It’s crowded in the upstairs room, and stuffy, so young Eutychus wedges himself onto a windowsill and sucks in the cool outside air. But fresh air isn’t enough. The visiting preacher talks on and on. By midnight, Eutychus is asleep on his perch. His weight shifts, he tumbles … and moments later his body lies broken on the pavement three stories below (see Acts 20:7, 9).
The rest, as they say, is history—though happily, thanks to some apostolic first aid, the young man’s ‘terminal velocity’ wasn’t as terminal as it could have been.
Now, before we unjustly judge the preacher here, let’s consider the extenuating circumstances. Paul had arrived in Troas on his whistle-stop tour of the Aegean to proclaim the kingdom of God, and time was short. The night Eutychus struggled to stay awake was Paul’s last among them, and there was a lot he wanted to teach them. Paul couldn’t catch a later flight and prolong his stay; he had to keep talking. But the humbling point we want to make is that what took Paul many hours of speaking to achieve—near-fatal napping—takes most of us only a few minutes speaking to a well-rested and caffeinated crowd on a Sunday morning.
So why does Luke include that story in Acts 20? Is it proof that some people would rather die than listen to an over-long sermon? Or maybe it’s a warning to preachers—if you lack Paul’s apostolic healing gifts, keep people awake at all costs.
How are you doing with that? I (Phil) try hard to avoid being dull, yet most weeks I find myself losing one or two over the edge. When I met the doctor who was about to sedate me for an endoscopy, I couldn’t help joking, “Hi Doc, I see we’re both in the business of putting people to sleep! Call me next time you’ve got a tough case.” But it’s not all that funny. And the difference (apart from a lower hourly rate) is that I don’t want to be in the business of putting people to sleep.
We’re not approaching this book as experts on preaching that keeps people awake. But we are convinced that when attention wanders and eyes droop, it’s more often our fault than theirs. It’s our job to keep people awake, and we’ll take the blame if they fall out the window. But if you’ve just resolved to learn a new stand-up routine for Sunday morning, hold on. Our challenge is not just to avoid being deadly dull. Our challenge is to be faithful, accurate and clear as we cut to the heart of the biblical text and apply what God is really saying in a way that cuts to the hearts of people who are really listening.
When Bill Hybels visited Sydney in the early 1990s, Australian evangelist John Chapman was in the audience. Most of us found Bill’s talk on Matthew the tax collector riveting, and as best as I can remember it included plenty of practical party tips, given the fact that the tax collector threw a massive Jesus-party and invited all his friends.
When Bill invited questions, Chappo raised his hand. “Dear brother,” he said, “I’m not meaning to be rude, but I wonder if you could tell us how people are to know when they are hearing God speak through his word, and when they are just hearing good advice from Bill? Because as far as I could tell, I couldn’t spot the difference. As you spoke to us, it all seemed to come with the same authority.”
Chappo had a point. Hybels had sanctified a bunch of common-sense suggestions by mixing them with the text of Luke 5 and delivering them with all the authority of Scripture. None of it was wrong. It was just that none of his points were the points Luke was actually making. Sure, Luke mentioned the party—but he wasn’t telling us to have one. It wasn’t God speaking. It was Bill.
Saving Eutychus doesn’t just mean keeping him awake. It means doing our best to keep him fresh and alert so he can hear the truth of the gospel and be saved. If we have done our job, we will stand up on Sunday morning ready to deliver a sermon on a Bible passage that we have wrestled with and that the Holy Spirit has begun to apply to our own hearts and lives. We will know exactly what we want to say and how we’re going to say it in a fresh and engaging way. We will have prayed for God to reach his target (the hearts of our listeners) with the arrow of truth (his word sheathed in our sermon). Many things can happen when an arrow hits its target, but snoring isn’t one of them. None of this, however, can happen without prayer.