Grace and peace to you from God our Father and His Son, Jesus Christ.
Now I know, as you know, I am your new pastor here at Immanuel First, and I know what you are all thinking here today. Some of you are looking forward with hope: "How exciting! Our new pastor is here!"
I know that some of you are just hoping, "Lord, I just hope that he says something of value."
Or perhaps maybe you're just hoping, "Just make it interesting enough so I don't fall asleep."
I want you to know, how many people were here at my installation last Sunday? Anybody here? Okay, good. Was that awesome having like, all those people? This place was packed; I mean, there were people up there (looks up at the balcony) -- oh, there are people up there too, hi! I mean, that was so neat to have this place packed like this, that's what church is all about. That's what Immanuel is going to be, okay?
You remember our preacher anyways, Dr. Larry Stoterau, district president of the church. Well, apparently according to him, I am a man of unclean lips. Do you remember that? Well, hopefully -- oops (accidentally turns off pulpit light switch with his foot) -- hopefully he was just simply -- I can't walk around up here, huh? -- hopefully all he was doing was comparing me to the prophet Jeremiah and not making comment upon my preaching ability.
Our Scripture lessons for today call us to humble trust in the Lord. But because of the special nature of today's service, I've taken the liberty of adding one more text to there; one which calls us to live out that trust by moving forward. Its from the book of Philippians, chapter 3, verses 12 through 14:
"Not that I have already obtained all this, so that I have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Jesus Christ."
That will be our sermon Scripture lesson for today.
Many times God calls us to move forward toward the goal to which He calls us. And this may entail change. And change can be very hard. It's joked about Lutherans that in particular (we) are not known for our ability to change. So let me tell you a little joke here: How many Lutherans does it take to change a light bulb?
I got some other good Lutheran responses to this "how many Lutherans does it take to change a light bulb"... How many Lutherans does it take to change a light bulb? Number three answer was "What do you mean change? My great-grandfather donated that light bulb!" The number two answer was "Let's assign a committee to investigate it." And the number one, for those of you who are here and know everybody on the staff here at Immanuel First: "Don't worry; Leroy or Orville will take care of it."
Change can be a hard thing to deal with, though. Change in our lives, it can be a hard thing to live through. Now change just for the sake of change is not necessarily good. Some people think a lot of movement means progress. A lot of action means that a lot of work is being done. Just this last summer I went to Prado Dam on my way to a Boy Scout campout. And you're supposed to take the 91 freeway east towards the mountains. And I was making great time. And I was calling the scoutmaster on my cell phone that I was on my way, I was there, and I had just passed the 710 freeway. There's silence on the other end of the cell phone. "Pastor, you're going west, not east. You're going the wrong way." Okay, lots of movement, but no progress. God doesn't call us to just lots of movement, but He calls us to move forward. But forward movement can be tough. Change can be tough. But we as Christians move forward with hope because it is God who calls us.
This is especially true with regard to moving forward with hope in the church itself. I'm curious if anybody here has ever struggled with hope, with about the church. Has a bad experience in the past caused you to struggle with keeping hope alive? I know at Immanuel First here that we've been without a pastor for a while and for many, this can be discouraging for many people. Perhaps maybe (you let) personal guilt, or perhaps even a bad experience with other church members or something rob you of the joy of being an active part of worshipping God. What I have to say to you here today is that God is here to offer you a word of hope. God calls us to forget what is behind, to move forward to the goal to which He calls us. And it is because it is God who is calling us, we can walk in hope.
I've got to tell you, here at Immanuel First you have great reasons to hope. God has blessed you in so many things. I mean you have, WE have this beautiful sanctuary here to worship and to praise God in. And I've been to many churches by the way around this country and around this world. And I've got to tell you, we are blessed over here. This congregation and the school is made up of people who love God and love Immanuel First. There's a strong sense of family here at Immanuel First, one which by the way is (a) feeling of family that must be shared with the surrounding community. God calls us to that. For those of you who have been with Immanuel First for decades, we thank you for your faithfulness. For those of you who are perhaps maybe a little bit more relatively newer, but have been active members, we thank you for your passion to serve. And to those of you who perhaps, who are sensing the call of God, sensing His call for you to serve, perhaps maybe here at Immanuel First, may God richly bless you.
Man, I've talked with the teachers here, I've talked with the students over here, everyone is excited to be here. I've got all kinds of cute presents from the school kids here, little thank you notes like this and little baskets and flowers. That type of excitement is what excited me about Immanuel First here. It said that this church is alive. God has blessed this church mightily. But He continues to call us to move forward. Not to sit on the side and relax, not to sit on the side and kind of wait for someone to call and ask me to help, not to sit aside, you know, nursing old hurts. God calls us to let go of the old things which keep us from moving forward. Now is the time to roll up your sleeves, take His blessings which He has given us and use them in the service of God, to reach out to the needs of our church, our school and our community in the surrounding area.
But moving forward requires change. Change is hard. Change is scary. I'd ask you, have you ever personally had to deal with a lot of change, change perhaps forced upon you from the outside? Or perhaps maybe you've had some inner need to change. Then you know the fear of the future that change can bring. And because of that our response can sometimes be that of anger or fear or judgment or perhaps maybe we'll even dig our heels in to resist that change. It's because change is scary. But God comes with a word of hope. Because when we move forward in hope, when we move forward in faith, we open ourselves to the blessings which God has for us -- the future blessings. As Christians we do not need to fear change. God has called us with a certain hope, a guaranteed hope. A hope which by the way is not based on our sure knowledge of the future, not based on our power or our ability or our talents. But it is a hope which is based on the promises of an almighty God, the Creator of the Universe, one who loves His children, us. And it will be because of God that we will be able to move forward.
Now many times God calls us into a future which is scary. But He calls into a future also that requires sacrifice, and that also can be tough. Has God ever put you before a future which requires sacrifice? Perhaps maybe the challenge of a new job, or challenge to fix your relationship with your wife or husband, with your children perhaps, or with your fellow church members. Or perhaps God has challenged you to a deeper commitment to Him, a deeper service to His church or a deeper personal commitment. And boy, can that be a struggle. It's hard, because it requires more than just simply a change of your mind, but it requires a change of action, a change of habits. It requires sacrifice without the guarantee that there's going to be fruit for that work. What it requires is faith.
St. Paul tells us the great secret of how to move forward in faith, how to move forward in hope. For our Philippians lesson, Paul tells us to move forward by forgetting what is behind and straining forward to what is ahead. Forgetting what is behind and straining forward to what is ahead. One of the main reasons why we're reluctant to change is because we compare what might have been or what we have with what might be in the future.
I'd ask our married folk over here, did any of you guys struggle with your decision to get married? Hmmm? Did any of you struggle with your decision to marry because you liked the fun of being single? Some of us maybe not remember that time, but some of us do. There are many people who are reluctant to commit themselves to one person because they fear the risk of not knowing if marriage is going to be any better. They fear exchanging the known good with some potential future. But if they allow that fear to control them, they will never know the blessings which God has for them. And as married people we can attest to that. There are blessings in marriage which a single person sometimes just doesn't know.
Or maybe that fear is like an adult child's afraid to move out of the house and establish a home of their own because they fear the responsibilities of a job and being on their own. And if they fear and if they allow that fear to control them, they will never know of the blessings, of the confidence of knowing of what it means to live out on your own. God calls us to move forward because He wants us to have the blessings that He has in store for us. And if we refuse to let go of the past, then we cannot continue to move forward. And if we fail to move forward, we blind ourselves to the blessings which God wishes for us. We will miss the joy of the change, of the movement forward.
Do you guys remember your first years of marriage? Was there ever a time when you found that your spouse did something that was not quite up to your expectations? My advice, of course, to all people is that, do not try comparing them to other people. Wives, was it a good idea to compare your husband to your old boyfriends, or to your father, perhaps? Heh heh heh... or men, was it good to say to your wife, "My girlfriend never used to make me do that"? When you get married, a new stage in your life has started. You put away the things of the past and you move forward to a new life.
There are no kids on over here, but if you've ever seen the movie "The Prince of Egypt" or for those of us who may be a little bit older the Cecil B. DeMille (movie) "The Ten Commandments" -- do not be like the Israelites who after being freed from the slavery of Pharaoh of Egypt, after being given miraculous manna to eat, became ungrateful and started comparing with things of the past. They started to reminisce about Egypt and the slavery; "How I miss the watermelon and spaghetti dinners!" Men, if you want to wander in your own personal desert for forty years, start your next homemade dinner with the words "I really prefer the way my mother used to cook this."
When it's time to move on you must let go the blessings you had in the past to move on to the blessings which God calls you to in the future. To hold on to the past is to deny yourself, to blind yourself to future blessings. And even if we let go of that past, even if we're able to let go of that past, sometimes change can still be hard. It's hard because that future is sometimes uncertain. In fact, not only is it uncertain sometimes, it's just downright negative. The future that God may call us to has sacrifice sometimes, pain, persecution in it. Not very attractive. In the world's eyes of choice, to follow a future like that is ridiculous. In the world's eyes, to sacrifice personal enjoyment, material wealth, comfort, joy to an unknown future is insane. The world always advises that change should always be to our personal benefit. The world tells us, "Don't let go of the good things that you have in exchange for some unknown thing. Your material wealth and comfort should always increase with every change." And when this does not happen, the world tells you it is a loss to you.
I want to tell you that God sees things from a higher perspective because He has plans of good for all those who love Him. Sometimes He will call us, His children, to walk through a valley of the shadow of suffering. So even if we're called to sacrifice, as Christians we're comforted because we know that we do not suffer alone. We do not walk through the valley of suffering alone. We are God's children and He loves us, and though God may call us to move forward into the unknown, because we walk with the One to whom that future is not unknown, because we walk with the One who has promised that -- His plans for good for us -- we can walk into that future with confidence.
If God is calling you to move forward in faith, be at peace. Move forward with confidence to know that the God who controls everything in this universe is with you. Move forward with confidence, because God has promised that no matter what happens to you in this life, He has plans of good for you. And anything that you suffer now in this life is incomparable to the wondrous riches which He has in plan for you and His promise that in whatever valley of sacrifice and suffering He's called you into, He will be walking right next to you, supporting you and comforting you. When you must walk into the unknown, look forward to the light at the end of the tunnel. Look forward to the day of celebration when you'll be able to look with your own eyes at the fruits of your sacrifice and faith.
Here at Immanuel First God has called us to great work, to bring the word of salvation to all people in the surrounding community, to bring others into the family which you have here, the family of God. Let us look forward with joy and anticipation to that great work which God will do with us here.
I'd like to leave you with the words, Paul's words, to the Ephesians:
"Move forward in faith; forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus."