The writer of Hebrews said, "For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart" (Hebrews 4:12).
Not long ago, I was reminded of this power.
Preachers are called to communicate God's Word and when they do so, they have a promise of His power to work in it and through it. When a preacher stands behind the pulpit, let the goal be to say what God has said. This truth should prod preachers to preach with passion and sobriety.
Part of the power of His Word is that it continues working years after it has been preached. God's Word does not return void, though the results are sometimes delayed.
For me, the reminder came in an unlikely context and from an unlikely person—an agnostic dying of cancer—reminding me to never falter in the pulpit.
I was uncertain what I would find behind the front door of the house as I stood knocking. As a hospice chaplain, I had been summoned to visit a 78-year-old woman who had little hope of survival from pancreatic cancer. Her husband directed me to the room where she was reclining, in agonizing pain.
She was a Unitarian, and had only married the year before. She had been single her entire life, and had been looking forward to several years with her new husband. She was highly educated, having retired from an Ivy League university as a tenured professor of psychology. Though she had considered being a nun in her teens, she turned from her faith and never looked back—until now. She was angry, bitter and questioning why after being single her entire life she was now dying after a year of marriage. Although she had refused to see hospice counselors, she requested to speak with a chaplain.
She instructed me to close the door and sit in front of her. I immediately had the impression she wanted privacy, perhaps from a sense of embarrassment about the conversation we would exchange.
I began making small talk, asking questions about her life and background to complete the required hospice evaluation from details of our conversation. Demonstrating her domineering spirit, she turned the tables on me and began peppering me with questions. She probed my beliefs and doctrine. She recoiled at the thought of belief in heaven, hell and the divinity of Christ, having drunk deeply from the wells of rationalism and pluralism.
We had been talking at length when she suddenly paused. She lurched forward in her chair and said, "I want to ask you something." I knew immediately this was the reason I was sitting in her room. She was about to get to the point, her point. In a low and somber voice, she intoned: "I had a dream the other night. In the dream I heard a voice saying to me, 'Touch the hem of his garment.' What do you think it means?"
She was unaware of the origin or meaning of the phrase. The Holy Spirit used a fragment of biblical truth that had lain dormant within her for decades. Only God knows the preacher or Bible study leader who planted this seed in her young mind—long before she abandoned her faith.
I momentarily froze in stunned silence. God was displaying His grace by reminding her of His Word she had learned as a child. She didn't even remember where the phrase came from, but a merciful heavenly Father was using His Word to awaken her conscience to the truth, giving her one last opportunity to experience grace through Jesus Christ. I seized the moment and explained to her where the phrase came from in the New Testament and I pressed upon her that God was calling her to reach out for His mercy and grace. She listened politely to my words and abruptly concluded the visit. I prayed with her and left. She never requested another visit.
She died a few weeks later. I have never forgotten her or the lesson she taught me about preaching. I don't know if she put her faith in Christ before death came. However, I do know that He was working in her heart and reminded her of His Word.
As a preacher, I desire immediate results. I want to see lives changed when I preach. However, the Word I preach will bear fruit in the lives of the hearers even if it is 50, 60 or 70 years from the time it is delivered.
In a world of massive moral shifts and devastating human turmoil, a preacher cannot do more than trust in the power of God's Word. The prophet Jeremiah declared, "'Is not My word like fire'—this is the Lord's declaration—'and like a hammer that pulverizes rock?'" (Jeremiah 23:29). Let every preacher take heart. When poor souls stand on the verge of the chilly Jordan, they may very well be meditating on the Word of God that you preached in their hearing decades before.
Frankie J. Melton Jr. is assistant professor of Christian studies at North Greenville University in Tigerville, S.C.