On January 9, 2005 I stepped onto this platform for the first time as your pastor. I vividly remember that first moment like it was yesterday. I came with to the moment filled with both hope and trepidation. I wanted to convey a sense of self confidence and a sense of direction. While a part of me could claim those feelings, there was another part of me that wondered if perhaps I had gotten in over my heard. I had done considerable research and knew much about the church’s heyday when ministries were blowing and going and every room was filled to capacity. I knew a great deal about the powerful preaching that defined Hobbs and Garrison’s era, and the compassion that defined Jeff Zurheide’s season here. I knew about First Baptist’s heart for its community but I also had heard stories of pain and heart break, of the struggle to define the church’s identity as it looked into its future. I knew that felt that God had lead me here, but I do not think I could have imagined how much I would come to love this church and the church family that calls it home.
So now, some 2,555 days later, I step on this platform again. In that first sermon I tied to lay out some sense of where I saw God leading us, and every year on the second Sunday in January I have tried to do the same. Now for the eighth time, I look to Scripture and I look to God for a fresh word of hope and direction for us. While most years I have claimed this moment to announce a new inititiave, mission or ministry program, or staff change. This year is different. This year the message speaks to the heart of who we are in our walk with God. This year, the passage that seized my heart and has defined this service is Isaiah 51:1-3. It is calls us to be defined by a passionate pursuit of God.
You need to know that the words of this passage was originally written to a people that we broken hearted and drowning in uncertainty. They were in a lost and longed to hear that God was ready to work on their behalf. “This passage contains strong words of encouragement for people who have been through terrible times. Perhaps their situation is still awful and words of hope are not easy to believe. They may sound like wishful thinking, pious optimism, a futile blowing in the wind. So the prophet works hard to present his message of hope in as convincing away as possible.”[i] While our setting is very different, the words the prophet brings speak with power to where we are as we seek to be a relevant and a meaningful people of God in an ever changing cultural context.
The great prophet Isaiah begins, calling out for the people’s attention. He raises his voice and summons them with expectation; “Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness and who seek the LORD. Isaiah begins with the presupposition that the people to whom he spoke were people who were actively pursuing righteousness – actively and passionately pursing living the right way – God’s way. In 2 Timothy 2 we hear Paul describe to young Timothy what it means to pursue a rightly focused life. He teaches, “Flee the evil desires of youth and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart.”(vs.22) This word that both Isaiah and Paul uses is a strong word. They do not talk about walking or jogging toward a right life, they choose that word that is active and passionate. When one pursues righteousness – it is about an all in, fully committed, dead sprint kind of pursuit of a right life. It is a mad dash, pushing forward, straining toward the finish line kind of commitment to living God’s way.
In the past I have called to restructure our church ministerial staff, to step out in new mission endeavors, and to expand our congregational programming. This year I believe that our call is to strengthen our spiritual core – to choose to personally and congregationally grow in the depth of our walk with God. In the weeks and months you will hear about: expanded opportunities in prayer ministry; a focused small group Bible study experiences for men; a parallel focused small group Bible experience for women; a special discipleship opportunity for Senior adults; a DiscipleNow weekend event for youth: and occasional book studies designed to stretch our worldview and help us gain a new understanding of the heart of God. During my summer sabbatical we will partner with the Baylor School of Social Work to do a Church Census that will help us to understand the heart cry and the great spiritual needs in our congregation in an effort to design our ministries to meet those needs.
But it is important that you understand that the call to a passionate pursuit of a right life with God is ultimately more personal than programmatic. The choice to embrace a passionate pursuit of God’s way is not something you do for a moment and then go back to your normal routine. Isaiah tags the call to purse righteousness with the additional qualifier as those who seek the Lord. Paul adds the qualifier as those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart. They were clear that the pursuit of a Godward life found its foundation not in just in what we do, but in the nature of our walk with God. They both envision that God works in the midst of a people with a passionate pursuit of a rightly focused life; a relentless drive to become the people God calls us to be; a tireless and ceaseless seeking of the way and will of God for our lives.
This kind of faith – this kind of faith life – is contagious. We felt a flavor of it in the testimonies we heard on Wednesday night and in testimonies offered from this pulpit over the past year. We see glimpses of this way of life in the face of those around us that give of themselves freely and are drawn to God’s feet in prayer as a pattern of life. Many in our community and many in the world long to encounter followers of Jesus who live authentic lives of faith and devotion instead of encountering people who fill their language with religious words but live lives that are indiscernible from them own. Our community and our world long to see examples of people wholly dedicated to living their lives God’s way. The way one person can change the world is to embrace a passionate pursuit of God and then to allow God to use them as a witness for all the world to see.
Isaiah knew that call to pursue righteousness and to seek the Lord might strike the community as hollow religious words in light of their current circumstances. For us too, the word might sound like just more church chatter for those living in a culture that is growingly hostile to the Christian message. So Isaiah called them to remember whence they came. He called out, Look to the rock from which you were cut and to the quarry from which you were hewn; 2 look to Abraham, your father, and to Sarah, who gave you birth. When I called him he was only one man, and I blessed him and made him many.
Isaiah took them back to the beginning of the beginning – of the moment when God first created His covenant with His people. He called Abraham to leave all that he knew and to trust God to lead him, provide for him, and to bless him and to bless others through him. Isaiah reminded them of Sarah, Abraham’s wife who was to give birth to a child despite her advanced age. She laughed at God’s promise, but God was faithful and birthed a nation through her. Abraham and Sarah’s stories were not easy one – but they demonstrated that God was faithful over and over and over again. They were cut from the rock of people of trusted God and passionately pursued God despite the challenges. They were hewn from a quarry of faith and faithfulness. God had led them in the past – God would lead them into their future. He wanted them to understand that the God he called them to pursue with passion, had pursued and sustained them with an even greater love and passion.
Many of the dreams I laid out before us over the past seven years have come to fruition and are now a part of our church life. We sought to reach out to those on the margins and have become the centerpiece congregation for the work among refugees. We talked about reaching into the Classen-Ten-Penn community and launched our S3 mission endeavor. In one of these sermons we announced the plan to offer an Experiencing God opportunity and we witnessed together God move in our midst over the twelve week small group study and prayer program. We dream of the birth of a missions center, of renovating the facilities, of becoming a model of a missional congregations that would encourage other downtown congregations. In several of the sermons we announced changes in church staffing that has lead us to the ministerial staff that helps to lead us every day. I celebrate what we have been able to do together. But, I should also note just as quickly that a number of the things I brought before us moved toward development and just as quickly faded away. I celebrate these as well, because they showed the heart of a congregation willing to try new things – and to continue to try new things – as we sought to discover God’s way for us. I want to thank you for trusting me enough to be willing to push outside of tradition and comfort zones to seek to be the church calls us to be for this era.
But, your heart to be shaped to be the right church doing the right things for the right era should not surprise anyone. For those who are newer to First Baptist, know that when you look back across the history of this church a discernable pattern emerges. In each era that the church has been willing to embrace whatever needed to be done to be the best church possible. In the midst of the Great Depression the church rallied together to build a new building to expand discipleship opportunities. In the 50’s the church was willing to call the first Minister of Christian Recreation in Baptist life and build a gym as a part of a new youth education building to reaching people in a changing culture. This same spirit led the church to say “yes” to launch Good Shepherd Ministries and to be televised. It lead many of you in the room this morning to lead Sunday School classes and departments where you raised your children side-by-side and sustained the church ministries with the same passion you sustained your families. When other churches left downtown for the comfort of the suburbs you choose to stay and minister to this community. Who we are now and who we are becoming is unmistakably shaped by the way God has worked in this church and through you in the yesterdays and the yesterdays before that. Who we are now and who we are becoming is unmistakably shaped by the faithful spirit you have demonstrated doing quality ministry yesterday – and now today. God has pursued us and was faithful to fulfill his promises in our yesterdays – and we can trust Him to be faithful in where he leads us in our tomorrows.
With those words of strong assurance lingering in the air, Isaiah points them toward tomorrow. 3 The LORD will surely comfort Zion and will look with compassion on all her ruins; he will make her deserts like Eden, her wastelands like the garden of the LORD. Joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the sound of singing. This short verse from Isaiah 51 emphatically seeks to break open an unimaginable future. Expectations are reversed; life is to be changed. We struggle with the idea of change because we it is always easier to stay huddled and event content where we are. Change can be unsettling – uncomfortable – and even unnerving. But only when we allow ourselves to continually be changed and reshaped by God can we know what it is to pursue a right life with God. While we can cherish our yesterdays – whether ones from years ago or weeks ago or days ago – we cannot linger there. God has more in store for us. Isaiah wanted them to know that their situation was about to change - but that they would find joy and gladness, thanksgiving and the sound of singing on the other side.
We live in the moment between the days defined by memory and the days that will shaped by our dreams; between already and what is next before us. I believe that we focus ourselves and our congregational life on a passionate pursuit of God that God will lead us to a place of joy and gladness. While our tomorrows may look different than our todays and yesterdays, I believe that if we commit ourselves and our church community to follow God’s lead with abandon we will come to a spirit of thanksgiving and sing songs of praise. If we choose a passionate pursuit of God and God’s way as our way then God will turn the deserts and wastelands of our spiritual lives into overflowing gardens of growth and beauty. Isaiah wanted the people to understand that God was about to do something amazing in their midst – and that what God desired of them was for them to pursue a right way of life that would lead them only to Him. His call is our call – we can see how God has moved in and through First Baptist Church in the past and in this most recent season together – but I believe to the very depths of my soul that we are only beginning to see what God has planned for us. I do not pretend to know all that God has in store for us. But, while many Christians quake in fear of the future, I believe we are called to step out boldly and to pursue God’s way and God’s word with passion. Choose to make space in your lives and participate in the opportunities we will offer to give you the tools for a passionate pursuit of God. Make space in your life to spend time with God – reading, praying and listening. Make space in your lives to take time to remember how God has moved in your life in your yesterdays. Prepare yourselves for what God might call you to do and where God might call you – and us – to God. Great days with God await us.
[i] DANIEL J. SIMUNDSON, “Comfort and Challenge: Prophetic Preaching in Pentecost,” Word & World 16/3 (1996)
“TEXTS IN CONTEXT” Copyright © 1996 by Word & World, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN, p.360