In some ways it seemed a compelling argument, but it was put to rest by an elderly listener who phoned in with a response. He said, ‘I have been married for over 60 years. During them my wife has done most of the cooking. I calculate that over that time she has cooked almost 20,000 meals. To be honest, I can’t remember what we had to eat for most of them, but each of them nourished me daily.’ I found the old man’s comments a wonderful encouragement to those of us who preach.

But the exchange also prompted me to ask: how many sermons can I remember? There have been so many that God has used to touch my life and bless me immeasurably, and I have listened to some incredible preachers. But if the criteria is actually remembering what was said (including in my own talks!), my honest answer comes out at…two.

Let me tell you about those two sermons. The first was when I was in my mid-20s, attending a church where people came from far and wide to hear one of the most gifted teachers of our generation. He was teaching a series on the Ten Commandments. He normally began his evening talks at about 7.05 and ended at about 7.45, but that night he interviewed two young women who were about to leave their secure nursing jobs in a nearby hospital to minister in a very dangerous situation in Africa. The interview was fascinating, but by the time it had finished it was past 7.30 and the sermon had not even begun. We all thought we were going to still be there at midnight!

And then the preacher said, ‘Tonight we are studying the commandment “Thou shalt not covet”. In the light of what we have heard from these two young women and what we have learned about the incredible sacrifices they are making, How dare we covet? Let’s pray.’

Total length of sermon: 12 seconds. And the second sermon I remember? Well, I was even younger – just 19. The message was preached by an old Welsh evangelist. He spoke on what he called ‘The non-poetic will of God’. He said: ‘Fairy stories often end with “And they all lived happily ever after.” But certainly in regard to our life on this earth, God’s will is not always like that. It may be that someone feels called to serve God overseas, but after just six months they become ill and have to come home. People say, “It obviously wasn’t God’s will for them to go.” But how do we know that? God looks on things differently to us, and it may well have been his perfect will that they travelled to a country 2,000 miles away, served God for six months, and then had to come home. Just because things don’t work out in our eyes doesn’t mean it’s not God’s will.’

I have never forgotten that sermon because its radical message is reinforced almost every day of my life as I see people having to cope not only with what seems like failure, but also with trite or easy explanations of where they went wrong.

But if the old evangelist is right, perhaps they didn’t go wrong. And if failure is not a certain sign of God’s displeasure, then I have to face an even more terrifying possibility: success is not necessarily a sign of his blessing.

Now if you really want to preach an unforgettable sermon – give that a shot.

Rob Parsons is founder and chairman of Care for the Family

Follow Rob @Rob_Parsons_