To Know Him And To Make Him Known
September 14, 1997 | First Presbyterian Church Orlando | Romans 1:8-17
On the second Sunday of September, 1968, I preached my first sermon in my first church. Every year since, on the second Sunday of September, I do two things. I always have us sing “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken”, the hymn with which the first service began 29 years ago. And I always preach a sermon which is a bit more personal in nature. Today, I continue that pattern. But first let us pray…
The realization caught me by surprise. I have now become the longest serving minister in the century-long history of First Presbyterian Orlando. God brought us together for the purpose of uniting our faith and our effort to run against the tide and build a great church at the heart of this city. God is working that purpose out as year succeeds to year. Consequently, the dominant reality of my life has become the love I have for you and the love I receive from you. I guess that’s why the story behind one of my favorite hymns, “Blest Be the Tie That Binds”, is so moving to me.
John Fawcett was born to poor parents in Yorkshire, England in 1740. At the age of 16, he committed his life to Christ and prepared for the ministry. At age 26, he was called to serve a small impoverished congregation at Wainsgate in northern England. He and his new bride, Mary, poured themselves into devoted service there for nearly seven years. John Fawcett’s reputation as a preacher began to spread and in 1772, the large and influential Carter’s Lane Baptist Church in London extended to him a call. He accepted the call, and preparations for the move began. The wagons were loaded with furniture, personal possessions, and his books. All this time, the members of his little church—men, women and children—gathered in the house and out in the yard, weeping with sorrow and praying fervently that he might not leave. As the moment of departure came, suddenly tears filled John Fawcett’s eyes. Mary, looking into his tearful face, while tears ran down her own cheeks, said: “John, I cannot bear to leave. I know not how to go!” And he replied: “Nor can I either. We shall remain here with our people.” The order was then given to unpack the wagons, and John and Mary Fawcett carried on their faithful ministry in Wainsgate for 54 years, until he died of a stroke in 1817. Years later, the King of England wanted to honor John Fawcett with a title and property. The offer was declined. John Fawcett said: “I have lived among my own people enjoying their love. God has blessed my labors among them, and I need nothing which even a king could supply.” It was on that day in 1772 after he decided to remain in Wainsgate that he sat down and wrote a poem. He shared it with his people that next Sunday. What they heard were the words we now sing as the hymn “Blest Be the Tie That Binds.”
I love that hymn and I love the story behind the hymn because now you and I together are living out a similar story—and the ties that bind us are blessed indeed. So let me break open my heart for a few minutes and tell you why I believe what I believe, and what I believe God wants us to be doing together in this church. I take as my text a marvelous text of Scripture: Romans 1:16. “I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God unto salvation to those who believe.”
There was a time in my life when I was not ashamed of the Gospel.
It was when I was a child. I grew up in a home where the air I breathed was filled with the faith and where I was surrounded by the powerful, palpable presence of Jesus Christ. In my growing up years no part of my life was apart from Jesus Christ. I spent a lot of time in and around the church. I love the church and everything about it, everything in it and everything associated with it. For four generations members of my family have been engaged in the ministry of the Presbyterian Church. My daughters, Meg and Beth, now mark the fifth generation. I’m especially proud of the witness of my mom and dad. He preached every Sunday and she sang in the choir. That meant that every Sunday, my two younger brothers, Will and Van and I were left to sit down near the front without benefit of parental supervision. That landed us in trouble on occasion, until the time, (and just recalling it now evokes a measure of pain) my father stopped his sermon right in the middle, pointed his finger at us in the pew, corrected us from the pulpit and then right there in front of God and everybody else, ordered Will to move up one pew. Immediately, my father picked up his sermon at precisely where he had stopped. I can tell you that from that point on we were three little angels in church!
Through it all, I loved what I heard and I loved what I saw. Consequently, Christ and the thought of Christ and the things of Christ came to me as naturally as eating and breathing. I never knew anything else. At the time, I did not understand all that that meant. But I can tell you this for certain: I was never in any way ashamed of it. That’s the way a child thinks.
Surely that’s one of the reasons Jesus loved children so much and wanted constantly to be around them. You know how it is when you travel abroad for an extended period of time. On occasion you will encounter something that reminds you of home. Maybe you see a flower, the twin of which is growing right at your back door. Maybe you see a range of hills rather like those hills where you used to vacation each year. Maybe you see a television program which has been produced stateside. But however it comes, such a moment reminds you of home. Well, when Jesus was here on this earth, He was on an extended journey far from His heavenly home. I believe that every time He encountered children, with all their marvelous trusting, with all their blissful innocence, with all their unashamed belief—I believe that every time He encountered children He felt as if He were back home. Remember what He said once? “Unless you become like children, you will never enter the Kingdom of heaven.” In other words, He was calling us to a childlike trust and faith. I had that faith as a child. I was not ashamed of the Gospel.
However, as I grew up, there came a time when I was ashamed of the Gospel.
Now I do not mean to suggest that I actually vigorously attacked the Gospel or Christ or the church. I didn’t do that. No, it was just that I never mentioned the Gospel or Christ or the church at all. You see, it was very important for me at that time in my life to be considered, as we put it then, “just one of the guys”. I worked very hard to see that no one could label me a Christian. I tried to cover it up as best I could. I did everything I could to see that Christian principles never separated me from the crowd. I didn’t want anything in my life which made me seem different. At that time I thought life was a series of parties held in honor of me. I was right in the middle of them, and I didn’t want anything, especially the faith, to separate me from the people around me. Yes, back during my early years in college, I have to confess that I was ashamed of the Gospel.
Professor Muehl of Yale told of visiting in a New England home and seeing above the mantlepiece an antique musket. He asked the lady of the house if he might examine it. She said; “No, I can’t let you do that. You see, it’s loaded and primed. It belonged to my great-grandfather and he always kept it loaded and primed, ready to strike a blow for freedom when the colonies sought to win their independence. But it’s never been fired, because my great-grandfather never entered the Revolutionary War. He had no confidence in the leadership of General Washington.” Imagine that. Here was a man who lived in the midst of a revolution and he never took sides because he had no confidence in the leader. Yet I am forced to admit that there was a time in my life when I never took sides in the midst of the Christian revolution at work in our world. I suppose, in looking back on it now, it was because I had no confidence in my Commander-in-Chief, Jesus. I was ashamed of the Gospel.
All of that has long since passed now. I am no longer ashamed of the Gospel and I am not even ashamed of the time when I was ashamed of the Gospel.
There’s a great play called “The Desperate Hour”. It’s the story of an escaped prisoner who breaks into a house, takes a 10-year-old boy hostage, and proceeds to terrorize the family. As the play unfolds, there comes a point when the father in the family manages to get hold of the inmate’s gun for a few seconds. He empties the bullets, puts them in his pocket and returns the gun to its place. The climax of the play comes when the inmate holds the boy in front of him and points the gun to his head, threatening to kill him. The prisoner doesn’t know that the gun is empty. The little boy doesn’t know that the gun is empty. Only the father knows. The father says to the little boy: “Son, the gun is empty. Come to me.” The prisoner says: “Kid, take one step and you’re going to find out how empty this gun is.” The father says: “Believe me, Son, the gun is empty. Come to me.” The little boy, believing his father, steps toward him. The prisoner pulls the trigger and the gun clicks on emptiness.
I discovered that I was going through life with the gun of guilt pointed at my head. And all the while, Jesus was saying to me: “It’s all right. The gun isn’t loaded. There is no reason to be ashamed. Come to me.” And so, at last, I came. And from that time to this, I have never once found anything to be ashamed of in Jesus Christ. I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for now I know that it is the power of God unto salvation for all those who believe.
To know Jesus Christ and to make Him known: that’s what my life is all about. That’s why God brought me here. That’s what this church is all about. I received a letter a couple of days ago. I read a letter like this and I know why I’m here and I know why this church is here. Listen: “Dear Dr. Edington: It’s hard for me to put this into words, but I have to try. I was raised in a Christian home. My faith was strong when I was young, and then on the night of July 11, 1991, my life was changed forever. Two men attacked me. I was beaten, robbed and raped. Rage and hatred poured out of my assailants. One of them told me I was going to die that night and in many ways he was right. Physically I survived, but something in me did die that night. My life was shattered. I lost my hope, my faith, my capacity to love. Fear, hate, anger, depression began to control me. With the help of a therapist, in time the depression passed, but my life was still empty. That night destroyed my relationship with Christ. I felt that He had abandoned me when I needed Him most. And then, a year ago, I met a wonderful man. We are engaged to be married. Last Sunday my fiance asked me to go with him to church, to your church. The sheer beauty of Christ shining through that stained glass amazed me. The music evoked in me thoughts I had not had in many years. And the sermon spoke to me loud and clear. For the first time in a long time I experienced peace at my center. I had been carrying around this hatred for the men who had ruined my life, and then I heard you preach about forgiveness. I know God was speaking directly to me. I finally had the answer I needed to get past this tragedy in my life. It was a turning point I’ll never forget. Sunday afternoon I got down on my knees and cried and cried. Then I prayed for God to forgive the men who had attacked me and to help me forgive them as well. Through Jesus I finally let it go. I can’t explain it, but it was as if tons of weight were lifted from my shoulders. I now pray that those two men will find the love of God in Jesus Christ. And I thank God for bringing me to First Presbyterian last Sunday.”
To know Christ and to make Him known—that’s why God brought you and me together. That’s why He is blessing the work we are doing together.
And that is why the words of John Fawcett mean so much to me:
Blest be the tie that binds
Our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship of kindred minds
Is like to that above.