A Prayer for the Congregation

By / Oct 14

The Lord’s Day

October 14, 2007

Presbyterian Church Sanctuary Dedication Sunday 2007

Ephesians 3:14-21

“A Prayer for the Congregation”

Dr. James M.

Amen and amen! What a hymn! That’s the first time in fifty
years that in a worship service I’ve heard The Doxology sung twice

I want to thank the elders of this church, the
deacons of this church…I want to thank Ligon that on this historic day in the
life of the First Presbyterian Church of Jackson, Mississippi, that I am invited
to come and preach. I am thrilled…I am thrilled.

Now please take your Bibles and open to the book of
Ephesians, the third chapter of the book of Ephesians. And let me first pray.

Our heavenly Father, we thank Thee for the living
word, the Lord Jesus: that One who saves, that One that we offer praise and
worship to. We thank Thee for the written word. We would know nothing of real
truth except for Thy word. Our Lord, help the congregation in these next minutes
to have an ear to hear, and help me as I preach the good news of Christ, as we
pray in His holy name. Amen.

While you’re opening your Bibles, let me set the
context. Give me a few minutes here.

It was 58 years ago. I heard a conversation in the
darkness between two men. That conversation changed my life. This is the

In 1950, the Korean War broke out. I had just
graduated from college, was working down in Jacksonville, Florida. There was a
common draft at that time. My home was in Chicago, and I was registered for the
draft in Chicago, living in Jacksonville, and I found out those were the first
people — my friends and neighbors in Chicago — drafted. And I wound up with a
group of men from Chicago and a group of men from Iowa. And we were sent in the
fall, late fall, to Missouri, Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. Farmers and men
from Chicago.

In our barracks the first night, right across the
aisle, I saw this young man from Iowa whose name was Carlson. Lights were still
on, everybody was still up, but he went to bed early every night. He was a
farmer. And he knelt beside his bed and he began to pray. And I thought to
myself, “I’ve never seen anything like that publicly.” He did that every night.
First one [prayer], everybody got to noticing it, and he became a topic of
discussion. And then one night this tough boy from Chicago, big fellow, came
over with a cigarette in his mouth, took it out, leaned down, and he touched
Carlson’s heel while Carlson was praying. Carlson jumped, saw who it was, went
on praying, and got in bed. Well, that night we had a little discussion, a
military discussion. And when the fight was over… [laughter]… it was
decided that from now on let Carlson pray, and no disturbance. Which occurred
for about two more weeks, and then they decided to show us how to fire the M-1
rifle, and by this time it was in December and we were marched out eight miles
to a range. And that went on for a week. And we would be marched out…the sun had
not risen yet…we’d get out there so it was daylight, and then we’d have all day,
until 4:00 in the afternoon, and then we’d have to march back. Half way, in the
stillness of the night–dawn had yet to break–we were given a rest period. We sat
down on the side of the road, and there was absolute silence. Everybody was half

And then this voice came out of the darkness. It was
this big boy from Chicago with the cigarette–that guy. (Not me! That guy!) And
he said, “Carlson, how come you pray so much?” And Carlson answered, “I always
prayed.” He said, “What do you pray about?” And he gave a time. He said, “I
timed you last night. What do you pray about?” And he went on to pray about his
folk back home, his friends, and then he finally ended up and he said, “I pray
for everybody in our barracks.” There was a long pause. And then this guy said,
“Well, that’s useless. There is no God. He doesn’t hear your prayer.” They went
back and forth a little bit…everybody (fifty of us) just listened. And finally,
the big boy said, “You’re wasting your time. God does not hear you prayers.”

And Carlson said, “Yes, He does.”

“How do you know?”

He said, “Because He lives in my heart.”

Just then the whistle blew. We got up, started
marching, and I remember saying to myself, “What an answer! Way to go, Carlson!”
I’d been in a Presbyterian church all my life in Chicago. I had no idea what he
was talking about, but I thought, “What an answer, that Christ lives in his

Now, that sentence stuck with me for the next five
years. By this time I’d gone to OCS, was an infantry officer, got out of the
infantry at the conclusion of the Korean War, went to work with New York Life in
Atlanta — Jane’s home town. And then, going to church every Sunday…I went to

Don’t ever tell me coming to church doesn’t really
make any difference. In a church service, for the first time in my life, at the
age of 27, I was convicted of my sin: that I was a sinner; that I was a very
moral person, but that I was a sinner. I was not a prince of God. I thought God
thought I was really something! I broke down weeping, couldn’t stop–publicly. A
number of months after that, back in church again, many things had changed. Once
I understood I was a sinner, everything fell into place. Now I understood why
Christ died on a cross, and then I understood who He was. Everything! Then I
went to church again another Sunday…every Sunday. And at the conclusion of that
worship service, when we were having the Benediction, I was thinking to myself —
and I know this sounds strange in a Presbyterian church, but so help me, it was
like I heard a voice out of heaven saying, “Why don’t you preach?” I was being
very critical in my thinking of that sermon. “Why don’t you preach?”

I told Jane, “You’re not going to believe this. I’m
called to preach.” I thought she’d say, “You’re kidding!” Instead she said,
“Well, when you get ready we’ll go to seminary.” I was shocked. Well, I took a
time. I said, “Don’t hold your breath, because I’m not fit to go to a holy place
like a seminary.”

Well, it took another time. I sold a guy some
insurance, a policy, and then I tried to tell him about heaven. I’d been asked
to teach the young people, the high school. And I was reading the Bible at the
age of 27 for the first time. There were other circumstances–God uses
circumstances. Jane’s mother, after a year of cancer, died. She was a remarkable
woman, 47 years of age, fabulous, strong in many ways. Wonderful woman. I
attended her funeral. It was the first funeral I’d ever attended in my life. And
shortly thereafter, we had a son born to us. Those are the kinds of things that
make men think, and God gets ahold of our attention.

And then I hear this voice, “Why are you not
preaching?” And I’m trying to teach this guy after I had sold him…it was in
Marietta, Georgia…how to get to heaven, all about heaven. He reached over and he
tore up the application. He said, “Why don’t you make up your mind? Do you want
to be a life insurance salesman, or do you want to be a preacher?” I said,
“Thank you.” I went outside and I called the seminary — the only seminary I knew
was there in Atlanta. I got ahold of the president, and I said, “I’ve got to
talk to somebody today. Can I come see you?” I told him where I was…I said it’ll
be about an hour. And so I drove and I explained to him everything, and I said,
“Could a guy like me be called to preach?” He said, “You’re called to preach.”
And he said, “You’ve got to start now.”

I was a little late getting going. I went to seminary
that first day and I was sick to my stomach. I knew I would defile the place,
this holy place. And Jane was home. She kept the baby at home, and was teaching
school. And I began to realize the first week that I wasn’t defiling the place:
the place was trying to defile me. All the things I was trying to get rid of in
my life…these guys were going out every night! I couldn’t believe it! The second
week was even worse, and there were doubts being presented. The third week — I’d
come home every weekend, and I’d tell Jane, “Surely we’re going to get the
answers next week.” Well, there were no answers.

And then a man showed up. He’d been in Brazil…he was
in Brazil on a mission trip. He was the English Bible teacher. And I’d heard
about him. I’m in total confusion, and he comes to that class. When he comes to
that class for the first time — three and a half weeks after we had started
seminary — he held up the Bible, and he said, “I love this Bible, because I love
the Christ of this Bible, who lives in my heart.” At the end of class, I went up
to him and I said, “Would you explain to me about Christ in your heart?” He
said, “Are you serious?” I said…he didn’t know that I was about to say to
him…“Listen, I made the biggest mistake of my life, just by being here.” And he
said, “Are you serious?” And I said, “I’m dead serious.” He said, “Are you
willing to do a little study?” I said, “I’m willing to do anything.” He said,
“All right, you look up the word heart. Get your concordance and look up
the word heart in the Bible…every single verse in which the word heart
is used. And when you look it up, we’re going to talk about what the heart is,
and about what Christ is.”

Well, it took me — with all this spare time! — it
took me over a week to look up every verse. And in looking it up, I came to this
passage. It hit me then, and it hits me every time I read it. The Apostle Paul
is a pastor of a church that was in Ephesus in Turkey — modern day Turkey. Paul
is a prisoner in Rome, a political prisoner for the sake of Christ. And Paul
writes back this letter to that congregation, and in that letter he has a
prayer. It’s the second prayer, when you get to the third chapter. You’ve got a
prayer in the first chapter, but when we come to this [second] chapter, there is
a prayer. It is a prayer that is built around Christ in a man’s heart. And it is
a prayer for the congregation, certainly a prayer for me — always has been — and
tonight, a prayer for you.

This is the word of God, Ephesians 3, beginning to
read in verse 14:

“For this reason, I kneel before the Father, from whom His whole
family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of His glorious
riches, He may strengthen you with power through His Spirit in your inner being,
so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you,
being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the
saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and
to know this love that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled to the
measure of all the fullness of God.

“Now to Him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or
imagine, according to His power that is at work within us, to Him be glory in
the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations forever and ever.

I went back to Dr. Gutzke! That was his name: Manford
George Gutzke. And he said, “What is the heart?” You see, out of those more than
hundreds and hundreds of times that the heart is used in the Bible, it never
once refers to this organ in your chest–not one time. It was always what this
passage says, what Peter calls “the hidden man of the heart” or “the inner
being.” My heart, your heart, the biblical heart, is your intelligence, your
emotions, and your will, all rolled up into one. It’s the inner man. And that
heart is the citadel of your life. It is everything. It’s the real you. That’s
what the heart is.

Now, when we talk about that heart, I find this
passage — just to be amazing. God is going to have a new king for Israel. Saul
has just utterly failed. He sends Samuel. The prophet Samuel, in the first book
of Samuel and at the sixteenth chapter, is sent to the house of Jesse. In the
house of Jesse, he’s going to anoint a new king. Jesse trots out his sons. The
first one is the eldest; his name is Eliab. He’s big, he looks like “it”. Samuel
goes and God stops him. And then he gets the rest of the sons, and they go right
down through the line — seven of them. And then, in confusion, Samuel says, ‘Do
you have any more?’ He says, ‘Just this one teenage boy. He’s out there with the
lowly sheep.’ ‘Go get him.’ And David comes back — fair to look upon — teenage
boy. And to Samuel, God says, “Man looketh on the outward appearance, but the
Lord of hosts looketh upon the heart.” And there stood a teenage boy. The Bible
says he had a heart after God.

God is not looking down from the ramparts of heaven
tonight and saying, “Oh, who is that preaching? Let me get a look at his face.”
He’s not looking up and down the pews trying to find out who is here by looking
at your face. That’s how we know each other, but not God. You see, God is
looking at your heart, and He is looking on my heart, right now and always.
That’s who He recognizes. That’s who He knows. And that’s what the heart is. Not
this chest thing, but the real Baird that you can’t see.

I went back to Dr. Gutzke. He approved. And then he
asked the second question, “And how about Christ? How does Christ come into a
man’s heart?” How does Christ come into a man’s heart? You see, Michelangelo
said everything is perspective; in all of art and all of life, if you have the
right perspective, you’ll have the right kind of living, the right kind of
majestic art perspective.

When we ask the question, “How does Christ come
into a man’s heart?” there are two perspectives .The first one is the
perspective of heaven.
How does heaven answer that question? From the first
and second chapters of the book of Ephesians, heaven answers this. God answers.
He says, ‘I choose the man from before the foundation of the world, and I touch
that man at the right time with My Holy Spirit, and that man comes alive.’
That’s how heaven looks at it. It’s called predestination. First and
second chapters of Ephesians, that’s what it’s all about.

But there is a second perspective, and that is the
earthly perspective.
And the earthly perspective is the human perspective:
What happens to that man that God touches? That man receives Christ by faith
into his heart. Gutzke asked me, “Have you ever done that? Have you ever
received Jesus Christ into your heart as your Savior from sin, and as the Lord
of your life, that you will follow Him to the end? Have you done that?” And I
said, “I don’t know.” And he said just one, two words: “You don’t know?” And he
raised his eyebrows, and he looked at me, and he looked at me. And I said,
“Thank you.” And I walked out of his office, I walked across the common, went
into that dormitory into my room. It was ten o’clock in the morning, and I knelt
beside the bed, and I prayed, “Lord, I don’t know if You’re in my heart or not,
but I don’t want to play games. Come into my heart, Lord Jesus. Forgive me my
sin, and I promise to follow You. Help me. Help me.” It was a childlike prayer,
but it was sincere, and I count that day the assurance of my salvation. That
day, in a seminary room all by myself.

And there may be somebody who has heard…if they heard
this story they would say, “That’s nice. Good for you. I’m happy for you. Of
course, this doesn’t apply to me. This is not my bag.” Or there even may be
somebody here who says at this very moment, “Well, that’s your experience. I
haven’t had that kind of experience. But I’m happy for you, Baird. Have the
benediction, and let’s go home.” No. I’ll tell you why we’re not going to go
home. [First thing, I haven’t preached long enough! I’d never get a chance to
preach again!]

Al Jolson said at the end of a concert, “You ain’t
heard nothin’ yet! You ain’t heard the best part!”

You see, the Apostle Paul, he prays like our great
Puritan forefathers preached. They preached the truth, and then they made an
application. In my notes I always put, when I come to the application, “So
what?” So Christ has come into your heart–so what? So what? And so the Apostle
Paul continues to pray, and prays for me and prays for this congregation, and he
answers the “so what?” in his prayer for that congregation that he loved while
he’s in prison praying for them; and he says there are three things that happen
when Christ comes into your heart.

There are three things that happen when Christ
comes into your heart
. In this prayer, but among many other things, there
are three things that happen, and the first one is this: His presence. And the
second one, He brings His love. And the third, He brings His power. Presence;
love; power.

I. His presence.
His presence is like this. It comes in that seventeenth verse:

“That He [God] may strengthen you in His power through His Spirit in your inner
man, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts.”

The word dwell there means take up a
home…a tabernacle.
In the Old Testament it is God with you. Christ
said, “I will never leave you; I will never forsake you.”

The Apostle Paul had men around him who forsook him
for the love of this world. But Christ said, ‘I’ll never do that.’ It meant He
always would be with you.

Now think with me about that: God with me. Let me
apply it to this.
When I first began to preach, it was right there in
Clinton, Mississippi. And after I had been there for a short while, I asked a
minister whose name was O.M. Anderson, a retired Presbyterian preacher [about
like me]. I asked him to come and hear me preach and help me. Help me. And I
said, “I’ll buy you a lunch on Tuesday.” And I did. I bought him the lunch. And
he did. He gave me some books. And then he said, “And one last thing, young
man.” I said, “Yes?” [Now this was it!] He said, “I want you to remember that in
every pew there’s a broken heart.” I said, “Dr. Anderson, what do you mean?” He
said, “Just think about that when you’re preaching.”

You see, I came to Mississippi…I came to this church
between my second and third year of seminary that summer. David Parks–you old
timers might remember him–red-headed fellow, went as a missionary to Korea. Dr.
Reed Miller was looking for somebody to come and take his place just for the
summer. And so it fell my lot. He chose me out of seminary, and so I came. It
was a very interesting summer. At the end of that summer, he challenged me. He
said, “Come back, and we are going to win back the Presbyterian church to its
historical roots, and the conservatives will rise up. The people in the pew will
rise up, and we will win the church back, and we’ll do it first in this
presbytery (Central Mississippi Presbytery), and then we’ll go to the rest, and
we will win it. Come!” And he challenged a group of young men, and we came — to
win the church back. And I came because I loved the idea of a good fight! And I
preached it every Sunday! It was hellfire and brimstone! And it was exciting!
But the people after a while were not responding too much. That’s when I asked
Anderson, O.M. Anderson.

I want to say when Christ comes into a man’s
heart, the suffering are relieved.
Do you know how it goes? It goes like
this: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear
no evil; for Thou art with me….” Thou art with me! He said ‘I’ll never leave
you.’ He suffered. He understands. I know that there are people who are
suffering here.

Billy Graham, in 1953, when he goes to New York City,
his first crusade in New York City, and they tell him the first sermon’s got to
be it, and he begins to ask questions. Do you know what he preached on?
Loneliness in New York City
. When you are suffering and you are
suffering alone, it is terrible. It is terrible. You never have to do that with
Christ in your heart. You’ll never be alone again. And He will see you through
that suffering, and see you to the end, always…always. That’s what it means to
have Christ as a sufferer.

And the other thing is just the opposite, in a
sense, and that is the stumblers.
The stumbler is the guy who just kind
of…he’s just kind of stumbling. He goes astray.

Now in my house, many of you think Miss Jane [Brister’s
term of endearment!] …that she’s a kind of twinkle-toed Christian, just
rose-like. Never have seen her do anything but praise the Lord and be sweet!
She is a steel magnolia. She knows the will of God for my life
every day, and she insists upon it [laughter] and I am the one who
staggers. It is amazing how she never varies. She never goes astray, apparently.
And so when I am with Miss Jane, I’m a better man. I really am. For one thing,
wherever we go in our preaching — and I want her with me always, especially if
we go into a strange place–especially if we go overseas, she immediately brings
me credibility. Just her presence. But she’s tough…on me…and I stagger in my
faith, and she never does. And she holds me accountable. She is tough, and she’s
not as sweet as Christ is to me, either! [laughter] And I’m going to hear
about this! [laughter]

I picked up a pamphlet, way back, and the pamphlet
was written centuries ago. And it was entitled Practicing the Presence of
— Brother Lawrence. There are some things about his theology that I
didn’t fully agree with. He went into a monastery. They put him in the lowest of
places in that monastery, in the kitchen, KP duty. And he revolutionized it, and
he wrote this tract. And I said, “I want to do that. I want to practice His
presence.” Now is that a gimmick? Is that some kind of a thing that somebody’s
thought up? No. You see, that’s real. You can practice His presence, and if the
presence of Jane makes a difference in my life, just imagine the presence of
Jesus… just to walk with Him and talk with Him. My sin always, at its root, is
that I forget that I am with Him and that He’s with me. That is always the root
of my sin. But when He is with me and I have practiced His presence, something
happens in my life.

That’s what it means to have Christ dwell in your
heart. It means take up a home. Where does He live? (I know; as R.C. said this
morning, He is everywhere! I know that.) But I want to tell you, He never says
‘I am at home’ except in the heart of a believer. That is where He’s at home in
this world. That’s the first thing He does. He takes up a dwelling place by
faith in our hearts.

II. His love.

The second thing is He brings His love. Let me
read it to you. The verse continues. He says:

“… That Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and I pray that you,
being rooted and established in love, may have power together with all saints,
to grasp the width and the length…” [I’m into the King James!] “…and the height
and the depth of the love of Christ, to know His love that surpasses knowledge,
that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”

Bertrand Russell, probably in the last century the
greatest atheist that the world has known, the one who wrote that little book
Why I’m Not a Christian
…a Britisher…once said what is needed in this world
[a mean world, he said] the answer would be what these Christians call “the love
of God.” That’s the answer. That’s what’s needed at the universities when there
are men who pick up guns and shoot…or in high schools…or in our homes where
there are weak people who are physically abused — children, women…or in the

I talked to a business man. I said, “You know, fifty
years ago, when I was ordained and I began the ministry, back then everybody was
sweet to the preacher. Nobody ever said anything mean about the preacher.
Everybody loved the preacher, loved the preacher…not that way any more. When
Jane and I go…we deal with preachers and their wives, and many times it’s
heartache …it’s heartache.” And that business man said, “It’s not just with
preachers.” He said, “Fifty years ago when I was a fledgling salesman, I was
sweet to all my competitors. Not so now. It’s mean in the business world. It’s
mean everywhere.” Russell was right: What this world needs is the agape
love of Christ — that self-sacrifice, giving love, in homes, in schools, and in
churches. Jesus said, “Love one another as I have loved you,” and six hours
later He was on a cross. The love of Jesus changes your life. He brings it.

Here’s what I mean. I was with a college friend a
month ago. I never had a real discussion with him before, but we got into it
about his life and about God, and he said, “How many discussions like this with
old friends have you had?” I said, “I don’t have discussions with old friends,
because when I was in college I didn’t have any friends. I had two. One I’m
going to see, and the other one has passed within the year; and Jane.” Four
years in college, four years living with the same roommate — for four years! And
he asked me, “How about your roommate?” Never had a discussion with him, and
when we left we didn’t speak to each other or call each other for thirty years.
I didn’t have anybody. I didn’t think anything was strange about it. I went into
the service. Three years in the Army. “How many friends did you make there?”
None. None. “How about in business? How many did you make there?” None. And I’m
just being honest. And then Christ came in. Something happened. Something
happened in my relationships not only with people in the church, but people that
I don’t like, and groups of people that I didn’t like, and strangers on the
other side of the world. Something happened in my heart, and a love came that is
astounding, that can only be explained in my life that the love of God came into
my heart. And something happened.

III. His power.

There’s one last thing that He brings.
Isn’t this wonderful? His love. His power. Many people use these next
verses as a benediction. I don’t think we talk enough about power, and the power
of the Holy Spirit. I know I didn’t in my preaching and in my life. And we leave
it to the Pentecostals. Listen to it. Listen to what Paul says. He says there
comes with Christ a power in your inner being that is astounding power:

“Now to Him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or could
imagine, according to His power that is at work within us, to Him be glory in
the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever.

I was ten years in the ministry and never believed
that God could do anything significant through me. Oh, there were some things.
But to think something that would be for eternity and really count — not through
me! And then a man challenged me, and I saw the Spirit of God. I’ve seen the
Spirit of God. I’ve been around a few men where the Spirit of God worked through
them in their hearts and in their minds and in their faith — a faith that is
astounding — and God responded.

The Bible says in II Chronicles 16:9 that

“The eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout this earth for those whose
hearts are completely given to Him, that He may strengthen them.”

God is looking for people like that, and He’ll do
things, and power will come — real power. There are things that will amaze you.
They make you stand in awe and say, “I never thought….” The disciples stood
there, and they asked of Him (the last time they would see Him), ‘What are You
going to do now, Lord? Are You going to bring in the kingdom?’ And He changed
the pronoun and put it on them. In effect He said ‘It’s not what I’m going to
do; it’s what you’re going to do in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, the ends of the
earth.’ And before their life was up, they said ‘these are the guys who changed
this world and turned it upside down.’ And they hadn’t done anything for three
years with Jesus! Nothing! But He said ‘You wait, and you pray in Jerusalem.’ He
ascended. He sent the Holy Spirit. And the Spirit of God fell, and when Peter
got through preaching, he says, ‘Repent, be baptized, and receive the gift of
the Holy Spirit, every last one of you.’

You see, that’s what Jesus is in a man’s heart: the
power of the Spirit of God; the third person of the Trinity — in a man’s heart!
And power is there.

That’s what this sermon is all about: a prayer for a
congregation in Ephesus, a prayer for a congregation in Jackson. Presence,
love, power.

I close with a man who built this church. I want to
tell you about him. He started out to be a lawyer, and God touched him and he
turned. John turned. And when John turned, he gave himself to God, and he in
effect had a crest for his life and for what it meant. And that crest was his
hand, up like this…palm up. Inscribed underneath were these words: “This I give
unto Thee, promptly and sincerely.” And in the middle of his palm was his heart,
and the heart is on fire. His name is John Calvin. He died in 1564. That’s real
Presbyterianism. That’s real Christianity, “This I give unto Thee.”

You’ve got your little heart in your hot little hand.
Humanly speaking, you can do anything you want to with it. You can keep it for
yourself. You can give it to this cause, this idea, this pleasure. Or you can
say, “This I give unto Thee.” Have you ever done that? Many of you are like me:
“I don’t know.” This I give unto Thee. Not, as Tim Keller says, “a sleepy little
Christian”, but a fiery Christian. I mean business.

The idea of Calvin was that he would do it every
day. Every day…practicing the presence, in love, and at the power of Jesus

They asked Larry King, the radio interviewer, “Of
all the people on the earth, and you can choose any who ever lived, and you
would interview them, the great interview, who would it be?” And he said, “Jesus
of Nazareth.” (And at best, he’s an agnostic!)

“Jesus of Nazareth. Why?”

“Because nobody has affected this world like Jesus.”
[Nobody has the power, in effect he’s saying, of Jesus.]

“What would you ask Him?”

“One question.”

“What is it?”

“‘Were You born of a virgin?’ If He was born of a virgin,
everything falls into place.”

You believe the virgin birth; give Him your heart.
Give him your heart.

I did not know until this morning that Derek Thomas
claimed this as his favorite hymn. It’s one of my favorite hymns. We’re not
going to have a prayer. We’re going to sing our prayer in this hymn. It’s the
hymn 647. The first three verses deal with the presence of Christ for the
sufferer…those who are suffering. The next two verses deal with Christ and what
He has meant to me, in our hearts. His sweet name…He is our Prophet, He is our
Priest, our King, our Friend. Two verses of He’s everything. And the last two
verses, yeah, for the first time heart is used, and he says, ‘My heart is
not always on fire. I stumble at points, but He forgives, and He will
strengthen, and He will make me what I should be one day, when I see Him face to
face.’ The man who wrote it wrote Amazing Grace! – John Newton. This is
just as good: “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds in a believer’s ear.”

Let’s stand and sing our testimony.

[Congregation sings.]

I have the privilege of pronouncing the benediction,
which is the blessing of God. You have the privilege of receiving it.

It is now unto the Lord Jesus, who is able to keep
you from falling; it is now unto the Lord Jesus, who is now and at your death,
able to present you faultless before His throne of grace in heaven with
exceeding great joy; to the only wise God who is our Savior, unto Him, in our
hearts may He have glory, majesty, dominion, and power, both now and
forevermore. Amen.

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Sacred Space

By / Oct 14

The Lord’s Day

October 14, 2007

Sanctuary Dedication Service


“Sacred Space”

Dr. R.C. Sproul,

Sometimes I think that people are funny, the way they talk
about their attorneys, and particularly about their physicians. Customarily they
will say, “Well, I’m going to this specialist in the city, and he’s the best in
the city; in fact, maybe in the whole country.” And we talk like that all the
time. I have yet to have somebody say to me, “Oh, yes, I go to that doctor all
the time, and I think he’s probably the worst in the city!” [Laughter]
Whoever we’re involved with, they have to be the best, and that’s just one of
our human idiosyncrasies. I haven’t been in every church in America, I haven’t
heard every choir director in America, but I don’t need to. We have the best in
America right there.

Before we get started, I have to tell you my favorite
Bill Wymond story! [Laughter] Would you like to hear a Bill Wymond story?
Anybody that knows Bill Wymond likes to hear Bill Wymond stories. [Laughter]
Vesta and I were driving to Orlando many years ago…and I can’t remember whether
we were coming from Little Rock, Arkansas, or from Memphis…it was from one of
those places, and we got to Jackson right about noon on a Sunday. And we went
into a restaurant to have lunch, and the first people we saw when we walked in
the door were Bob and Inez Cannada. I believe Barry and his wife were with them
that day. We had lunch together, and as soon as we sat at the table, they
proceeded to tell me that just that morning Bill Wymond had made some comments
about me to the whole congregation. So immediately I got his phone number, and I
called him. It was, like, 12:30. He’d just got home from church. I said,
“Bill…?” He said, “Yes.” I said, “This is R.C. Sproul.” “R.C., what are you
doing?” I said, “Well, I’m calling you because I heard that you said some things
about me in church this morning!” This was the first time in his life that he
was at an absolute loss of words! [Laughter] He thought I was “The Great
Kreskin” or something! [Laughter]

Well, you know, when I look at this magnificent
building that you have established, I’m inclined to break the Tenth Commandment.
I’m really coveting the building, the organ, the music, the choir…and it just
isn’t fair that you have Dr. Ligon Duncan and Dr. Derek Thomas all in one place.
And when I die, that’s the first question that I’m going to ask God. I’ll say,
“You know, You do things in mysterious ways, but why would You take two of the
greatest theologians in our day and stick them in one church?!?” Doesn’t make a
whole lot of sense to me. You must treat them very well.

But I think of our church which is going to break
ground, possibly next month, for our new sanctuary, and I can’t imagine what
we’ll experience when we have our dedication. We’ve already spent literally
hundreds of hours with our building committee and with the architects, to make
sure that every single detail is anticipated — as I’m sure you did, before you
built this magnificent structure. But somewhere along the way, I noticed you
forgot to put a clock up here…that must have been the ministers’ doing!
Then I look, and I find there is one, but it’s way under here
where you can’t see it! And then I came up here, and I saw, oh, yes…there is one
right next to me. And Lig told me that I could preach until ten minutes after
the hour, and this clock says five minutes after three! [Laughter] We’re
in for a long ride if we have all that time!

Before I read the Scripture, let me thank you for the
singular honor of inviting me and Vesta to be with you on this most important
occasion in the life of your church. Let’s pray, shall we?

Our Father and our God, we know that unless You
remove the scales from our eyes, we will never see Your kingdom; and that unless
You open our ears, we will never really hear the truth of Your word; and unless,
by the power of Your Spirit, You change the disposition of our hearts and of our
souls by the immediate supernatural work of grace within us, that we’ll never
embrace those things that are contained within Your word. And so now as we are
to attend to that word, we pray that the same Holy Spirit who inspired it in the
first place may now give us His illuminating light, that He may stoop to our
weakness and help us to understand it, to believe it, to embrace it, and to love
it. We ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

I told Ligon when he asked me to do this sermon this
morning that I only had three sermons in my repertoire, and I preached two of
them in this church in the past, so it’s really limited my choice to one other
option. And my problem was that I’d preached from this text recently at the PCA
General Assembly, and I know that several of you were present. And I said, “Lig,
it’s the only sermon I have left, so that’s what you’re going to have to get,”
and he says, “Well, it’s OK. Sometimes we have to do things more than once
before they take root.”

So I’m going to read this morning from the
twenty-eighth chapter of the book of Genesis, and I’ll be reading beginning at
verse ten, reading through verse nineteen. Genesis 28:10-19.

“Jacob left Beersheba and went toward Haran. And he came to a
certain place and stayed there that night because the sun had set. Taking one of
the stones of the place, he put it under his head, and lay down in that place to
sleep. And he dreamed; and behold, there was a ladder set upon the earth, and
the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending
and descending on it. And behold, the Lord stood above it and said, ‘I am the
Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you
lie I will give to you and to your offspring. And your offspring shall be like
the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east
and to the north and to the south; and in you and in your offspring shall all
the families of the earth be blessed. And behold, I am with you, and I will keep
you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave
you until I have done what I have promised you.’ Then Jacob awoke from his sleep
and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place, but I knew it not.” And he was
afraid and he said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the
house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’

“So early in the morning, Jacob took the stone that he had put under
his head and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil on the top of it. And he
called the name of that place Bethel.”

What you’ve just heard is not the collected lore of
ancient Hebrew semi-nomads. What you’ve just heard, dear friends, is the
unvarnished word of God, which carries the full weightiness of His authority and
of His truth. Who has ears to hear the word of God, let them hear it.

I. Holy Time.

In the story we’ve just heard, we hear the narrative
of some things that took place in the life of Jacob the patriarch, whom we know
to have had his name changed as “the supplanter.” This is a man who through
chicanery wrested his birthright away from his twin brother. He is the
scoundrel’s scoundrel of the Old Testament, and for all intents and purposes it
seems that up until this point in his life he had no regard for the things of
God. Jacob was a man of this world. He was secular in his activity and in his
thinking. And now his father sent him on a trip for the purpose of finding a
wife. And like most men in this world who are searching for women, they have
little time to think about the things of God. Jacob’s enterprise was a secular
one, not a holy one. And, as was the custom of his day, when he made the journey
he stopped whenever the sun set, because to go any further was to be vulnerable
to the perils of highwaymen, wild animals, and the like. And so wherever he was
on the journey when the sun set, there he stopped and prepared to go to sleep.
The only comfort that was available was a rock on the ground that he picked up
and dusted off, and he used it to support his head as a pillow. And, as the
Scriptures tell us, he went to sleep.

While he was asleep, he had a dream–a very strange
dream, and in this dream he had a vision. He saw this ladder that was attached
to the face of the ground, and it stretched all the way to heaven. And he
watched this ladder, and on the ladder he saw angels ascending and descending —
on this ladder that bridged the gap between heaven and earth. And so we call it
in our nomenclature, “Jacob’s Ladder.” When we were children in Sunday School,
we used to sing that song called Jacob’s Ladder…. “We are climbing
Jacob’s ladder.” Do you remember that? “Every round goes higher, higher…”? Well,
that comes from this text where Jacob has this dream, this vision. And this
dream changed his life. It was a sacred moment in time for Jacob. It was a holy
moment. And if you look through the pages of the Old Testament, you will see
again and again and again there are episodes that take place that are different
from everything else, and that these episodes are so decisive that they will
change the whole life of a person, or the whole life of a nation.

This idea of sacred time is rooted and grounded in
creation, where, after God on successive days creates all that there is, but
does not reach the ultimate climax of creation on the sixth day, which we like
to think…we like to think that the ultimate point of creation was the creation
of human beings. The sixth day, beloved, is the penultimate day, not the
ultimate day. The ultimate day is the seventh, and it’s the seventh day and not
the sixth day that God sanctifies. Here the acme of the holy is reached, when
God at the end of the seventh day blesses and hallows it.

What does that mean? When God hallows something, He
makes it holy. That is, He sets it apart. This is not ordinary. This is not
common. This is extra-ordinary. This is uncommon. This is sacred: a sacred hour;
a sacred day in creation.

He follows that pattern throughout the whole Old
Testament, doesn’t He? When He hears the cries of the people in bondage in
Egypt, He says to Moses, ‘You go…you tell Pharaoh, I have heard the groans of My
people. You tell Pharaoh I said ‘Let My people go.’’ And when that struggle
reaches its climax, on the night of their departure God sent His angel of
judgment upon the Egyptians. You know the story. And He warned the people of
Israel that that angel of death was coming, and He said ‘If you want to escape
it, you need to take the blood of the lamb and put it on the doorposts, because
when that angel comes bringing devastation in his wake, wherever he sees the
blood of the lamb, he will pass over.’ And so on that night, when the angel of
death passed over the people of God, God said to His people, ‘Don’t ever forget
this. This is a sacred moment; a holy moment in your whole history. Every year,
I want you to gather with your families and with your children and celebrate
this moment in time — the Passover.’

A sacred time, once a year, on a special day, Yom
— only on that day, and only the high priest could go into the Holy
of Holies and sprinkle the blood of the sacrifice on the mercy seat, and Yom
until this day is a celebration of sacred time.

In the upper room, when our Lord celebrated the
Passover for the last time with His disciples, He changed the liturgy. You know
what happened. He took the bread now and said, “This now is My body, which is
given for you.” Then took the cup, and He said, “This is now the blood of a new
covenant: My blood, which was shed for the remission of your sins.” And
basically what Jesus was saying to His disciples that night was ‘Don’t you ever
forget what you will witness tomorrow. It’s holy. It’s sacred time.’

We understand that. We have what we call “holidays”
or “holy days” which are special to us. Just last month I recalled that it was
the fiftieth anniversary of my conversion to Christianity. I became a Christian
on September 13, 1957. In the first weeks of my Christian experience, I was
introduced to the quintessential little old lady; a blessed saint who spent
eight hours a day in prayer. She was a member of an obscure church I had never
heard of, called the Wesleyan Methodist Holiness Church, and she undertook to
pray for me that I might be sustained by the Holy Spirit in my Christian walk.
And she said, “Young man, don’t ever forget September 13, 1957. Put a spiritual
stake in the ground, so that you will know that that’s the night that God
intruded into your life and claimed you for Himself.” She had no idea that she
was praying for an incipient Calvinist–but at that point, she really didn’t

But we all have sacred moments like this, and for
Jacob, this was a moment he would never forget. But it seems like the whole rest
of the people of the Old Testament did forget it, because you hear next to
nothing about this dream of this ladder up to heaven through the whole rest of
Old Testament history–until it reappears suddenly, unexpectedly, at the
beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee when He’s calling His disciples to
himself; and He sees Nathaniel off in the distance, and He said, ‘Behold! Over
there, there’s an Israelite in whom there is no guile.’ And Nathaniel was
shocked by that: ‘How do You know anything about me? I’ve never even met You.’
And Jesus said, ‘Before I knew you, I saw you over there under the tree. But you
haven’t seen anything yet, Nathaniel. You’re going to see the heavens open, and
you’re going to see the angels of heaven ascending and descending on the Son of
Man.’ Do you know what Jesus was saying there to Nathaniel? ‘Nathaniel, I’m
Jacob’s ladder. I am the One who bridges the gap between earth and heaven,
between the divine and the human. Come along and follow Me.’

And so in the midst of this vision that Jacob has, he
hears God repeat the promises that He had made to Abraham first, and then to
Isaac, of the descendants that would be as the stars of the sky and the sand of
the sea, or the dust of the earth; and He promises to Jacob that wherever Jacob
goes, He will go with him. He will never forsake him, and He will do everything
that He promised that day.

II. Holy Space.

Aaah! And then Jacob wakes up! And when he wakes up,
ladies and gentlemen, he’s in stark, cold, terror. And he said, ‘Surely…God was
in this place. God was just here! And I didn’t even know it! How awesome is this
place. This must be the gateway to heaven. This must be Beth-el…the
house of God, right here!’ And then he did something very strange, didn’t he?
That same rock that he had dusted off and used to put his head on during the
night, now he takes it and he puts it on the ground, and he takes oil and pours
the oil all over the place–all over this rock. What kind of a bizarre ritual is
that? You see, what Jacob is doing is saying ‘I’m going to mark this spot,
because this spot is holy ground. And it was holy ground because it was there
that God intruded on him.

This whole idea of holy space as well as holy time is
well mentioned in sacred Scripture. Think for a moment again of Moses, when he
was grazing his flock out in the Midianite wilderness, and all of a sudden he
sees this bizarre sight of a bush that is burning but is not being consumed. And
he turns aside to see what this is all about, and as he looks at this spectacle
before him, he hears the voice of God, saying, “Moses! Moses! Take off your
shoes from off your feet, because the ground on which you are standing is holy
ground.” Moses, take your shoes off; this is holy ground.

III. Holy Intersection.

Now I ask you, dear ones, what made it holy? It
certainly wasn’t the presence of Moses. It was the presence of God. But you say,
“Oh, wait a minute. I thought our theology teaches us that God is omnipresent,
that He’s everywhere. And if He’s everywhere, then that would mean that all of
the earth is holy, and there’s no such thing as ground that isn’t holy.” Well,
that’s true that God is omnipresent. David said, “Where shall I flee from Your
Spirit? If I ascend into heaven, You are there; if I make my bed in Sheol,
behold, You are there.”…. ‘I know what you’re going to say before you even say
it. Before a word is even formed on your lips, I know it altogether.’ But of
course God is everywhere! But only this piece of real estate was designated by
God to Moses as holy ground. Why? Because it was a point of intersection. It was
a point where God was not only present, but He made himself known. It was a
point where He visited Jacob, just as He had visited Moses–or would visit Moses,
I should say.

Today we talk of Palestine as the Holy Land,
Jerusalem as the Holy City. Why? Because that was the point of intersection.
That’s where God came down and visited His people in those places. That’s why
they’re considered holy ground.

Now, we’re here today to ask the Lord to consecrate
this building, that this building might be considered holy ground. You know that
God doesn’t need this building to minister to His people. You know that in the
early church the first Christians met together in little houses, and then from
there, when they were being persecuted in Rome, they went underground to a Roman
cemetery. And amongst the skulls and skeletons there, they worshiped in the
catacombs. [If you’ve ever been in the catacombs, you know they have no
resemblance to Gothic cathedrals.] But any place that the people could assemble
together, they were sure that God would be in their midst. But as the church
grew, they were to have buildings that would accommodate large crowds, and so
over the years we’ve seen magnificent buildings built for the church. And this
church, as a congregation, has been worshiping together for 170 years. And yet,
in that 170-year period, right now is a new moment of holy time, as we
consecrate this holy place.

Back in Orlando, at our church, on the front of the
bulletin each Sunday are these words: that we are crossing a threshold:

“When we enter this building, we are moving across a threshold, making a
transition from the common to the uncommon; from the ordinary to the
extraordinary; from the secular to the sacred; from the profane to the holy.”

That’s what those doors out there represent for you,
dear friends. There’s no magic about a building, but if this place is set apart,
if it’s consecrated, then this place is holy ground. This place is uncommon.
This place is extraordinary. This place is sacred. This place is holy. In 170
years, how many people have been baptized in this church? How many have been
married? How many have been buried? This is a place where memories are made of
the visit of God amongst His people.

Let me close by telling you something about the size
of your congregation. A few years ago I was asked to preach at a Presbyterian
church that had a service at 8:00, and then one at 9:30, and then another one at
11:00. It was a large congregation–three services. I go to the 8:00 service, and
there were, like, thirty people in the congregation! And I said, “How am I going
to get excited about preaching to thirty people in a room that’s supposed to
hold a thousand?” [I was really drawing the crowds, as you can imagine!] And so
I began by saying to them, “You know, any time I preach to a congregation this
large, I get nervous, and I’m intimidated by it.” And they laughed. They thought
I was joking. And I said, “I want to explain something to you. According to the
author of Hebrews, when we gather to worship on Sunday morning, we’re not going
to a mountain that can be touched with hands; we’re not going into a sanctuary
that is built with stones; we are coming now into the heavenly sanctuary. When
we worship together, we come into the very presence of the angels, the
archangels, the spirits of just men made perfect, the general assembly on high.
We come into the immediate presence of God and of Christ. That’s what we call
the communion of saints: that worshiping with us this morning are the departed
saints, the angels in heaven, and Christ Himself.”

And where Christ joins His people, it’s holy

It’s not just holy today; but this is holy ground
every time we enter into it. This building is a sanctuary, a refuge, a place
where we can know the presence of God. And my prayer is that not one of you will
ever come into this building and walk out of here and say, “Surely God was in
that place…but I didn’t know it. I missed it.” Dear friends, don’t ever miss
the presence of God

Let’s pray.

Our Father and our God, we thank You that wherever
we flee from You as fugitives, You pursue us; You present obstacles to that
flight; You intrude where we don’t want You to intrude. But we thank You for
those intrusions that can define our lives for us. And may Your blessing be in
this house today and for generations to come. Amen.

[Congregational hymn: Open Now
Thy Gates of Beauty

Dr. Duncan: The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with
your spirit.

[Choir Response: Love So
Amazing, So Divine

transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the web page. No
attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery
style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript
conforming to an established style template.
Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the
reader should presume any error to be with the transcriber/editor rather than
with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permissions
information, please visit the

FPC Website, Copyright, Reproduction & Permission