This is a short kick-off message for the new season at First Baptist Church. As we contemplate the coming year, it appears to be the strangest season in the life of our church that any of us have ever known, not only with the pandemic but also our displacement from our building next summer.
Most of us are very sad that we’re unable to meet all together. I know that I am. But, is it possible that God is at work among us, not less than usual, but more than usual in the circumstances of this pandemic? Is it possible that with our normal comforts - our normal supports - taken away, that there might be opportunities for Jesus to work more powerfully in us and through us than we’ve known in the past?
Perhaps you have heard of Juan Carlos Ortiz? He is an Argentinian pastor, very elderly now, and the author of a famous book, Call to Discipleship. Pastor Ortiz was speaking at a church leaders’ conference in Boston many years ago, and he told the following story.
He said, “I was the pastor of what was known as the fastest growing church in Buenos Aires. And I was pleased to be known as that. We used to have three hundred people and we had grown very quickly to a thousand people.”
“One Sunday morning, I had prepared a message to preach on love. I had prepared it well. I went to the church and the worship service began. And, eventually, the worship leader announced that ‘after the next song Brother Juan Carlos will come and bring us his message’. But as I got up to speak I felt a very strong compulsion that I should not preach my message.”
“I got to the pulpit and I said, ‘My text this morning is: Love one another.’ Then I closed my Bible, went back to my seat and sat down. And there was silence, for about two minutes, which is a long time!”
“The worship leader leaned across and said, ‘Am I supposed to sing another song?’ But I just sat there quietly. Then, after about two minutes, I got up and went back to the pulpit and said, ‘Brothers and sisters, my text this morning is: Love one another.’ Then I went back to my seat and sat down again.”
“My wife was sitting in the balcony that morning. She thought I had finally flipped!”
“I got up a third time and said, ‘Brothers and sisters, my text this morning is: Love one another.’ And I sat down again.”
“Someone in the congregation turned to somebody next to them and said, ‘Is there any way I can love you?’ Someone else turned to another person and asked, ‘Is there some way I can love you?’ And within minutes the whole church was alive with people talking.”
“We had 28 people there that morning who were unemployed. Every single one of them got a job. Single mothers had people offer to spend time with them and help them.” He went on to list one group after another who had their deep needs met directly by others there in the church that morning.
He said, “If I had preached my message on love that morning, they would have shaken my hand at the door and said, ‘Thank you, that was a great message,’ ‘I really enjoyed that,’ but 28 people would have gone home unemployed, and to be absolutely honest, nobody would have cared.”
“The next Sunday morning, I got up and said, ‘Brothers and sisters, my text this morning is the same as last week: Love one another.’ ”
“For three months I never preached a sermon. I just read, ‘Love one another.’”
“Three hundred people left the church.”
“They said, ‘I was employed to preach. Anybody could stand up and say, “Love one another!”’”
“But, although we had grown from three hundred to a thousand, we used to be three hundred unloving Christians and we had just become a thousand unloving Christians. That isn’t growth. That is just getting fat!”
“Those three months transformed our church. People got involved in other people’s lives.”
“After three months, I got up to deliver the message and said, ‘Brothers and sisters the Lord has given me a new text this morning, and the congregation broke out in applause! I said, ‘My text this morning is: Love your neighbour as yourself.’”
“There was silence. Then, after a few moments, someone got up and went out of one door, someone else went out of another door, and before long the whole church was empty. In ten minutes, the parking lot was empty. People had driven home, parked their cars, gone next door and said, ‘I am a neighbour of yours. I’m a Christian. Is there something I can do for you?’”
“It was just before Christmas, the worst time to do it. My wife and two daughters and I went home. We went down our street and we discovered incredible need we didn’t even know existed. We gave away the Christmas presents we’d bought for each other to people on our street.”
“It was the best thing that had happened to our church. We had talked about how to reach our community. We’d had campaigns. We’d tried Evangelism Explosion… but nothing exploded! You know what began to happen after we started this? People would phone us and say, ‘Is that the church that helps people?’”
Friends, Covid-19 has stopped us from singing together, from fellowshipping together, from worshipping together, from meeting in the church building face-to-face; but it cannot stop us – nothing can stop us– from being the church.
Jesus was no less the hope of the world when He was dying, nailed to a cross, unable to preach, unable to heal, unable to deliver, unable to teach His disciples. In fact, it was when Jesus’ body was most broken – most limited – that His love was most powerfully on display.
The church is the body of Christ. Is it possible, when the church seems to be at its most limited, that God is most at work?
With circumstances as they are, there is no such thing as business as usual, even for the church. However hard we try, online services and zoom meetings will never be enough. We have to rely on God. And when the familiar things are gone, and we have to rely more deeply on God, perhaps that allows Him to do more than we have permitted Him to do before, even if we don’t see what He is doing so immediately.
So why don’t we invite Jesus to do all that He wants to do in and through us in the coming weeks and months?
Ask yourself, what does it mean when Jesus says, “Love one another”? What does it mean for me? How might I love others in the church?
Ask yourself, what does it mean when Jesus says, “Love your neighbour”? How might I love others in my neighbourhood, in my school, in my workplace, in my family?
Let us surrender to God our notions of ‘just getting through’ this season, and instead invite the Lord to do more in us in the coming months than we can even imagine.
Let me invite you to take a few moments in silence, as soon as you finish reading this message, to invite the Lord to be powerfully at work in you and in our church in the coming season. If you’re not sure exactly what to pray for, perhaps you might do as I do and use Paul’s prayer for the believers at Ephesus, praying it for others in First Baptist Church.
16 I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being,17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
20 Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.
Grace and peace,