Vision For The New Millenium: Celebrating The Church
They say that timing is everything. Sam Wohlfort’s timing couldn’t have been better. Just when I was wondering how in the world to begin this sermon, Sam shared this little story with me.
The minister was preoccupied with thoughts of how he was going to ask his congregation to dig deep and give sacrificially to the church’s building campaign. Therefore, he was annoyed to learn that the regular organist was sick and a substitute had been brought in at the last minute. After the minister quickly greeted the substitute, he then said rather impatiently: “Here’s a copy of the service, but you’ll just have to think of something to play after I call the people to make their commitment to the campaign.” Later, as the service drew to its close, the minister addressed the people and said: “Sisters and Brothers: We have a great challenge before us. I’m asking you to give like you’ve never given before. Now any of you who can pledge a thousand dollars or more, please stand up.” At that moment the substitute organist began to play “The Star Spangled Banner”-and that’s how the substitute organist became the permanent organist!
Of course, I don’t think I have to use that kind of strategy with you. I want to acknowledge just how magnificent you are. This is a congregation which not only believes in something, but is prepared to act upon that belief. I do not know of a church anywhere which has responded to more challenges and made more changes with greater winsomeness and generosity than this church. I don’t know of a church anywhere which has been more faithful in communicating the Gospel and which has been more effectively engaged in meeting the needs of the human family than this church. I know of no church in this country today which does so much so well for the sake of Jesus Christ. It is precisely because of what we have accomplished in the past that God continues to open wider and wider doors of opportunity for us. Therefore, I know of no church in this country which has a greater challenge than we have now- and I know in my heart that you and I together are going to rise up to meet that challenge.
You know as well as I do that what we have going in this church is worth celebrating and worth preserving for the future. That fact is confirmed, I believe, in a wonderful little passage from the Letter to the Hebrews. Hebrews is a very difficult book in our Bible, especially the first nine chapters. Its imagery is difficult to comprehend. But then in the tenth chapter, the whole tone changes. It becomes a living, breathing portrait of the way the church ought to be- and as I read the words, I discover, to my great delight, that it is a portrait of the way this church is. Let me just give you a sampling of what I mean…
First, we are a church where we get together.
Hebrews 10:25 says: “Let us not neglect meeting together as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another.” In other words, we are to get together, we are to assemble together as a company of God’s people, for it is out of that togetherness that we draw our strength and our inspiration. And we do get together in this church, oh do we ever! We do that so well, in fact, that we have now run out of room in the physical facilities which are ours. On Sundays, especially, but even all through the week as well, this place is bursting at the seams with people. What a glorious problem to have. The magnetic power of the ministry of this church is drawing people to this place in the heart of the city.
I have a friend who told me that back in his college days during registration at Louisiana State University, he was seated next to a new freshman who had been recruited to play on the LSU football team. The two of them were busily engaged in filling out all of the necessary forms. My friend noticed that in answer to the question: “What is your church preference?” this big freshman football player had written: “Red brick!” Well, he would love this great big old red brick church, wouldn’t he? But there are much deeper reasons for loving this church. I heard that up in South Carolina a man leaped up in a Presbyterian church one Sunday and cried out: “Hallelujah, I got religion!” One of the elders sitting nearby said: “Sit down and shut up. You didn’t get it in this church!” Let me tell you, dear friends, this is a church where you can “get religion”. This is a church where the experience of being together, assembling together, is filled with such intensity and pleasure and power that we literally glow with the fire of God’s Spirit burning within us- and then we go out into the world to spread that fire.
I say it over and over again simply because it is true. This is a great church which God has raised up here in the heart of this city. It is a church with vast ministries and programs. It is a church which has sought and caught and taught the truth of Jesus Christ. It is a church which has touched the heartbeat of this city and has had a tremendous influence for Christ in this place. I believe that’s true because this is a church where we get together. We enjoy it. Look at the faces of young and old alike as you move through the teeming masses of people here and you will understand. We are encouraged by it. Listen to the endless stream of stories told by people in this church about how Christ has transformed their lives. And we are inspired by it. Notice how many people from this church are out living the life of Christ and doing the work of Christ in their everyday experience in the world. Yes, we are a church where we get together. I believe that’s worth celebrating- and I believe that’s worth preserving for the future. Surely you would agree.
Secondly, we are a church where we hold together.
Hebrews 10:23 says: “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we confess, for he who promised is faithful.” In other words, in a world where everything seems to be falling apart, we are to hold fast to each other through our hope in Christ.
The horrific images of that world have been seared into our brains just this past week. War in Belgrade, Yugoslavia and war in Littleton, Colorado- both wars revealing the gone-wrongness of the world in which we are living. As I watched interviews with so many people impacted by those wars in both places, I heard the same theme repeated with dreadful repetition: there is a helplessness about the present and there is a hopelessness about the future. But those two words- helplessness and hopelessness-don’t exist in the vocabulary of this church.
One day Gordon MacDonald and his wife were walking in their neighborhood up in Boston. As they were looking at the houses, commenting on the appearance and the architecture of them, MacDonald noticed that several of the homes had mounted on the front window a small, bright poster featuring the silhouette of an open hand. He wondered aloud what that symbol of the hand meant. His wife told him that it was a sign to any child that that house was a safe place- a frightened or sick child would know that a knock on the door of that house would bring protection and assistance, help and hope.
That’s what this church is- a safe place, sheltering people from the storms of life and helping them to meet the demands of life. Ken Medema, the blind song-writer, seldom fails to help us see God’s truth. He wrote these words:
If this is not a place where tears are understood,
Then where shall I go to cry?
If this is not a place where my spirit can take wings,
Then where shall I go to fly?
Whether to cry or to fly, when people come to this church, they come to the right place. For here we truly care in Christ’s name for the people of this world.
Dear friends, if you want to help people who need help, if you want to bring hope to people have little hope, if you want to deliver words and deeds of encouragement to those who are down and need a lift, if you want to house the homeless and feed the hungry and shape the lives of little children and give young people something to live for, rather than something to die for, and grow people strong in character and in faith, then you are in the right place. We are on a journey of joy together, and we hold together through our hope in Jesus Christ.
There is a legend that at the entrance of heaven, two questions will be asked of everyone seeking admittance. The first is: “Did you come alone?” If your answer is yes, then the second question is: “How could you?” In this church we don’t intend to go to heaven alone. For literally thousands of people we are trying to make life on this earth as much like heaven as it can be. And for those same thousands of people we intend to lift them by the grace of Jesus Christ to heaven itself. This is a church where we hold together. I believe that’s worth celebrating, and I believe that’s worth preserving for the future. Surely you would agree.
Then, we are a church where we grow together.
Hebrews 10:24 says: “Let us consider how we may spur one another on to love and good deeds.” In other words, we are to be challenging and stretching and growing one another to be ready to live for Christ out in the world. That’s why we are willing to spend 13 million dollars to provide Christian education space for growing people of all ages into significant Christians.
Hans Ehrenberg, in his Autobiography of a German Pastor, tells how it happened that his church was instrumental in standing against Hitler and the Nazi movement. Ehrenberg tells how every Thursday evening people in his church met together, to study the Scriptures, to analyze the basic core beliefs of the faith, to immerse themselves in the classic creeds and confessions of faith from the history of the church. He called these meetings “rehearsals for whatever might be coming.” He goes on to write: “It was only within the church that individual witnesses learned to resist the enemy and to overcome in actual places such as concentration camps.” Ehrenberg, who himself was eventually dispatched to a concentration camp, described an incident at a summer camp for teenage girls which says it all. When the campers gathered for the opening worship service at the camp, it was held in a room where an enormous picture of Adolph Hitler had been placed front and center as the focal point. This young girl from Ehrenberg’s church suddenly got up, tore down the picture, smashed it against the wall and cried: “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.” Ehrenberg said: “The remarkable thing was not that she smashed Hitler’s picture, nor even that she had the courage to confess the First Commandment, but that she was prepared beforehand to do both.” What was it that made her “prepared beforehand”? The church! It is the only community on earth which can confront the evil one- for it is the only community on earth to which the keys of the Kingdom were given.
So just a few days ago, some Colorado high schoolers celebrated Hitler’s birthday by plunging their school into a mini-holocaust. In light of Littleton, dear friends, let me tell you that what we are doing here is not playing games. We are in a serious struggle for the soul of this nation. And frankly, I think 13 million dollars is a small price to pay to grow our people, especially our children and youth, to where they can say “yes” to Jesus Christ and “no” to Adolph Hitler or any other representative of the evil one. This is a church where we grow together. I believe that’s worth celebrating- and I believe that’s worth preserving for the future. Surely you would agree.
The late comic actor, John Belushi, hardly a proclaimer of the Gospel, nevertheless in his movie “Animal House”, delivered himself of a line which, I believe, reflects the Gospel. He said: “Nothing is impossible for the person who will not listen to reason.”
Reason says: the church is in decline all over America and resources are in short supply. You have no business going into a major building program like that.
I don’t listen to reason and I say: “My God is an awesome God and He is calling us to claim this city for Him.
Reason says: The values and the ideas children and young people are being taught today are so entrenched that the church has no hope of prevailing with an alternative message.
I don’t listen to reason and I say: A tiny gram of yeast can cause a whole loaf of bread to rise; just so a small band of people rooted and grounded in the faith can change the world.
Reason says: You’ll never get people to dig deep enough into their financial resources to reach 13 million dollars.
I don’t listen to reason and I say: My first grandson, Penn, is here today, and my second grandson, Hunter, is on the way. Do you think that Trisha and I wouldn’t give everything we have for those two boys? It’s not much of a leap then for us to say that we will give more than we ever thought we could so that other people’s children and grandchildren can grow up in Christ through this church.
Reason says: It just can’t be done.
I don’t listen to reason and I say: Nothing is impossible for my Lord Jesus Christ. And knowing all that you’ve done for Christ over these last seventeen years, I know that now you are going to join me in digging deep and standing up for Jesus Christ in this church.
And we’ll do it without even having to play the “Star Spangled Banner”!