This is the message that I gave at Grace UMC, St. Cloud, MN for the 9th Sunday after Pentecost, 31 July 1994. The Scriptures that I used for this message were Exodus 13: 17 – 22 and 2 Timothy 1: 6 – 7.
This is (was) the 11th sermon I ever wrote. I am not sure what Sunday in the church calendar this particular Sunday represented nor what the regular lectionary readings were. I was still developing as a lay speaker and followed the pattern used my pastor of one reading and a selected verse that may or not have come from the reading. My own style would begin to develop the following summer when my role as a certified lay speaker would change from an occasional Sunday or two to a weekly service and message to three churches in Kansas (see “Hide and Seek”).
The significance of this message, at least for me, is this is the first time that I had to say good-bye to a church where I had been more than just a member. Grace was a church that had given me an opportunity, and a church where I may have helped change it’s direction.
An interesting note – after the service was over and I was greeting everyone (and saying good-bye) a visitor came up and said that she wasn’t sure about coming to a Methodist church. She had been at the other Methodist church in town and the pastor there was leaving. She came to Grace and I was saying good-bye. I pointed out that I was not the pastor and that he would be back next week and she should come again. Of course, since I was gone, I never found out what she did.
This has been edited since it was first published.
A recent report on CNBC stated that the average American makes eleven moves during their lifetime. This is an interesting piece of information. First it tells us that our society is a very mobile society. This mobility is also increasing because a few years ago the average number of moves an individual made was three. We have become a society seeking a direction.
This report also tells you something about me; something that my mother has known for some time, that I am definitely not average. Because my father was a career military officer, a job that required that my family move often and the other moves I have made professionally, the move I will make at the end of August will be something on the order of my fortieth move.
Now, moving from one place to another can be a traumatic event. The same report that gave us the statistics about moving also reported that moving is the third leading cause of stress, behind death and divorce, in families today. It is not easy to move from familiar surroundings to strange or new ones. All you have to do is ask Sandra about our first move to Odessa, Texas, back in 1989. Even the Israelites would have rather stayed in slavery in Egypt than move to the new and yet unknown Promised Land. In Exodus 14: 10 – 14 we read
“When Pharaoh drew near, the people of Israel lifted up their eyes, and behold, the Egyptians were marching after them; and they were in great fear. And the people of Israel cried out to the Lord; and they said to Moses, ‘Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, in bringing us out of Egypt? Is not this what we said to you in Egypt, ‘Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.’ And Moses said to the people, ‘Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be still.”(Exodus 14: 10 – 14)
But even if you were never to move from your place of birth (and there must be three people who have never moved in order for the statistics to work out), the journey through life can still be frightening and uncertain.
Consider two individuals, both young men in their mid-twenties. The first young man, fresh from college, was uncertain about what the future held and was also uncertain as to what was in the world. He was not ready to venture out into the world. The second young man, also just out of college, was certain that he knew the secret to life and the promises it held. With this confidence, he set forth in his life to make the world better.
The first young man was Peter Jenkins, whose travel across America I have discussed before. When he graduated from college in the mid 1970’s, he felt lost and unsure of his future. In an effort to answer these unsettling questions, to find out who he was, he decided to walk across America. That walk led him to Mobile, Alabama, one early spring night in 1975.
After finishing dinner and promising to meet a friend at a party, Peter saw a sign advertising a revival meeting in downtown Mobile. More curious than anything else, he went to that revival. After all, he had been to parties before. And besides, as many young people have come to find out, the thrill of alcohol and drugs quickly wears off. At the call of the evangelist, Peter began to feel like
“I was going to die. The deepest corners of my being were lit with thousand-watt light bulbs. It was as if God himself were looking into my soul, through all my excuses, my dark secrets. All of me was exposed in God’s searchlight.
When the question ended its roaring echo, I decided for the first time to admit I needed God. This must be the God I had been searching for, and the same One they worshiped back in Murphy (N.C.) at Mount Zion.” (Peter Jenkins, A Walk Across America, page 261)
With the revelation and knowledge that Jesus Christ had died for him, Peter Jenkins accepted Jesus Christ as his own personal Savior. He then could appreciate how the Holy Spirit could guide him and how it can guide us today.
In the dark in downtown Mobile as I walked home, I felt the smile on my face and the glow of heaven around me. My soul had been like a wavering compass needle, but now it finally pointed to true north. I had found my lifetime direction. (A Walk Across America, page 261)
Even the Israelites were afraid of the trip from the certain and safe surroundings of Egypt into the unknown wilderness they called the Promised Land. Yet they still knew that it was God who guiding them.
When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was nearer; for God thought, “If the people face war, they may change their minds and return to Egypt.” So God led the people by the roundabout way of the wilderness toward the Red Sea. The Israelites went up out of the land of Egypt prepared for battle. And Moses took with him the bones of Joseph who had required a solemn oath of the Israelites, saying “God will surely take notice of you, and then you must carry my bones with you from here.” They set out from Succoth, and camped at Etham, on the edge of the wilderness. The Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night. Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people. (Exodus 13: 17 – 22)
The other young man in my story was John Wesley. Some two hundred years before Peter Jenkins began his walk across America, John Wesley came to America. While Peter Jenkins may have not been certain as to what he was going to do, there was no uncertainty in the purpose of John Wesley. Having recently graduated from Oxford, Wesley was ready to put into practice the methods that he, his brother Charles, and their friends had worked out during their studies at Oxford. It was tehse methods which he felt were the key to achieving Salvation.
John Wesley came to Georgia with a great deal of joy and expectation. But he left in a cloud of fear and failure. Prepared as he and his brother, Charles, were with the understanding that one cannot find peace in life outside Christ, neither felt that they had truly found the Peace of Christ. Despite their training, despite their background, neither Wesley was willing to say they trusted the Lord. John Wesley returned from Georgia feeling that he was a failure because he had not fully accepted the Holy Spirit.
The symbol for the United Methodist Church, as we see in the tapestry to my left, is the Cross and the Flame. It is by the Cross that we have the promise of Salvation through Jesus Christ and it is the Flame of the Holy Spirit which guides and illuminates us.
Only at that moment we have come to call the Aldersgate moment when Wesley accepted Jesus Christ as his personal Savior did the movement that became the Methodist Church become successful. Only when he accepted Christ as his personal Savior did John Wesley understand the direction his life was to take. By turning his life over to Christ completely and fully, did Wesley gain the confidence needed to make the Methodist revival possible and successful.
Neither the success of Grace Church these past few years nor the success of Grace Church in the future will be because one person did great things. No single person present today has the power or the capability to accomplish what Grace Church has done. Just as Paul wrote to Timothy
“That is why I remind you to stir into flame the gift of God which is yours through the laying on of my hands. For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” (2 Timothy 1: 6 – 7)
The success of Grace Church today is because we have allowed the Holy Spirit to become the empowering force in our lives. When Sandra, the kids, and I first came to Grace Church some three years ago, only one member of this church other than Pastor John and his family said hello. Now, visitors often say they cannot leave without everyone in the church saying hello. Three years ago the average attendance was around 70 and the discussion of each Administrative Council meeting was which bills to pay. Today, the average attendance is over 110 and tonight we are having a special Ad Council meeting to discuss the purchase of land for the new Grace Church.
If we let the Holy Spirit into our lives, it creates a fire which cannot be put out. It is like magnesium burning, hot and intensely bright. Magnesium was the metal used in the first flash bulbs (remember Christmas past when someone took your picture and you had a dot in front of your eyes?). It is that flame, the flame of the Holy Spirit burning inside each one of us which provides Grace Church with its power and strength. And as others receive the Joy brought about by the Salvation offered by Jesus Christ, this fire gets hotter, brighter and larger.
We are at a time when many people have lost their direction and are looking for guidance. Just as the Holy Spirit guided the Israelites through the wilderness with the cloud by day and the flame by night, so too does it guide Grace Church today. And it is the Holy Spirit which can let Grace Church be the guiding light to St. Cloud and Minnesota. As Jesus said
“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lamp stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5: 14- 16)
But the choice is yours. Will you today accept Jesus Christ as your personal Savior? Will you let the Holy Spirit light the fire that warms your soul and provide direction to your life? Without Him, we wander through the wilderness. With Him, we can complete that journey to the promised land.