Last week, I read Ephesians 1 thanks to the M'Cheyne reading plan used by Carson's For the Love of God volumes. It stirred a fond, funny memory.
In my senior year at Talbot Theological Seminary, I was selected to be the kickoff chapel preacher. I was absolutely delighted, of course, to be assigned Ephesians 1:1-10 as my preaching assignment.
However, the years have made me pretty sure that the then-dean, the late Dr. Glenn O'Neal, didn't like me very much.
His introduction to me was... really odd. It was decidedly apologetic — and not in the van Tilian sense. He went on and on and on. The good dean basically said there was no explaining who got picked to preach. It was just a reflection of who was well-known, not who had any talent or abilities. What's more, who got to preach first really didn't mean anything either, it was random and insignificant... and, well, here's Dan Phillips.
The assemblage of ~600 students and faculty must have been watching me closely to see how I reacted. Mostly, I kept poker-face. But at one point he said something in his surprisingly extended jeremiad that moved me simply to cock an eyebrow. Just that. The place erupted in laughter.
So when Dr. O'Neal felt that he had sufficiently delivered his soul, I got up to preach. What do you say? What I said was: "After that, I'm not sure whether to say 'Thank you,' or try to live it down. So..." — and, after the laughter died down, I prayed, and launched into the text.
I absolutely exulted in preaching that section. I relished its truths, loving it and what Paul set forth, and lifted up the great apostle's rationale in starting this letter thus. I mean, think of it: he's writing this missionary church, and what does he open with? Simple truths? Pragmatic basics? A few happy how-to's?
No sir, no ma'am. Paul starts out with truths the likes of which pastors think they can't preach even after five, ten years of ministry: sovereign election and predestination!
The sermon was very graciously received. One young lady said a friend had suffered a serioius traffic accident, and the reflection on our spiritual blessings in the heavenlies in Christ was a great comfort to her personally.
The Rest of the Story is that, at years'-end, the faculty met to decide who would get which awards and recognitions. One of the prizes was for the best chapel sermon of the year. A professor (I am told) immediately nominated my sermon for this award.
Dr. O'Neal just as immediately swatted down the nomination with, "No. Too doctrinal." And that, as they say, was that.
Now, do me a favor. Read Ephesians 1:1-10 sometime, and tell me how to preach it non-doctrinally, without running the legitimate risk of angels justly replacing me and my pulpit with a smoking crater.
And the really funny part was that Dr. O'Neal taught preaching, and had authored the book Make the Bible Live.