A Thank You Letter From My Heart to Yours
I wish to read these few verses from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. A handful of words, really. But these words are nothing less than the Word of God:
“I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. Being confident of this, that He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” May God bless to us the reading and the hearing of this portion of His Holy Word.
Pray with me, please. Give me Jesus, Lord. Give me Jesus. You can have all the rest. Just give me Jesus. Amen.
Fifty years ago now, the Spirit of Jesus Christ said to me what Shakespeare had Hamlet say to Horatio. “If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart, then absent thee from felicity a while. And in this harsh and cruel world, draw thy breath in pain to tell my story.” I hold Jesus in my heart. And I have tried for all these years to tell His story. Sometimes there has been pain, the pain of my own inadequacy, the pain of unrelenting pressure, the pain of the fear of failure. And yet, through it all, in this harsh and cruel world, I have drawn my breath sometimes in pain, yes, to try and tell His story. I preach His story. I preach Christ, Jesus Christ. I preach Christ alone. I preach Christ crucified and raised from the dead. Sunday after Sunday, week after week, month after month, year after year, that is what I have tried to do, to tell His story. And that’s what I have tried to do in my time here with you. And so now as this great MDPC adventure winds to a close, I wish to speak some personal words from my heart to yours. I wish in looking back over the years that I’ve been here, I wish to take first a brief backward look and then a brief forward look. I want to remember, for Trisha and for me, how much you have done for us, what you have been to us, how we shall treasure you for as long as we live. And then I want to take a look forward and share some of my hopes and dreams for you, my beloved people of MDPC.
And so I suppose that what I’m doing today could be termed not just a sermon but a thank you letter. And I take as my text the tender and beautiful words that Paul wrote to the people he loved in the church at Philippi. Understand, please, that Paul’s letter to the Philippians was actually a thank you letter. He was writing to them to thank them for the support that they had given to Him and for the gifts that they had bestowed upon Him. And so today, I wish to take Paul’s words and make them my own. I find it interesting to note that Paul’s words also take a backward look and a forward look. Listen once again to what he wrote. “I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. Being confident of this, that He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”
And so my thank you letter from my heart to yours contains first a brief look backward.
Two years ago, Bob Giles, the chairman of the interim of the pastor search committee placed a call to Trisha and me, which turned out to be course changing for the lives we had been leading. Ultimately, we came to discover it was not only course changing, it was life changing for us. I must tell you that I have dearly loved serving as the interim senior pastor of the great Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church. And more than that, oh, much, much more than that, I have dearly loved loving you. And so as I look back across the time we’ve spent together, I find myself saying with Paul, I thank my God every time I remember you. I thank you for allowing me to preach freely. Preaching is my life. Those of you who know me know that’s true. I have said to you before that I believe that God gives to every Christian at least one gift of the Holy Spirit. Everyone has at least one, some have more than one. But everyone has one. My gift of the Holy Spirit is the gift of preaching. That gift does not make me better than anyone else. No gift of the Holy Spirit is to exalt one above anyone else. Preaching is just one of many gifts of the Holy Spirit. But that gift of preaching is mine. It is not mine alone, but it is mine.
I find it fascinating to note that from the very beginnings of the church until right now, it is by the preaching of God’s Word that God moves into human history and infuses His power into the hearts and minds of people. The great Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “The preached Word is Christ present again. That when the Word of God is preached, truly preached, Jesus is walking up and down the aisles of the church, tapping people on their consciences and turning their lives around.” I believe that to be absolutely true. And therefore, the sermon is no more a mere speech than the Bible is a mere book.
And so I wish to thank you publicly today for calling me to this pulpit, for giving me a salary where I have not needed to worry about earthly needs, for providing me with a study where I can fashion the words which ultimately I offer to God and to you, for surrounding me with as magnificent a staff as anyone could ever imagine. These, my partners in ministry, keep the great ministry of this great church alive and abounding. And I can tell you there is no joy like the joy of preaching in a church where the people take the Bible with utmost seriousness and devotion, where they regard the Bible as being the Word of God, the infallible, unchangeable, unmistakable Word of God, and where the people of the church gather on Sundays and take their place on the pew waiting expectantly to hear some Word from the Lord. Oh, I can tell you, there is no joy like the joy which has been mine to preach to such a wonderful, loving, committed people of the Lord.
Now, no preacher is perfect. And this preacher isn’t even close. You know that. You’re smart people. You know that my humanity is every bit as real as your own. And yet, you have allowed me not only to preach, yes, but even more, you have allowed me to preach freely. What an incredible gift. I don’t know that you understand what a profound gift it is. Hugh Latimer was a great English preacher of another day. On one occasion, one Sunday, he was scheduled to be preaching in the face of royalty. A friend said to him, “Latimer, be careful what you preach today because the king of England is in the congregation.” To which Latimer instantly responded, “Oh, I shall be careful what I preach today, but it is because the King of Kings is in the congregation.” That gift, oh yes, that gift is the gift you’ve given to me. To preach when the King of Kings is in the congregation. To preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ without shame, without reserve, with apology. To preach freely. To preach Christ, Jesus Christ. To preach Christ alone. To preach Christ crucified and raised from the dead. I do not preach politics or pop psychology or a health and wealth gospel or meaningless drivel. I preach Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ alone. And what a gift it is that you have given to me, to call me to this pulpit, where week after week, I have been able to preach, yes, and to preach freely, the great Gospel of my Savior and my Lord, Jesus Christ. And that’s why I can say it with Paul, “I thank my God every time I remember you.”
And so I thank you for allowing me to preach freely. I also thank you for allowing me to love deeply.
I’m a preacher, yes. But I’m also human. I like to have people to love, and I like to be loved in return. And oh, that is so important in a preacher’s life. You see, our Lord knows that a preacher’s job is not easy. Our Lord knows that a preacher experiences the pain of rejection, the frustration of failure, the attack of opposition, and the agony of persecution. Our Lord knows that the ministry is not a holiday; it’s a campaign. Our Lord knows that the powers of this world are fearsome indeed, and out there are worldly people who seek to undermine every proposition the preacher puts forth. Our Lord knows that there are pagans out there who take great delight in attacking and ridiculing the God and the Christ the preacher so adores. Our Lord knows that there are self-centered people out there who are turning away in every hand, away from the Christ who is trying to reach them. Our Lord knows that there are people out there who don’t care a wit about the church and seek to undermine the preacher’s sense of worth and value and honor and dignity. All of that and more a preacher encounters, and yes, sometimes it can hurt.
But that is precisely why this incredible gift that you have given to me to allow me to love this congregation and to love this congregation deeply, you have enabled me and encouraged me to love all of those who are a part of this wonderful family of the Lord. And wonder of wonders, you have loved Trisha and me in return. What an incredible gift that is. And that’s why I say it with Paul, “I thank my God every time I remember you.”
And so my thank you letter contains a brief look back, yes, but it also contains a brief look forward.
Paul, in writing to the Philippians, he not only took a look back, he also took a look ahead. You remember how he said it? He said, “I am confident of this, that He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion in the day of Christ Jesus.” He not only looked backward, he also looked forward. My beloved people, I want to look forward for a moment with you. We are living in a time where the need for great churches has never been greater. We’re living in a time crying out for churches, unencumbered by past realities or cultural issues or political agendas or celebrity worship or secular dogma. We are living in a time where the need for the Gospel of Jesus Christ has never been more profound. We are living in a time where the need for people to stand up for Jesus has never been clearer. And so as you now move forward into the glorious future that God has planned for you, I plead with you, never, never, never forget the power of God which is upon you. Out there ahead of you is a promised destiny. A great work has begun, yes, but it’s only just begun. But I’m confident that this God who began a great work in you—yes, this God, who has begun a work in you and with you and through you—I am confident of this, that this God of ours will carry it on to completion in the day of Christ Jesus.
Let me try to express it like this. I wish to take you back to one of my favorite stories in the Old Testament. It’s the story of Jacob on the banks of the river Jabbok. You remember Jacob? He spent the first part of his life living only for himself. He was even willing to cheat his own brother in order to get what he wanted out of life. But then one day, Jacob stood on the banks of the river Jabbok. He sent his family on ahead, and he decided to spend the night alone there. While he was sleeping, suddenly, he was attacked by someone he could not identify. Jacob fought back. The struggle carried on through the night. Jacob began to sense that it was a battle to the death. At one point, Jacob began to feel that maybe he was gaining the upper hand and his old self-confidence began to rise and he felt like he was going to win this battle. But that moment, just at that moment, just as the first fingers of the dawn began to tear away the dark garments of the night, just at that moment, this unknown assailant stretched out a single finger and touched Jacob on the hip and crippled him and Jacob fell to the ground in blinding pain and agony. And in that moment, Jacob realized that the strength of the one who was attacking him was far beyond his own strength. He knew he was a beaten man. He knew it. And he knew that the only hope he had was to cry out for mercy. And so lying on the ground in pain, Jacob turned and looked up into the face of the one standing over him. It was a face he was stunned to see. It was a face half-ruined with human suffering and half-pierced with divine joy. It was the face of God. And in that moment, Jacob cried out, “Bless me, Oh God.” And God blessed him. And Jacob got up and walked away from the river Jabbok, silhouetted against the bursting glory of a new dawn. He was now a new man. He was God’s man. And he would spend the rest of his life serving God.
In my own life, I have wrestled with God, and He has beaten me, and I have surrendered. I have surrendered all to Him. And I have cried out, “Bless me, Oh God.” And God has blessed me. Oh, has He blessed me through all of these 50 years. And oh, has He blessed me by giving you to me now. Week after week, I have stood in this pulpit, pouring out to you my life and my faith. I have given you all that I have and all that I am. I have given my heart to you. It’s yours to keep.
And so now, I cry out to God. God bless this church. Bless these people I so dearly love. Bless each one of them. And make no mistake about it, God will bless you. Oh, yes. God will bless you. And so as for you, well, I shall be watching as you now walk on with the Lord we both love. I shall watch you as you walk on into a new bright and clear, clear dawn. And as for Trisha and me, well, for as long as we shall live, we shall be saying, “We thank our God every time, every time we remember you.”
Soli Deo gloria.
To God alone be the glory.
Amen. And amen.