A sermon delivered by Joel Snider, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Rome, Ga., on May 16, 2010.
As a historian, I am often asked to what great period in history I would care to return, and I can think of none, for every age has fallen short of what the good news promised, and no past age has achieved an instance of grace for which I would sacrifice one second of the future. When I say, as I often do, that our best days are ahead of us, I truly believe that the good news that Jesus preached has yet to be experienced, for it goes before us, as did Jesus himself on Easter morning.
–Peter J. Gomes in The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus
Let me ask you a question. What have been the best days in your life? As you look back over your life and try to summarize the different chapters of your life, what would you describe as your best days? For some, it might be high school. Maybe you were voted in those “Who’s Who” things that everybody wanted to be—the funniest, the most likely to succeed, or the most popular. You look back on that, and that was a good time. You were recognized and things were clicking on all cylinders in your life.
Perhaps in high school you were pigeonholed for something that happened when you were a child. You had to go off to college where no one knew you in order to re-invent yourself with people who were not going to label you the way you were labeled in high school. For you, college was a place where you broke free and were able to express the personality and the gifts that you feel God gave you.
Perhaps you play tennis or golf and there was a time in your 30’s when you were really a good player. You had opportunity to practice and you still had enough youthful strength to hit the ball hard, and you think, “Those were good days.” There are many kinds of different ways that we can choose—degrees that we earned when we were in school, jobs where we had certain positions and titles. We can mark by relationships when we related to our parents a certain way, when we meet our spouse, when we had children. We might say, “Those are the best days of my life.”
What would we say for this congregation? What have been the best days for us? Over 175 years and 9,000 plus worship services, what have been our best days? Was it 175 years ago today when those six people meet and started everything that has become a part of the lineage we continue today?
In 1865 during the months following the end of the Civil War when the population of Rome had dwindled to less than 75 and there were marauders in the region, the church had been closed for a number of months after being confiscated as a hospital and stable. Finally, a faithful few were able to open the doors again. Were those the best days?
In the 1870’s, Luther Gwaltney, Alfred Shorter, and others began what became Shorter College, within the walls of what was then the facilities of this church. Were those the best days?
During the pastorate of Robert Headden who spanned 30 years from 1883-1913, this church led all Baptist churches in the South in giving to missions. Were those the best days?
Were the best days during the time of the beloved Bunyan Stephens or the time of the visionary Forrest Lanier who lead the congregation to build this sanctuary? Were the best days during the time of Dr. Roebuck when the membership and attendance numbers were the highest they have ever been?
Were the best days in the past decade when the generous people in this congregation gave more than some corporations for hurricane relief on the Gulf Coast? It seemed like we ran a small trucking company for a number of weeks to take supplies to Mississippi and Louisiana in the aftermath of the hurricane. What have been the best days of 175 years?
If you had asked the disciples of Jesus that question on the day after the first Good Friday, what would they have said would have been the best days of their lives? Surely, it would have been before they came to Jerusalem with Jesus, before the Passover, and before they watched their Master die that horrible death on the cross. Surely, they would have thought their best days were somewhere back in Galilee, when the miracles of Jesus still seemed to be enough to call people to faith and the teachings of Jesus touched everybody’s hearts and the crowds continued to gather and grow larger every day. I think the disciples would have said their best days were a while ago when things were still growing and glowing and Jesus was still popular, but it certainly would not have been the week when Christ died.
We have a tendency to want to retrieve, to relive, to recapture, to hold onto something that has been in the past. How many times have you said, or heard someone say, “There just hasn’t been any good music since Glenn Dorsey. There hasn’t been any good music since The Beatles or The Supremes.” We always think there is some place in the past where everything was more golden, where everything was truly perfect and idyllic. If we could just get back to the way it was, everything would be OK.
If you had asked the disciples of Christ on the day after the first Good Friday, “What have been your best days?” I know they would have said, “Pre-Jerusalem.” But if you had waited one day, and on the afternoon of the first Easter, if you had asked the disciples, “What have been your best days?” the answer would have changed. On that morning, they heard a two-part message that changed history and their lives. It changed absolutely everything. The angel said, “He lives. He has been raised.” The other part is this: “He goes before you to Galilee and there you will see him.” The message is not only that he has been raised from the dead but that he is alive and present in this life.
When we think about our faith, the faith of this congregation over 175 years, it is based on two things: One, is the past and what Jesus did at Calvary and how God raised Christ from the dead. But that is not all. It is also based on the fact that we have encountered Christ who has been with us, who has gone before us, who is present with us, and who empowers us. We believe in the things that are possible because Christ lives. He goes before us. Christ goes before us and is waiting on us and is already there in all of those next chapters of life. Whatever the page we are about to turn is, whether it is tomorrow and something that we face, or next year and something that we cannot anticipate even now, faith is not only based on what happened when God raised Jesus, but it is based upon the living Christ that we know now. It is what God has done in Christ and what Christ can do in our lives.
William Bradford, governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, in one of his early sermons to the Pilgrims, had a wonderful statement that has always been an inspiration to me. He said, “God hath yet more light to break from his word.” God hath yet more light to speak and to shed upon our lives. Would it not be a terrible faith, an anemic faith, a weak faith to believe that there is less strength, less power, and no more light than what we have today waiting on us in God’s future? What kind of faith would it be to think that all the miracles, all the answered prayers, all the inspiration, and all the leadership of God is somewhere in the past and that is where the golden days are?
On this 175th anniversary, we claim the fact that God is with us. God has been with us further back than any of us can remember. In 1864 when the doors of the church were closed, in the 1930’s when the Depression was oppressive upon the lives of everybody in this community, on the Sunday following September 11, 2001 when probably the largest non-Easter, non-Christmas crowd ever to gather in this church, gathered together, and we were afraid. God has been with us. In 2008, when it looked like the financial markets of the world were going to crumble and we didn’t even know if ATM’s would work and we could get our money and were worried, we came here and God has been with us—not only with us but going before us. God goes before us. We celebrate the past, but we claim the future.
I had an exercise in statistics this week. Do you realize that in this congregation, the number of people between the ages of 80 and 103 is 116 people? Our oldest member is 103. We have three members over 100. But if you go to the other end of the spectrum between the ages of newborn and 20 years old, there are twice that many—230 young lives that are a part of this congregation today that we believe will be a part of this congregation moving into the future. While the past is reassuring, it is the future that is inspiring. The past says, “Hasn’t this been wonderful?” but it is the future that makes us realize that today we come to a worship and it is not a celebration in a museum, it is part of the living faith that continues. There is more faith, more faith to be had, more witness to be shared, more prayers to have answered, more ministry to be done, and more light to receive from God’s word.
Are you familiar with the clichÃ©, “And the rest is history?” You hear about the early days of somebody who is famous. They are the overnight wonder in the music business. They did this and they did that, and then they finally made it big. And the person says, “And the rest is history.”
I read a very interesting line on a website just a week or two ago. It was about a Christian singer and it talked about the different things that had happened in his life, how he had met this person and it had helped his career, how he had met that person and performed with this other one, and how everything had worked together. Then the last line in the biography said, “And the rest is future.” I thought, “That is great.” And the rest is future.
So today, what have been the best days of your life? What have been the best days in the life of this congregation? We can name day after day after day things that have demonstrated the goodness of God, the leadership of the Holy Spirit, and the power of Christ. We can talk about all the things that have been accomplished, people we have all known and how we have known each other back in a younger day. All that serves to move us to the point where we can say, “And the rest is future.”
Remember this: He goes before us. He goes before us, and he waits to lead us into that future that is not yet, that future of things that we have yet to do, faithfulness yet to be lived, God’s spirit yet to be experienced. The rest is future because he lives and he goes before us.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.