Transforming Vision: Entering the New Year with an Optimistic Ministry

 

 great_is_thy_faithfulness.jpgHere is a sermon taken from a charge to a friend when he was installed as a pastor. As you can tell from the text, his name is Kevin. But don’t let that personalized point stop you from thinking about the text of this passage and transforming this vision for your own ministry! Indeed, I offer this chapter because I know that preachers are thinking these days about New Year’s sermons. While this one was not preached on a New Years day, it contains the seeds of thought that can easily be converted into a hopeful New Years message.
 
I always beleive that a New Year’s sermon ought to lead the congregation in thankfulness to God for His past faithfulness in all things as well as point, Joshua-like, to a certain future in Christ. Perhaps you set the tone, in this sermon, for an annual focus in the Word of God. Or you simply summarize, from the Word, where you have been, as a people, and where you are going.
 
I hope this sermon (with study questions [for small groups] at the end of the sermon) will give some fodder to Spirit-shaped, pastoral-hearted ministers of the Word. Go and preach the Word and enter the New Year with confidence in the Christ who reigns forever and ever! Amen! 

 

The good old Bishop of Liverpool, J.C. Ryle, wrote some very encouraging words when he sought to lift up the believer:

Cling to Christ and live the life of faith in Him. Remain in Him and live close to Him. Follow Him with heart and soul and mind and strength, and seek to know Him better every day. By doing so, you will have great peace while you pass through the “temporary things,” and in the midst of a dying world you “will never die.” By doing so you will be able to look forward to “eternal things” with unfailing confidence, and to feel and “know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.”[1]¾J.C. Ryleœ

Helen Keller wrote, “No pessimist ever discovered the secrets of the stars or sailed to an uncharted land or opened a new heaven to the human spirit.”[2]

I believe there are many in the church that are pessimists, but today is a day to be an optimist. Is that just a Pollyanna attitude that comes from a fleeting feeling associated with the installation of your new pastor? Well, listen to the Spirit inspired words of a man who is locked up in prison writing about the sovereignty of God and the life of joy.

 

I thank my God upon every remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine making request for you all with joy, for your fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ; just as it is right for me to think this of you all, because I have you in my heart, inasmuch as both in my chains and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel, you all are partakers with me of grace. For God is my witness, how greatly I long for you all with the affection of Jesus Christ. And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in knowledge and all discernment, that you may approve the things that are excellent, that you may be sincere and without offense till the day of Christ, being filled with the fruits of righteousness which are by Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. But I want you to know, brethren, that the things which happened to me have actually turned out for the furtherance of the gospel, so that it has become evident to the whole palace guard, and to all the rest, that my chains are in Christ; and most of the brethren in the Lord, having become confident by my chains, are much more bold to speak the word without fear (Philippians 1:3-14).

 

True Optimism Based on a Firm Foundation

I recently came across a surprising book title: The Positive Power of Negative Thinking. Julie K. Norem is a psychology professor at Wellesley College who wrote the book and says that you could “harness the power of negative energy” to reach your goals. The promo for the book went like this:

 

Are you tired of always being told to “look on the bright side”? Are you criticized for imagining worst-case scenarios? Do you wish your optimistic friends would just leave you alone and let you be negative?

 

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may be one of the millions of people who have learned to cope with the pressures of modern life by using Defensive Pessimism, a strategy of imagining the worst-case scenario of any situation.[3]

As a pastor I have seen people with the gift of discouragement but I never knew it was a virtue until I read about this new book! Well, actually, I have read that there are church consultants who are telling us that the church in America is not going to make it unless (and you can fill in the blank here), (1) we speak the language of the culture; (2) we determine exactly which kind of worship the unbeliever really wants; or (3) we develop the right marketing campaign, or program, or web site, or on and on. And amazingly, in many cases, the solution for the deathbed situation in the church is available from said consultant for a small consulting fee!

There may be someone here who feels like they are not going to make it. They feel that the journey of discipleship has taken some bad turns. Maybe they are discouraged over their own sins or over the family situation in which they find themselves. They just can’t see through the circumstances to any approaching victory in their Christian lives. We all feel like that from time to time.

On this historic day, I am more optimistic than ever about the future of the church of our Lord Jesus; and I am optimistic about your life, and mine, in the kingdom of God, no matter what you may be facing. A misplaced optimism would say that I am optimistic because I know you can hang in there and do it, or that I really am super-pastor capable of leaping tall buildings in a single bound. No, I am not optimistic because of man. I am optimistic because in two thousand years of human frailty and satanic opposition and worldly attack, the promise of our Lord that He would build His church and the gates of hell would not prevail against it is as certain as ever.

Nowhere do we see this more clearly realized than in the early church. With an apostle in jail, apparently failing to evangelize and reach the Gentiles, the church’s future seemed to be in jeopardy. But the truth is that while Paul was in prison, he wrote a little letter of thanksgiving to the church at Philippi about how God was using his situation to advance the kingdom.

From that wonderfully encouraging book of Philippians, and especially Philippians 1:3-14, I want to encourage you, on this first day of our new pastorate together, to look through the optimistic lens of the Bible to see that God is able to build His church through you. Truly, this is a divine description of an optimistic Christian and an optimistic church.

This description may be summed up by the (1)values of an optimistic church and by the (2)affirmation of an optimistic church. Both are firmly grounded in Paul’s letter.

The Values of an Optimistic Church (Philippians 1:3-11)

The Philippian church had given Paul a gift and in this letter there are remarkable gifts of truth that can change lives.

If we were trying to distill Paul’s values from this part of his letter, we could include these six values.

v    Honor the past (Philippians 1:3-5)

The Apostle Paul thanks God upon every remembrance of them. Their ministry had produced some great things in the past. They had helped other churches and had been a blessing to the body of Christ. Paul thanks God for them and for the fellowship they enjoyed in the past.

Remembering is a sacred act in the Bible and is one that is commended by God. The Passover was an observance in which Israel was to remember how God had liberated them from an oppressive life of bondage into a life freedom. The Lord’s Supper is a commandment to remember—to remember that Christ is our Passover, that in His body and blood we have our freedom and that we are on the way to our promised land. The Book of Psalms is filled with the command to remember. In Psalm 77:11 David honors what God has done in the past.

I will remember the works of the Lord;Surely I will remember Your wonders of old (Psalm 77:11).

 

Still other times, failure to remember what God has done is sinful:

Our fathers in Egypt did not understand Your wonders;They did not remember the multitude of Your mercies,But rebelled by the sea—the Red Sea (Psalm 106:7).

 

So it is right and good and glorifying to God to remember on this day.

In the past God has used your church in powerful ways. I am sure there are people here who have been blessed by this church. I suspect that there are people in heaven because of the teaching ministry of this congregation in the past. Like Paul, we can look back and remember the great times together. We can be thankful for ministry. We can be thankful for good friends, for godly pastors who have passed through these halls. As you move into a new pastorate, you do not disconnect yourselves from the past. You honor the past.

Kevin, it is the same for you. You can move into the future by honoring the past. God has used you to bless the saints in your ministry in South Florida and in Savannah. You can be thankful because all things have worked together for you to come to this place in your life, and it would not have occurred without all of the joys and sorrows, the people, places, and events of what has gone before.

As a pastor who is only the twelfth pastor in the 163-year history of my church, there is a lot of past to honor! But I have learned that it is important for people to feel like what has gone before is not lost. It has meaning.

But you cannot just live in the past. To do so is to erect a mausoleum and live among those who have gone before. In Philippians 1:6, Paul lifts their eyes to the glorious present and future and this is a second value of the optimistic church or Christian.

v    Build for the future (Philippians 1: 6)

Philippians 1:6 is one of the greatest verses in the Bible. Paul begins by speaking of “being confident of this…” God had done some great things in the past, but there were great things to come. The Christian life is dynamic, alive, and moving through history to reach each and every new generation that comes along.

Likewise, God is not finished with you yet. You honor the past, but now God is calling you into a future with Him. And the reign of the Lord Jesus guarantees that He will see you through.

This is the heart that says with Paul, as Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message:

I’m not saying that I have this all together, that I have it made. But I am well on my way, reaching out for Christ, who has so wondrously reached out to me. Friends, don’t get me wrong: By no means do I count myself an expert in all of this, but I’ve got my eye on the goal where God is beckoning us onward¾to Jesus. I’m off and running and I’m not turning back (Philippians 3:12-14, The Message).

 

v    Glory in grace (Philippians 1:7)

A third value is in Philippians 1:7: “…you all are partakers with me of grace.”

The central theme of the writings of Paul is what God has done in Christ through the divine truth of grace. By sending His Son to live the life we cannot live and die a death for our sins, God has done what we cannot do. And He offers eternal life to all who call upon Him by faith. This is grace, and Paul will say in Galatians 2:21,

“I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain.”

 

Friends, we are saved by grace, kept by grace, and it must in grace that you begin your ministry together.

v    Abound in love and knowledge of Jesus (Philippians 1:8, 9)

In these verses Paul shows that his own heart is for loving the saints with the “compassion of Christ Jesus.” Then Paul says his prayer is that the love of the saints may overflow increasingly with “knowledge and full insight” (nrsv) to help determine what is best.

My family and I just came back from California. One of the things we did was to go on a hike up through the Carmel Valley and into the Sierra Mountains. We went with hearts filled with joy at being with each other, with souls filled with the beauty of creation, but we also had a map!

God wants you to go forward with love. God wants you, Kevin, to love these people through the compassionate heart of their Savior. But he wants all of us to follow Him in love wed to knowledge and insight into His Word.

v    Keep your eyes on the eternal (Philippians 1:10)

Now, look at verse Philippians 1:10: “to help you determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless” (nrsv).

God wants you to remember that you are on a journey, a journey of faith in Christ that is going somewhere¾to the new promised land, the very abode of Almighty God. Some of us will get there when we pass from this life, others when Christ comes again, and all of us will see that great day of resurrection.

Preach it, Kevin. Encourage each other, people of God. If you are here this morning, please remember that the Word of God is telling us that the day of Christ is coming. How will you appear before His throne pure and blameless except through the righteousness of Christ?

But moreover, I think Paul is dealing here with the Christian life. He is reminding us that we are on a journey. As we are filled with love and God’s Word that gives knowledge and insight, we will begin today living for eternity.

v    Practice His praise (Philippians 1:11)

Finally, we read this in verse Philippians 1:11:

 

Having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God (nrsv).

 

Paul is saying that all of our lives are moving toward praise. The values of this optimistic believer are that life is lived as an act of worship. Our worship services will be filled with expectation and wonder if we come to see that we are really just practicing our praise for heaven!

So, these are the values:

¨     Honor the past

¨     Build for the future

¨     Glory in grace

¨     Abound in knowledge and love of Jesus

¨     Keep your eyes on the eternal

¨     Practice your praise.

As you, like Paul, begin to enact and cling to these vital values of the Christian life, it will transform your life and your fellowship, but it will also lead you to some insights and some affirmations.

The Affirmation of an Optimistic Church

v    The pain of our past is being transformed into the power for our ministry (Philippians 1:12)

I absolutely cherish this passage.

I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel (Philippians 1:12, nrsv).

The beatings, the false trials, the imprisonments are not stopping the gospel but are advancing it! This is the truth of God’s sovereignty, and it is for this reason that I am so optimistic.

Whatever has come into my life, I know that my God is causing all things to work together for good for those who are His.[4] This reminds me that if God is for us, who can be against us.[5]

In my own life, this truth liberated and freed me. I was orphaned as a child after having endured no small amount of abuse and heartache. I later ran from the pain and my misunderstanding of it. But when I learned about the glory of God, the God who is sovereign in love, I learned that the very things that had sought to destroy me, had become the things that had led me to see my need of a Savior. It is not that I embrace my pain in a sado-masochistic way, but I am now at peace with it. God has used it to advance His gospel. He is doing that with each of us and with all of us.

What have you gone through as a church that was painful? What have you gone through in your own life that was filled with pain or heartache or injustice? May you learn this affirmation of Paul’s and be able to allow it to help spread the gospel.

v    The predicament of our present is being translated into a testimony for outreach (Philippians 1:13-14)

Paul is saying that all the events that have led to his bondage have also led to his ministry. One not given to seeing God’s ways might think that the church was sunk.

It looked sunk in the Garden of Eden. But in Genesis 3:15 God gave a promise that a Redeemer was coming; and as the angel escorted our first parents out of Eden, a promise was already afoot. The predicament was being translated into a testimony of God’s faithfulness.

You might have thought that the kingdom of God was sunk when a mad king in Egypt issued a diabolical edict to kill all the little boys born to the Hebrews. But God’s faithfulness and His covenant were working through the predicament to bring the promise.

Maybe you thought that when a mad ambitious ruler named Haman conceived a plot to exterminate the Jews, the divinely chosen carriers of God’s Messiah, it would be over. But in the Book of Esther, surely an optimistic book if ever there were one, God was working out the promise in the predicament. And in the end of that divine historical irony, Esther saves the day, Haman is hung on his own gallows, and the promise is persevered.

The predicament of Jesus’ birth might have signaled to the angels that it was all over. Herod, a new madman in a long line of satanically directed beasts of the earth, sought to kill the child Jesus. But there was providence in the predicament and our little Lord was saved.

What do you see at the cross but this same thing. The predicament is that the King of Glory is being mocked between two criminals. Jesus the Righteous, the King of Shalom, is stapled to a Roman cross outside a city called the Holy City, which had turned against Him. Surely, here the predicament will finally prove to be the glass that is half empty! Here the plan unravels and the Son of God fails! But, believers in Christ, in this predicament came the promise! And early in the morning on the first day of the week, right on time, just as it had been foretold, the predicament of a grave, of a cold body of God, shivered from the first beam of power, and that man who was dead rose up again, and the immovable seal of the most powerful nation in the history of the world was broken, and Jesus walked out!

Because of this, my dear friend, because the central message of the cross of Jesus Christ is woven into the very life of this man Paul, he is able to say that the things that have happened to him have happened to advance the gospel.

I had a parishioner (I’ll call her Miss Helen) who was a very godly woman and a woman of prayer. She fell and broke her leg and was rushed to the hospital. The physicians carefully brought healing to her, and by the time I found out about it, she was resting in a room. There was another person in the room with her, a teenage girl who had also broken a bone. A curtain separated them. When I walked in to see her, Miss Helen looked at me, and the first thing out of her mouth was, “Well, now I know why God allowed that fall, and I know why I am here.” I said, “Well, why?” She said, “Because that girl over there doesn’t know the Lord. I’ve already talked to her and I been waiting on you to finish it up!”

She could see through her predicament to the providential hand of God.

And you, too, my dear friend, must see this in your own life, in the life of our nation, and at this time in the life of your church.

Our nation is in hard times. Television has become a pipeline for every sort of moral sewage you could imagine, and our people are being infected with a love of sin and a falling away from God. When the church gets a headline in the paper, you can just about count on it being a bad one: a bishop ordained who is living in sodomite sin with another man, a church riddled with law suits because of shepherds abusing the flock, and our own denominational news is always filled with splits and falling away and pastors in sin and congregations railing against other congregations over petty things. But my dear friend, in the worst times have come the blessings of revival. When we come to see that we have no solution, that we are locked up in a generation that desperately needs the gospel, we come to see that we were born for just such a time as this!

Kevin and people of West End, what a glorious time in your lives! God has worked all things together for such a time as this. Whatever predicaments you may face in your church, in your life, say with Paul that this is working out for the advance of the gospel.[6]

Conclusion

Now, the gospel part of this message is not just to be optimistic, but to be a follower of the One who has greater plans for you than you have for yourself.

We will call his name Toby. Toby had Downs Syndrome. And Toby had a dream. Toby wanted to be in the Special Olympics and try to run a fifty-yard dash. Toby was almost thirty years of age, very overweight, and had asthma. But he had a dream. And he knew he could do it. So, on that sunny day the special needs people lined up at a football field, the gun sounded, and off they went! You probably would not have recruited any of them for your track team, but they were giving it their all. But Toby was so heavy and had such breathing problems that he was way behind and finally just fell. There, flat faced in the grass, his tears now mixing with the sod, his big body heaved with disappointment. Then, out of the corner of everyone’s eye, came his dad. You see, Toby’s daddy had a dream that was even greater than his son’s dream. He wanted that race more than Toby. He wanted Toby to finish, not to compete with others or even to win, but he wanted his boy to have a victory. And he was even surer that it would happen than Toby was. So he ran out, picked up that big boy, and started running with him thrown over his shoulder. He started hollering to his boy, “You are going to make it Toby! You will make it all the way, son!” Then Toby got into it and started whooping and hollering, “Yeah, Dad! We gonna make it!”

You and I are Toby. We will be victorious, not because of a powerful, ingenious pastor or a hard working congregation, but because of a loving Savior who is unwilling that any should be lost. He will see victory, you will be kept, your lamp stand will be in place when He comes again. Because He wants it more than you, because He promises that He will turn even your heartaches to rejoicing, because He is strongest in your weakness, I am optimistic.

 

 

 

Questions

1.     The church has always struggled against the world. The church in America suffers little from outright persecution, but it faces difficulties of other sorts. What do you think are the biggest challenges the church in America needs to address today?

 

2.     What conclusions can you draw when you consider that Jesus instituted the church knowing the people who would comprise it and the entity it would become?

 

3.     How does your church excel in the six values of an optimistic church? Where is it lacking? 

 

4.     What are some ways change could occur?

 

Lord, You are building Your church today just as You have in past generations. You can make a difference in the world without me, but You have chosen me to be your representative in this particular place and time. Let me not be discouraged by difficulty. Let me rely on You to work miracles. Give me reverence for Your church and see her as Your bride and nothing less. Make my local community, and that of this nation, worthy to be called Yours.  In Jesus’ name. Amen.

 

 


[1] J. C. Ryle, “Eternity” (http://www.biblebb.com/files/ryle/PR21.HTM).

[2] Helen Keller, “Optimism” (1903), http://www.afb.org

[4] Romans 8:28

[5] Romans 8:31

[6] Philippians 1:12

 

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About Michael Milton, Ph.D.

Michael A. Milton, Ph.D. (University of Wales, Trinity Saint David's College), is an American Presbyterian pastor, theologian, and author. He is, also, an alumnus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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