Beginning at the End
Message at Immanuel Community Church, Concord, NH
November 6, 2010
On September Twenty-Fifth this year I received an email from a friend who had himself received the email from a small church in Concord, NH. It read,
This letter is written on behalf of Immanuel Community Church as an initial contact to prospective intentional interim ministers who may be interested in coming to work at Immanuel Community Church. We received your name, along with a list of other intentional interim ministers from the Ministry List. We are looking for a part-time minister to work around 6 units a week.
Our church is over a hundred years old and at present we have twenty active members. Our minister of eighteen years retired in April of 2009 and we have had supply ministers over the past year, which has allowed us to build our treasury.
We may be small in number at Immanuel, but we know that God has a plan for us. God will send us the right person to minister to us in our worship, fellowship and service. If you feel God speaking to you and can help us through this transition, please send us your resume with a cover letter.
That is how I come to be standing here this morning. To this moment I have no idea whether God is planning to work it out so that we will spend an extended time together as pastor and people. But the texts appointed for this morning made me think about what I might want to say to you folks at the end of an interim pastorate.
So I’ve decided to save a lot of time, beat God to the punch, and preach my farewell sermon to you this morning. This way you will know what I would have prayed for you and hoped to see God work in you in the eighteen months or so that an interim or transitional pastorate would last. This will be somewhat like putting a DVD on and watching the last scene of a movie before watching any of the rest of it. But I think you’ll see very quickly as we get into the texts this morning why I’m headed in this direction.
In the preface to one edition of the classic little book Your God is too Small, J.B. Phillips writes, that He is not the God who called the worlds into being or parted the Red Sea or raised the dead. He is the God who calls the worlds into being, parts the Red Sea, and raises the dead. Our faith, individually and collectively must begin there. If God only was active, if God only did things either for our forebears or for us at an earier time, then we have believed in a God who has himself died.
Job knew this when he wrote, “I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.”
Beloved, your Redeemer and the Redeemer of this church did not once live. And he does not live now in merely a spiritual, ethereal sense. Either we believe that he lives, now, imminently close to you and to me and to this church, or he is no god at all.
The First Challenge – Write the Word in Stone (Job 19:23-27)
The first challenge I would leave you with comes from Job 19, and is that you would have the faith, individually and as a church to ask the living God to engrave your words eternally in the rock, not as an epitaph: “here once lived a people who knew God,” but living words in a living stone. 1 Peter 2:5 says, “you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”
But for the words you engrave to bring life, they must be the words of the Logos, Jesus himself. Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly, Paul says. If you do, the words you engrave will be “here lives a people who know God.”
And so the first thing you have to agree with God on is who Christ is and what bearing his Word has on each of your lives and upon all of your lives. The Word, written eternally in stone must be for you what the Reformers called it: the only sufficient rule for life and faith.
With Christ as your only Redeemer and hope, and the Word as your only written guide to knowing God and what godly living is, you’re probably asking, “where do we go from here?”
Turn to 2 Thessalonians 2: 13-3:5 with me and we’ll see. (page in the pew bible?)
“ But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.  To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.  So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.
 Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace,  comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word.
[3:1] Finally, brothers, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored, as happened among you,  and that we may be delivered from wicked and evil men. For not all have faith.  But the Lord is faithful. He will establish you and guard you against the evil one.  And we have confidence in the Lord about you, that you are doing and will do the things that we command.  May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ.”
(2 Thessalonians 2:13-3:5 ESV)
The Second Challenge – Live as hand picked people (2 Thess 2:13-14)
This second challenge is something I can only tell you about. You who are about to begin again with an interim ministry following over 100 years of faithful service to Christ will need to embrace something new that God wants to do with you. Looking back at what God did in Thessalonica, Paul gives thanks for the people there, calling them beloved by God because they rose the the challenge of being hand-picked people. That’s what he means when he says “God chose you to be the firstfruits to be saved.”
This is so rudamentary if you’ve ever had an apple tree in your yard, and so hard to understand when you are the ones sitting in the pews after 100 years of growth and struggle. What happens to a fruit tree in winter? Do you see any apples on it? Of course not. Everything looks dead. Only a trained arborist can know whether the tree is dead or alive. You know another thing about a fruit tree in winter? It is really hard to get anyone to go out and appreciate it. There are so many obstacles. They have to trudge through the snow. It is cold where the tree is. You don’t get any payoff for going to the tree. And frankly, the thing simply isn’t all that pretty to look at. But come next summer there’ll be a ton of people out there picking fruit off that tree and admiring how full and how beautiful it is.
If God has a call on this church that he wants to renew, then the tree is not dead, and it follows that you who are here now will become, in time, the first fruits of summer, not the last fruits to hang on into a cold winter. This remains to be seen, and the chemistry of it has to do with the preaching of the gospel between you and among you and whether your response to that preaching is that you go for it. Paul puts it this way, “To this he has called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Obtain. Reach for it. Go for it. If the preaching of the gospel here in the months ahead kindles in your hearts the desire to reach, you will reach and you will become the called ones, the firstfruits of the gospel in this place.
The Third Challenge – Stand Firm (2 Thess. 2:15)
The Third Challenge is a tough one, but one you are already doing. You’ll find it in verse 15: “stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.”
Immanuel Community Church has a wonderfully rich history here on Concord Heights. This Community was planted one hundred and ten years ago because some people saw the need of an expanding town. Community. The people up here on the hill didn’t want to have to trek all the way down to the center of Concord to find fellowship. They wanted Community – here – on Concord Heights. And over time that group of people developed not only community, but a rich set of traditions they passed on from generation to generation.
But there’s a danger in hanging onto the traditions your church family developed over the years: community must be renewed in every generation and new family traditions developed or the community will die. The important traditions, the ones that really matter are the traditions of sharing Christ with others, of being the Body of Christ, and of holding firmly to the Word of God. All the other traditions will come and go with the seasons of the community.
Our son and daughter-in-law are expecting our first grand child in December. For the first time Jama and I are thinking we’ll be going to Boston to be with them for Christmas. We’re torn. My mother and sister live in Maine, and our family has always spent Christmas there in recent years. But a new nuclear family is growing in Boston, and we now face the challenge of bridging between the generations: welcoming new life while still honoring the old. That’s how a community stands firm, by reproduction, reinvention, AND recollection.
The Fourth Challenge – Relax (2 Thess 2:16-17) (this doesn’t depend on you)
Now I’ll admit that the first three challenges the Word is placing before us this morning are a little intense: Write the Word in Stone, Live as Hand-Picked People; Stand Firm. But God doesn’t pussy-foot around. Neither does he steam-roller us. That’s why the next challenge may sound out of place with the rest. In fact, it may not sound like a challenge at all. Here it is:
Relax. Relax. Verse 16 says, “ Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace,  comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word.”
I have a dear friend who is one of the most insightful laymen I’ve ever known. He’s a worship leader and has volunteered his time and talent to a small Episcopal church down in Connecticut for most of the past thirty years. About ten years ago God started to put before him the vision to help the Diocese of Western Tanganyika in central Africa. They have been undergoing revival, at one point adding 25 new churches a month to their ranks. The Lord has also gifted Bill as a tinkerer and a computer hardware specialist. So the challenge the Lord put before Bill was to go to a place where electric power is spotty, at best, and build a computer network, complete with satellite internet, for the Episcopal seminary there that is training leadership for these new churches. And, oh yes… God told Bill he’d have to raise the money to finance the work himself.
You’d think that would put an incredible amount of pressure on Bill. But Bill once came to me and told me the key to successful ministry; the key to successful worship; in fact, the key to a successful life. He said, “Jon, this is SO not about YOU.”
Look at the verse again, and take out the modifying phrases between the commas: “Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word.” Do you see it? All the effort, all the worry, all the burden is on God. How this church is revived and reinvented, how you find your next pastor and who that person is, even how long this church is destined to be a church does not depend on you.
In reality, the only thing that depends on you is that you let Jesus Christ himself comfort your hearts.
Now, I’ll admit that for some of us, that’s a huge challenge. When I get to worrying about things in my life and my wife comes to try and offer me comfort, I can be the most impossible person to live with. Once I get into that tense, unsettled state, no amount of talking is going to get me to unclench my fists, un-grit my teeth, and sit down. I will go over and over a problem because I’m convinced it all rests on me to figure out, and I don’t want to let anyone else help me handle it. If I would only let her comfort me, she’s be very good at it.
So when God places these very real, very serious challenges before you: To Write the Word in Stone, to Live as Hand-Picked People and to Stand Firm, that is precisely the time he also says, “come now. Here’s a blanket, a cup of hot cocoa, some fresh cookies I just made, and a warm fire where we can sit together. I know the future of this church is weighing you down right now. Let ME take all that. You just sit here, and relax.”
And you know? That turns out to be the remedy for all our concern. It doesn’t mean that we stop doing the things that need to be done. It simply means that we are now freed from that feeling of ultimate responsibility and we can do those things in a calm, relaxed state of heart.
The Fifth Challenge – Look Forward (2 Thess. 3:1-3a)
And that frees us to accept the Fifth and Sixth challenges with grace. Just quickly, the Fifth Challenge is to Look Forward in Chapter 3, verse 1, “Finally, brothers, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored, as happened among you.” Don’t look back to what was, don’t even focus on what is. Doing either one of those things will unsettle you and frankly will end up depressing you. God wants you to plant your feet squarely in his footsteps and walk forward.
The Sixth Challenge – Have Confidence (2 Thess. 3:3-5)
And finally the Sixth Challenge: Have Confidence. Have confidence in one another as you build and rebuild community here as part of the Immanuel Community, and have confidence in God that he will do what he sets out to do. We could spend a whole other morning just discussing 2 Thessalonians 3:3-5 and the three wonderful promises it lays out. Here is our confidence in God:
The Lord is faithful.
He will establish you.
(He will) guard you against the evil one.
And here is our confidence in the community God places around us. There are three of them also. Paul ends by saying,
“We have confidence in the Lord about you,
that you are doing the things we command
that you will do the things that we command.
That the (will) Lord will direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ.”