|Jesus Is Very Near
May 28, 2000 / Acts 17:22-28
What holds the prospect for being the most important days in recent Nashville history are coming up this week. This Thursday evening through next Sunday night, Billy Graham will be preaching the gospel at Adelphia Coliseum. I’m still praying over my “Operation Andrew” names. I’m still praying for Dr. Graham’s health – and the health of his wife, Ruth. And I’m praying for our faithfulness in following up on those four days of Crusade presence and preaching in our city.
May I begin this important week by reminding you not about Crusade details but about our reason for existing as a congregation of believers? If you are a member of this church, you should know by now that we affirm our congregational identity around this statement: “Lifting up holy hands to God; reaching out helping hands to others.” Willis Owens gave us that statement more than a decade ago, and it still rings true for us. It summarizes our commitment to the two great commandments of our faith (Matt. 22:34-40).
Our vision is that the Family of God at Woodmont Hills will be known as a welcoming place to those seeking fellowship in a Christian community, will exhibit God’s wisdom in the world through building relationships that prepare people to serve God and one another, and will serve as a living demonstration of the truthfulness and power of God’s redeeming grace through Jesus Christ.
And in a variety of settings, we print our five-part mission – lest we lose sight of the tasks to which God has called us. We exist to exalt Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in meaningful worship, to encourage one another to grow in Christ-like behavior, to develop a sense of meaningful Christian community by sharing our joys and burdens, to reach outside ourselves to love hurting people, and to share Jesus with others through our lives and teaching.
Though we sometimes list these five elements of our mission in various orders, I hope we all understand that the one I have named last comes last. Until we are healthy enough as a church that it would be safe to bring unsaved people into our midst and until we have earned enough credibility with those people by our treatment of them to share the content of the gospel, we have no business trying to cram anything down their throats. On the other hand, if we are healthy and Christ-like, they’ll beat a path to our door. They’ll ask to study the Bible with you or to come to church with you. And they will eagerly receive the message of Christ without anything being forced on them.
“I’ve Seen the Future . . .”
Has anyone else noticed that our world has changed radically over the past few years? Has anyone else noticed that churches are considered increasingly distant from and irrelevant to our age? The New York Times carried an article a while back saying that “small, neighborhood churches are closing their doors at the rate of about 50 a week.”[i] In the words of one of my favorite contemporary philosophers, Yogi Berra: “I’ve seen the future, and it ain’t what it used to be.”
So what does it mean that our culture has shifted so? Do we abandon the truth-claims of the gospel? Of course not. We must press them aggressively, intelligently, and passionately. Do we quit the basics of worship, Bible teaching, and prayer? Absolutely not. For, contrary to the claims of some, people of this twenty-first century don’t want “entertainment” at church but participation in the event. They want worship they can experience rather than watch; they want more preaching rather than less, but it must be life-related and must not insult their intelligence; they want true-life stories of how the gospel makes a difference and not mere abstract truths; they want to experience the real presence of God.
What all this means to us, church, is that we must not be rigid and wed to the methodologies of a generation ago, ten years ago, or last month. Our goal is to communicate Christ, not to perpetuate the things we know best and with which we are most comfortable. It means we must take some risks to reach people who aren’t being touched by our attempts at outreach. In a word, it means we must do something so bold that it will fail without God!
Jesus Is Very Near!
What do you hear me saying when I tell you “Jesus is very near”? You may hear me making an affirmation about a central theme in the New Testament that Jesus is going to return to Earth personally and bodily to judge the living and the dead. That seems to be what most Christian teachers and evangelists mean by the statement as I hear it made today. That isn’t what I mean.
For one thing, though I know Jesus is coming again to judge the world, I don’t know when that will be. It could be today or next month or within five years. But it could also be five centuries or three millennia into the future. Live every day in expectation of Jesus’ return, but don’t let anyone tell you he or she knows the “sure sign” of the end or has figured out the precise time of the parousia. “No one knows about that day or hour,” said Jesus, “not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. . . . Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come” (Matt. 24:36, 42).
What I mean by the nearness of Jesus is his saving nearness. Jesus is not far from you today. He is eager to save you. God is not stern, hypercritical, and impossible to please. Jesus likened him to a father who runs to meet his dirty, foul-smelling, prodigal son when he saw him on the horizon (Luke 15:20ff). And Jesus himself is the high priest who is able to sympathize with our weaknesses and give us boldness in approaching the heavenly throne for mercy and grace (Heb. 4:15-16).
Paul at Athens
Luke tells the fascinating story of Paul’s time in Athens. Though distressed by the idolatry he saw everywhere, he picked up on the religious interests of the people and made a speech before the Areopagus:
Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.
“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring’” (Acts 17:22-28)
Did you catch his line about those people? He said that God has created men to seek him and reach for him and find him – “though he is not far from each one of us.” God is pursuing people around you. And he wants to partner with you in that pursuit. Oh, yes, he is pursuing you, to be sure. But if you already know the gospel and have been saved, you are now part of God’s “army” and have been enlisted to go out on search-and-rescue missions for people who still don’t know Jesus.
Jesus is “very near” someone in your office, someone with whom you go to school, or someone you know as a neighbor. God is putting us alongside people who need Christ – to facilitate an introduction. And he is sending people to us every week. Maybe you’re one of those people, and you’d like for one of us who is already a Christian to love you enough to tell you what we know about Jesus.
The Scary Numbers
It would appear that a lot of people are headed our way. Our average annual attendance in 1996 was 1,085. The next year the number jumped to 1,524 – when we moved into this new facility and had more room. By 1998, we had grown to 1,697. Last year we averaged 1,950. To date in 2000, we are averaging 2,273. This past week we closed on the eight acres adjoining us to the south, and we will be trying to create some parking to take off the stress these numbers have created.
But let me tell you something. The number that means something to God is not 1,500 or 1,800, or 2,000. It is one. Every soul is valued and dearly loved by him, and our commitment is to feel the same way about every person the Lord chooses to send here. Our goal is not to be “big” but faithful – faithful to God, to Scripture, to people who need a safe place for their spiritual lives.
Here is what sociologists have found about people who are seeking God in the early days of their spiritual experience. If they don’t make six meaningful friendships with believers in six months, they will likely fall through the cracks. We don’t want anyone to “fall through the cracks” at Woodmont Hills. If someone does, we want it to be in spite of all we can to do keep it from happening and not because we were careless or cold toward them.
Billy Graham will be preaching in Nashville later this week. About 400 of our members will be counselors to some of the thousands who will respond at Adelphia Coliseum. And scores to hundreds of names will be passed to us by the Crusade staff before they pack their bags and leave Nashville. Dr. Graham knows that faith without action is dead. He knows that these people need to be contacted, encouraged, and taught. That’s where local churches like Woodmont Hills come in to help.
In our attempt to honor God and to value people, I am going to write every person whose name is given to us – offering either a book I have written called The ABCs of the Christian Faith or a four-part video we have just produced called I Have Decided to Follow Jesus, or both. The book and video explain the meaning of Christ’s death, heaven’s plan for saving us at Calvary, and the importance of Christian discipleship. Our shepherds will follow up my letter with a note of their own.
But we need you to make personal phone calls to every one of those people. We want you to care enough to pen a hand-written note to each one. If you have Internet access, we’d like you to contact some of them by e-mail. And we need scores of people to greet and nurture the ones who show up on this property. You can tell them about our children’s ministry for their kids, Discovery 101 for those who want to know about our church’s theology and mission, Divorce Recovery, or our Counseling Center. You can refer some of them to a special Seekers Class that Terry Smith is creating.
Spiritual babies are going to be conceived in this Crusade, and it will be our task to incubate them, feed them spiritual milk, and give God time to bring them full term in their faith – to grow them to full spiritual maturity in Christ. We want you to help with that process. No hundred or so of us can meet the challenge before us right now. What a challenge. What an opportunity.
Let me close by telling you Pamela Todd’s story. She granted me permission to do so. And it illustrates the opportunity before this church right now.
Only a few weeks ago, Pam introduced herself to me in our lobby and handed me a half-page, typed letter. It told me something about her life story to date. She said she would like to talk with me sometime at my convenience, and I jotted down her name and work phone number.
Her note spoke of the “darkness” in which she had lived most of her life. It spoke of “bitterness” that had invaded her heart. She had lost a sister, and that sister’s death had – in Pam’s words – “only hardened my heart” rather than impressing her with the need for God. She was – using her own word again – “overwhelmed” by everything swirling around her.
Then she was channel surfing and caught Charles Stanley’s “In Touch” TV program one Sunday. She continued to listen. She began reading her Bible. “It was during one of the telecasts that I dropped to my knees and prayed the prayer of salvation asking Jesus Christ to come into my life,” the letter continued. It wasn’t long until one of Dr. Stanley’s sermons on obedience convicted Pam of her need to be baptized and to be part of a local church. Memories of a former co-worker from this church whom she had known as a Christian friend, Rebecca Dorris, led her to visit this church and eventually to write me a letter.
After Pam and I had a face-to-face talk and studied the Bible together, she wanted to be baptized. So she selected several friends to join us one afternoon. Rebecca was there. And so was another co-worker, Lois Carrier – whose husband is Dr. Ron Carrier of St. Paul’s Southern Methodist Church. Terry and Charlotte were there – they are neighbors to Pam. We assembled at the baptistery, and I asked Ron to read an appropriate biblical text. He selected Colossians 3:1-3. And we all rejoiced at Pam’s baptism into Christ.
It took a Baptist preacher, a Southern Methodist preacher, and a Church of Christ preacher working together for God to bring a precious soul he had loved and pursued over time into Christ. No credit to me. No credit to Ron. No credit to Dr. Stanley. All the glory is the Lord’s! And we will have the chance to watch the same thing happen over and over again in the next few weeks, if we are faithful to the opportunities coming to us through the Graham Crusade. No credit to Dr. Graham. No credit to you. No credit to me. All the glory and credit will be the Lord’s! And souls will be saved because Jesus is very near.
[i] Brent Staples, “The Push to ‘Broaden God’s Market Share’” New York Times (Oct. 4, 1998), p. 14.
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