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great late expectations – viv coleman

John is a Scottish minister with whom I worked for three months when he was visiting Auckland about twenty years ago. He was acting as my “assistant,” even though he was a lot more experienced than me, and he handled the situation with grace and wisdom. I learned a lot from John, and we have since visited him and his wife back in Scotland. A particular growth moment for me was discovering his expectation that God would bring something fresh and new into a sermon that had been worked on for some days or weeks.

We had a conversation about this when John used a funny story about moving house from the previous day. I asked how he could possibly integrate a last-moment illustration into a message I knew he had worked on each morning that week. Aha, he said, I leave a space for it. I expect God to give me something fresh at the last minute.

Now Presbyterians are not, as a rule, the kind of preachers who throw away a carefully-prepared sermon at the last minute, in favour of an extempore message “the Lord gave them”.  Our tradition is to thoughtfully exegete and sensitively interpret not only the chosen Biblical text but also seasons of church life, current affairs and family events. Awareness of pastoral concerns like a crumbling marriage, a sick child or a national debate can make a difference to the emphasis one brings, and sometimes it’s only known to God why a preacher takes a certain tack.

But I usually planned all this at least a week out – and still do. However, ever since that conversation with John, I have been looking and listening for something relevant in the last day or two. Its not always a story; it might just be a turn of phrase, or an image from a movie, but the expectation of fresh insight is there. And that means – usually – I recognise a Holy Spirit opportunity when it presents itself.

I have even found myself able to spontaneously integrate something from the service itself. Last year I was preaching at a church outside Auckland, where I had never been before. I had been given carte blanche but it was Mother’s Day, so I decided to look at two of the amazing New Testament women who contributed to the mission of the early church. My message was about Tabitha and Lydia, whose gifts were used in ministries of leadership, hospitality, mercy and practical justice. I had used a phrase I had seen in a blog by Steve Taylor: “women’s wealth,” (see here, here and here) the valuable skills of making, of sharing knowledge, of adapting skills, and I planned then to use an application from Fresh Expressions about Knit and Natter groups in the UK. Blow me down, the service that morning included a spot honouring the leaders and hosts of a Knitting and Craft outreach at that local church in NZ! Well, Lord, you’ve got me here, I thought. I can’t use my carefully-composed phrases about Methodists in Liverpool, when there are women – and men – using their gifts for mission right here. Talk about fresh insight at the last minute – but by God’s grace this full-text preacher was able to respond to the challenge and weave the hermeneutical strands together.

Our God is a God who speaks!


  1. John Tucker says:

    Thanks Viv. An encouraging post. Finding the balance between preparing diligently and leaving space for the Spirit to be Editor-in-Chief of the message, even as we preach it, can be challenging!

    1. Vivian Coleman says:

      A nice turn of phrase, Editor in Chief – leaves plenty of room for human individuality yearning to reflect the mind of Christ.

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