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From My Heart to Yours: Postscript To A Pastorate

Philippians 1:3-11

Personal word, please. Yesterday, we had a wedding here. And as Trish and I returned back to our home from that wedding, we discovered, to our overwhelming emotion, that the children and the young people of this congregation had written messages on little cutout hearts. And they had stuck those hearts up all across the front yard of our home, hundreds and hundreds of them, an ocean of hearts. We’ve been able to read some of the messages. And some of them are hilarious. Some of them are deeply moving. And as the hours unfolded yesterday, traffic would stop on Edgewater Drive. And people would get out of their cars and come walk up into the yard to read the messages of love from the children and the youth of this church. People jogging around the lake would pause long enough to wander up through this miniature forest of hearts. I don’t think that we will ever forget it. Thank you. And I thank you for this. I was here for a while struggling. And then God brought, to this church, these three plus Ben McKenney. That’s when the ministry of this church, under the spirit of God, began to take off. One of our elders at the time dubbed this group the dream team. Maybe we were. I don’t know. What I do know is this. We were and still are the devil’s worst nightmare.

Pray with me, please. Lord, nothing in my hand I bring. Simply to thy cross I cling. Amen.

My nearly 21 years as pastor of this great church had been one long love letter from my heart to yours, a love letter not only written but lived. That love letter is now complete. I sign the letter with all the love my heart can hold. However, I would like to add a postscript to that love letter, a P.S. And in that postscript, I would like to look back for a few moments to thank you for all you have been to me and meant to me and done for me. And then I’d like to take a quick look forward to share with you my hopes and dreams for your future.

I suppose that’s why I’ve chosen to take, as my text for this postscript, the tender and beautiful words that Paul wrote to the people he loved in the church at Philippi. Those words have both a backward look and a forward look. Backward, he says, “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy and every one of my prayers for all of you because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.” And then the forward look. “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”

A look back.

In so many ways, it seems just yesterday—actually, it was 21 years ago—that the pulpit committee of this church engaged me in conversation, five incredible people: John Rife, Ruth Carter, Carolyn Wine, Don Brown, Ron Harrison. There began a process which ultimately led to the call to become the senior minister of this church. I shall never forget John Rives’ words to me when he extended that call. You have to understand that in that day, there was a crude cross country song sung by Johnny Paycheck called Take This Job And Shove It. Well, John Rife put his own powerful, positive twist on those words. And he said, “We want you to take this job and love it.” And I did. And I have loved it. Oh, how I have loved it. You see, I do not believe that there has ever been a preacher blessed with such a magnificent group of God’s people to serve. And I know there shall be no greater honor in my life than the honor which has been mine to serve as the senior minister of this church. So for the rest of my life, I shall be able to say with Paul, “I thank my God every time I remember you.” I thank you for letting me preach freely. Preaching is my life. I said to you before that every Christian has at least one gift of the Holy Spirit. Some have more. But everybody has at least one. My gift is the gift of preaching. That does not make me better than anyone else. No gift of the Holy Spirit is ever to be exalted above any other gift of the Holy Spirit. And the gift of preaching is just one of the many gifts of the Holy Spirit. But that gift is mine, not mine alone, but it is mine.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “Preaching is Christ present again.” When the gospel is truly preached, Jesus Christ moves up and down the aisles tapping people on their consciences and turning their lives around. I believe that’s true. And that’s why no great movement in the history of the church has ever begun anywhere but in the pulpit. And that’s why a sermon is no more a mere speech than the bible is a mere book. And that’s why preaching takes everything a preacher has to give it and then some.

Consequently, I want, right now, to thank you publicly for calling me to this great and challenging pulpit, for giving me a salary so that I have not had to worry inordinately about earthly needs, for giving me a study where I can fashion the words which, subsequently, I offer to God for giving me a marvelous, magnificent, multi-gifted, multi-talented staff who have kept the ministry here abounding for all these years. There is no joy, dear friends, like the joy of preaching in a church where there are people who want to get the preacher’s text in advance so they can study it before Sunday, where there are people who seek out the preacher before the services in order to lay hands upon him and to pray God to speak through him, where there are people who fill the sanctuary at worship, waiting expectedly to hear some word from the Lord.There is no joy like the joy which has been mine for all these years, to preach to such wonderful, committed people. Of course, no preacher is perfect. And this one is not even close. You know that. You’re smart people. You know that my humanity is every bit as real as your own. You know that I’m not adequate for the task to which I’ve been called. And yet, you have allowed me to preach. And not only that. But you’ve allowed me to preach freely. You see, there are some judges and some individuals who actually try to determine what a preacher preaches or doesn’t preach. Never once in all of these years have you ever made such a demand of me. You have allowed me to preach. You have allowed me to love the Lord with all I’ve got and to preach with all I’ve got, to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ without shame, without reserve, without apology. You’ve allowed me to preach Christ freely, Christ alone, Christ crucified. For that, I thank you.

By the way, the pulpit that normally stands here is both old and new. When we refurbished this house of the Lord several years ago, some wood was taken from the old pulpit and combined with new wood to create the pulpit which normally graces this place. On the desk of that pulpit, there is a plaque which reads, “This pulpit is given in honor of the preaching ministry of Dr. J. Howard Edington by his wife Patricia, October 8th, 2000.” Sir, we would see Jesus, John 12:21.

I hope that sometime when that pulpit is in place, you would come up onto the platform and see it and see the unique way my great friend and partner in this ministry Ben McKinney has installed that plaque on the pulpit. What I can tell you is this. Every time I have stepped into that pulpit and looked at that plaque, I have been reminded that my only task in life is to help people see Jesus. And you have allowed me to do that here for all of these years. I love you for it. That is why, for the rest of my life, I shall say with Paul, “I thank my God every time I remember you.”

I thank you for letting me love deeply. I’m a minister, yes, but I’m also human. I need to love and to be loved in return like any human being does. Just before I began my ministry here, a man said to me, “You’re going to a congregation which is larger than any you served before. I would give you a word of advice. You are to love all of the people of that congregation as sisters and brothers in Christ. But you dare not make any special friends among that congregation, or you may, then, be hurt, or you may have your ministry undermined.” I chose not to follow his advice. Instead, I chose to follow the pattern of Jesus. The gospel makes it clear that Jesus loved all of his disciples deeply, intensely. But Jesus loved three of them in a special way: Peter, James, and John.

You have allowed me here to love all this congregation deeply but to love some specially. That’s a great gift. Because you see, the Lord knows that a preacher’s task is not easy. The Lord knows that a preacher must constantly face the pain of rejection, the frustration of failure, the attack of opposition, the agony of persecution. The Lord knows that the ministry is not a holiday but a campaign. The Lord knows that the powers of this world are fearsome indeed. The Lord knows that there are worldly people out there who will dismiss every proposition the preacher puts forth. The Lord knows that there are pagan people out there who will ridicule the Lord the preacher so deeply loves. The Lord knows that there are self-sufficient people out there who want nothing to do with the Christ who is so passionately trying to reach out to them. The Lord knows that there are callous people out there, don’t really love or care for the church, and who almost take delight in undermining the preacher’s sense of worth and value and dignity in life. The preacher encounters all of that and more. And it can hurt. That’s why what you have done for me means the world to me. Because you see, you’ve given me this vast congregation of people to love deeply and to serve fully. And you’ve also allowed me to make some deep, close friends here. In fact, I can look out right now and see the faces of families who have specially embraced my family and who have treated us as a member of your own family. I can look out at faces of people who have approached me not just as a minister but much more as a friend and have said to me, “I will love you, and I will stand by you no matter what.” I can look out at faces of people to whom I’ve turned in my own need, my own hurt, my own weakness, knowing that they would never hurt me for the world. At no time was that more plainly obvious than during the time of the Edington family’s deepest need, the death of our son John David. You see, our family’s been to the bottom. We’ve been to where few of you have ever been or ever will be. We’ve been to where life hurts the most and cuts the deepest and hits the hardest. And I can tell you, on behalf of my family, I do not believe that we could have survived that if it hadn’t been for the extraordinary love with which you embraced us. You’ve enabled me and encouraged me to love all this congregation deeply, to love some specially. And then you have loved me and mine in return. I love you for that. And that’s why, for the rest of my life, I shall say with Paul, “I thank my God every time I remember you.”

A look back.

Now look forward.

Paul said, “I thank my God every time I remember you.” And then he said, “I’m confident of this. The one who began a great work among you will complete that work by the day of Jesus Christ.” My beloved people, claim the future God has for you. My beloved people, we are living in a time when the need for great churches has never been greater. My beloved people, we are living in a time when the need for the gospel of Jesus Christ has never been deeper. My beloved people, we are living in a time when the need for people to stand up for Jesus has never been clearer. And therefore, I plead with you as you move into your future, do not forget the power of God which is yours. Out there ahead of you as a church is a promised destiny. I will not see that destiny with you. But that destiny is yours. Over these last two decades, the Lord has begun a great work among you. But I’m confident of this. The Lord who began that work is going to bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.
And now my great joy in life will be to surround you with my love, my prayers, and my encouragement.

Let me try to say it by taking you back to one of my favorite stories in the old testament. It’s the story of Jacob at the banks of the river Jabbok. You remember Jacob. He spent the early part of his life living only for himself. In fact, he was willing to do anything, even cheat his own brother in order to get what he wanted in life. And then one day, Jacob came to the banks of the river Jabbok. He sent his family on ahead. He spent the night there alone. While he was sleeping, suddenly, he was attacked by an assailant. It was dark. He couldn’t see the assailant. But there began a struggle, a struggle that lasted all through the night. It was a struggle to the death. There actually came a point during the night when Jacob began to feel that he was gaining the upper hand. And so his old false self-confidence began to rise within him. “I’m Jacob,” he thought to himself. “I can handle anything. I don’t need the help of anyone or anything else.”
And then just as the first faint fingers of the dawn began to strip away the dark garments of the night, suddenly, this unknown assailant, with a single finger, stretched out, touched Jacob in the thigh, and crippled him. He fell to the ground in mortal pain. Suddenly, he realized that he was beaten, that the strength of his opponent was infinitely beyond his own, that the only hope had was to cry out for mercy. In his agony, he turned and looked up into the face of the one who had attacked him. It was a face he was stunned to see. It was the face of God. And in that moment, he threw himself into the arms of God. And he cried out, “Bless me.” In agony and defeat and exhaustion and surrender, he cried out, “Bless me.” And in that moment, he was blessed.

And he got up from the ground. And he walked away from the banks of the river Jabbok against the bursting glory of a new dawn, walked away limping, yes, limping but filled with a new peace and a new power because he was a new man. Now he was God’s man. Now he would no longer live for himself. He would live the rest of his life for the Lord.

In my own life, I have wrestled with God. He has beaten me. I have surrendered to Him. I have surrendered all to Him. And I cry, “Bless me.” And He blessed me by giving you to me. And now I cry out to Him, “Bless this church. Bless these people I so dearly love. Bless each one of them.” And He will bless you. And I will be watching you as you walk off together with the Lord we both love into a new, bright, clear, clear dawn…

Soli Deo gloria.
To God alone be the glory.
Amen and amen.

 

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