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A sermon by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, N.C.

August 25, 2013

Matthew 6:25, 33-34; 22:34-40; Ephesians 3:16-21

In case anybody here besides me is just a little bit tense, let me share this bit of comforting information….In preparing me for this all important first sermon, your Search Committee (bless their nervous hearts) told me to relax and not worry. All I needed to do this first Sunday, they said, was preach the very best sermon of my career, the very best sermon in the history of this church… in seventeen minutes or less. (Needless to say), those words of counsel really set me at ease!

Those were the first words out of my 38-year-old mouth in my first sermon here. I honestly don’t remember preparing that sermon, but I have an idea I wrestled mightily with how to begin on that special day, May 19, 1991.

Now, twenty-two plus years later, I stand before you today with an even tougher dilemma—what should my last word be as your pastor?

One pastor friend recommended I preach that first sermon again and see if anybody noticed! That sounded like a good idea, until I received an email from Paul Baxley, a son of this church (and yes, John and Nancy Baxley!) who now pastors FBC Athens, GA. Twenty-two years ago Paul worked on our staff, and in his email he noted that the appointed Old Testament lectionary text for today is the same I used on my first Sunday here. And then he recounted in amazing detail much of what I said in that first sermon, and wrote of how that sermon has stayed with him to this day.

So much for that idea!

Then, I considered the possibility of reminiscing together about all that has happened these past 22 years. And I’ve enjoyed doing that very thing with some of you these past few days. But then I reread a copy of the final sermon Randall Lolley preached here on July 14, 1974. As Randall opens his last sermon he admits he is sorely tempted to devote his entire sermon to reminiscing. But he resists that temptation, observing, “The nobler use of our precious ‘end time’ deserves more than mere reminiscing.”

And of course Randall was right.

So today I am giving the last word to God, to whom it rightly belongs. In the final analysis, God is the first word, the last word, and the only word that finally really matters. Everything else is commentary.

In these final days together, I’ve been talking about stories. Two weeks ago I told my own story of transformation that has taken place, especially over the past six years. Last Sunday I reviewed our story as a congregation—past, present, and future. Of course, I think my own story is fascinating! And I’m sure we agree our congregation’s story is well worth celebrating. But the fact is, neither my story nor our story makes any sense apart from God’s story. Without God’s story, there are no other stories to tell. Period. End of story!

If I could summarize our human sinfulness in one phrase, I would describe it this way— our lives are all about us.” This mindset begins when we are infants and somebody is meeting our every need. And before long we assume with our infant minds that we really are the center of the universe.

The problem is many of us never progress beyond this “me-first” attitude. We may never say aloud that life is all about us, especially at church. But our behavior betrays us—we act as though we expect to have our every need met, and our every preference satisfied. Everything we do, including our involvement with church and God, is about building, reinforcing, and feathering our own little individual kingdoms. It really is all about us.

Meanwhile, the bible in general and Jesus in particular communicate a very different message—it’s all about God. The very first words of scripture read, In the beginning God created the heavens and earth (Genesis 1:1). And in the process of creating the universe, God created human beings—male and female he created them.

It all began with God. And God intended that all of his creation, including human beings, would voluntarily live under his rule and establish a community of harmony and peace. Of course, it didn’t work out that way, but that didn’t stop God from trying to win back his rebellious children through the Law and the Prophets.

Finally, God took the ultimate step and sent his only Son to get his wayfaring creation back on track. One day as Jesus was teaching the multitudes, a cagey lawyer hoping to trip up Jesus asked him to identify the greatest of the 613 commandments on the books. And Jesus replied, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”

That’s about as different from “It’s all about you” as you can get! Jesus is saying, “Life is not about you. You are to be about life. And life is about loving God with every ounce of your being, and your neighbor as yourself.”

Of course, this teaching fit perfectly with what Jesus said on another occasion in his famous Sermon on theMount. Jesus observed that one sign your life is all about you is your chronic worry that your needs will not be met. Jesus says this worry is misplaced because God will care for your needs just as he provides for the birds of the air and the lilies of the field.

But Jesus doesn’t stop there. He says in so many words, “Stop acting like it’s all about you and your kingdom. Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you as well.”

Friends, it may appear like your life is about you, and this congregation’s life is all about FBC. Nothing could be further from the truth! The primary actor in your life is God, not you. The primary actor in First Baptist Church is God, not us. We have our roles to play, of course. But this is God’s production, God’s show—always has been, always will be.

And so, for example, we can all take a healthy sense of pride in those four people who were baptized earlier in this service. I had something to do with that, and so did you. But make no mistake—what ultimately led those four into the water this morning was the Holy Spirit of God, acting in their hearts. Everything else is window dressing!

Don’t hear me say you and I are not important! To the contrary, we are precious in God’s sight, and he does us the great honor of inviting us to co-labor with him in this world. Why? Because he loves us.

And here is where we run into mystery.

Why does God love us so? Even if we live 100 years, even if our church continues another 142 years, we are around but a blink of an eye in the span of eternity. On top of that, while we have our good moments, we are pathetic at times, so pathetic we wonder why God notices us at all, or would want to.

That’s why Paul prays that we will have the power to comprehend the breadth and length and height and depth of God’s love for us in Christ Jesus. The God whom we are commanded to love with every ounce of our being loves us with every ounce of his.

But we are sadly mistaken if we assume God’s primary agenda in life is to serve our agenda. Just the opposite is true. We are here to serve him, obey him, love him. We are at our best, life is at its best when we make life all about God and not ourselves. First Baptist Church, as I conclude my time as your pastor, I urge you not to make this church about you and your survival. With all due respect, this church has never been about you or me, and never will be. The way to make this church’s story line continue and even thrive is to live as deeply into God’s story as you possibly can. Don’t seek your own survival. Don’t seek to have your needs met. Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and God will take care of the rest.

As you do, know I love you with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength. And I pray that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through (the) Spirit, that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith…and that you may be filled with the fullness of God.

(And) now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever.

Amen.

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