Summary: A SERMON ON VISION - The future of any church rests not in our abilities, but in the plans God has for us. I preached this sermon as my candidate sermon to the church I am now serving.
In 1987 the Army sent me down to Fort Sam Houston, Texas to receive training as a chaplain in hospital ministry. While there we received one class I’ll never forget on Near-Death experiences. I can still remember the instructor telling us, “When you go to visit a patient and the patient tells you, “Now chaplain, I don’t want you to think that I’m crazy...but!” Get ready, because you are about to hear a near-death experience.” Afterwards, one of my fellow chaplains, a Baptist, criticized that class as nothing more than a bunch of hogwash. He then went to visit a new patient that had arrive the day before with burns over 40 percent of his body and had gone through major surgery the day before to save his life. After introducing himself as the chaplain for that floor, the young soldier looked into my friends eyes and said, “now chaplain, I don’t want you to think that I’m crazy, but...Yesterday, while in surgery I died. Then I went through a tunnel of light and on the other side of this tunnel I met an old man that I thought was my grandfather. The old man turned to me and said, I’m not your grandfather, I’m God. It’s not your time yet, you must go back’ “
THE NEAR DEATH RAVE
A few years ago near-death experiences were all the rave. There were TV shows. Book by the score. Talk shows and even today you can still find internet sites listing near death accounts. All sharing stories of people who had died and gone through a tunnel of light and so on, and so on, and so on. And according to a Gallup poll, 8 to 12 million people in the United States have had a near-death experience. These - near-death experiences can impact the participate and radically alter their lives. But what none of these publicized stories of near-death experiences ever told us was that more than one person at a time can experience near death; families, communities, even nations can mutually experience events that bring them to the brink of what they believe will be their death. Many times events like hurricanes, floods and earthquakes or man-made tragedies like Columbine High School can deeply impact a community and nation. It can bring a group of strangers to the brink of death and back again. And such a journey can forever change those involved. It can alter the way they live, they way they view life, the way they view their purpose for living.
EXILE IN BABYLON
And so it was for the nation of Israel in the time of the prophet Jeremiah. Having turned away from God and His commandments God warns His chosen people to repent and to return to covenant living; but they do not. And so God removes His protection from them and as a result the nation of Babylon invades and conquers Israel. The city of Jerusalem is destroyed. The temple is torn down. The land is made infertile and finally, all those who are educated or skilled are taken into captivity and shipped off to the city of Babylon. Arriving in Babylon the Israelites despair. Overwhelmed by what has just happened to them they cry out in anguish. Their city, Jerusalem, has been destroyed. Their temple has been torn down and they are now in this foreign city far from home. Surely this is the end. Surely this is where they will die. Surely in this far off land God has abandoned them and they have become a God-Forsaken people. Here in Babylon the nation of Israel has come near-to death itself. But it is here in Babylon to these despairing Jews on the brink of death that God speaks through His prophet Jeremiah and says,
“For thus says the Lord: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me; when you seek me with all your heart, I will be found by you, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.
In other words God has said to them, “It’s not your time yet, you will go back.” The words of hope that God gives to those held captive in Babylon are important for you and I to know. For you see, even Churches can go through a Near-Death experience. When I began to dialogue with you church’s search committee I decided to talk with the references included in your church profile. One of the people listed was your previous pastor Rev. Doretta Clark. Rev Clark told me that when she came here it was with the understanding that this was a dying church. They only had enough money to pay her for three years. During which time her job was to close the church. But to everyone’s surprise, instead of dying the church began to grow again. And now six years later, instead of being closed, you are reflecting on a new pastor. And this new pastor brings you Jeremiah 29:11. Why? Because I can guess what are questions that are in the back of your mind. I can imagine the doubts and fears that still are hanging on the edges of your thoughts. “Was this sudden and unexpected turn around that we have experienced in this church just a fluke, the last push of a dying church? Is it that no matter what we do the result will be the same- our death? Was this sudden turn around all due to Rev Clark? Was it her charisma, her abilities and talents, that made the difference. And so to continue our growth must we find a dynamic pastor, filled with skills and abilities, to carry on where Doretta left off?”