The year 2020 will forever be known as the year that felt like it would never end. World-wide pandemics, social unrest, political insanity, economic disaster, and the bitter polarization of almost everything. Friends, families, and neighbors have divided over the tweets of politicians, social justice hashtags, personal protective equipment, executive orders, worship gatherings, and conspiracy theories of all shapes and sizes. We have watched financial markets crash, countries lock down, cities burn, covid numbers rise, social media degenerate, education and work go virtual, and countless businesses close their doors forever. 2020 has been cruel: the most jobs lost since the Great Depression, family members lay dying in hospital beds with no one by their side, loved ones were isolated from their families for months upon end, and we watched for 8 minutes and 46 seconds as a black man was murdered by a police officer who was supposed to serve and protect. The year has wrought the emotional suffering of untold millions in the silent grip of anxiety, fear, and depression, and nearly 1.7 million people have lost their life to a virus. 2020 has weighed heavy on the soul of our nation and the hearts of everyone in our nation. A weight somedays feels overwhelming but every day is present. Yet as 2020 draws to a close we celebrate Christmas. A time that is supposed to be about hope, peace, joy, and love… yet this Christmas the heaviness is still palpable and no amount of whimsical songs from Bing Crosby, Mariah Carey, or the Trans-Siberian Orchestra can hide the ache in our soul. No matter the amount of gifts, decorations, sweets, or twinkling lights we surround ourselves we cannot ease the pain of this year. The words of the Adolphe Adams ring profoundly true, “Long lay the world in sin and error pining..” The world is not the way it's supposed to be.
This year has been the hardest I have experienced as a pastor. No decision I have made has felt right…2020 has taught me to not to focus on what I do not have but to give thanks for what I do have. So I wanted to share with you four things I am thankful for this year in 2020…
1. My Church Family - On Saturday March 14th I was in the St. Augustine Publix parking lot texting furiously and calling members of our church. What should we do? Should we continue to gather or livestream? Tell people to stay home or give them the choice to come to church? We decided that for a few weeks we would go to a livestream. That next day we sang music that Faith recorded on Alethia’s cellphone, Andrew read scripture, and I stood in the pulpit and preached to an empty sanctuary…while many of you sat in your living rooms and worshipped with us…yet not with us. It was strange…almost eerie. As one week became two, and two become three; three weeks became three months and we were still not gathering…though with each passing week my heart longed to be with my people. After each service I went home feel empty because I did not have my brothers and sisters with me. I couldn’t feel the warmth of their love, the strength of their joy, or the comfort of their hope. I learned that I needed to see their faces, hear the sound of their voices singing, praying, and saying ‘Amen’ in worship. I needed to see their tears and hear their laughter. Absence truly made my heart fonder. I already knew a livestream was not worship but it impressed upon me the privilege that so many of us take for granted in our country. It is a privilege to gather together on the Lord’s Day and to be reminded of who He is and what He has done. After six days apart I need my bother and sisters love, I need to feel their joy, I need to be encouraged by their peace, and I need their gift of the Spirit in my spiritual pilgrimage. I needed to worship together. When God told Adam in the Garden, “It is not good for a man to be alone” (Get 2:18) is not only applicable to marriage but to the Christian life. The body of Christ needs every part: “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body - how can [one part of the body say] I have no need of you.” (1 Cor. 12:13b;21). I have been profoundly reminded that we need each other. To weep together and to rejoice together. To love each other, to encourage each other, and to protect each other. To edify each other and to correct each other. When we gather together, though socially distanced, we are given a glimpse of heaven. A place where the people of God will praise the risen Christ to the glory of the Father by the power of the Spirit. Each week as we gather together we are given a sweet sample of heaven’s glory. The Lord has blessed me with a church family who values Christ enough to gather together despite everything we don’t have or can’t do right now…we have a Heavenly Father who is worthy of our worship and a church family to worship with…and that sustains my soul in 2020.
2. Unshakeable Citizenship - 2020 has also been a year scarred by political insanity, glaring social inequality, corruption and exploitation of the weak, oppressed, and downtrodden, and callous indifference toward our neighbors suffering in a broken and fractured nation. We are a nation bitterly divided and their is little hope of living up to our nation’s motto, “One nation under God”. Yet in the midst of a country that is falling in on itself is this…my primary citizenship is not simply in the United States though I love my country. I am a citizen ‘of a kingdom that cannot be shaken’ (Hebrews 12:28) a kingdom that is ruled and reigned by a faithful king that cannot be corrupted, bought, defrauded, defeated, or voted out. His throne is eternal, his power is unchallenged, and his ways are good. There will be a day when the United States is a footnote in annuals of human history but Christ’s heavenly kingdom that reigns now in the hearts and lives of his people will reign on earth as it is in heaven…’and it will have no end.’ (Luke 1:33). His kingdom infuses me with a living hope because I have ‘an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for me’ (1 Peter 1:4-5). That inheritance is knowing and being known by God. Tasting the sweetness of his grace. Living forever in his glorious presence with all who trust in the promises of God in Christ. Giving Him glory, honor, and blessing forever and ever…the very thing I was created to do. The Lord has reminded me this year that this world is not my home. Though I work for justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with my God…Christ’s kingdom is coming and he will make all things new, all wrong this right, and all sad things untrue…and no power of hell or scheme of man can revoke my citizenship…and that sustains my soul in 2020.
3. Hope beyond the Grave - For a small church we have tasted of the bitterness of sin and death. Few have not been touched by the loss of a spouse, parent, or child. When I came to Ocean Park I knew I was tasked with the privilege of preaching and praying, loving and staying, so that the Gospel that has been faithfully proclaimed here for 58 years would be passed on to another generation. It is my calling as pastor to ‘guard the deposit that is entrusted to me’ (2 Tim 1:14). What I didn’t realize is that I would have the privilege of walking so many of my brothers and sisters to the river and watching from the bank as they crossed over into Christ’s heavenly kingdom. I have sat by their death bed as they took their final breath on this side of the resurrection. I have stood by their graveside and fulfilled my promise to not waste their death but preach the gospel at their funeral. I have grieved with their families as they walked through life without them. These faithful brothers and sisters not only taught me how to live but taught me how to die. Their hope in the gospel never waned through the pain, tears, and bad news… why? Their hope was not in treatments, doctors, or miracles…their hope was in Christ their Savior who came to earth to defeat sin and death. Though they feared the process of death, they did not fear death itself because they knew that death no longer had the final word. Death is now the means by which the Lord brings his people into his presence. I have been continually reminded of this truth by the beautiful lives and courageous deaths of my brothers and sisters who died boldly declaring, “For me to live is Christ, to die is gain” (Phil 1:21). They knew that wether it be pancreatic cancer or a brain tumor, COVID or heart disease, a drunk driver or old age, they would be ushered into the presence of Christ where they would remain for eternity. The Lord has reminded me that my life is fleeting and that my life is but a vapor: here today and gone tomorrow. Yet wether it is an unseen virus or a heart attack…I have hope beyond the grave. For when Christ returns, the trumpet will sound, and He will call my name along with all who died united to Christ by faith and we will arise to newness of life because of Christ’s victory…that sustains my soul in 2020.
4. A Gentle Savior - Over the past few weeks I have been reading Dane Ortlund’s book ‘Gentle and Lowly” where he focuses on the heart of Christ our Savior. In chapter 5 he focuses on Hebrews 5:2, “[Jesus] can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward.” This year I have needed this verse because I am not gentle with myself or my loved ones. To my shame, I grow frustrated, curt, and ill-tempered when people don’t live up to my arbitrary standard…especially myself. By God’s grace…Jesus is gentle me and you…even though we deserve snark, exasperation, and wrath. Yet Christ’s gentleness is neither condescending or patronizing…it is gentle and lowly…Why? because he knows our weakness. The weakness that he took upon himself by becoming human is a weakness that produces deep, heart-felt sympathy toward his people. He walked in our shoes, he saw through our eyes, he lived our experienced…yet without sin. He never pitied himself or turned inward. He turned upward to the Father and outward to you and I, his brothers and sisters. Our Savior is gentle. As Ortlund so poignantly reveals, “Jesus does not throw his hands up in the air when he engages sinners. He is calm, tender, soothing, restrained. He deals with us gently.” (Ortlund, p. 53). No matter what our offense is. No matter if it was done in ignorance or rebellion. No matter if it is the first time or the umpteenth time. Our Savior is gentle. This year when nothing feels right. When I have committed sins of omissions in not doing what I should or sins of commission in once again falling into sinful patterns…my savior is gentle. I can go to him to find forgiveness. Again Ortland explains, “[The author of Hebrews] is not just telling us that instead of scolding us, Jesus loves us. It’s telling us the kind of love he has; rather than dispensing grace to us from on high, he gets down with us, he puts his arm around us, he deals with us in the way that is just what we need. He deals gently with us.” (Ortlund, p, 55). Ocean Park, this is the Savior I need…and I imagine you need him too. My sins are many but his mercy is more. The deeper we experience pain and anguish the more we experience the tender gentleness of our Savior who entered our experience that Holy Night two millennia ago. He is a Savior who suffering was far greater than we experience but whose gentleness now is far greater than we expect. In a year of great uncertainty I have come to be certain of one thing: I have a great and gentle Savior…and that sustains my soul in 2020.
Ocean Park, there are but a few days remaining in 2020. But the reality of living in a fallen world marks every day, year, and decade of our life…until Christ returns. Adams words though fulfilled at Christ’s first advent will be fulfilled at his second coming, “Long lay the word in sin and error pining, until he appeared and the soul felt it's worth.” And when he does he will make all things new. The greed of politicians and pastors who are supposed to protect their people, the diseases and viruses that curse our bodies, the pain of isolation and anxiety that weary our soul, and the division, hatred, and racism that plague our societies…will be no more. Because of the child in the manger…The child who fulfilled God’s righteousness, died an atoning death for his people, rose victorious from the grave, and ascended into heaven where he reigns over us and prays for us. Christ, the Savior was born that Silent Night and he our Lord will return and to make all things new…
“And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”
May you come to know and trust the Savior who came to rescue us. May your soul be nourished by Christ who gives us a family, who guarantees our place in his kingdom, who gives us hope beyond the grave, and deals gently with our weakness.