Why Churches Probably Shouldn't Have that 3rd Balcony

Wednesday, September 1, 2010
As a pastor who occasionally preaches, I go back and forth between a couple thoughts on sermon length. Part of me thinks that length shouldn't matter.  Not too many of us put a roast in the oven before leaving for church anymore. For that matter, how many of us cook a roast at all? Yes, lives are busy, but what's the likelihood of a house burning down if I preach too long? Probably pretty slim. And how amazing is it for a sermon to be forty minutes but only feel like twenty? Some of the greatest sermons I'v heard have been long. And when the topic, or the presentation is gripping, time fades away.  The important thing is to communicate everything that God is prompting preachers to share.

But maybe I'm trying to say too much. Sometimes I wonder if I'm guilty of padding sermons, or trying to say things just for the sake of saying them. Which leads me to a common philosophy that everything worth saying can be said in twenty minutes. I'm sure there's a reason sitcoms are only 22 minutes. I think we've been conditioned to accept that a story can be told in twenty minutes. That a truth can be effectively communicated in three seven minute segments.

So, do I cut it down or preach on?

I don't think the apostle Paul wrestled with this one bit.

In acts 20 there is an event in the life of Paul that many are probably familiar with.

But if you're not, I'll summarize it here. But you can read it for yourself in Acts 20:7-12

It's Sunday, time for church, and the church was meeting for worship, and specifically to celebrate the what we call communion. In the evening. Okay, this is important. Previously in the book, Luke has spoken of a daily gathering of Christians. But this seems like something more. And its' the first day: Sunday. Somewhere the big day to gather has shifted from the very Jewish last day of the week, to the first day. And it's evening. The most likely reason for an evening gathering is that the Christians would have had to work during the day. They met to worship at a time when people were available. they accepted that work was a necessity and gathering important so they worked it out.

And who would want to miss Paul. Paul is there, in Troas, and he was planning to share with the church that day. In our context this was like a missionary coming to speak in church Sunday morning. My experience with missionary Sundays has usually been a longer than normal sermon, with pictures of the people they work with, in a country and culture very different than my own.  Usually the topic, scripture passage, and sometimes the points, are the same as other missionaries. I almost never expect to hear something new.

I don't know what this church expected to hear from Paul. He would not have had slides, but he certainly had stories. I bet they were captivating.

I wonder what a typical service length was in that day.  Were people usually home for the afternoon? Would people put a roast in the oven so that it was ready for lunch? If they had roasts in the oven they would have been charred. Paul was on the clock, but a different one. His ship was leaving port the next day and he had much to share.

I wonder what I would share if I was leaving the next day. How long would I preach if it were my last sermon? And what if the people in the chair on Sunday were to never hear from me again?

I find verse 8 very interesting: "there were many lamps in the upstairs room where we were meeting."

The meeting room was well lit. Perhaps even unusually well lit.

Have you ever walked into a church's meeting place, looked up, and thought: "Wow, that's a lot of lights! I wonder if they make full use of them."

Now a days, many churches use some sort of thematic lighting for their services. For us, on a typical Sunday we'll dim the lights for a video then it's full on for everything else. We keep it simple.

I read today that the rise of the Sunday evening church service was tied to churches being the only place in town with lights. Once it got dark, in the evening, there was nothing else to do. So people went to church because the church had light bulbs. I guess that's a good reason to go to church. "Hey Martha, let's go down to the church and seem them light bulbs I keep hearing about."

I don't know if that's true or not. The author didn't site any sources, and I don't see GE bragging about their role in the development of evening worship.

And Luke thinks it's worth mentioning the lighting.

That's like saying, they were able to meet so they kept on meeting. They had the resources. I imagine that lamp oil was pricey, and candles weren't cheap, but the room was well lit. They could see, therefore they could gather.

The provisions were met.

I wonder if we really think about the provisions necessary for our worship gatherings. We flip a few switches and have at er.  I think it was a bigger deal to meet back then. Plus, when we read verse nine I get the impression that window sills were viable seating options because there wasn't a whole lot of space.

The room was probably packed because of Paul's notoriety. And a young man named Eutychus was enjoying the sill. I don't know why Luke points out that he was young. But I'm glad he does. Actually I'm very grateful for this whole story. Here we have a young man falling asleep in church. It can happen to the best of us.

My wife nearly fell asleep in church a couple weeks back while I was preaching. She had worked all through the night and was staying up so that she could support me as I spoke. It's not easy going 30 hours without sleep. I'm glad that she didn't actually fall asleep but only succumbed to a few head bobs.

I'm even more grateful that she wasn't in a third story balcony.

Because that's how high Eutychus was.

Only he wasn't merely bobbing. He was in a "deep sleep." He was REMing. He was sawing logs. He was in snoozeville, population Eutychus.

He was out on the branch and it broke.

And down came young Euty, cradle and all.

And they found him outside on the ground: dead.

I hope no one ever dies during one of my sermons. Yepp, definitely could go a lifetime without that happening. And partly, okay this is going to sound selfish but oh well, partly it's because I don't want to be labeled "Pastor Death" or "The Preacher of Darkness." And I don't want to be the guy referenced in all the "Hey did you hear about the pastor that bored his congregation to death?" jokes.  Quite frankly, I just don't want that reputation.

Don't get me wrong, I really hope that no one dies during a sermon period. It's not like I'm hoping it will happen to someone else.

I just REALLY don't want to be the guy on stage if it does.

And party that's because I don't think I'd handle it well.

Paul, however, handles it awesomely.

He seems so calm. Almost like he's seen it before.

He walks down stairs, gives the guy a big hug, and says: "Don't be alarmed, He's alive!"

Then Paul goes back upstairs, has a snack (this isn't communion but another serving of food), finishes his sermon (which went through the night) and then hops on that ship to Mitylene.

That is the most awesome missionary exit of all time.

When was the last time you heard of a missionary pulling an all-nighter, raising a guy from the dead, preaching all he had, having a snack and then leaving town.

Paul's hard core that way.

Except that, he doesn't hop on the ship.

No doubt the night was exhausting.

You'd think that he'd want to find a spot on the boat and take a nap, but he doesn't. He goes for a walk. His companions get on the boat right away. But he goes for a 20 mile walk first, to the next town, where he boards the ship.

After a night like that I'd want some rest, Paul goes for a hike. We don't exactly know why. Maybe to pray alone, maybe to clear his head, maybe to get some air, maybe to think or write another sermon. We just don't know. But he had a reason. It was prearranged.

And because of all this the church felt comforted.

They didn't become there church were Eutychus died. They didn't see themselves as having little. They didn't see hardship.

They were the church where Paul invested, where Eutychus lives. They saw God's presence and power. They knew that the apostles cared about them. They knew more of how much God loved them. They had the ability to meet. They had celebrated the Lord's Supper together. They had a lot of reasons to feel comforted. It was a church with a lot going on.

I'm not about to use this story as an excuse to speak for hours on end, but it is encouraging to me to set my priorities on the right things. The first of which is being thankful that we get to meet on a regular basis with people who love God, are knowledgeable of the scriptures, and are passionate for making Jesus known. And our church is so well equipped to meet, to share the gospel, to reach the lost. And we've got lights a plenty.

I wonder what the neighbours would have thought when they saw the lights on at 3am. I bet that was a testimony to them.

I think there's a few lessons for us from that church. And a few ways we can be comforted, just like them.