How I Accidentally Stumbled Across—And Then Fell in Love with—the Ordinary Means of Grace
I want to tell you about the most influential sermon I’ve ever heard.
I. The Transatlantic Drive, Part 1
I went to college a year later than most of my friends, so by the time I showed up they had already been going to a church for a year. I won’t say its name, but it had the word “Baptist” in it. I, on the other hand, liked to attend churches whose names could have doubled as tech start-ups or rehab centers: The Verve, The Well, Crossroads, you know what I’m talking about.
But I trusted my friends. So I sleepily got in the car on Sunday morning and drove 15 miles away from campus to a cross-topped building nestled between a field and another field. The cattle were lowing, indeed. For a collegiate underclassman, this 20-minute jaunt felt like a transatlantic journey. I wondered if I’d ever return.
II. The Plain Preacher
We walked inside, I sat down, we sang some songs, I sat down again, and then this older man stood up in front of us. He wore a suit, forgettably dark and non-tailored. I noticed immediately that there was no podium, no pulpit, no music stand—just a stool which I expected him to sit on in order to look casual and conversational. I’d seen pastors do that before. But he didn’t strike me as the conversational type. As it turns out, the stool was more for his Bible, which was big and heavy and well-worn. It looked like it had been through the same things this man had been through.
I don’t know how else to put it other than to say that this man looked aggressively ordinary. He could have passed for my pharmacist, or your son’s Little League coach, or a guy who sells bait at a tackle shop.
And then he started preaching. “Open your Bibles to Genesis 6:1–8.” He spoke slowly, with a carefulness that to some could be mistaken as uncertainty.
What happened over the next 40 minutes was as bewildering as it was beautiful. Now, I’d grown up in church. I’d read Christian books and led Christian Bible studies. I could explain how trusting in Jesus changes everything, and I could have probably articulated the teleological argument for the existence of God. I’d raised my hands in worship; I’d wept at my own sins and the sins of my friends.
I loved Jesus.
But I’d never heard anything like this. Because this plain-looking preacher with his well-worn Bible and his kind-of-pointless stool just stood there, explaining and applying Genesis 6 to all who would listen. And I listened, transfixed.
The sermon wasn’t polished—years later he told me he just can’t use a manuscript, though he wishes he could—but it was precise. It was sharp and sincere. He called us “dear ones.” He was meek—so, so, so meek. And yet, when he spoke of the judgment of God on sinners like us, his meekness yielded to a firm urgency. He told us to flee to the ark that is Christ. He told us not to mock the coming judgment of God, and he pled with us to revel in the mercy of Christ before the waters of judgment rose above our necks.
From Genesis 6, he talked to us, with tears in his eyes—he always ended up having tears in his eyes—about God’s love for sinners like us. He talked to us about Jesus and substitution and resurrection.
III. Dr. Watson!
I’m not sure he taught me any discrete fact I didn’t already know. Instead, like a good detective, he laid out everything I already knew in such a way that it led to a conclusion. But here’s what floored me: his conclusion wasn’t about me or about what I should do. It was a conclusion about Christ, a conclusion about how God had given us the sixth chapter of Genesis not primarily to teach us about the righteousness of Noah, but the righteousness of Christ.
If you’d asked me, during my first transatlantic journey to this church, to read Genesis 6 and explain to you what it meant, I have no idea what I would have said. You could have given me Sherlock Holmes’ own personal magnifying glass and I’m not sure I would have found a single clue that led to the cross. Of course, I knew from experience that sermons had to end at the cross, but I thought in these moments the Lord allowed teleportation, especially for sermons that focused on the Old Testament.
That’s the story of the first expositional sermon I ever heard. I loved it. It stimulated me intellectually and spiritually. But I had no category for it. I had no idea what was happening, and I had even less of an idea why it was happening. To be honest, I found it as curious and idiosyncratic as I found it compelling.
Perhaps the preacher just had a really good week, I thought. I wonder what he’ll do the next week.
IV. The Transatlantic Drive, Part 2
And so, next Sunday, I sleepily got back in the car again—walked inside, sat down, sang some songs, sat down, and then the preacher stood up. He wore a different suit but held the same Bible.
He began with the same slow, sleepy intro: “Open your Bibles to Genesis 6. We’ll begin in Verse 9.”
I tapped my friend on the shoulder and whispered, “This is weird. What’s he doing?” He laughed. I didn’t. I was lost. I’d never seen a preacher just pick up where he left off, like an episode of 24 or something.
For the next 40 minutes, the preacher preached from the book of Genesis yet again. The shape of the sermon was the same, but its contours had changed according to the passage in question. And so I listened again, transfixed again.
And at some point, things began to click. I realized what I’d heard the week before wasn’t just a one-off. It was a way to do church, a way to think about the Christian life. I couldn’t believe I’d never heard of it before, and I couldn’t wait to learn more.
That’s why this second expositional sermon was the most influential sermon I ever heard. It sparked in me a shocking revelation: I’ve been missing out on something I never knew existed.
V. A Busted Dam
Nearly four years later, on one of my last Sundays in college, I heard a sermon about Joseph’s bones. The preacher—by now I called him “Pastor Steve”—pointed to the resurrection of God’s people on the last day and pled with us to trust in Jesus. Our text that morning? Genesis 50:22–26. Of course he called us “dear ones.” And of course there were tears in his eyes.
There were tears in my eyes, too. I loved this man, my pastor and my preacher. He was ordinary, he wore dark and heavy suits in the dog days of summer, and he cried literally every single Sunday. But that’s not why I loved him. I loved him because he introduced me to God’s extraordinary grace in such an ordinary way—through simple, Word-centered sermons that didn’t rely on relatable stories or conclude with a clarion call to moral renovation. His sermons were to me, of course, but they weren’t about me. They were about God and the gospel.
Though I didn’t realize it, I showed up to this church with a dammed-up head—full of true information about the Bible and sincere feelings on how to live a life that pleases Jesus. But I didn’t really know what to do with all this, and I certainly couldn’t make sense of the Bible. I didn’t know how to understand it and apply it and connect it all to Jesus. I knew so many discrete facts, and I felt so many discrete convictions. But no one had showed me how they fit.
Over time, Pastor Steve’s sermons connected the dots. They were the hands that thrust the sword of the Spirit into my mind and heart. They pierced the dam, and, in the process, this ordinary man and his ordinary sermons brought extraordinary change to my ordinary life.
On my first Sunday there, I showed up at that church wondering if I’d ever return. The drive was so long, and the vibe was so meh. On my last Sunday there, I left wondering if I would ever find a church just like it.