Transitions: The Beginning of the Bridge

I have a friend who once said, “It’s always hard to live between the times.” Our nation, our economy, our politics, and our church are living between the times. We talk a lot about “postmodernism.” However, what we know as “postmodernism” is probably no more than the end of the modern world. We are entering a new age in human history, but we really don’t know where we’re going!  All the churches of the world are entering this new age, and all are struggling to discern how to adapt. Here at Bay Presbyterian Church, we are entering a new era in the life of our church family. Change can be a scary, and you may feel that way about your own family, career, and friends as you try to live in today’s world!

John the Baptist & Elijah

 One of the most interesting people in the Bible is John the Baptist. To understand John, we have to go back to the Old Testament. As we studied last month, the prophets foretold the coming of a Messiah. About 400 years before Jesus was born, the prophet Malachi prophesied that, before the Messiah came, the prophet Elijah it would return (Malachi 4:5-6). To fully understand this prophesy, it will help if we  know a couple of things about Old Testament history.

First, Moses, the deliverer of Israel from Egypt and founder of the religion of Judaism, prophesied that God would eventually send a greater leader than him for God’s people. The Gospel of Matthew reveals Jesus as the One Greater than Moses. He is the New Moses that will restore the story of Israel in a completely unexpected way!

Second, although we often think of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel as the greatest of the Old Testament prophets, the Jews thought of Elijah as the greatest of the prophets. [1] During the reign of the worst king of Israel, Ahab, and his wife, the evil Jezebel, the prophet Elijah prophesied mightily. He confronted the false prophets of the false gods of Israel and its evil king and queen. In the process he did mighty deeds of power.

The Ministry of John

Shortly before Jesus began his public ministry, his cousin, John the Baptist, emerged. John centered his ministry near where the Jordan River empties into the Dead Sea. He was a colorful character. He wore a tunic made of camel’s hair and ate locust and wild honey (Matt. 3:4). He probably lived close to Qumran.  This is where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in the late 1940’s. He seems to have been influenced by the Essene sect of Judaism. His ministry included baptism. The Essenes were very concerned about ritual purity and practiced baptism in a major way. Those who have been to Israel may have seen a giant baptismal pool near  Qumran where a group of Essenes lived. They were strict followers of the Jewish law, lived extraordinarily holy lives,  and felt the Messiah would return soon. [2]

John was no respecter of persons. When the Scribes and Pharisees came to see him, he called them a brood of vipers, or poisonous snakes (Matthew 3:7). As you might expect, people came from all over Jerusalem and Judea, to see this dramatic, new prophet. The common people immediately saw John’s ministry as a fulfillment of the prophecy of Malachi that Elijah would return before the Messiah came, and Jesus confirmed their understanding (11:7-14).

The message of John was the message one would  expect of the New Elijah: The day of the Messiah is coming, and it is time to get ready! In Matthew, John tells the people that he is the one who was sent to “prepare the Way of the Lord” (3: 3). The way the people were to prepare was to repent, be baptized (or cleansed) from their sins, and be ready to welcome the Messiah with a clean heart. This is good advice for us as well.

For the last several years, our church has been preparing for a day that will soon arrive. We’ve been preparing for the time when we will be led by our new pastor. He will be moving to Bay Village late this month. Around March 1, our new pastor will be present on a daily basis, leading our congregation. We’ve already done a lot of preparation, but there’s just a little bit of preparation left to do.

A few weeks ago, we had an evening in which we talked about what we can do to welcome a new pastor. I believe the video can be found on our website, and it’s worth listening to. This morning I want to mention three things we need to remember:

  1. First, our new pastor does not know the 2,000 or so names of our members and regular visitors. It will take him a long time to remember all those names. Every time you meet our new pastor, please give him your name. Many of you have noticed that I’ve been here over a year, and I still don’t know everyone’s name on sight!
  2. Second, give the new pastor time to get established and get a sense of who we are and where we are headed. It takes time to get to know a congregation. Before you form an opinion, or make a request, give the new pastor a chance to get acquainted with the congregation. In a big church, this takes months—a year at least.
  3. Third, remember that, as hard as it is to be a new pastor, it’s even harder to be the spouse and children of a new pastor. Our new pastor’s wife and children are leaving behind their home, their schools, their friends, their existing relationships, and the church to which they are accustomed. Welcome them with open arms. Take time to get to know them! Help them make friends in our community! This is really important.

If you go onto our website, you will find additional suggestions. The bottom line is: share God’s love with our new pastor and his family just like you would with your best friend.

Part of preparation involves repentance. Before we can make Jesus our best friend, we have to repent (or turn away) from our sins. This is the first step in becoming a disciple, and it is a life-long process after we become disciples of Jesus. We need to get rid of all the things that keep us from being a child and friend of God (See, Genesis 18:16-19; 2 Chronicles 20:7; Isaiah 41:8; James 2:23).

Our new pastor is not God. However, there are some things we all need to remember to turn away from. Our new pastor had nothing to do with the past of our congregation. He is not like any leader of the past. We should not expect our new pastor to be like any former leader, and we should repent of any bad feelings we have against any former leader, whoever they may be. We also should not expect our new pastor to be like the leader from the past we like the best. The word “repentance” means “to turn away.” It means get healed. It means let bygones be bygones. In this context, “repent” means today is a new day and we need to make it a new day, free of the past.

If I can say a personal word: You all know that I love you. You know that I’ve been here for more than a year. I’ve heard every story anyone can hear.  The former leaders of this church were, whether you appreciate them or not, trying to do the will of God as best they knew how and were able to lead. They may not have led way we like; they may not have led the best way. But they were trying. They were human just like we are, and everyone makes mistakes. It is time to just let go and let God. God is in charge, and he can (and has) worked everything out for the good (Romans 8:28).

Every Beginning Means an Ending

You may have noticed that, unlike any sermon I’ve preached you before, we have not yet read the Scripture—and we’re almost finished! That’s because I saved the reading of the Word to the end this week. In all four Gospels, we learn about the ministry of John the Baptist. In John, we learn a new story. After Jesus began his ministry, the crowds that followed John began to dwindle. Some of John’s followers were distressed that this new guy on the block was taking away from the ministry of the old guy on the block. They came to John to complain. Here is what John said in reply:

“A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’  The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore, this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease.”(John 3:27-30).

In order for Jesus to proclaim and enact the new era of human history that would begin with his life, death, and resurrection, it was necessary for John’s ministry to end. John knew this. He recognized that his job was to prepare the  way of the Lord. He knew his ministry was nearing completion. He realized that a new day was dawning, but could not fully dawn until his ministry ended. He was not sad. He was not depressed. He was not angry or resentful. He was filled with joy (John 3:29).

This reminds each one of us that there are times in our lives when we or those we love are going to go through a change and passing to a new time. This should be a time of celebration and the joy of a new beginning. Things are always changing, and the wise person learns to adapt and find joy in the past, present, and future.

I want to leave you this morning with the following: My joy is complete. It has been a great pleasure being with your church for the past fourteen months. Kathy and I have enjoyed getting to know you, and we love you dearly. When I came, however, I knew one day I would leave. The nature of transitional ministry is that you come, prepare the church for a new day, the day comes, and you leave.

Today begins a new time in my ministry with you. I won’t be in the pulpit often. From time to time, I may not even be in the city. It’s important that I make way for your new senior pastor. This is a gradual process that will last until the end of February.

Conclusion

As I close, I want to highlight a few things that are going to happen. I’m going to preach my last sermon on February 3. The following week, Jeff Jeremiah, the Stated Clerk of our denomination, is going to be our main preacher. Please be here for that day.  On February 17, John Murtha is going to share his thoughts on transitions. The last week in February, we are having a special, elder-led service as we complete our series on transitions. There are going to be other wonderful things happening during February.

The leaders of our congregation know that I’ve been teaching principles of servant leadership for the entire time I’ve been at Bay Presbyterian Church. Some of you know that I once wrote a book called, Centered Living\Centered Leading: The Way of Light and Love. One of my favorite chapters contains the following:

“This is the way of the wise leader: accomplish a work, and then humbly withdraw and go on to whatever task comes next.”  [3]

Jesus knew this great principle. He gave his life for us, and then went on to what came next. What came next was the Resurrection, Ascension, Pentecost, the world-wide mission of the Apostles, and a new day of Spirit-empowered ministry lasting until now. What is coming next for our church is a new, great day of Spirit-empowered ministry as we share God’s wisdom and love with everyone we meet.

It is to the Table of the One who loves us unconditionally, and who gave His life so that we could enter a new era,  become children and friends of God, and live with him forever, that we now come.

Amen [4]

[1] The story of Elijah is told in I Kings 17-through II Kings 2. See, Paul R. House, The New American Commentary on the Old TestamentVol. 8: “I-II Kings” (Nashville, TN: Holman and Broadman, 2003), 209-250. I cannot tell the great story of Elijah in this sermon, but it is a great tale that is important to understanding John the Baptist and his ministry.

[2] The Essenes were essentially a very strict monastic version of Phariseism. They practiced baptism, obeyed a very strict dietary code, and observed the law with great scrupulousness. See, Merrill F. Unger, The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary“Essenes” in R. K. Harrison, ed (Chicago, Moody Press, 1957). My description is drawn from this source.

[3] G. Christopher Scruggs, Centered Living/Centered Living: The Way of Light and Love Rev. Ed. (Memphis, TN: BookSurge Publishing 2016), 18. This book is a Christian adaptation of the Tao Te Ching and is based on a meditative lifestyle and servant leadership. The book can be purchased from Amazon. BookSurge is Amazon’s publishing arm.

[4] I want to thank Elder and Member of the Pastoral Search Committee, Stacy Windahl for her reading of the first draft of this sermon and for her insightful comments, which I have tried to incorporate into the text. Stacy Windahl, Private Email (January 10, 2019).  I also want to thank Sharon Brumagin, who is the Bay Presbyterian Church Executive Director, and who gave me a copy of a book on transitions that has been extremely useful in thinking through the transition for Bay Pres. The book is, Tom Mullins, Passing the Leadership Baton: A Winning Transition Plan for Your Ministry (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2015).

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