their tenth anniversary. Chuckling, Ed signed his name to the note and addressed an envelope to the big church on the highway. He checked the desk drawer for stamps but found none. “Looks like I’ll have to buy another book of stamps,” he said to Rex. Ed took hold of the desk, pushed himself up to his feet, and headed toward the apartment door.
Ed had taken a retirement apartment near the center of the town after his wife died. Rex was his constant companion. A German Shepherd, Rex was loyal to Ed. He offered protection from threats, not that Ed ever felt threatened in the town that had become his home. Because Rex needed exercise, Ed kept in shape, walking his dog three or four times a day. Ed also had a purpose to his days, a reason to get out of bed since another living being depended upon his service. Over the years, Ed had recommended a pet dog or cat to many elderly people who felt as if they had become useless in the world. Getting a dog of his own as he moved into retirement had been an easy decision—a “no-brainer,” as Larry would have said.
The letter was mailed, and Ed nearly forgot about the invitation. Then, one evening, he heard a knock on the apartment door. Rex perked up his ears. Ed went to the door and greeted two men. He recognized the pastor of the big church on the highway; soon he learned that the other was head of the church’s anniversary committee. Ed welcomed them into his apartment, made them comfortable, and waited to hear what they had to say.
The committee head pulled Ed’s letter out of a leather-bound folder he was carrying. “We were sorry to get your refusal,” the man began. “We really want to include you in our anniversary service. We were wondering if you would prefer a higher honorarium, say maybe twelve thousand dollars.”
Ed shook his head. “I really don’t think…” he started to say.
“Fifteen thousand,” the pastor interrupted.
“The money isn’t the issue,” Ed told them. “My problem is with your suggestions for the message. All my life, all my career, I’ve never allowed anyone but the Lord to tell me what to preach. For every sermon, every message, I’ve always studied the Bible, prayed, and tried to follow the Spirit’s guidance. What the Lord shows me in his Word, that’s what I say from the pulpit. That’s why I really cannot accept your invitation, generous though it is.”
Both visitors started to speak, but the pastor from the big church on the highway waved his companion to silence. “Ed, we understand how you feel about this,” he assured his host. “We would never tell you what to preach. Those were just suggestions. Of course, we know that you will speak the Lord’s Word to us. That’s all we expect from you. But time’s running short, and the anniversary service is coming up soon. We need a preacher, and we really want you to be that preacher.”
Ed hesitated. So long as they left him free to preach what seemed right, guided by the Bible, he had no reason to refuse. “Let me sleep on it,” he suggested. “I’ll phone you tomorrow.”
“That’ll be fine,” they both assured him. With some additional small talk and some friendly attention to Rex (which the dog appreciated), they wound up the conversation and headed out the door.
That is why, a few weeks later, Pastor Ed found himself driving out to the big church on the highway. The head of the committee had held to his pastor’s promise of fifteen thousand dollars, but he had asked a couple small additional tasks of Ed. He wanted Ed to open the prayer meeting of the congregation’s leaders at the beginning of the day, before people began arriving for the service. He also wanted Ed to speak at the Bible class that some of the members attended before the service. Overwhelmed by the size of the honorarium offered by the ten-year-old church, Ed agreed to their requests.
At the table where the leaders of the church were gathered, Ed felt out of place. Their shoes were shiny, while his were drab. Their suits were crisp and fitted to their frames, while his seemed loose and shapeless. Their ties were bright and colorful, while his seemed quiet and muted. But when the pastor of the big church said his name, and all eyes turned to him, Ed merely said, “Let us pray.” He closed his eyes and bowed his head; he assumed that the rest of the men did the same. “Lord, thank you for this day,” he prayed. “Thank you for this celebration and for the people who are gathered here today. Bless this time together. Let your Word be heard and heeded according to your will. You have promised that your Word is always effective. To those among us who need to repent of pride and arrogance, grant a spirt of humble repentance. To those among us who need to turn away from the world and embrace instead the riches of your grace, grant a spirit of humble repentance. To sinners who need to be called from their sinful ways and to open their hearts to you, grant a spirit of humble repentance. Provide us all with eyes that look to your cross, minds that are shaped by your power, and hearts that are open to your guiding. Not to us, O Lord, but to you be the glory forever and ever. In the name of Jesus. Amen.”
A few murmured Amens signaled the acceptance of his prayer, but the looks on the faces Ed saw when he opened his eyes were not so accepting. “Thank you for that brief and heart-felt prayer,” the pastor of the church barked at Ed. “We look forward to hearing more of your wisdom as the morning progresses.” After some other words were said and announcements were delivered, the pastor took Ed by his arm and guided him to the room where the Bible study would be held.
“That wasn’t quite what we expected,” said the pastor in the brief moment they had together in the hall.
“I told you, I can only say that the Lord guides me to say,” Ed whispered back.
“Well, you’ll have a second chance with the Bible class,” the pastor of the big church told him as he guided Ed into the room and led him to the teacher’s seat in front of the gathering students. Ed took a minute to reflect as he watched the others find their places. Even with eyes opened, he silently prayed that God’s Holy Spirit would guide him and would keep him faithful to the Word. Once again he was introduced, and all eyes turned to him. He hoped that his voice did not quaver as he told the group to open their Bibles to Second Timothy, the third and fourth chapters. “We’ll be looking at what God himself has to say about the power of his Word,” he told them.
Ed steered them through the verses about God’s Word being “breathed out,” or inspired, by God. He spoke about teaching, reproof, correction, and training for righteousness, about being competent as Christians, equipped for every good work. The students smiled and nodded. Those who joined the conversation were eager to tell Ed about the good works they had been doing in the big church on the highway.
Gently, Ed guided them backwards to verses he considered even more important. “Not only does the Bible steer us in this world,” he said, “but it offers us a better world. It makes us ‘wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.’ This is not our doing—it is by grace, a gift of God, not earned by good works.” In the silence, Ed continued to speak about the power of the cross of Jesus Christ and about Christ’s message to “repent and believe the gospel.”
But, as the end of the class was drawing closer, Ed saw that he was in danger of missing the message he knew he had been sent to share. He guided the students to look at the beginning of chapter four, to talk about preaching the word, “in season and out of season,” reproving and rebuking and exhorting “with complete patience and teaching.” Drawing a deep breath, Ed read on, “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions.” Ed had heard cliches about deafening silences, silences in which one could hear a pin drop. Now he heard such a silence. Eyes darted to and fro, as the students looked at one another but seemed unable to look at their guest teacher. Ed returned to his main theme. “Jesus came into the world with a message that all should repent and believe the gospel,” he reminded them. “When we preach genuine repentance, based on the commandments of God, and when we preach genuine faith, based on the promises of God, then we cannot go far from the truth. We cannot be far from the kingdom of God.” With a few more general statements along those lines, Ed brought the lesson to a close. The students silently closed their Bibles, stood, and left the room, on their way to the service in the big church, where Ed once again would be called upon to bless their assembly and congratulate them on their anniversary.
In a moment, Ed was alone in the classroom with the pastor of the big church. The pastor repeated what he had said before, “That wasn’t what we expected.”
“I told you, I can only say those things that the Lord gives me to say,” Ed responded.
“But how can you be so sure?” the pastor asked him. “Just because you’re reading from the Bible, how do you know that these words are meant from the Lord for this day? What gives you the right to talk to us about repentance, about rebuking and correcting, about itching ears? We’re paying you to preach. Why won’t you say the things we told you to say?”
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” Pastor Ed said.
“Try me,” the other pastor urged.
Ed took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “You remember Rex,” he said, “my dog, the German Shepherd. He was at my apartment the night you visited.” The pastor of the big church on the highway nodded, and Ed continued. “Most mornings, Rex cooperates and is easy to care for, but this morning he was nothing but trouble. I took him for his morning walk, and instead of walking along and then doing his business, he was wild, darting around, tangling his leash around trees and then around my ankles. Finally, I had to slap his flank, just to get his attention and to get him to behave.
“For the rest of the walk he was better, but as we were going up the steps inside, he started acting up again. In fact, he nearly tripped me and knocked me down the steps. I scolded him then like I’ve never scolded him before.
“Then, when I was ready to leave, Rex lay down in front of the door and wouldn’t let me out of the apartment. I tried everything—gentle words, scolding, dog treats, everything I could think of, but he wouldn’t get out of my way and let me out the door. Finally, afraid I was going to be late, I lost my temper. I grabbed a fly swatter and gave him a good thump on his rump. That’s when Rex spoke to me.”
“Your dog talked.”
“Yes, he talked, in clear language like you and I are using now. ‘What have I done, that makes you hit me this morning?’ he asked. And I said, ‘You’ve been a bad dog, disobeying me and getting in my way, almost knocking me down the steps, and now making me late for this service.’ ‘And have I ever acted this way before?’ he asked me, and I said, ‘No.’
“Then I remembered about Balaam and his donkey and the Angel of the Lord. I remembered how the donkey had saved Balaam’s life when the Angel was ready to kill Balaam for taking money to tell people what they wanted to hear instead of what God intended for him to say. I didn’t see any angel. Rex didn’t speak another word. But I knew that God was warning me, that I had better speak his Word to you all this morning, nothing more and nothing less.”
The pastor of the big church on the highway shook his head and snorted. Beyond that, he didn’t seem to have anything to say. His introduction of Pastor Ed as guest preacher was not enthusiastic, not like the introduction he had given before the prayer or before the Bible class. But Pastor Ed was undaunted. He began with a brief congratulations to the church for its tenth anniversary, but then he proceeded to preach to them about Jesus. He reminded them that the message of Jesus boils down to two words, repent and believe. And he told them that no one can do either of these things without God’s help. “We cannot repent properly, and we cannot believe properly, without the work of the Holy Spirit. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, ‘no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except in the Holy Spirit.’
“Now God created us for a purpose, to live in his image. For God is love, and God expects us to love. But we all have failed. We all have fallen short of the glory of God. We all need a Savior, and Jesus is the Savior we need. Now Jesus tells us to repent and believe. Without these words of Jesus, we could never repent properly, and we could never believe properly. But through these words, Jesus changes us. He sends his Spirit into our hearts so we repent and we believe. Like the lame man on the stretcher, told by Jesus to get up and walk, we get up and walk. We do these things, not by our power, but by the power of the Lord, power that comes to us through his Word.”
They hadn’t thrown him out yet, so Pastor Ed continued preaching. “We all want to be the stars. We all want to take credit for the good things we do for the Lord. But, when we have done our best, what we have done is still not enough. We cannot earn anything by our good works. All we can say of our best efforts is, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty’ (Luke 17:10). But Jesus is the star. Jesus, the Son of God, is the Sun that shines into our lives and makes us citizens of his kingdom. Jesus obeys his Father on our behalf. Jesus pays his life as a ransom for our sins. Jesus defeats our enemies, rising to grant us a resurrection like his. Jesus makes the difference. Not to us, but to Jesus Christ alone, be thanks and praise and glory for this day.”
Pastor Ed knew that he would not be thanked for his sermon. He did not even know if he would be given the money he had been promised. But he knew that he had done his duty for the Lord. And he knew that, when he came back to his apartment, Rex would be there, loyal and faithful as always, sufficient reward for the day and a reminder of God’s grace and guidance.