The greatest sermon they ever heard: Top preachers recall the moment they were inspired

Updated 3:07 AM ET, Sun December 23, 2018

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(CNN) Athletes call it being "in the zone." Psychologists describe it as a state of "flow." Musicians say it's like being "in the pocket."

It's that transcendent moment when time seems to slow down for an artist or performer. The ego evaporates and everything clicks. Pastors say it's that magical preaching moment when the "spirit is moving" and their words sync with souls.
"It's like being on the sideline watching you play your best game, where you're saying, 'I know that's not me doing that.'" That's how the Rev. Ralph Douglas West, founder and senior pastor of The Church Without Walls in Houston, Texas, describes the sensation.
This is the time of the year when people are looking for such inspiration. Millions of people will flock to church this holiday weekend, hoping their pastor will say something to provide comfort and meaning.
But pastors need inspiration, too. Just as musicians have their favorite songs, most preachers have an internal playlist of the most unforgettable sermons they've heard. And at the top of the playlist is a sermon that stays No. 1 -- it still speaks to them year after year. These are the pulpit gems that go beyond eloquence; they leave a mark on the soul.
I asked some of the nation's best preachers to talk about the best sermon they ever heard. The pastors who responded know something about the power of the spoken word. All three are homiletic heavyweights. Each was selected as one of the 12 "most effective" preachers in the English-speaking world in a prestigious list released this year by Baylor University in Texas.
    Each of their handpicked sermons comes with a story. One helped a pastor cope with a lingering sense of failure. Another taught a preacher to take pride in old-time religion. And a third caused a son to see his father in a new way.
    The Rev. Joel Gregory says a remarkable sermon he heard helped him cope with loss.

    The Last Judgment at Macy's

    If someone could engineer the perfect preaching voice, it would sound like the Rev. Joel Gregory's. An admirer once said Gregory "has a voice like God's, only deeper."
    But Gregory once experienced a series of humiliations that were all too human. And much of it played out in public view.
    The sermon he cites helped him deal with the doubts that crept into his life after his marriage and ministry imploded.
    "It was a stunning sermon that had a profound impression on me, my life and ministry," says Gregory, who holds an endowed chair in preaching and evangelism at Baylor University.
    The sermon was aptly named, "Surprise!" and it came from another celebrated pastor, the late Rev. Haddon Robinson. In September of 2009, Robinson had accepted an invitation to preach at a preaching workshop in Baylor's chapel. Gregory was in the audience.

    Hear the Rev. Joel Gregory tell how a sermon about one of Jesus' most famous parables helped him deal with his own doubts.

    Audio has been edited for length and clarity.

    The sermon was built around one of the most famous parables of Jesus, a story about the Last Judgment in Matthew 25: 31-46. Jesus depicts God separating the righteous from the unrighteous like a shepherd separating the sheep from the goats.
    I've heard preachers cite that parable in many sermons. They usually talk about the g