Annual State of the Church Message
Ah Lord God!
“Ah, Lord GOD! You Yourself made the heavens and earth by Your great power and with Your outstretched arm. Nothing is too difficult for You!”
Jeremiah 32:17 (HCS)
“Could I offer you a real estate deal this morning? Oh, it could be the deal of a lifetime! Can I offer you some land in Florida or how about a piece of the Brooklyn Bridge? I know it is sight unseen but it is a great deal! I promise. True, it might be confiscated by the military but who’s worried about that? Live on the edge. Take a chance! Good investments require a risk. I personally guarantee it. Come on and buy this land. No checks, no credit cards, please; cash only! Can I get you to sign right here?”
The classic swindle along these lines involves the company that sold Florida land when the boom first opened up. In the 1890’s, Henry Flagler built a railroad down the entire Florida peninsula and people stood in line to get land somewhere, anywhere, as long as it was in Florida. One company offered its acreage at incredible prices, prices far less that the going rate. This company displayed maps, showing exactly where the land was located, and described spacious lots, with gorgeous views and simmering sunsets. Their sales skyrocketed! People bought this land as if there were no tomorrow! But when the buyers from cold northern cities went south to claim their purchases and make arrangements to build, they found they had bought acreage in a swamp beneath three feet of water! The sweet deal turned sour especially when they realized they must drain three feet of water just to walk on the land, much less build on it!
Now, as if that were not enough of a swindle for us to consider, not many years after the Florida land boom, there was a explosion of another kind. Immigrants. Legal immigrants came to America by the hundreds and thousands from eastern and southern Europe running from oppression and starvation. They landed on Ellis Island in New York harbor knowing very little about America except for the stories they heard in their homeland of golden streets, easy cash and how there was enough for everyone to live like a king. They brought little with them, these people from Poland, Russia, Italy and Germany but what they did have they were ready to invest in America’s immense wealth. That made them easy targets for shysters of all kinds. And so in the 1920’s one of the favorite tricks, as immigrants poured into the Lower East Side, was to point out the stunning
Brooklyn Bridge, standing proudly against the skyline, and tell them that for only a few rubles or kopecks or lira, that bridge could be yours! Never mind that the Brooklyn Bridge was not for sale, nor the fact it did not belong to the salesman who hocked it, nor that its worth, even if it were for sale, was infinitely beyond the means of these struggling new arrivers. They plunked down their hard-earned money for nothing that looked like something. They gave away their limited resources and received nothing of value in return. That’s why today, when you find somebody who will believe anything, you smile and say, “Well, if you believe that, there’s a bridge in Brooklyn I would like to sell you!” Selling the Brooklyn Bridge is a symbol of innocence gone amuck.
Buying a part of a swamp in Florida and a piece of the Brooklyn Bridge are two classic and infamous swindles. Let me tell you about another land deal that looked very much like a fraud but ended up being an awesome demonstration of faith. Sometimes the distance between innocence gone amuck and great faith is a line so small that only people with the faith of Jeremiah can see the difference.
A Great Biblical Story
Sometimes the distance between innocence gone amuck and great faith is a line so small that only people with the faith of Jeremiah can see the difference.
Over 2,600 years ago the prophet Jeremiah stood in the midst of the increasingly desolate city of Jerusalem and wept for its fate. He knew without question that the city was doomed and that the Kingdom of Judah would fall. Jeremiah could see that its king would die, his sons would be executed, and that the people would be taken into exile. The Lord revealed to the prophet that a horrible set of circumstances would unfold and every faction of infrastructure would collapse including the economy. It was certainly not the time to invest in land deals with an invading army coiled like a rattle snake ready to strike. Rather, it was time to hunker down, batten the hatches and stuff your money in the mattress! It was time for fear not faith, right?
Meet Jeremiah. Just at that moment Hanamel, Jeremiah’s cousin, offered the prophet the chance to purchase a field in the village of Anathoth, a field that once belonged to Hanamel’s father and Jeremiah’s uncle, Shallum. Now consider the circumstances. Anathoth, a little village out in the countryside, was not much of a place for business on a good day, much less on a day when the Babylonian emperor was prepared to launch a devastating attack. It was obvious to every Israelite what would happen. The conqueror would confiscate all the good land for himself then levy heavy taxes on all private property. The economy would suffer, perhaps even collapse because all the men of Anathoth would be soldiering, or enslaved, or exiled, or dead. There would be no one left to plow and plant the fields. And besides, all profits would go to the king of Babylon in the form of taxes.
Therefore, on the surface Hanemel’s offer to Jeremiah sounds a lot like a Florida swamp sale to me! And, if, in fact, the invading king confiscated the land for himself, it would be a Brooklyn Bridge deal; a whole lot of money for something that will never be possessed or profitable.
The story I just told you is found in Jeremiah 32 and is there for you to read for yourself. However, as strange as it sounds, Jeremiah bought the field!
Against every maxim of good business sense, Jeremiah bought that field. Why? For what earthly purpose would a man of God who knew more of the future than anyone buy that field? To answer that question you must understand that Jeremiah didn’t buy that field for an earthly purpose. It bought the land for a heavenly purpose. He bought the field to demonstrate faith in a God who keeps faith with His people. He bought the field, not for present profit, but for faith in the future.
Listen to the words of Jeremiah, “For this is what the LORD of Hosts, the God of Israel, says: Houses, fields, and vineyards will again be bought in this land.' After I had given the purchase agreement to Baruch, son of Neriah, I prayed to the LORD: Ah, Lord GOD ! You Yourself made the heavens and earth by Your great power and with Your outstretched arm. Nothing is too difficult for You!”
Or, as the Spanish plaque on my desk reads:
“Para Dios todo es possible.”
"With God all things are possible.” Nothing, absolutely nothing, is too hard for Him! I love the words of John Maxwell, “Where there is no hope in the future there is no power in the present.” That was Jeremiah’s faith. His power in the present was derived from his hope in the future.
That’s what inspired Jeremiah to spend his money on something that looked worthless. That’s what drove the prophet to accept what looked like a Florida swamp swindle to his countrymen and to his friends seemed nothing more than a Brooklyn Bridge hoax. Jeremiah had faith, not in Judah or in faith but in his great God! He believed that God was not yet finished with Judah. So he invested in the future. He could see the possibilities beyond the immediate difficulties. Therefore, he bought the field because he believed nothing was too hard for his awesome God.
I want to talk with you this morning about our church. I want to discern with you some things about where we are headed, as I see it, and what we need to do to be faithful and express faith in our incredible God. And, most of all, I want to urge you, as individuals and as a congregation, to buy the field of Anathoth. I want to declare to you that God is not finished with First Baptist Church and that if we place our confidence in the hands and plans of God, then He will see us through to some glorious times. We have made a lot of progress in our journey but higher peaks await us but we will have to spend of ourselves to buy the field of Anathoth. The skeptics among us will fear that we’re investing in a Florida swamp swindle and some will be convinced that it’s nothing more than a Brooklyn Bridge hoax. I beg to differ.
I believe we are now at a new juncture in our history. I believe that God is calling us to rethink our life and work and to deepen it as never before. I believe this because I have seen what God is doing in many lives and it is a work of grace. To some, what I am about to share may seem a Florida swamp, incredibly messy; or a Brooklyn Bridge, just a promise that I have no right to make. But in my heart I believe it is a field of Anathoth. I believe it is a set of directions worth every ounce of our energies, every dime of our resources, and every prayer of our hearts.
Let me lay out under four headings the direction I feel we must pursue in the future: · Deepened Discipleship · Multiplied Ministries · Winsome Worship · Missional Involvement ·
I believe the time has come for us to buy the field at Anathoth by committing ourselves to deepened discipleship. We must become a people who know what our faith is about; who can speak of our faith convincingly; who can share our witness boldly; and who know our own hearts before a holy God.
In the Fall of 2005 we put a new face on discipleship at First Baptist and called it Encounter. We said, “Come As You Are For A Fresh Encounter with God.” Since that time we have offered many opportunities for believers of all ages to deepen their relationship with God. Many of you have told me about the great things God has done in your life.
The purpose of these courses is to assist those who have fragmentary knowledge, odds and ends knowledge, and help them put it together systematically. These courses are designed to take us deeper in our walk with Christ. Or, as you hear me say a lot, “They help us take our faith to the next level.” Every Christian is on some spiritual level. We should all strive to reach the next level.
A growing disciple is a follower of Jesus Christ who is moving away from just coming to church and moving toward being the church. I intend to work with every responsible entity in the church to move us to the place where we will insist that if you wish to be serious about your relationship with Jesus Christ and this church, you will move through a series of discipleship courses in a careful, systematic way, so that you will understand commitment as presented in the Bible, you will become more faithful to Christ and His commands, you will act in faith, and you will have deeply planted roots in the values and priorities of New Testament Christianity.
We plan to continue these Encounter discipleship opportunities and then enlarge our tent to include more. I am about to begin a Thursday morning Bible study that will be relational and interactive. Anyone with available time and interest will be welcome to attend.
“A growing disciple is a follower of Jesus Christ who is moving away from just coming to church and moving toward being the church.”
Also, I desire to see us use a discipleship approach in a part of our Sunday School. I propose that we start new adult Sunday School classes in an attempt to blend in other discipleship materials.
I intend to help anyone who wants to be in full fellowship with the family of faith at First Baptist to enroll in deepened discipleship opportunities. We can no longer afford the luxury of half-informed Christians who just come to church and avoid being the church. Over and over again history has proved that churches that make serious demands on people grow deeper and further and are more effective than churches which let people do their own thing. I intend to work for deepened discipleship based on Biblical mandates.
After Jeremiah had bought his field, God said to Jeremiah, “I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me for all time, for their own good and the good of their children after them.”
If we as God’s people will engage in deepened discipleship then God will give us one heart and one way. It will be for our good and for our children’s good. If you will catch my vision and understand my passion, it will be like buying the field at Anathoth. Not a Florida swamp mess. Nor a Brooklyn Bridge hoax. Rather, it will be a sign of confidence in the God who is not finished with us yet.
I also believe that the way ahead for our church lies in multiplied ministries. We have some wonderful ministries, but we must multiply them. Here are a few ministries that many of you might not know about.
· We host a cancer support group on a monthly basis.
· We purchase Bibles for International students on a regular basis.
· We have on-going ministries to the shut-ins through the Home Bound Committee, SS classes and deacon ministries
· We provide snacks for Boys’ and Girls Club.
· Many of our members volunteer at the Help Center, Meals on Wheels and ECM hospital.
· We support the Spanish clinic that meets on a monthly basis with people and money.
· Individual Sunday School classes are involved in multiple ministry projects.
· We serve in partnership with the Lauderdale County Children’s Policy Council to provide parenting classes designed to help individuals be better parents.
· Our ladies provide lunches for BCM noonday lunches.
These are wonderful ministries but there must be many more. Every person associated with this congregation should be engaged in at least one ministry that reaches out and touches the lives of people on the outside of these walls. We need to multiply ministries because Christianity was never intended to be confined behind the walls of a structure even if the structure is dedicated to God. We must multiply our ministries not only for the sake of the world around us, but also for our own sake.
As some of you know and all of you need to know, I have a burden to reach and connect with the next generation. In order to do that, we must think outside the box. We must color outside the lines.
Multiplied ministries could include tutorial programs, an after-school enrichment ministry or a support group designed to meet a specific need. It could include a place and space for the next generation to come listen to music and be exposed to the claims of the gospel. We must be careful not to duplicate ministries already offered by others but be creative and find a way to demonstrate the love of Christ to our city in tangible and practical ways.
I don’t have the insight or the details into all that can be done, just the vision. But I know that the people of First Baptist can dream big and allow God to show them ways to color outside the lines and multiply ministries.
Let me tell you the story of a young girl who grew up in a church like First Baptist. She finished college and entered the work force and prospered in her job. Yet, she felt the call of God in her heart so she enrolled in seminary and trained for ministry. She successfully served on several church staffs but God was calling her into a field of ministry virtually untouched by anyone. She and her prayer partners sought the heart of God and He answered in an unexpected way.
They were led to a place called “Roll-up One”, an exit gate outside a woman’s prison facility in their city. There God spoke to them and said, “These women have no where to go except back to the streets and a life of crime. You want a place to minister. How about them?” By faith they began a ministry to serve women in crisis, equipping them for lives of wholeness and hope. The name of their ministry is called “The Next Door.” They chose that name to describe the place which would be the next stop for residents who leave prison and begin their journey from prison to productive citizenship.
In fact, that girl grew up in a church exactly like First Baptist. She is Linda Leathers and she learned to dream big in this place. I just know that there is another person in this place like Linda Leathers who has the faith of Jeremiah and will buy the field at Anathoth.
Do you see that we must creatively multiply our ministries? We must multiply them because there are all sorts of needs around us that are virtually untouched. There is a high school that needs a Christian presence. There is a college that needs our light. International students who need to see and hear a message of love and hope to carry to their homeland. There are families with heartache brought about by divorce or family tensions. There are people all around us with the distress of joblessness, the agony of drug abuse, the sorrow of bereavement. There are people around us who are desperate for a word of counsel on how to raise their children, how to manage their resources, how to build self-esteem, how to overcome destructive behavior. If they cannot turn to us, where can they turn? We ought to be there for them. And we can be there!
But we need a Linda Leathers who, like Jeremiah, can hear the voice of God, step out by faith and buy the field at Anathoth.
Every time we turn our lights on it should be a beacon of hope to the surrounding area. I read about an artist who painted a wintry scene of a cabin covered with snow. His wife commented, “The scene is very beautiful but makes me feel cold.” He made two changes and everything was different. He placed a light in the window and wisps of smoke coming from the chimney. Now the cabin was inviting and offered hope. Multiplied ministries means multiplied hope!
And, I see that for our sake too. You and I need to serve others! God has given gifts of discernment and energy and resourcefulness and wisdom to every one who is a part of this congregation. We dare not waste it! We dare not ignore it! You and I must not shun our place in the body of Christ. I intend to work for the day when every person associated with this church is involved in at least one serving ministry. It’s for your own good because you are never anymore like Jesus than when you gird yourself in a towel and serve others.
Do you remember a slogan we use at First Baptist?
Every Member is a Minister.
Every Minister has a Ministry.
Every Ministry is Important.
When we seen step out in faith and begin to multiply our ministries it is like buying the field at Anathoth. Some will think it a Florida swamp; you’re getting into messy territory that you can’t wade through. And some will think it just a Brooklyn Bridge, pie-in-the-sky thing: that kind of person won’t come here. Well, let’s buy the field at Anathoth and find out!
I believe we need to find our way through to winsome worship. What is winsome worship? It is a pattern of worship that begins on earth as an offering to the heart of God. When He accepts it, and God doesn’t accept all worship, it returns to earth as a sweet sacrifice. It is then that it appeals to people, draws them, fills them, anoints them, and empowers them. The last thing that worship needs to be is an experience at the opera or a hootenanny at the Grand Ole Opry.
The truth is that no one way of worship will fit everyone and that is OK. Authentic worship is a gift that can be wrapped in many packages. What we do on Sunday morning may work for some, but it does not work for others. We can not be all things to all people. You may feel glorious singing “How Great Thou Art” with organ and choir and robes and candles, but there is a generation out there now which is different from that. Very different! They relate to fast-moving images and dramatic stories. Because many of you have been conditioned to do so, you enjoy a three-points-and-a-poem sermon delivered in a formal group setting. Your only requirement for happiness is that it be short. But the truth is, we are facing a generation that is more relational than that and they enjoy dialogue and less formality. Every generation learns in a different way. There is nothing wrong with that. We must understand that and use it, not ignore or defy it.
I know of nothing that brings heated debate in religious circles more than the issue of worship style. I have been in some ministerial settings when pastors disagreed on the subject so fervently that I expected a fist fight to erupt at any moment! We, as the Church are living in times that are strenuous and yet opportunistic. Rick Warren said, “It is safe to say that you will face in the future new problems and new pressures, but also new possibilities.”
We like the thought of facing new possibilities because that is intriguing and stimulating. However, we don’t like the idea of problems and pressures because that is drastic and draining.
I am not a prophet but you better believe me when I tell you that the church as we know it will not be recognizable in twenty years. You can argue with that, resist that, even defy that but change will occur regardless. Every aspect of societal infrastructure is experiencing major change: education, banking, retail, communication, travel, etc. Religious institutions move slower than all other aspects of the social order but even we are not exempt from the impact of change.
As a church we have experienced needed changes in our worship style; too much change for some of you and too little change for others. Please hear me, please hear me: It has never been my desire to turn our Sunday service upside down and inside out, though I do ask for the privilege of continually trying new venues of worship. Nor do I intend to lead you into some excessive fanaticism. But I do understand that true worship is more than art appreciation. It MUST involve the heart as well as the head. And I do intend to press forward and support in every way winsome worship; the creation of a worship experience that reaches heaven and brings home to every generation the presence of Almighty God in power and in joy.
We need to advance with winsome worship.
I suppose to some of you that may sound like a sales pitch for a Florida swamp; impossibly murky. Or to others like a Brooklyn Bridge, a pipe dream that cannot be done. But I tell you that unless we pursue winsome worship with all our heart then in a very short period of time we can erect a white picket fence around this place and sell tickets saying, “Come see what 1963 looks like!”
I intend to pursue winsome worship in my personal life and I encourage you to do the same. And I intend to see us pursue winsome worship as a congregation.
We must make an intentional effort to invest ourselves and our resources in a way that accomplishes the Great Commission. That is easy to say but hard to do because we tend to spend our resources, money and energy, on ourselves. This is really where faith comes in; this is truly where we will need to buy the field of Anathoth.
I have felt for some time, and it’s good to hear others say it too, that we are too tied up in official structures like committees, and that we need to free people to be and to do what their passions call for. We need to become a permission-giving church instead of a confining church. We’ve found out that placing people on committees that does not match their passions, gifts, skills and experiences is a waste of time. In the past some of our committees have been like that; folks are coerced into service and then do what they do without much passion. But when you ask them to serve on a ministry team and give them permission to find their own gifts, they flourish. I have asked this before and very little happened but I am going to ask that we re-examine and simplify our church’s infra-structure to reduce administration and increase ministry.
To be a missional Christian means that you pray and think creatively about the way you use your time. Occasionally, we have too many things happening in competition with one another. When church members have to leave one meeting early in order to attend another one, we have not been judicious in our use of time. Have you noticed that we rarely ask you to come to this facility other than on Wednesday and Sunday? There is a reason for that. We want to honor your time commitment to family and career pursuits. I want to press forward with a plan to convert our midweek prayer service and Bible study time into a church-wide training and equipping track. There will be always be a place for everyone as I see us taking blocks of four weeks, six weeks, to train our officers, train workers for ministry, train our teachers, equip ourselves, children and youth too, for Kingdom service. Just doing what we’ve always done in the past is not going to get the job accomplished in the future. We need to rethink our use of time.
To be a missional congregation means we must continually assess the way we use our resources. I am going to challenge us to look at our physical facilities and to address the needs and the opportunities we have around us. This sanctuary building, the 1954 educational building are in good shape, structurally sound and for the most part functional. The Chapel needs some changes to be more versatile and usable. The Old Library building needs immediate attention. We were told by city officials that we could NEVER own that building because of legal issues and stipulations when the land was donated to the city. Therefore, we built a master plan that did not include that building. Then, abruptly and totally be surprise, we were offered that building in the midst of a major renovation project. We bought it for the future and now the future is here.
I am going to work with our Future Planning Team to accomplish a comprehensive study of the needs and possibilities for this entire property including how we can use all that we have immediately as well as in the future. I am going to ask that we spend the necessary time to dream and plan, plan and dream so that we become a church on mission in Florence, Alabama.
To be a missional Christian means that you be disposed to be a missionary where you are and willing to go wherever He leads. I remind you that Jesus said, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." (Acts 1:8)
I remind you that the term “missions” should be more than a noun. It should be a verb in all of our lives; hence we use the term “missional.” It is more than something you do; it is who you are. Your mission starts the moment you walk through your door and enter the mission field. You could deliver a First Love package to a new resident in your neighborhood, get involved in a Shoals World Changer project or become a part of a CLBA mission team to Arequipa, Peru, or volunteer to work at the Help Center or travel to Chiquimula, Guatemala. The opportunities are limitless.
Does that all sound like a Florida swamp, so much mud that we can never touch it? I just want to remind you that under that three feet of water there is earth. Rich earth. It is land that if we can drain off the mess will produce great growth. Owning a swamp in Florida is not as bad as it might seem. Walt Disney bought a swamp near Orlando and turned it into Disney World! Sometimes you must see beyond the mess and see the miracle, beyond the water and see the wonder.
Does all that I have said sound like I am trying to sell you a piece of the Brooklyn Bridge, an impossible dream, a misty wispy nothing? Does it all sound like the ranting of a huckster just trying to take your time, talents and treasure and give you nothing in return? I hope not because to me, I am asking you to buy the field at Anathoth. That takes faith. It takes commitment. It takes confidence in our Sovereign God.
God said to Jeremiah, “See, I am the LORD, the God of all flesh; is anything too hard for me? … They shall be my people, and I will be their God. I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me for all time, for their own good and the good of their children after them. I will make an everlasting covenant with them, never to draw back from doing good to them; and I will put the fear of me in their hearts, so that they may not turn from me. I will rejoice in doing good to them, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul.”
Many people have heard of the outstanding exploits of Charles Blondin, considered to be one of the greatest funambulists (aerialists/tightrope-walkers) of all time. “The Great Blondin” amused and amazed thousands of people as he made his way over Niagara Falls on a slender rope stretched from shore to shore.
This he accomplished first on June 30, 1859 then a number of times, always with different theatric variations: blindfold, in a sack, trundling a wheelbarrow, on stilts, carrying a man (his manager, Harry Colcord) on his back, sitting down midway while he cooked and ate an omelet. , He never faltered or failed. Blondin had a secret. As he made his way over the rope, he kept his eyes fixed on a large silver star which he erected at the far end. The star was the center of his attention and guided him to the other side.
We too need a star to capture our focus. The prophet Jeremiah had a star: “Ah, Lord GOD! You Yourself made the heavens and earth by Your great power and with Your outstretched arm. Nothing is too difficult for You!” (HCS) That should be our focus as well as we journey by faith.
· My desire is that we see beyond ourselves, beyond our circumstances and have the faith of Jeremiah and buy the field of Anathoth.
· My challenge is to see that our confidence in God increases so that we declare "Ah, Sovereign LORD, you have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and outstretched arm. Nothing is too hard for you.”
· My prayer is that God will “give [us] one heart and one way, that [we will] fear God for all time, for [our] own good and the good of [our] children after them.”
That desire, challenge, prayer will not happen unless we focus on Him and make everything about Him, not us. Paul declared, “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen.” (Romans 11:36 NIV)
- From Him because He is the source of our agreement
- Through Him because He is the agent of our agreement
- To Him because He is the goal of our agreement
NOTE: I give credit to Pastor Joseph Smith, First Baptist Church, Gaithersburg, Washington, District of Columbia for the opening illustration; “Florida swamp, Brooklyn Bridge” concept.