On December 9, 2007, I gave my farewell sermon to First Presbyterian Church, Chattanooga, in order to go on a sabbatical and then prepare to assume duties as the President of Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte, North Carolina. I entitled the message, “How I Want my Farewell to be Remembered.” I will place it on the site in a few days from now. But I thought I would also publish this sermon. I preached “How I Want our Beginning to be Remembered on my first Sunday in the pulpit of First Presbyterian Church of Chattanooga, TN on February 3, 2002. I had been called on December 3, 2001.
We don’t mean to, but we often make Christianity more complicated than it really is‑and sometimes less glorious, less majestic than who Christ really is. It even happened to a church that Paul planted.
Remembering The Beginning
Remembering the beginning is important. When my wife and I were married, I did everything possible to make our first day as husband and wife a special one. I wrote her a special song for the day. I ordered flowers, bought her a memorable wedding present, reserved a place at the special restaurant and tipped the waiter to say our names as “Mr. and Mrs. Milton.” But the most special thing that took place, the thing that we would always remember most was not planned. As I took her to dance, the band played our song. They didn’t know it was our song, and I didn’t tip them to play it. In fact, the song was sort of obscure and I doubted any musical group would ever know it. But, there it was: my bride and I, dancing to our song. That was so important to us. For in the days ahead, in trials and difficulties that always come to couples, we could look back and if we were on the wrong track, we could remember and readjust our way.
Beginnings are also important for pastors and congregations. And our beginning is important today. Go back to the Bible and to Paul’s ministry. When he was dealing with the Corinthians, who were having some problems, he reminded them about their beginning. In reminding them about the beginning, he led them to see the very foundation of his ministry. Paul’s instructions in 1Corinthians contain some very basic truths.
Remember That We Began Our Ministry Together By Focusing On The Centrality Of The Cross Of Jesus Christ. (vv. 18-25)
In Corinth, there were Jews who wanted miraculous signs and Greeks who craved rhetorically satisfying logic for their religion. Paul went to Isaiah and answers these problems with God’s own Word: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.” (Is. 29.14)
Paul, in dealing with this church he had planted, wanted them to remember that his central message was the Cross. Many things had happened in that church since Paul had planted it. Others had come in. Parties had arisen in the church. There was great trouble at Corinth. And in the midst of this, Paul reminds them about the fundamentals of the faith: the cross of Christ. In that one event, the God of heaven who came in the flesh, offering Himself as a sacrifice for the sins of His people, faith makes sense. It is the wisdom of God over the supposed wisdom of man. This is antithesis and it is a necessary tension in the gospel. Man looks at the cross as foolish. It doesn’t seem right that men are saved by a God who dies for them. But in this one act of love and grace and mercy, in Christ identifying with us in our sin and taking the punishment for those who repent, we come to see God’s power.
One commentator said: “The message of the cross is portrayed as an uncompromising indictment of human values of wisdom and power . . .”
One theologian pointed to this antithesis, of the supposed wisdom of man and the supposed foolishness of the cross, and called it the difference between “a religion of therefore” and a “religion of nevertheless.” In man, we have a “therefore” religion. In man’s wisdom, we say, “Your father was an unbeliever, therefore you are an unbeliever, therefore, your children will be unbelievers.” But, the preaching of the cross of Christ is the “nevertheless” of God. This Cross centered faith says, “Your father was an unbeliever, nevertheless, God calls you to repent and believe. And though you came from an unbelieving family, God has snapped the chain of unbelief and establishes a covenant of grace in your midst which may be passed along to your children!” I remember telling this to a grandmother who came to me to pray about her granddaughter. The mother had run off with another man, and the little girl was a witness to the whole thing. She saw awful things. The grandmother was slipping into despair as she imagined “therefore the girl will grow up and have great problems.” I shared with her what this glorious teaching of the cross really means. How man’s wisdom may say “therefore” but the Cross says, “Nevertheless.” God who transformed the cross from an instrument of shame to a sign of victory and hope is the God who may “never‑the‑less” transform this event. God’s power is the cross of Christ. Your hope for your problems is in the cross of Jesus Christ.
As Paul came preaching the centrality of the cross, I want to do the same. I want our beginning to be remembered as a beginning focused on the cross. For in the cross we have the power to face difficulty, the power of God to have hope in the midst of despair, and if God is going to bring revival to our nation it will be through magnifying the Cross of Jesus Christ. Paul says that for those being called to eternal life, the cross is the wisdom and power of God to do the work. It is a supernatural work of God to come down and save a soul, revive a straying saint, or work repentance in an erring believer and we must thus lean on the supernatural directive of God: the preaching of the cross of Christ.
In chapter two, verses 1‑5, the apostle not only draws them to recall his initial message but also his medium for the message. As he drew a distinction between the supposed wisdom of man over against the genuine wisdom of the Cross, so, too, he showed that the force of his message rested not on human power, but the Holy Spirit. Paul showed that the Holy Spirit did the great work, because he was himself simply a weak, trembling vessel.
I Want Us To Remember That We Began Our Ministry Together By Admitting Our Own Weakness (2:1-5)
The Corinthians were much impressed with credentials and with oratorical demonstration and with superficial things. “Man looks at the outside of a man, but God looks at the heart.” Paul reminds the Corinthians that when he came, he came in weakness. In other words, the Corinthians church was planted not through the showy exhibition of a gifted preacher, but simply through the power of God in Christ flowing through a weak vessel.
If Paul, the greatest preacher and missionary of them all, came to the Corinthians in weakness and in trembling, so I surely must admit that I come this way.
A long time ago, my pastor told me: “Preach out of your brokenness and you will connect hurting people with the only source of healing.”
When we act like we are God’s gift to the world, when we point to our accomplishments, when we rely on our own native strengths, we rob Christ of His glory. And no one will ever be saved by Mike Milton. So, I need to get out of the way and preach Christ. Paul said: “I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.” I come to you to simply tell you that God has saved a poor sinner like me. If God can do that in my life, he can change your life.
The most powerful person in my life has been the woman who raised me: my Aunt Eva. She had no education beyond the tenth grade. She was a widow with no children when I was placed in her arms. She wasn’t experienced as a parent and being 65 when she adopted me, couldn’t exactly go out and play football with me. She was very often physically weak. But, I will tell you this: she taught me Christ. And when I fell away from her teaching and went my own way as a young man, she prayed me to Christ. When I was so depressed over the problems in my life that I felt like giving up, she lifted my eyes to heaven. And when I became a pastor and sought counsel for the many decisions before me, I went to her. For in her weakness, Christ was made strong.
I want us to remember our beginning together: that I come in weakness, pleading for your prayers, admitting my own inability, but also saying that in our weakness, Christ is made strong. People will be saved and people will grow, then Christ alone is exalted.
“Grace Amidst The Garbage”
In this passage, we have seen that we should build a ministry based on the centrality of the cross and the admission of our weakness and need of the power of the Holy Spirit. No one will be saved. No one will grow. Our church will not really grow, unless those two things are secure. The cross of Christ and the power of God at work among us.
Shortly before I left Savannah, the headlines in the Savannah News were all about Baby Grace. Baby Grace was a newborn girl discovered in a dumpster by a garbage worker. Amid the refuse of a ghetto area of Savannah, lying in pornography, the green broken glass of discarded cheap wine bottles, in coffee grounds and rotting food, was a tiny, little girl not over a week old. The garbage collector named her “Baby Grace.” And the story of Grace is changing the hearts of that neighborhood like nothing before. There will be no problems finding parents for Baby Grace. Couples are lining up to claim Grace as their own.
I think what God is telling us in this passage is that the message of Grace‑God’s grace in Christ‑is equally surprising and even disturbing. For in a garbage dump outside of a two bit occupied country, on a Roman cross, Grace could be found. Grace is not found in the pretty religion of men, but in the garbage dump of our own lives. And those who find Grace, and tell it best, are not professional clergymen, but people who have lived close to the dumpster themselves, fellow refuse workers, if you will, who have discovered Grace.
That is all I am. That is all you are. We’re just a bunch of sinners saved by grace, calling you, too, to admit your weakness and reach out for His power‑His grace‑which was demonstrated when Jesus died for us on the Cross.