Recorded December 2, 2012
John 19:30 • 2 Timothy 4:5-8
All my life I’ve lived by words and language and I don’t have any right now. I’m totally overwhelmed. I feel poverty-stricken because I do not have language rich enough to express to you my deepest feelings at this hour.
I told someone today I’m almost 81 going on 50, but today I feel — at the moment — that maybe all the words are gone and I’m going on 90. I just don’t have it together.
Forgive a few personal remarks at the beginning, and I’m going to try to say something without leaving people out. I see people all over this room that I’ve spent my life with — some of you 40, 45, 50 years we’ve been together. I’m the only pastor I know of — well, it’s my sermon, I’ll make it — I’m the only pastor I know of that’s spent 48 years in the same town in two churches, and I count it a gift. Some of you have survived these sermons four or five times.
Peter Rhea (Jones), and David Sapp are here. Peter Rhea has preached for us many times. David Sapp was the pastor of the Chamblee church. We owe him more than you’ll ever know because David Sapp led the church to make the decision to move. And then he moved and I got all the credit for it.
And now, I’m going to leave someone out I know and I’m only calling the ones that I’ve seen, not the ones I’ve heard about. The ultimate compliment is when a pastor will leave his pulpit to come and be in another church. (D.B.) “Dee” Shelnutt, our Methodist brother, is right here, pastor of Johns Creek United Methodist Church. I told him he could do it because he has a bishop in case he gets in trouble. I don’t have a bishop in case I get in trouble.
I understand that Steven Wright is here from Chattanooga, pastor of Signal Mountain Baptist Church, who grew up with me, and Randy Shepley. They’ve given up their services to be with us today. They don’t have bishops, so we need to pray for them.
I don’t want to trivialize what I have to say today and I don’t have nuggets of gold to throw out. I just have to say I love you. But I want you to turn to a nugget that’s more important than anything I say. Turn to the scripture. Because ultimately we’re here, not because of me, but because of God’s word. I mean that more than I’ve ever meant it in my life. And I stand here as a minister of the gospel on the shoulders of great people that have gone ahead of me and have worked with me. I look out and see our staff, our great choir and orchestra. Thank you. Those in the sound booth. You don’t see these people behind the scenes all the time. Thank you.
Jesus, in that 19th chapter of John, said on the cross, “It is finished,” and some of you have been worried that I have taken a death passage and used it as a text for the day. But I’m not planning to die — anytime soon, anyway.
But starting at the fifth verse of this passage in 2 Timothy, Paul is speaking and he divides this into two categories. He, first of all, speaks to young Timothy and he is writing from Macedonia to Timothy over in Ephesus, and he says something to Timothy. “But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist and discharge all the duties of your ministry.”
Then, in the sixth verse he starts talking about himself. In some translations he says, “As for me…” But in the NIV it says: “For I am already being poured out like a drink offering and the time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day — and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.”
May the spirit of God who authored these words, let them be his words for us now and in the future. Let us pray. Eternal God, take us past the immediate and let us look into heavenly places. Father, may there be a voice behind my voice and may we hear it. May Jesus Christ be the center of what we do, and not simply a messenger, for no human lips utter your words, but we pray that they will open the hearts of our people, and that there can be responses to the gospel and to the family of Christ. For we pray in the name of Christ our Lord, amen.
How many Baptists does it take to change a lightbulb? It takes five. It takes one to unscrew the lightbulb and change it, and it takes four to stand around and talk about how great the old lightbulb was. Well, this old lightbulb wants to talk to you for a few moments, because I’m not concerned so much about being the lightbulb. I want you to hear the electricity that makes the lightbulb burn.
I was joking with the family recently and I said to them, “Well, the people will be there. Some will come to say goodbye, and some will make sure I’m really going.” But I’m not going far. I may worship at other churches a bit until Shaun (King) comes and gets his arms around the church. I want him to be the pastor. I really am concerned that he be the pastor, and then I’ll slip in the back and sit and listen to sermons.
I feel like Gary Cooper in “The Pride of the Yankees.” That was a 1942 movie that won an academy award. It is the story of Lou Gehrig, and when he came to his final tribute at Yankee Stadium — some of you are old enough to have seen it, others have heard about it. Gary Cooper, playing the part of Lou Gehrig, came and stood before Yankee Stadium that was filled with people, like this. And there was a memorable scene, where he stands, with his body falling apart with ALS — now it’s call Lou Gehrig’s Disease — and he says, “Today, I am the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” And I come before you today as your pastor in these final moments to say to you, “I am the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”
I am lucky for all kinds of reasons, and I could list them. But I am a lucky man, and I am a fortunate man, and a blessed man simply because I have had the privilege all of my life of preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. I’ve had the privilege of knowing in life — and many people don’t get that honor and privilege — but I’ve had the privilege of knowing from the time when my eyes began to open and I began to understand what life was all about, somewhere in the early puberty stages, that God had placed his hand upon me to preach the gospel. I’ve lived among Baptist people — sometimes for good and sometimes for not — all these years and I have been the recipient of love and kindness and care, not only from the Baptists community, but the Christian community. And when I hear anybody, anybody, criticize the church, or Baptists, or Christians, I feel like they’re talking about my family, because they’re talking about my family and we’re all a part of the family of God. Our culture somehow doesn’t appreciate that.
As I said several weeks ago in a sermon, everything I have, own, am or hope to be came because of Baptist people. Now, I’m not talking about the kind of Baptist people that are locked in some kind of propositional jail. I’m talking about the kind of Baptist people that are free to move at the spirit of God. From my education, to my family, to my precious wife, all of us together have come out of that soil. And that soil is a part of the rich soil across the landscape of the Christian community and I shall always be glad that we’re a part of that great community.
I am the luckiest man on the face of the earth today and I want you to know why. I am lucky because I have the privilege today of doing something that few people ever get to do. I can say, “It is finished.” Now, I don’t mean my life is finished and I don’t mean that I’m going to quit preaching. That isn’t finished. What I mean by saying, “It is finished,” is I somehow have the sense of bringing to a conclusion what God started in us 21 years ago. Few people get that honor. You go to your house today, or to mine and you’ll find unread books. You’re going to get back to it, but never do it. You’ll find unfinished projects you started at the house. That room you were going to paint and never did. That addition to your garden that you never planted. That project that you and your wife planned and you bought the materials for, but you really never got to execute. Our lives are full of unfinished things, but I can say today that, “It is finished.” This part of my life, my wonderful relationship that I’ve had these 21 — actually 21and-a-half years counting the early interim — with this church means more to me than you’ll ever know.
Now, I want to get to the text. Paul is talking to Timothy. Now, I’m going to do exactly what Paul did. I’m going to tell you the four things Paul said to Timothy, and it’s said to you. Then he said three things about himself. And I’m going to do all that in an hour-and-a-half.
First of all, he said, “Be calm.” Sometimes when leadership changes there’s a sense in which things are unsteady and coming loose. People may not have liked the old leader or cared much for the way he was leading, or something like that, (I haven’t sensed that here) but there’s a sense that things are coming loose. What I’m saying to the church is, “Be calm.” God has guided us all the way. He guided us through the migration from Chamblee, he’s guided us through the construction of these four buildings, he guided us through the development of the staff and the development of the programming, he guided us through the transition plan, which I think was given to us by God in his providence, and he has guided us in the calling of our new pastor. And as Moses related to Joshua, and David related to Solomon, and Elijah to Elisha, I want you to know that Bill will relate to Shaun in the same way. God has guided us in this process and he said, “Be calm.”
Another thing he said is, “Endure.” Now, I don’t think there’s much suffering in the sense of which Paul talked about in the modern church today, but I think we need to understand that things will be different. Everybody wants change, but nobody wants things to be any different. Difficulty is part of the journey. We need to understand that if are going to be on a journey, things are going to change. The fleas come with the dog. If you get change, you’re going to have some kind of unsettlement. You may not get the sit in your same pew Sunday after Sunday. It may not be the same order of worship that you had in the past. The program may change. Programming may change. And what you’re going to say is, “Amen! Let’s go, brother!”
Paul also says, “do the work of an evangelist,” and I want you to hear that. There’s a tendency for churches, particularly like ours, in the better part of the community, to take evangelism and see it as cheap religion. It isn’t. Evangelism is what we’re about. We’re for other people. We’re not for ourselves. We must turn out all the time, not turn in to ourselves. We must always be looking at white harvests — fields that are ready for us to take in and take care of. I’m not asking you to be cheap in your religion, I’m asking you to be expressive in your faith and let people know that Jesus Christ is the the center of your life, not some kind of trendy cultural movement.
He also said, “carry out your ministry.” In a meeting I had with a group of leaders when we were dealing with some things that were very critical here, in the middle of it, one of the fine, fine laymen in the room turned to me and said, “Bill, is the work of the church still going on?” And I said, “Of course it is.” He said, “Are the cows being milked and are the eggs being gathered?” I’m not a farmer and I don’t know how to do all that. That was his analogy. And I said, “Yes, we’re doing the work of the ministry and the church is going right on while we take care of these issues in the back.” That’s what I want to say in this sermon. Do the work of the ministry. Care for people. Take care of people. Tell them about the gospel. Love one another. Love those who don’t love you. Do the things God has called us to do. Build the greatest Sunday School in America. We’ve got the facilities and the staff and the leadership to do it. Build it right here. It can be done and you’re well on the way. The basics are in place. No church in the world has better facilities.
No pastor ever came to a church that was more united than this one. No pastor has ever had an opportunity to have people who are more eager for him to succeed than my successor has. And no pastor has ever had a predecessor who is happier that he’s coming than Shaun. Do the work of ministry.
Now as for me. Going to the sixth verse, Paul says here, “I am being poured out.” He’s talking about his death. I’m not. There’s another sense in which I mean that. I want you to understand something that goes on this side of the pulpit in the pastor’s life. You see us, probably, as speakers, but it’s not that way. The pastor who is sensitive to his congregation pours himself into the congregation Sunday after Sunday. As I said to a group earlier today, as we come together as pastor and people, we begin to rub off on each other and we get to the place where we’re comfortable enough that our personalities engage one another. The pastor pours himself into the congregation.
When I do speaking for corporate groups — and I do that occasionally; I used to do a lot of it — I would leave all pumped up, feeling good. You go in, you make a speech — one you’ve made a hundred times — they give you a check and you go home and you feel good about it. But when I preach the gospel it’s different. When I preach the gospel I feel like a towel that’s been wrung out. I’m limp. I go home in the afternoon and I can’t even spit until about 5 o’clock. And that is because something is at stake with the lives of people.
If I go out and preach to another church I will enjoy it and, hopefully, they will get something out of it. But that’s not preaching to your own people, because we’re invested in each other. And I know you’re hanging on what the preacher says. That will be the same in the future.
The reason I announced my retirement was not only my age. I don’t know how to fish or hunt, or do any of that sort of thing, and I gave up golf years ago. But you need to understand, it’s because I poured it all out. The analogy here is, Paul is not the sacrifice, it was the wine that they poured around the sacrifice in the pagan temples, and he’s saying, “I’m that wine. I’ve poured myself out.” He knew that the Greeks would understand that analogy and he’s saying here, “That’s what I’ve done.”
He also uses another analogy. He talks about “going on.” The analogy there is simply a boat leaving the harbor. You’ve all been in boats when they take the ropes in and it goes out to sea. It’s the story, or the picture, of a tent being struck and the army marching on. I will go out of the harbor. I will strike my tent, but I will still be a member here, and I will still love you. And when we come, you will know that my family and I poured ourselves into you, and now we’re enjoying seeing the results of that work in your lives.
Let me go on. There are some things I need to say before I say what I came to say. Paul says, “I fought a good fight.” The word here is “agon,” which is the root word for “agony.” The things a pastor does all the time is not the organizational work underneath. That’s hard enough. But we’re fighting the ideas in the culture. And the culture that we live in is more intrusive upon our lives than you can imagine. The culture always wants to take over the minds of the people. And the church will become only an extension of the culture. There’s one church around us that says clearly, “We’re not afraid of culture, we embrace it.” There are other churches that get so far from the culture that they try to live apart from it, like the Amish. I’ve always embraced the idea that we’re in the culture, but not of the culture. We’re like a ship in the ocean. It’s in the ocean, but not of the ocean. And it’s always a battle to keep the ocean out of the ship. And I see it happening all the time, with the media and our people being pulled apart by all kinds of ideas that are floating around out there.
I have refused to preach theological Twinkies. I’m not going to serve that to you on Sunday morning. I’m not going to give you a continual diet of Little Debbies every time we come to church. And I refused to let our church services look like we’re on “American Idol.” I think the worship of God is so holy that it has to be done in a holy way. And I think the people of God need to understand that there’s something more than just what titillates their immediate attention. We need to understand that the fads that may be going on in neighborhood Bible studies are not the gospel. The fads that may come across our path — and religions have fads like clothing does — we need to understand that’s not the heart of the New Testament. The heart of the New Testament is sacrifice and work and struggle. The heart of the New Testament is dedication and commitment. The heart of the New Testament is not to find your way somehow halfway in and halfway out.
We stand on the shoulders of people who have gone before us. We stand on those shoulders, whether it be the Apostle Paul, whether it be (John) Chrysostom, the great preacher of the third century, whether it be Augustine, whether it be Luther, whether it be Smyth or Helwys, or any of our forefathers, we stand on their shoulders. And they didn’t get where they got, they didn’t give us the faith that had been hammered out in some kind of trendy idea. They got their faith on their knees and from the scripture, and from the commitment to the family of faith. This commitment is more than our commitment to our social group or our country clubs. This commitment is to heaven.
This morning as we worship, we’re not alone. We’re not alone. For if you look up, there are the battlements of heaven. We’re a part of a heavenly, surrounded group today. There they are, those that have gone before us. I call their names — there’s Paul, there’s John, there are the great preachers of the past. There’s old Charles Spurgeon — he’s up there looking down. They are all cheering us on, and we’re a part of heaven. Every time we worship, and we don’t understand that if we take our note out of the culture. You understand it from the New Testament.
Never let anybody trivialize what we do in this room. This is a sacred room. If you will look at this room, this pulpit is virtually in the middle. Underneath this room is the same amount of space that we have up here. Educational space there, educational space across the campus. But the pulpit is in the middle. Never let anybody trivialize the preaching of the word of God. The Bible says, “How shall they hear without a preacher? How shall they hear without a preacher?” The preaching of the word of God is the word of God! The preaching of the word of God is the word of God! That’s not Bill Self, that’s Martin Luther. That’s Karl Barth. Any theologian who has looked at what preaching is comes to that conclusion. Nothing should separate the preaching of the word of God from its holy nature.
When I was a seminary student I read a little book called, “Communion Through Preaching.” It as a set of preaching lectures delivered by Henry Sloane Coffin. And he said in there that what the pastor does in the pulpit — if he is preaching God’s word — is as holy as what the Catholic priest does in the mass when the elements turn into the body and blood of Christ. I believe that. And let me tell you, that every Sunday when I’ve been before you, it’s been a worshipful, holy experience in this soul, because there’s nothing more sacred than the preaching of the word of God to the people of God that you’re connected to. And if you’re wondering what it is that binds us, it’s not the fact that words — at other times — have come easy from me. It’s not the fact that I’ve done this all my life and I’ve developed a few tricks and skills. There’s a holy thing between us. that’s a gift of God. It’s sacred. It’s intangible, but it’s the strongest thing we have when we come into the room. Never let anybody tell you that it’s any different. “How shall they hear without a preacher?”
Paul goes on to say, “I’ve finished the race.” You know the story and I get to tell it one more time. My pastor came by the house when I was 13 years old and said, “Bill, I want you to go to the DeLand Assembly,” which was the gathering of all the Baptists youth in Florida, and they sent us to DeLand on the Stetson University campus. There we had a week of teaching, preaching, and fellowship. Most of us went because that’s where all the girls were. We did all the things that 13-year-old boys do, but a new world opened to me.
I was seated on the back row of Elizabeth Hall, in the balcony. The preacher gave an invitation that last night. Something had been going on inside of me the whole time. And he said, “Those of you who feel called to preach the gospel, come forward.” People went. I watched them go. And then all of a sudden it grabbed me and I couldn’t get away from it. So I left the back row of the balcony and came down. The way the building was constructed you had to go outside, then back inside. And I didn’t know what had happened to me, but I knew that something had happened.
I went home and told my mother, and she said, “That’s nice, but who’s going to take care of me in my old age?” And I said, “My sister will” — and she did! Our church didn’t know what to do with me — they’d never had anybody to volunteer to preach the gospel out of that old church. You know the story, the pastor asked me to preach during youth week that year. I heard about it when he announced it to the church. He gave me an old system Bible study and said, “Go, write yourself a sermon.” I don’t know what I wrote, but I knew when that first sermon was over, at 13 years old, when I went home that night, that this is what God had called me to do.
Now, let me fast-forward. As I’ve teased some of you, I said, “I’ve never made an honest living, I’ve only preached all my life.” The capstone of that was when the First Baptist Church of Chamblee called me to be their pastor. That was the capstone. I loved it. I was down into the congregation again. I never will forget, when I became pastor they gave me the door key and said, “It’s not only symbolic, we want you to open and close on Sunday.” And on top of that, something happened, I don’t know. I’d been praying that, to use this analogy, when I landed this plane, that it would be a smooth landing, not a crash landing. And I knew it was going to be good.
And we had to make a lot of decisions. These four buildings have not been built without weeping and wailing and toil. That doesn’t mean difficulty. I think we’ve only had one negative vote the whole time. The weeping and wailing was over making one dollar go and do the place of two and build something worthy without making it look like we skimped on the money. And to build something for the future and not just for the immediate. And I said after the relocation, “It’s time now.”
I don’t want to leave, but I don’t want to see you in the hall in a few years saying, “Won’t that old man ever quit?” You know, “Carolyn just parks him over here in the daytime to get rid of him.” I don’t want that to happen. So we began to pray about the transition. God gave us a transition plan that was a miraculous plan. The key to it was your trust when you said to me, “You can institute the plan when you think it’s right.” No other church would have done that.
And so, when the debt was almost manageable, my time, my chapter, what God called me to do here, has come to an end. It doesn’t mean we’re leaving each other, it’s just that I know that my skills and my age and my vision was for this time. Moses left after leading them through the wilderness and out of bondage. But Joshua was a military man that could take and subdue the land. Shaun has different skills than I have. I have finished the race and I’ve kept the faith.
Garner Taylor, the poet laureate of African American preachers, said something that is very significant. He said, “I don’t want to outlive my mourners.” He said, “I don’t want to preach after my brain dies.” and he said, “I don’t want to drown in shallow water.” I’ve kept the faith, and by the grace of God, I hope that there has been a note sounded so strong, and from our staff, that this church will never drown in shallow water.
One last thing and I may conclude. When Paul said, “I have kept the faith,” he not only meant a body of belief, but he meant the commission that had been given to him. When Jesus said, “It is finished,” he was talking about the mission that God had given to him for the salvation of the world. When Paul said, “I have kept the faith,” I also believe he meant that he kept a very strong spiritual commitment to God to finish the course and do what he had been called to do.
I dreamed, as a 13-year-old boy — this is as true as anything I’ve ever told you but truer than some things — I’ve always known that I would be the pastor of a multi-generational church. Not just one slice of the culture, but across the culture. And a multi-cultural church. Thank God we’re not just north Atlanta, white Anglo-Saxons. And a multi-ministry church. We want to do it all — we want to do missions, we want to do care, we want to do things here and we want to do things out there. And I have loved the church all my life, like it was my mother and father. I can say to you, I’m the luckiest man that has ever lived.
(Taken from an audio recording with minor editorial revisions.)