Reaching Up! A Sermon for the New Year

It is interesting to look back. Here is my sermon from last year for the New Year. It has some chronologically specific items in it. Yet I trust that it contains the timeless truths of Scripture which will again speak to us today.
I am convalescing with pneumonia on this New Year’s Day and remembering that even in sickness, yea all the more in ill health, we may, in Christ, still look up.
I trust this message is helpful. Happy New Year.

We are taking down the Christmas tree on this New Year’s Eve. I just watched (why was I watching and not doing…?) my wife standing on a kitchen chair and reaching, stretching, reaching up, to get hold of the beautiful golden ribbon and wire formed angel on top of our now naked spruce. And I couldn’t help thinking, “That is a picture of this coming new year.” We have all been through so much in 2009. Recently, on top of all of the fears of an economy gone wild and the soaring national debt, a health care system that is nothing short of transformative for our nation (and passed in the dead of night), a deeply divided nation of those who think tea bags are a good thing (and who thus love Sarah Palin) and those who find this kind of democracy unnerving (and who despise Sarah Palin), a divided Congress, and a madman killing our soldiers on our own military base, we have a plot to blow up a plane over a major American city on Christmas Day! Thank God that He protected us by causing the device to fail. Make no mistake. God saved us on Christmas Day. So it is New Year’s Eve. It is time to stand on a sturdy foundation of God’s Word and on the sure and certain ground of God’s redeeming work in Christ Jesus, to reach up to grab our “angel.” It is time for us to be reaching up for a new year, a new day, a new life, a new hope to Almighty God.

This past year I preached on the thirtieth anniversary of a great church, Northeast Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina, founded by my friend Dr. George Crow. I preached a message on Reaching Up and a Vision that is Out of this World, from 1 Corinthians 15:20-28 and 1 Thessalonians 2:17-20. On this New Year’s Eve I now share this message with you. I have left in the personal and local references from my sermon. And I pray that we may reach up to Jesus Christ for our help, our strength, and our protection this coming year and always. May we grab hold of the “angel” who announced tidings of great joy and know His peace, in our soul, in our families, in our communities, in our land, and in our world.

This is my New Year’s prayer. This is my New Year’s sermon.

Reaching Up with a Vision That Is Out Of This World

(1 Corinthians 15:20-28; 1 Thessalonians 2:17-20)

A Sermon on the Thirtieth Anniversary

of Northeast Presbyterian Church, Columbia, South Carolina

Introduction to the Scripture Reading

I greet you in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and bring greetings from your friends at Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte and from RTS. The Lord is blessing us to live out our vision to bring Him glory and serve the Church by preparing workers of His Harvest to go to the ends of the earth. Almost 3,000 students are being trained for the Great Commission, out of a commitment to the inerrancy and infallibility of the Word of God and the doctrines of God’s rich grace in Jesus Christ. Not only is this happening in five campuses – Jackson, Orlando, Charlotte, Atlanta and Washington DC, but also through RTS Virtual – and the Lord is using the teachings of our pastor-scholars to reach millions through iTunes U and through an accredited Masters degree that is being utilized by pastors and others all over the earth. As the wave of revival sweeps through Africa, East Asia, Sub Continent Asia and on to the Middle East, we pray that RTS is being used of God to equip the saints for the work of ministry. We are there and we are going there. We want to serve Christ and His Church as we stand with His people on the very wave of revival in our generation.

And all of this is talking about something that we are celebrating this day on your 30th anniversary. We are talking about, not just institutions, but people, people becoming, through RTS or through Northeast Presbyterian Church, a part of something that greater than themselves; something that lifts us up and out of the ordinary, part of something that is quite and radically Biblical: something that is “out-of-this-world.” That is really what we are celebrating today: the establishment of a Golden Lampstand, a church, that by God’s grace will be here until Christ comes again.

And my prayer is that God will bless this day because all of us came to see the hope, the joy and the crown of rejoicing that Paul wrote about when he wrote of things that were out of this world of which we can be a part.

I begin by reading 1 Corinthians 15:20-28, and then I shall read my main text today, 1 Thessalonians 2:17-20. Give attention now to the inerrant and infallible Word of the Living God:

1 Corinthians 15:20-28

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 1 Corinthians 15:20 For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. 21 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. 22 But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. 23 Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. 24 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 25 The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 26 For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “all things are put in subjection,” it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him. 27 When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all. 28

1 Thessalonians 2:17-20

But since we were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart, we endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face, 1 Thessalonians 2:17 because we wanted to come to you—I, Paul, again and again—but Satan hindered us. 18 For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? 19 For you are our glory and joy. 20

Prayer for Illumination

Dear Lord, whose Spirit breathed forth this Scripture, established this church, and through Your Son our Savior, Jesus Christ, is making all things new, even through the Word preached, taught, sung and Sacraments administered, to men, women and children throughout the past and into the future, until our Lord comes again, establish this message according to Your promises through Jesus Christ in whose name I pray. Amen.

Introduction to the Sermon

You have all heard the warning, “Beware lest you become so heavenly minded that you’re of no earthly good.” I don’t know who made that up, but I think I understand what they were after. They didn’t want Christians being so caught up with heavenly thoughts that they had no practical effect in this present life. But I prefer the statement of C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity. He contradicted that popular muddle-headed quote when he penned these words:

“If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. The Apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’; aim at earth and you will get neither.”I know of churches with great programs, but they are essentially earth-bound. I know of sermons that are homiletically well crafted and even motivating, but they are fundamentally of “this world only.” Indeed, many in our generation, in seeking to reach out to others with the Gospel, feel that an “earthier” message would be more appealing to the un-churched. More personally, probably a great many of us have been living out our faith with our eyes to the ground, rather than looking up. I pray to God that Northeast Presbyterian Church will never be guilty of being “too earthly minded to be any heavenly good.”[1]

I know of churches with great programs, but they are essentially earth-bound. I know of sermons that are homiletically well crafted and even motivating, but they are fundamentally of “this world only.” Indeed, many in our generation, in seeking to reach out to others with the Gospel, feel that an “earthier” message would be more appealing to the un-churched. More personally, probably a great many of us have been living out our faith with our eyes to the ground, rather than looking up. I pray to God that Northeast Presbyterian Church will never be guilty of being “too earthly minded to be any heavenly good.”

This morning, we are going to see that the Apostle Paul would have agreed with C.S. Lewis. Paul’s heavenly mindedness impacted everything he did. And in particular, Paul’s vision of a heavenly future caused him to be the kind of pastor he was and the kind of person he was. In 1 Thessalonians, Paul’s words show that his present ministry is directly impacted by what he expects in the future.

An anniversary is not only honoring the past, but also building for the future. It is a mark in time that really is a re dedication, personally, for each and every one of you, and for the pastors and leaders of this great congregation.

In it, God has provided us the truths in this passage to keep our Vision in line with His Vision; to make sure that we have a heavenly vision that will impact the way we conduct our ministry here and now.

Under the weight of difficulty, Paul’s vision always came through. As he recounted both the persecution of the Thessalonians in verse 14 (“for you also suffered…”) and his own suffering in verse 15 (“who killed both the Lord Jesus Christ and their own prophets and have persecuted us…”), the Apostle Paul burst forth into one of the most passionate expressions in Scripture. The whole of it contains Paul’s vision of his own ministry. It is as if God has provided pastor and people a glimpse of what a truly great Biblical Vision should look like. The two great features of this passage are: It is surely a Vision that is Out of This World, but also a Vision that must be your burden here and now.

Let’s note first that…

I. This is a Vision that is Out of This World.

As we approach this Vision of Paul’s, we come face to face with the fact that…

Such a Vision gripped his heart and soul.

Note the language of Paul’s Vision here. In verse 17, we observe that he “endeavored more eagerly to see you face with great desire.” And in verse 19, the heart of the great Apostle pulsates with love for God and love for his people as he poses a question,

“For what is our hope, our joy, or crown rejoicing? Is it not even you…”

I have heard it said that the greatest sin of a preacher is making the Bible boring. If a man will simply unleash the truth of the Word of God, his listeners will come face to face with the most passionate people who have ever lived. Paul must rank at the top of those men with great vision, for Paul was possessed of a vision of the risen Christ. Paul was possessed of a vision of the growing Kingdom of God, and he knew that his every step was moving onward and toward the realization of this great vision. He was indeed a part of something greater than himself. And much of his ministry was spent in explaining that vision of the grace of God in Christ and calling people into that Vision.

A truly great vision must be a vision that is out of this world, for only that vision, a vision that is greater than ourselves, can occupy our thoughts and dreams for a lifetime of ministry.

One of the greatest transformations that can ever occur in the life of a church is when pastor and people begin to see a common vision. Thirty years ago, a church planter stood in the midst of this community and began to preach that the Kingdom of God had come to Northeast Columbia. He began to not only preach it but he began to see a congregation emerging that would fulfill God’s purposes and carry out the Great Commission through this community, through Fort Jackson, through people he would not even know at that time, generations he would not even see. In short this church planter began to burn, and others caught fire too. And the holy conflagration began to burn in the souls of others. And this church was born.

I remember when I planted “my first church” (come to think of it, it was not my church after all but God’s)  in Overland Park, Kansas. People would ask me, “How many members do you have?”

I would say, “Millions!” The truth is I had only my wife and my son and my Aunt Eva, who was 94 years old. We were it. But by God’s grace and vision, I knew that He was building His Church and that we were a part of the glorious Communion of Saints throughout all of the ages.

The concrete thinkers would then respond with something like, “But how many people in that one million-member Kingdom do you have, pastor?”

Of course, I would have to say, “None!”

But I wanted to cast a vision of the glorious Kingdom of God! I wanted to lift the eyes of our people to the reality of the Church of Jesus Christ. In the beginning, church plants have to meet in places slightly less glorious than our setting today. In Overland Park, we began in an elementary school gymnasium. I actually preached under the basketball hoop. It was difficult for some people to capture what was happening on Sunday mornings: that we were gathered before the King of Kings and Lord of Lords in an act of public worship. I will never forget one lady in particular. She was a very notable and influential professional woman in the Kansas City community. But maybe her vision had been impaired along her way. I am not sure. She might have thought we were just a gathering of people meeting in a gym. It certainly looked that way. But the truth was we were a church of Jesus Christ being engrafted into His larger Church. I don’t know what she saw and didn’t see. But this I know, for she told me: God reached down and, through His Word and Spirit, awakened her to a new reality, a reality we all need to see ourselves. For you see, this dear lady came to me after a service, and she told me words to this effect, an impression of which I can never forget,

“When I came in here today, I wasn’t thrilled about having church in a gym. My little boy even wondered if you were going to try a slam-dunk at the end of your sermon! But, as I heard the Call to Worship, as I joined in affirming an ancient faith, as we sang hymns being sung by believers all over the world, as I listened to Scripture read and preached, I was changed. What I really want to say is that I came into a gym, but now I think this place rivals the grandest cathedrals of Europe. God was here, wasn’t He?”

My dear friend, my prayer from this Scripture is that you see that the Vision for your congregation and for your life must be one that is out of this world. Indeed, some of you may even be thinking that you just came in here this morning to sing and say a few words and listen to a preacher. But I tell you that you are sitting among angels. According to Paul, we are on a grand journey through time that will one day bring us face to face with the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. If you begin to see that Vision, your heart will surely beat with the passion of Paul. Your life will share in this great desire.

Now, when St. Paul casts this vision of people being caught up in the arms of Jesus, I am led to consider another place in Scripture where Paul works out this Vision.

Paul’s words bring to mind his teaching in 1 Corinthians 15.

There, we come face to face with a great Gospel conspiracy, which is overtaking the cosmos. Our mind is lifted from the commonplace to the divine. In that great Resurrection Chapter, Paul gives us a telescopic view of God’s Great Plan that will one day bring us all to a most glorious scene.

In 1 Corinthians 15.20-28, we come to learn that the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus set in motion a chain of events, which will conclude with a Great Resurrection Day. On that Day, the skies will be rent in twain, and Christ shall return, and the bodies of His people will be resurrected. On that Day, the reign of Jesus Christ that began at His ascension will be unrivaled, as every other authority, all other pretenders, all evil, will be extinguished by the cataclysmic in-breaking of His Kingdom. All Creation will bow before Him, and as Paul says in Philippians, “Every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” As Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15.25, “All enemies will be put under His feet.” And then, in the language of heaven, Paul ushers us into the far reaches of eternity. Paul tells us that as the Kingdom comes in its fullness, Christ, who received the Kingdom from the Father, will turn the Kingdom over once more to the Father, that God might be “all in all.”

I do not claim to understand the scene. It is far too heavenly for my sin-affected mind to take in. But this is the Vision of God. And everything you do as a believer and as a church must be subject to this overarching vision of Scripture. We have only to hitch our wagon to what God is doing in His universe and be led by His Spirit. We do ourselves no favor, we serve no eternal purpose, if we speak only of this world. We must begin with the end in mind; we must speak of heavenly things. We must lift up the Vision of a Victorious Savior, who is Alive having been dead, a Savior who is marching through history toward a Day when He will be crowned and exalted, and the glorious design of Almighty God will be consummated.

But the second truth of this passage is this: the vision of Scripture which must be our vision is not only out of this world, but…

II. This is a Vision that must be your burden here and now.

Now, I return to C.S. Lewis’ thought. I believe from this passage in 1 Thessalonians that such an Out-of-this-World Vision is not too heavenly minded to be any earthly good, but rather that such a Vision always results in blessing. As I examine this passage, I come to see a second great feature: This is a Vision that is a blessing to people today.

I return to Paul’s summary of the Vision in 1 Thessalonians 2.19-20.

For what is our hope, or joy, or crown of rejoicing? Is it not even you in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ at His coming? For you are our glory and joy.

Souls Safe in the Arms of Jesus

I have heard some say that every great man has one consuming vision in his life. This certainly was true of Paul. His Life Vision may be summarized in this passage. He is saying that the Vision of his life is wrapped up in God’s Vision of His Great Plan for the Ages, and that Vision has an earthly feature: he wants his people to be there when Christ comes again. Paul wants his people safe in the arms of Jesus.

My dear friends in Christ, this is my personal Vision for my ministry. I want to be about the work of the Gospel in my own life so that when Christ comes again, my family is safe in the arms of Jesus. I know of no greater vision for the ones I love. I will thus work and plan and give my life to this great Vision. I will pray for them and witness to them and seek to live a life of faith so that, as far as it is possible with me, my family will be there. As your pastor, like Paul, I want you to know that my Vision is centered upon God’s Vision, but that doesn’t mean that it is not focused on you. No, my dear friend, in the economy of God’s Kingdom, it is my work to cast that Vision, to inculcate you and your family in that Vision of God’s, to work and plan and give my life so that, on the Day when Christ returns, you are there, safe in the arms of Jesus.

Hindrances

We must be careful. There was satanic opposition to this Vision of Paul’s. In verse 18, Paul wrote, “Therefore we wanted to come to you—even I, Paul, time and again—but Satan hindered us.” Satan is not interested in preachers playing ecclesiastical politics. Satan will not muster the minions of Hell against congregations who are playing church. But, take a congregation whose ministry is about the coming Kingdom of God in Christ, preaching and teaching that Jesus Christ is Lord and calling men and women and children to turn from their sins, to be free of the bondage of sin, and to yield their lives to this reigning Christ, and there will come opposition. But “greater is He who is in us than he who is in the world” (see 1 John 4.4).  Satan might have hindered Paul, but the presence of the Church today is a testimony to the fact that Paul and believers were “more than conquerors” (Romans 8.37) in their time. And we in our generation shall also be victorious if our Vision is God’s Vision.

Conclusion

“For what is our hope, or joy, or crown rejoicing? Is it not even you…(1 Thessalonians 2.19).”

This is a heavenly vision, but it is a vision that is a blessing to people today.

Dr. James Dobson, the famous founder of Focus on the Family, some years ago had a heart attack that nearly took his life. During those times, a man re-examines all that is important to him and makes necessary adjustments in his life. Dobson did this. He then called his children to his bedside and told them that all he had ever taught them and done for them meant little if, at the sound of the trump and the appearance of Jesus Christ, he would not find them meeting Christ in the air. He tells the story with a quivering lip and a cracking voice when says that he summed up his little charge to them with these words: “Be there.”

“Be there.”

These are the most important words I have for Mae and John Michael and our grown children and their children. It’s the most basic desire I have as a pastor. It is my prayer for the students in our seminary. Today we honor the past and build for the future at this 30th anniversary—but it is all for naught unless every member of this church is there when Christ comes again.

Will you be there? You can be—but not of your own work or plans. Only through receiving by faith and following by faith the resurrected and living Lord of Life, our Savior Jesus Christ, can you ever hope to enjoy eternal life with God. I pray that if you have never trusted in Christ alone for eternal life, you will do so now.

You may rest assured, on the very truth of God’s Word, that as you receive Jesus Christ, you have entered into the very Plan of God for the ages. God’s Plan for your life is that you glorify Him and enjoy Him forever, beginning right now. And He will bring blessing to your life as you come to know the peace of God, which passes all understanding, as you come to experience the abundant life, which Jesus promises to those who come to Him. Coming to know Christ will bless you today, but the greatest blessings are yet to come. For His Vision is truly a Vision that is Out of This World.

Let us pray.

Father, our sight is often blurred by sin. Remove that sin that we may see Your glorious Word and receive it into our lives and come to know Jesus Christ as our Lord today. Help us who believe to rid our minds of small things, of small ideas, of small visions, and grant us renewed minds to perceive the Mind of God. Grant us the passion for life and for the future, which we observe in Your servant Paul. O God, we would see Christ exalted and all of our lives and energies and plans and dreams falling into place under that one great Truth. In Jesus’ Name we pray. Amen.


[1] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity: A Revised and Amplified Edition, with a New Introduction, of the Three Books, Broadcast Talks, Christian Behaviour, and Beyond Personality, 1st HarperCollins ed. (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), 134.

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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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