This is a time for us to give thanks to the Lord; and since I am the speaker, I get to choose what I want to express in terms of thanks for you. I’ve been reading a few of Paul’s introductions to his epistles; here is his introduction to the first letter to the Corinthians.
“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God always concerning you for the grace of God which was given you in Christ Jesus, that in everything you were enriched in Him, in all speech and all knowledge, even as the testimony concerning Christ was confirmed in you, so that you’re not lacking in any gift, awaiting eagerly the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will also confirm you to the end, blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, through whom you were called into fellowship with His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Paul offers his thanks for the Corinthian believers for the fact that they were genuine believers, that they had received the grace of God given to them in Christ, that they were in everything enriched in all speech and knowledge, that the testimony concerning Christ was confirmed in them, that they lacked no spiritual gift, and that they were eagerly awaiting the return of Christ. All of those things made the apostle’s heart glad.
And then another of my favorite expressions of Paul’s thanks is in 1 Thessalonians. In verse 2 of chapter 1 he says, “We give thanks to God always for all of you, making mention of you in our prayers; constantly bearing in mind your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hop in our Lord Jesus Christ in the presence of our God and Father, knowing, brethren beloved by God, His choice of you; for our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. You also became imitators of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much tribulation with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place your faith toward God has gone forth, so that we have no need to say anything. For they themselves report about us what kind of a reception we had with you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, that is Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath to come.”
There is a pastor’s joy expressed in those two passages. And I have to say that I certainly understand that. When I think about all of the things in my life that I might be thankful for, apart from the very gracious work that God has done in my own life and in the life of my wife Patricia and my children and even in my grandchildren, the thing that I am most thankful for is that He has placed me at Grace Community Church. It all has gone by like a blur since February of 1969, February 9th it was, all these years. There have been ups and downs, there have been trials and triumphs, but I have cherished every day, and I give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly aware of your work of faith, your labor of love, and your steadfastness of hope. And as Paul said to the Corinthians, of your giftedness. You come behind in no gift of your understanding of the truth, love for the truth; and of your testimony, the testimony that sounds out from you to the world.
Now look, I love the church. I love the church of our Lord Jesus Christ wherever it is in the world, and I have been a lot of places in the world and I have interacted with believers all over the planet through the years, and I love the church wherever it is; but, obviously, I have a very special love for this church, for this church, because it is here that the Lord has enriched my life beyond my wildest imagination. It has been an inexplicable providence of God that He put me here. I don’t know why originally the group of men who decided to give me this task, I don’t know why from a human viewpoint they selected me, I don’t know that they knew why. I don’t know what their processes were, but in the application that they gave me to fill out they asked me to put down the weight of my wife. So I’m not sure it was all high spiritual insight, which I did not do, although I might have done it and not been embarrassed, it just seemed rather mundane, to put it mildly. I can only look back and say if they were worried about the weight of my wife their criteria were not all spiritual.
I don’t know that they had any idea of what the Lord has for them here; I’m confident didn’t. I certainly didn’t. I really came out of my seminary, and I wanted to study the Bible and I wanted to learn the New Testament. I wanted to know the Bible for my own soul’s sake more than I wanted to preach it. I never really thought about ministry, I just thought about knowing what the Word of God meant by what it said, and it’s always been a joy of ministry to study the Word of God to understand it so that I can know God. I didn’t know where I would go, I didn’t know where I would be; I never worried about it. I had been considered by a couple of other churches, one of them far way and one of them not too far away, and they both had decided that I was too young.
But the Lord in His grace and His compassion and His kindness put me here, and I have had a lifelong love for this church. This is the church that the Lord placed me in to live out my life, and I’ve never had a moment’s feeling that I should be somewhere else; some of you have. I have never had a moment’s feeling that I should be anywhere else. This is just my church. You are the people that I love and in whom I see the work of God flourishing.
I know about the church and I understand the church, and everything that the church is I’ve seen on display here. I’m not saying we’re perfect; we’re not, none of us, including me. But no church is and no believer is yet. But in spite of our weaknesses and imperfections I have seen everything that the church is to be flourishing here; and that makes me so very thankful. Sometimes people will ask me as I get older, “If you had to live your life again what would you change?” And my answer is nothing, nothing. The Lord gave me the very best in His grace.
I love this church for some specific reasons, let me share them with you. The church is the only institution the Lord ever promised to build. He said, “I will build My church. I will build My church.”
Many years ago a reporter said to me, “Do you have a desire to built the church?” I said, “Absolutely not. Jesus said He’d build the church, and I’d rather not compete with Him.” I have no interest in building the church. I just want to be where the Lord is building His church, and I’ve lived that fulfillment; and He’s building His church here from every tongue and tribe and nation and people. We’re not some kind of a cultural niche, we look like Los Angeles, and we should; this is where we are.
Jesus said that He came to do His Father’s will, and His Father’s will was to gather the redeemed and to gather them in what we know as the church. The Father chose them and the Father draws them, and the Holy Spirit gives them life, and Jesus receives them and never loses any of them, but raises them all at the last day. The church is triumphant, the church is invincible; He is building His church, and it’s been an incredible joy for which I am thankful constantly to just watch Him do that, just watch Him do that. I have only been a bystander. Like Martin Luther said, “I did nothing. I did nothing. The Word of God did everything.”
I’m so thankful to have been in a place where I have seen the Lord build His church generation, after generation, after generation, those of you who are here now and many who’ve gone before to other places in the world, and even to heaven, and I’ve watched it all from a front row seat. I’ve seen the Lord fulfill His promise to build His church. In a challenging place, in a challenging time, without any kind of sophisticated human insight and leadership, any kind of marketing strategy, I’ve just watch the Lord build His church. I’ve watched Him add daily those that are being saved. This has been an incredible blessing for me since I first came, and the Lord was already building the church. I’ve watched it all grow; what a privilege, and what a reception one day to enter into heaven and meet all who’ve gone before us, even from this congregation, into the presence of the Lord.
The Bible says the church will triumph. Paul said in his letter to the Corinthians God always causes us to triumph in Christ; we win. The church will be built. God will be the victor; Christ will triumph. Whom the Lord predestined, He called; whom He called, He justified; whom He justified, He glorified. He will gather His people in to be a part of this invincible church, to be, as it were, at the heart of this building of a church within the church is something beyond whatever I could have imagined.
I think back to seminary days; I had a pretty vivid imagination, and I used to say, “Well, you know, there’s a verse in Ephesians that says, “Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all you can ask or think.” Well, I could always think of a lot of things, and ask a lot of things, and I couldn’t imagine what is it that He’s going to do beyond what I can even imagine. Well, He passed what I could ever imagine forty years ago. It’s all been unimaginable.
I love to be a part of the Lord building His church. There’s never been a day when I ever looked at myself and said, “Hmm, is this a result of human ingenuity, or did the Lord do this?” That’s never been a question, because human ingenuity’s never been applied to this; it’s just the work of the Spirit through the Word.
Secondly, I love the church because it’s the most precious reality on earth. This is the most precious group of people on the planet. They are precious – why? – because they were chosen by God before the foundation of the world, and they were purchased by the blood of Christ.
Not only that, but every one of you who is a believer is the temple of the Spirit of God, Christ lives in you; and how I treat you is how I treat Christ; and how you treat each other is how you treat Christ. That’s why our Lord says, “Don’t look down on one of these little ones who believe in Me,” anybody who believes in Him. You may think of them as insignificant. “Do not look down on even the least of these who believe in Me, because My Father in heaven is concerned about them, and the angels are watching His face to read that concern and go care for even the least of His.”
I understand the stewardship of the church. I understand what it means to be given a stewardship of the most precious people in the world, those bought by the blood of Christ; precious blood, precious church. How wonderful has it been to be given that stewardship and to enjoy the reciprocal love and affection and blessing of having so many people in whom Christ lives come into my life and bring Christ to me. My life is filled with Christ, and not only the Christ who is in me, but the Christ who is in all of you; and as you enrich me, Christ comes to me. What a life.
Thirdly, I love the church because it is the earthly expression of heaven. I like the fact that there’s beauty in the earth. I like the beauty of creation. I live the beauty of art and design. I like the beauty of music. So many beautiful things. There is wonder and adventure and fascination in the world, and I enjoy so much of that. But what I love best about the world is the heavenly part of it, and that’s you.
The church is heaven on earth. When our Lord taught the disciples to pray, He said, “Pray this way, ‘Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’” That’s only done in one place, that’s the church. Not done anywhere else, nowhere else but here.
And what is going on in heaven? God is being honored and adored and worshiped, Christ is being exalted, and righteousness dominates; and the only place on earth that approximates that is the church. So I love the church because this is a close to heaven as I can get. And to be honest with you, I’m willing to go to heaven, but it’s not like I’m miserable here. I’m not unfulfilled, I’m not dissatisfied, I’m blissfully happy. I don’t like what goes on outside the church; but I don’t live outside the church, I live inside the church. I understand that we have to reach the world and that we’re all rescue projects from what’s outside the church. But my life is the church, the church that was basically assembled in the mind of God before time began, to be His representatives on earth, to be a little bit of heaven on earth. Our Lord said, “Whatever you do on earth shall have been done in heaven.” I like the idea that this is heaven on earth.
You might say, “Well, your services seem a little serious.” I think heaven is fairly serious. Somebody might say, “Well, you know, when you come to your church it’s like a throwback to another era. It’s not very contemporary.”
No, I don’t find a whole lot in the world that I would want to import into the church, because I really wouldn’t want the church to be like the world, I want it to be like heaven. And the best and most elevated and most glorious and most beautiful and most magnificent forms of worship have to occupy the saints in heaven. I just want this to be as close to heaven as it can get.
Another reason I love the church is because it is the gathering of true worshipers. Many, many years ago I was struck by the words of our Lord when He attacked the temple and said, “Zeal for Your house has eaten Me up. The reproaches that fall on you are fallen on Me.” He couldn’t tolerate God being dishonored. And He was quoting from a psalm: “The reproaches that fall on You are fallen on Me, and zeal for Your house has eaten Me up.”
I remember as a young man reading the story of Henry Martyn, a missionary who went into a pagan temple and saw blasphemy, and turned and ran from the temple, took out his diary and wrote, “I cannot endure existence if Jesus is to be so dishonored.” I tore up his soul to see the Lord dishonored.
What a joy, what a privilege, what a blessing to spend your life gathering with true worshipers. This is a haven from the world. We are the true worshipers who worship God in the Spirit, have no confidence in the flesh. We are the true worshipers the Father seeks who worship in spirit and in truth. We are the true worshipers who draw night, as Hebrews 10 says, and do not forsake the assembling of ourselves together. We come together for worship. This is the highest of all human activities, elevated by the Spirit of God in us. This is the ultimate reason for human existence.
I’m not impressed by other accomplishments in the world, I just want to be among worshipers. I just want to sing songs with people who are worshipers. I want to pray with people who are worshipers. I want to preach the Word to people who are worshipers of the God I preach. I don’t need to try to entertain you or trick you, or twist things around to make sure I can manipulate you into being here. I just want to be able to say, “We’re going to worship, and that’s enough, and you’re here.”
I’m so thankful. How could any life be more rich than that, to be a part of the only institution the Lord is building, an institution that triumphs over all opposition; to live your life in the midst of the most precious people on earth, bought by the blood of Christ; to be a part of the earthly expression of heaven itself, the only place where heaven comes down, to spend your life in the gathering of true worshipers.
There’s another reason I love the church. It’s the place of true fellowship. And when I talk about fellowship I’m talking about a kind of genuine connection. I don’t mean friendship built around politics or sports or work or hobbies, I mean real fellowship, common life. And fellowship is defined by the spiritual gifts that we have, and the one anothers of the New Testament. This is a place where lives impact other lives supernaturally and for eternity. You can have friendships; the world has friendships, but they are temporal. We have friendships that are everlasting. We minister to each other our spiritual gifts in order to build each other up into Christlikeness. What an incredible blessing that is.
I think about all the people here, all the people that have surrounded me through the years, and do so now, with amazing gifts from the Holy Spirit that are the reason why this church is what it is. People say, “Well, did you have a plan to get Grace Church like this?” No, it’s way beyond me. The Lord had a plan, and His plan was to bring together gifted people who loved Him, and then let them use their gifts. And that’s what all of you do. It’s a place of true fellowship.
And I love the church for another reason: it is the source of truth. I’m about the truth, I think you know that. If you were to reduce me down to the minimum, if you were to strip me down to the bare minimum, the truth is everything to me. I live for the truth, I love the truth, I want to know the truth, I want to preach the truth; the truth is everything. The most important thing in the world is divine truth, because it’s the only way you can be saved, sanctified, and comforted in the midst of this world. And the church, says Paul, 1 Timothy 3:15, is the pillar and support of the truth.
Occasionally, I go to a church and I don’t hear the truth, it is terrifying to me. Get me out. Or twisting the truth, perverting the truth. I’m so thankful that I’ve been in a church where the truth prevails, where leadership loves the truth, where all of you love the truth. It is the truth that saves us. We’re sanctified also by the truth. We’re saved, begotten again by the word of truth. We’re sanctified by the truth, Jesus said. We’re comforted by the truth. We’re edified by the truth. We have hope through the truth. All our relationships are built around the truth. We navigate life because we know the truth. A sound doctrine gives us structure. And we know how to live to the glory of God, because we have the mind of Christ. And that leads to another reason I love the church, and it is because the church is the place of edification. It’s the place of edification.
Early on in the ministry here at Grace, I talked a lot about the fact that Ephesians 4:11 says that “Christ gave to the church apostles, and then prophets, and then evangelists, and pastor/teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, for the building up of the body of Christ; till we all attain to the unity of the faith of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. And we’re no longer children.”
I love the church because we all grow into Christlikeness together. We all grow into Christlikeness together. The longer we’re together, the longer the Word dominates our lives, the longer we walk in faithful obedience to the Lord, the more we mature. And the more we mature, the more joy and the less conflict. We come to the unity of the faith – I just read it – to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ. We start acting like Christ. I don’t know that I actually knew what that looked like when I came here; but maybe that was because I was raised in a lot of Baptist churches, where fighting was a doctrine.
Let me give you one other thing. And I could say a lot more, but one more. I love the church because it’s the launch point for taking the gospel to the ends of the earth. When I think about what the Lord has done from this church – sermons all over the world downloaded in English, Spanish, and – what? – Arabic, Chinese, Portuguese, French, all being translated into all those languages accessible on the Internet, from this pulpit through this little mic on my ear, it’s staggering, staggering. The Word of God is being preached to millions of people around the clock around the globe.
Then we have so many faithful missionaries all over the world. Many have come from Grace church; many have come from other churches, but tap into the resources here. We have always had a passion for the world to fulfill the great commission, right? “Go into all the world and preach the gospel, make disciples. After the Holy Spirit comes upon you, be witnesses to Me.”
This church has had a burning passion to reach the world. And that’s why we have a university, that’s why we have a seminary. That’s why we have The Master’s Academies International. Our seminary graduates all over the planet, training leaders in all kinds of countries – I don’t know how many of them there are, thirty-some training centers – meeting around the world, with graduates of the seminary, training pastors and leaders in the church, so that they can make strong churches, and they can send out people to reach more people. That’s really all that matters, isn’t it? That’s why we’re here; otherwise we might as well go to heaven if we’re not useful to carry the gospel to the ends of the earth.
So I’m sorry for usurping tonight a little bit. But I don’t know that the Lord would give me another time, I don’t know what the future has; and I just wanted to make sure that I said thanks to Him and thanks to all of you for an incredible life. Thank you. And that is certainly for the Lord; it is His work completely.
It all starts at the cross, doesn’t it? It all starts with our Lord giving His life for us. It all starts with us being forgiven, having our sins paid for in full through His death, and being redeemed and given eternal life through His resurrection.
And we don’t want to forget that. In fact, we’re instructed not to look away from the cross, but regularly routinely to look to the cross. And that’s why the Lord instituted this beautiful Communion service. Let me lead you in a word of prayer.
Father, thank You, thank You from the bottom of my heart. Thank You on behalf of all this congregation for all that You have done. It is a staggering, incomprehensible, blessed, gracious gift that you have given all of us who are part of Grace Community Church. It’s not that we’re the only church, the best church; but we are a blessed church, blessed beyond comprehension. And You have built this church. You have built it with Your Word, and the dedication and worship and gifts of Your people. And we say thank You for this gift, thank You. And may we cherish it for the gift that it is, and treat it as a gracious treasure from Your hand.
Now as we come to the Table, we are reminded that You, the night before Your death, took bread and a cup that was part of the Passover, and You transformed it into a new service of remembrance to remember the great deliverance; not the deliverance from Egypt, but the deliverance from sin at the cross. And You told Your people until You come and set up Your kingdom, “Do this in remembrance of Me.” This takes us back to the foot of the cross and our salvation.
Prepare our hearts, Lord. May we examine ourselves so that there isn’t anything standing between us and You. And may this be an act of true worship as we share it together.