We’re Here For Life: A Call To Confidence
There’s a wonderful story about a man who happened upon a Little League baseball game one night. He noticed right away that the boys at bat were much bigger and stronger than the boys out in the field. When he got within earshot of the left-fielder, a scrawny little boy who didn’t look athletic at all, the man asked the score. The little boy replied: “29-0.” The man exclaimed: “29-0! That’s terrible, are those big boys beating you that badly?” The little boy replied: “Oh no sir, they’re not winning, we are!” The man said: “You mean you’re 29 and those big boys are nothing!” The little left-fielder said: “No, they’re 29 and we’re nothing.” The man said: “Now wait a minute. I’m confused. I thought you said that you were winning.” I love what the little fellow said in reply. He said: “We are, sir. You see, it’s just the first inning and we haven’t even gotten up to bat yet!”
Wouldn’t you love to have that kind of confidence as you look to the future? Wouldn’t you love to feel that strong and that powerful and that good about what lies ahead? The fact is that we can because we belong to the Lord. Sure the challenges we face as Christ’s people are huge. Sure the odds are stacked against us. We are living in a time of great uncertainty. We are living in a time when God is being sucked out of every element and every statement of our life. We are living in a time when many people hold Christians up to ridicule. We are living in a time when the Word of Christ has never been more needed, but the work of Christ has never been more difficult. Yet today I call us to look to the future with confidence. The score may be 29-0, but we as God’s people are just now coming to bat. The victory will be ours in Jesus Christ. As I reflect upon the challenge we now face in this church, I find myself inspired by the confidence which marked the life of Nehemiah. Do you remember his story? Here is what happened…
Jerusalem had been destroyed. The city lay in ruins. Many of its inhabitants had been led away into slavery. One of them was Nehemiah. He did rather well in slavery. He worked hard and he worked well. He caught the eye of those in control. Ultimately, he rose to the point where he was advising King Artaxerxes. It was then that he became aware of the situation in his homeland— about how the city of Jerusalem needed to be rebuilt, about how the people were dying under crushing needs, about how the city seemed unable to pull itself back together. The Scripture notes that Nehemiah was pained in the heart. He then prayed to God. And God said to him: “I will guide you every step of the way. It won’t be easy but together we will win. Now since you’ve got the ear of the king, let’s start there.” That was all the boost in confidence Nehemiah needed. He then appealed to King Artaxerxes for permission to go to Jerusalem to build the city. Permission was granted. And what Nehemiah did in Jerusalem has something to say to us today.
First, Nehemiah planned the work.
The Bible says that Nehemiah did not begin by telling everyone what he had in mind. He told only a few, the Bible says, and he secured their help in drafting a plan. He did that for good reason. It’s a terrible thing to raise people’s hopes and then not fulfill them. It’s a terrible thing to hold up before God’s people a dream and then turn it into a nightmare right before their eyes. So Nehemiah took a small group of people and they went out at night— they evaluated the scope of the task by moonlight— they drew up the plans away from the public view.
So it was that here a small group of people took the information generated by several hundred people and they worked for a full year, quietly, without fanfare, meeting every week, studying the options, evaluating the needs, and structuring a plan to guide the ministry of this church for years to come. They worked, by moonlight, drawing the dreams for our tomorrows.
Then the Bible tells us that when Nehemiah was fully prepared, he took his plan to the people for their response. He writes of that occasion. “I told them of the hand of God which had been upon me for good and also of the words which the king had spoken to me.” Nehemiah then presented the details of the plan. He told the people that he believed the plan to be within the will of God, that he believed that God was calling them to build the city to greatness. The response of the people was decisive. They said: “Let us rise up and build.”
That is precisely what has happened here. The leaders of this church have presented the details of our plan to the congregation. Hours and hours have been spent giving our people every opportunity to know and to understand what is being proposed. Out of it all there has arisen a stated conviction: God is calling us to build Him a church here at the heart of this great city. And already our people have begun to respond. Already we are receiving gifts—magnificent gifts—gifts significant not for the size but for the commitment and enthusiasm they represent. Yes, I believe that we are going to build here at the heart of this city a church which shall stand for Jesus Christ for generations to come. All the preparation has been done. The plan is in place. The program is under way. We only await the decisive response of our people: “Let us rise up and build!”
Secondly, Nehemiah worked the plan.
Nehemiah followed the plan to the letter and he proceeded to build the city of Jerusalem. It wasn’t easy. There was opposition to what he was doing. The Bible tells us that Nehemiah drove out those who opposed him and kept working at building the city according to the plan. I must tell you that this is where Nehemiah and I part the ways. Yes, there will be people who will give little or nothing to this campaign and yet expect every service this church has to offer. That’s all right. We shall not cut them off. We shall love them and hold onto them in Christ. But we shall not let them deter us. We must make our sacrifices to guarantee the future ministry of this church for all who will need it in years to come. We must work our plan just as Nehemiah did. We must make God’s dream for this church come true. Why?
Well, to understand why, travel with me to the city of Timisoara in Romania. In the center of downtown stands the Commons, a large rectangular park-like area. There you will see a wooden cross stacked down into the earth. Around the cross are some candles which are lighted every night. Between the candles are black and white photographs, pictures of the men and women who died there in December, 1989. They are the martyrs of Timisoara. Most of them were members of the Presbyterian Reformed Church of Timisoara. Just a few blocks from the Commons, at the heart of the city, stands that sister Presbyterian church of ours. There is a plaque beside the door. It reads: “Here began the revolution that felled a dictator.”
It’s a story that you didn’t see on ABC News, nor did you read of it in Time or Newsweek. The daily newspaper carried just bits and pieces of the story. Only recently has the full story emerged. The story began in 1944 when the communists took control of that country of Romania. One of them—a short, power-hungry ex-shoemaker named Nicolae Ceaucescu—began a rapid rise through the party until at last he became the dictatorial leader of the land. His dream was to turn Romania into a morbid reflection of himself. Making a long, painful story short and almost painless, he, over the decades, exerted a brutal oppression upon the people. Romania has the most fertile soil in Eastern Europe, yet the people lived at starvation levels. Electricity was parceled out so sparingly that even on the coldest days the homes of the people would never get to more than 50 degrees. Ceaucescu demanded that every family have at least five children whether you could afford it or not—as a result, many parents unable to feed their children simply abandoned them creating thousands upon thousands of orphans in the country. A bloodthirsty corps of secret police kept the people in fear and subjugation.
Meanwhile, Ceaucescu and his compatriots lived like kings in regal splendor as the people’s suffering grew more and more intense. Those who suffered most were the Christians. Ceaucescu made it plain that communism and Christianity could not co-exist. Consequently the only kind of church he tolerated was one which offered a compromised, watered-down version of the Gospel and which echoed the message of the government.
Such was the case with the Reformed Church of Timisoara. The minister there supported Ceaucescu— he even wore the communist red star on his pulpit robe. The church existed but that was all. It had 50 members, most of them elderly. It had no future which was exactly what the government wanted. Then this older minister died in 1987. That’s when everything changed—and the change began with a young preacher named Laszlo Tokes. The government officials didn’t know much about Tokes, but they let him become the “probationary pastor” of the church. Little did they know that within Laszlo Tokes there burned a singular passion for Jesus Christ. He began to preach and the people began to come. Crowds went from 50 to 75 to 100. In two years, the membership had swelled to 5000, as people flocked to hear the good news that in Jesus Christ sin is forgiven and death is defeated. So many people came that the church had to undertake a large building program. With their own hands and with their carefully saved money they built the church at Timisoara. The people had found the reason to live.
The authorities became alarmed at what was happening and they tried to clamp down on the church. Soldiers, carrying machine guns, lined the walls of the church during worship. Names of those listening to Laszlo Tokes were taken down. Later they would be arrested and beaten. Laszlo Tokes’ dearest friend, the architect who had helped design and construct the new building, was found floating face-down in a nearby river. The police report said: “suicide.” Then Tokes and his family were attacked. He was stabbed in the face. He and his family survived, but then Tokes and his wife sent their four-year-old son to live with relatives out in the country. Tokes kept on preaching Jesus Christ.
The government decided that they would not kill Tokes because that would make him a martyr. So they decided to exile him to a remote area of the country and hold him under house arrest. The order would be carried out on December 15, 1989. On Sunday, December 10, Laszlo Tokes stood before his congregation and told them what was going to happen. He told them that on December 15, he would be seized and deported. He said: “I will not go. And I want you to come see what happens. Come peacefully, but please come.”
On Friday morning, December 15, 1989, when Laszlo Tokes awoke, he looked out of the window, and to his astonishment, literally thousands of people had formed a human moat surrounding his church and house. When the soldiers came they couldn’t get through. The people of Romania were accustomed to seeing their favorite people seized, but they were not accustomed to seeing people stand against the soldiers. As the day wore on the crowds grew—Pentecostals, Baptists, Catholics and Lutherans joined their Presbyterian Reformed sisters and brothers in creating an impenetrable wall of humanity. They stayed all day and up into the night.
About 11:00 p.m. a young Baptist student in the crown—his name was Daniel Gavra—began to distribute candles. Laszlo Tokes said that the last thing he saw going to bed at 1:00 a.m. were those thousands of faces all alight with the amber glow of candles. All through the night the people prayed and sang hymns. The next day the people began to chant for freedom and they began to march toward the city commons. Among those marching was Daniel Gavra, the one who had begun distributing the candles. The marchers were linked arm-in-arm, and next to Daniel Gavra was a young Pentecostal girl. Suddenly the soldiers opened fire. They were hit. The girl next to Daniel Gavra was killed instantly. Daniel himself fell, his left leg blown away by a barrage of bullets. The savage gunfire claimed many victims, but the people of Timisoara would not be stopped. By Christmas Day 1989, the government had toppled, Ceaucescu was dead, and Romania was free. Incredible!
Several days after Christmas, Daniel Gavra’s pastor went to visit him in the hospital. The pastor said: “Was it worth it to lose your leg?” Daniel replied: “To lose my leg was a small price to pay for the privilege of lighting the first candle!” The point is that the evil rule of Ceaucescu was brought down not by bands of revolutionaries or campus radicals or political operatives or rebel armies. It was caused by God’s people simply because they wanted a church where they could preach God’s message and tell God’s story. And because God’s people took a stand, communism took a fall.
In the midst of an uncertain time and in the midst of an uncertain world, we in this church are going to take our stand for Jesus Christ. We are going to build at the heart of this city a great church for God. We’ve planned the work. Now we are going to work the plan. This is no time to be complacent, it is instead a time to be confident. With God, we shall gain the victory. And when you stop to think about it, sacrificing some of our earthly goods is a small price to pay for the privilege of being the light of Jesus Christ to this city and to our world…