Ten Years And Counting
Numbers 13:1-3, 17-21, 23-33
Miss Evalyn McEntire is one of the great ladies of our church, and she has been a constant source of encouragement to me. She frequently sends me short, pithy little notes which are designed to boost my spirit and keep me preaching. Knowing that I am celebrating my tenth anniversary as the Senior Minister of this great church, she sent me a note the other day. It read: “Dear Dr. Edington, ten is a good number, but fifteen is better!”
I heard a story the other day about a young man who went hiking way up in the Rocky Mountains. When he believed that he had reached the most remote spot he had ever been, he walked around the bend in the trail and to his surprise happened upon a little shack with a grizzled old mountaineer rocking in his chair on the front porch. The man’s hair and beard had gone gray; his skin was weather-lined and withered like a prune; his shoulders were stooped and his hands were twisted and bent. The young man was fascinated with this old timer, so he asked: “Sir, if you don’t mind can you tell me the secret of how you survived to such a ripe old age out here in the wilderness?” The old mountaineer replied: “Why sure. Basically I’ve done three things. I’ve had a fifth of whiskey every day and sometimes two. I have smoked four cigars a day and my pipe in between. And I’ve chased a whole bunch of women and made sure I never got tied down to any one in particular. ” The young man was astounded. “That’s incredible! You’ve done those things and lived this long?” The mountaineer replied: “Yep, that’s exactly how I’ve done it.” The young fellow then said: “Well, sir, I don’t mean to be nosy, but would you mind telling me how old you are anyway?” The old mountaineer pulled his pipe out of his mouth and said: “Son, this coming October, I’ll be 32!”
The decisions we make in life do have their consequences, don’t they? When we make bad decisions we wind up with bad consequences, and when we make good decisions we wind up with good consequences. Ten years ago, now, in concert with the Lord and with my family, I made a good decision. I decided to accept the call to come to the First Presbyterian Church of Orlando. That decision set in motion a sequence of events in my life and in the life of this church which, in retrospect, can only be labeled as miraculous. Yet for all that has transpired over these last ten years, I do not wish to look back; I want instead to look ahead. That’s why I entitled this sermon “Ten Years and Counting!” Let me be specific…
After ten years in this pulpit, I want to speak a word about the future.
The Old Testament story before us today is one I find fascinating. After their escape from Egypt, the people of Israel came up to the edge of the Promised Land. They sent scouts over to spy out the land. Some of the scouts came back saying: “This is a wonderful place. It’s flowing with milk and honey. And they have wonderful grapes there. Why one cluster was so large that it took two men to carry it. Let’s go up and claim the promise of God and take the land.” But there were others who said: “Oh no, we can’t do that. They’ve got strong and fortified cities there. And the people who live in those cities are big people. They are like giants. They are so big that beside them we look like mere grasshoppers.”
That story reminds me that we are made for the future, for what is ahead in life. Did you ever stop to think that even our bodies are designed for moving forward. We walk forward much more gracefully than we walk backward. We don’t have eyes in the back of our heads to see where we have been—they are in front to see where we are going. Our hands and arms are constructed so that we can better deal with that which is before us than that which is behind us. Our ears are cantilevered against our heads so that we can hear more accurately what is ahead of us than what is behind us. We have been fashioned by God to be moving ahead in life. Therefore, the most important question we face in life is not “Where do you stand?” but “where are you going?”
Some people are afraid to face that question so they try to ignore it. They procrastinate it away. Are you aware of the fact that there is an American Society of Procrastination? There really is. They just published the 1976 Annual Directory! In it they announced that their officers elected in 1960 have not yet been installed but will be soon! They claim to have 12,000 members, but they say that there are thousands more who haven’t gotten around to signing up yet.
And some people are afraid to face that question, so they try to ridicule it. Here’s an Episcopal bishop named Wright who said that if God meant people to fly He would have given them wings. “Nothing good would ever come from flying,” he said, “It’s all nonsense.” That’s what he said. Now just suppose that his two sons had believed that. His sons were named Wilbur and Orville…
And some people are afraid to face the question so they try to escape it. One day I was visiting on the campus of the University of South Carolina and I saw something I’ve never forgotten. A blind girl was struggling with her seeing-eye dog. The dog was trying to go to the right; the girl was trying to go to the left. I asked, “May I be of some assistance?” She said: “No, we’re just having a little family argument. He’s trying to take me to class, and I am trying to cut!” Well, there are too many people today trying to cut out on the future. They resort to suicide—either suicide in an instant with a gun or a bottle of pills or dying across a lot of years with a six-pack in front of a TV set.
Well, my friends, I don’t want us to ignore the future, to ridicule it, or to cut out on it. I want us to seize it. As great as our past in this church has been, it does not begin to compare with the glory that is ahead. Right now, we are drawing the plans which will carry this congregation into the 21st century, and I am truly excited about that. Ten years, yes, but ten years and counting!
Then on this tenth anniversary, I’d like to speak a word about fortitude.
The people of Israel stood at the edge of the Promised Land and they looked across. They saw that it flowed with milk and honey and that they had great grapes there. But they also saw the fortified cities and they saw the giants. Consequently they felt like grasshoppers—they were afraid—and so they held back. We confront the same question. Are we going to go for the grapes or are we going to be gripped by the grasshopper complex?
The Bible speaks of three kinds of fear. It speaks first of what we might call psychic fear. This is the natural recoil that occurs when we encounter danger. This is what makes us look up and down the street before stepping from the curb. This is a good kind of fear. The Bible never asks us to be foolhardy. The second kind of fear mentioned in the Bible is spiritual fear—the fear of the Lord. It does not mean abject terror. It means to have a sense of awe and reverence for the majesty and presence of God. This is also a good kind of fear. But the third kind of fear mentioned in the Bible is the fear of those who have forgotten the greatness of God. This, the Bible describes as being fainthearted. This is the fear that grips those who have the grasshopper spirit. They have forgotten the power of God and they have forgotten that they are the children of God. They never cross the frontiers into tomorrow because they are terrified of what may happen to them.
I have long been inspired by the experience of Theodore Geisel. He developed a new and creative style for writing books. He thought there would be a market for it, but others said it was silly. Still he sent his work to a publisher. It was rejected. Another publisher, another rejection. He wouldn’t quit. In fact, he sent it to 23 different publishers and was rejected by all 23. Yet deep inside he believed that God wanted him to keep trying—that this was more than a book, but a mission and ministry to which he had been called. He wouldn’t give in to the grasshopper spirit. He sent it out one more time. The 24th publisher decided to give it a shot. That little book wound up selling six million copies. It became one of the best selling books of all time and set off a whole string of such books. You see, Theodore Geisel’s middle name was S-E-U-S-S—and his “Dr. Suess books” have been read by children all over the world.
We are living in a time when the need for great churches has never been greater. In our time the definitions of right and wrong have become hazy and confused. Conscience has been devalued—it is not to be taken seriously. Profits have come to be more important than principles. Our society seems to be built on phrases like “get mine” or “get even” rather than on phrases like “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and soul, and your neighbor as yourself.” In such a time, it is imperative that we never become paralyzed by our fear, that we never surrender to the grasshopper spirit. Instead, we must never forget the power of God and we must never forget that we are the children of God. For ten years now that has been true—ten years and counting!
Then after a decade in this place, I’d like to speak a word about faith.
The hero in this Old Testament story was a man named Caleb. While everyone else was cringing in fear about the stories of the giants in the land, Caleb had faith enough to know that God is in the giant-killing business. Most of the people of Israel backed away from their moment of opportunity. They didn’t go into the land and consequently they wandered for forty years in the wilderness. But Caleb, and those who were with him, went up into the land of promise, blessed by God. It wasn’t easy. They made mistakes. But they continued to move ahead in the power of God, and as a result they prospered there. They did what God called them to do and that made the difference.
Back in the spring of 1883, two young men—their names were Will and Ben—graduated at the top of their class from the medical school at the University of Michigan. At that point, Ben suggested to Will that they go to New York City and set up a medical practice there. With all the wealth and visibility of New York they would become famous. Will replied: “Ben, I appreciate your invitation. But I have been praying about it, and I believe that God wants me to practice medicine out here in the Midwest.” Ben couldn’t believe it. He said: “Well, you’re a fool. There’s no money out here. Just farmers and old folks. God gave you great abilities. Surely He doesn’t want you to waste all that out here when you could be in New York City.” Will said: “I’m sorry but I believe God wants me here and I shall honor His message.” The two parted. Ben went on to New York and became rich and famous. And Will went back to his home state and became a horse-and-buggy doc and served the simple folks there. But you know what? In time, Will became far better known than his friend Ben, and he wound up treating some of the most prominent people in the world who traveled out to the Midwest to see him. Why? Because Will founded the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, one of the top health care facilities in all the world.
Sometimes we do not clearly discern God’s will for us, or sometimes it seems unappealing and unfulfilling. But the fact is that in the long run those who faithfully seek God’s will and try their best to live accordingly always wind up being blessed immeasurably. Always! Ten years ago, I knew only one thing—I was here because God wanted me here and I was willing to trust Him to do whatever He wanted done in this church. I didn’t know all the answers then—and I don’t know them now. But I still trust my Lord.
During the Second World War, when the Nazis were blitzing London, they moved a lot of the children out of town on busses for their safety. One load of youngsters leaving the city was being interviewed by a reporter. He asked: “Do you know where you are going?” They said, “No, sir.” He then asked, “Are you afraid?” They said, “No, sir.” He said: “If you don’t know where you are going, then why are you not afraid?” One little boy piped up: “We’re not afraid because the King knows.” They were referring, of course, to King George VI who led his country so ably during the war. They were not afraid because the King knows.
Out there ahead of us as a church is a promised destiny. The opportunities before us are glorious indeed. Of course there are giants out there, too. But we do not have to be afraid because the King knows. We are His and He is ours. The future belongs to those who claim it in God’s name. That’s been true for ten years—ten years and counting.
Miss Evalyn McEntire is one of the great ladies in our church. She frequently sends me short pithy little notes which are designed to boost my spirit and keep me preaching. Knowing that I have been here ten years, she sent me a note the other day. It read: “Dear Dr. Edington, ten is a good number, but fifteen is better!” I wrote her back: “Dear Evalyn, if ten is a good number and fifteen is better, then twenty is better still!”