I entered the ministry with my eyes wide open. Two great-grandfathers were preachersone a circuit rider, the other a lay preacher. Both grandfathers were preachers. My father is a preacher. My uncle Charles rings the bell on occasion. Three other uncles, four cousins, and three in-laws lived the preacher's life. So I can't say I didn't know what I was getting into when I accepted the call to ministry.
I understood from day one that preachers have a responsibility to be "up." If you're negative, go work for The Weather Channel. If your favorite book in the Bible is Lamentations, then you need to be a bill collector. Nobody wants to come to church on Sunday and listen to a pastoral catharsis. We have a responsibility to be up.
For the most part, I have enjoyed pastoral work very much and have dearly loved the preaching ministry. But there have been dark daysdays when I didn't think I could cut it any longer, days I wanted to chuck it, days when discouragement dogged my heels and clouds rolled in on the horizon. I asked myself, Am I in the right place? Is this the right time? Am I on the right track? Do I know what I'm doing? Am I the right preacher?
Discouragement comes to us all, and more often than not, it comes on the heels of our greatest victories. Elijah on Mount Carmel was all blood, fire, and rain on Sunday, but Jezebel made an appointment first thing Monday morning.
This was a shock to me when I entered the ministry. Jezebel is a church-going woman. You've preached one of those Sundays when you were on. The soundman was even listening. But Jezebel was waiting for you in the lobby, and she had a three-page critique of your sermon. She sucked all the life and glory and power and joy out of what you just preached. It's a gift she hasthe gift of drainage.
There have been a few timesjust a few in 21 yearsthat I've not wanted to go to church on Sunday morning. One was not so long ago. I was walking across the parking lot saying, "God, I don't want to be here today. I don't want to do this."
There have been only a few days when Jezebel or Alexander the coppersmith quenched my anointing. But in those dark days, five words saved me. They are words of promise. They are words of comfort. Christ spoke them first to Peter, and in the dark hours of my soul, he has spoken them to me. Five words: "I will build my church." There have been times when those five words were all I had; there are times when those five words are all I need.
Simon Peter answered and said, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God."
Jesus answered and said to him, "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it." (KJV)
Jesus Christ is the Son of God.
This text is a lifesaver. It's a hope-giver. It's a faith-builder. It is this text on which I focus ministry, for here I see, first of all, the essential confession of the church: "Simon Peter answered and said, 'You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.'"
If God has called you to stand behind a sacred desk, he has called you to proclaim the essential confession of the churchthat he is Christ, the Son of God. Not "he was Jesus, a historical figure." He is Christ, the Lord of the church. Not "he was Jesus, a noble teacher." He is Christ, the King. He is our faithful intercessor. He is the only way to the Father. He is present wherever and whenever two or three gather in his name. We do not stand as weeping mourners for the great "I Was." We stand as proclaimers of the great I Am. He is the one and only Christ. He is the essential proclamation of the church. The church's mission, its very reason for being, is to proclaim this essential confession: Jesus Christ is the only begotten Son of God and the only hope of the world. This is the truth of all truths, and it's under withering attack in our post-Christian culture.
To believe in one God who is exclusively revealed in Jesus Christ is politically incorrect. Hollywood stargazers have cast him as a misguided mystic. Washington spinmasters have demoted him to the role of a lost prophet. Harvard professors have reduced him to a historical footnote. Liberal theologians have denied his deity and disclaimed his holy Word. Forty percent of Americans believe all religions teach equally valid truth. Fifty-three percent of Americans believe all people pray to the same god. If you were to publicly invoke a higher power, all of America would bow its collective head in reverence; if you make the statement, "Jesus Christ is Lord of all and the only hope of the world, the only way to God," you will invite censure.
That these statements of faith are not fully embraced in the church is a modern-day tragedy. There seems to be some confusion in the rank and file of American churches on this issue. Let that confusion not be found among us. The church that Jesus said he would build is built on the confession of his deity, his lordship, his sovereigntyor the church will not be built at all. This is our message, a message that is marginalized in our culture and soft-pedaled in the church.
This truth was made abundantly clear in the aftermath of 9/11. On September 23, 2001, at Yankee Stadium, the mayor of New York City called a special gathering billed "A Prayer for America." The stage was cluttered with religious leaders representing Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Roman Catholics, and Greek Orthodox. The evangelicals were not given a place at the tableand it was a strange table setting. Bette Midler, who rose to pop fame from the gay bathhouse stages in San Francisco, offered the worship music. The best she could do was "You Are the Wind Beneath My Wings." America needed a preacher. The best we could do was Oprah Winfrey, who boldly proclaimed that all who lost their lives on 9/11 were immediately added to heaven's spiritual roster as angels. It was a lovely sentimentand just as pagan as the Druids marching at Stonehenge. The message was clear: We don't need Jesus. We just need to die a tragic or a noble death. It will all work out in the end.
James Earl Jones thundered, "We have come to reaffirm our faith in human dignity."
Mohammed's spokesman was welcomed to the great stadium. New Agers were well represented. Celebrities crowded the rostrum. They stood on the stage representing unity and diversity fused in grief over America's loss. They spoke in terms of peace and restraint, and they spoke softly and tenderly.
The mayor and the governor stood tall. Political agendas were tabled at the funeral for America. The god of our synthesis was invoked to grant us understanding, but the god of our synthesis was as silent as death. They stood shoulder to shoulder, and death triumphed in spite of their combined weight. Death triumphed in spite of their solidarity. Death triumphed, for no challenger to death could be found. No one could speak to death, and certainly not the god of our own making.
What a twisted irony that the one who conquered death was not welcomed at the funeral for America. What a dark revelation that the one who holds the keys of death, hell, and the grave was locked out of America's sorrow. Jesus' name was never invoked. His comfort was not sought. His presence was not acknowledged. His grace was not requested. We needed hope, but there is no hope without a Savior. We needed comfort, but there is no comfort unless the Comforter is come and welcomed.
Jesus may not be welcomed in our culture, but he is needed. Who will declare him if the church backs off its message? We are the only redeeming agency on the planet. If we falter now, if we stumble now, if we give our pulpits to anything less than the full gospel of Jesus Christ, how shall we answer on the day of accounting? We exist to exalt Jesus Christ and declare him to the world as the only way to God and the only certain hope of eternal life. Peter offered the essential confession of the church.
The construction of the church is inevitable.
Secondly, I see the inevitable construction of the church: "I will build my church." This hit home with me as I was driving one day. Over and over in my mind, church problems were playing like a tape. And the Lord had to remind me that it wasn't my church to build. I pulled my Bible out and turned to Matthew 16. I looked at the textthe text that has saved my life time and time againand there it was written in red. Jesus will build his church. It's inevitable.
Where Jesus is proclaimed Lord of the church, he has committed himself to its building. Jesus said his yoke is easy and his burden is light, yet at times I've about buckled under the weight of building the church. It's easy to forget who's supposed to build it and what power we use to get the job done. Jesus is determined to build his church. This is his plan, his desire, his longing.
Art often depicts Jesus with lambs and staffs and halos, but have you ever seen Jesus in a hard hat, surveying a site with blueprints in hand? Have you ever caught a glimpse of the "Master Builder" casting a knowing eye over a desolate wasteland? I've seen him, this Master Builder. I've seen him, blueprints in hand, gazing out over the barren Siberian steppes. I've seen him, the Master Builder, surveying the great cities of the world. He cries not only for Jerusalem. He weeps for your city. He weeps for the place where you're working in the Master's vineyard. I've seen him pouring massive foundations into the godless ruins of communism. I've seen him, this brilliant innovator, building a mighty church on martyrs' blood in China.
Have you considered how he labors over the church to build according to his design, divine ability, perfect planning, uninterrupted supply, power to dig, power to lift, power to demolish, power to annex, and above all, his power to finish? Have you seen Jesus, the Master Builder, with his hard hat on, blueprints in hand, looking over the city he's called you to?
I pray the Master Builder will remove all fear from your mind, all doubt from your soul, all weakness from your resolve. Jesus has not forgotten the American church. He has a marked set of plans in his hand. I pray the Master Builder will bring resurrection power to bear over the dead dream that once burned in your heart for his church. I pray the Master Builder will shout from the heavens until it begins to ring in the drafting room of every preacher's soul: "It shall be done."
Building is always costly. It eats up commitment. It devours human capital. It wearies our spiritual muscles. If it weren't for the renewal God promises"Those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength"who could do it?
Tearing down is cheap. A monkey with a match can destroy more in an hour than a thousand wise men can build in a year. In fact, to destroy, one does not need a hammer, a match, a bomb, or a wrecking ball. One only needs to do nothing. An unfinished construction project becomes a ruin when the labor stops.
God is not stopping. He's not slowing his pace. He's not changing his plan. He's not laying off workers. He's not bankrupt. He doesn't need a permit. And he's not about to quit. If God almighty has declared his intention to build his church, how can you walk off the job? Not one of you has the right to walk away from Jesus, standing with blueprints in hand, looking over your city, weeping for the lost in that place. Not one of you has the right to give up. You've been called. You soldier on. He's going to build his church.
The church is invincible.
The Bible says, "I will build my church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it." This brings us to the invincible character of the church.
God has always had a people. He will always have a people. From the beginning, his kingdom has advanced in spite of adversity, and from the beginning, the devil has worked to deceive and destroy. He has not faltered in his dogged pursuit of his highest goalto deceive all nations and rob God of the glory due his name by his children. Scripture says he is a liar and a thief, and he works to deceive and to rob, to steal away from you, to take that precious thing God deposited in your heart. The enemy lies. He wants to discourage you. He wants to break you down. He wants to wear you out. He wants you chasing red herrings. He wants you in constant turmoil. He wants to break your heart. He wants to kill. He wants to cheat. He wants to destroy you.
Through all manner of evil, Satan has attempted to destroy God's people. He has concentrated his temptation until the nations of the world are swimming in a cesspool of filth. He has employed tyrants and lunatics to wipe the church off the map. But the church has proven to be particularly stubborn. God has put within us a divine, holy stubborn streak that causes us to rise up and say: You can't have the church. You can't have victory in America. You're not going to steal what's been done. We're raising up a remnant. We're raising up a people who believe there is power available in the name of Jesus to build the church victorious and not listen to the lies of the adversary.
Out of the ashes and chaos of the genocide in Rwanda, a church has risenTutsi and Hutu minister, side by side. Seventy years of denial could not erase God from the Russian psyche. They don't want another dictator. They don't want another tsar. They're not looking to the lost and sad house of the Romanoffs. They are looking to a king named Jesus and a hope beyond capitalism. Every philosophy based on the denial of Christ will ultimately be denied and ridiculed among men. Every ideology that ignores him finds no enduring truth with which to sustain itself.
And every empire that has set out to crush the church has itself been ground to dust. Gibraltar will crumble before the church is conquered. She is inevitable, invincible, inescapable, enduring. She is overcoming. She is engaged and endued with power. She is entrusted with redemption. She is encouraged by the Holy Spirit. She is engaged in a winning warfare. She is equipped unto every good work. God is calling her to be particularly stubborn in this dark age.
Karl Barth could have been preaching to our generation when he said, "The world that we confront today is aggressively pagan. Many influences in modern life work to undermine the Christian view and subtly convert even church people from an outright Christian faith. The only adequate answer is for Christians to recover the New Testament power of spiritual aggression."
Our culture is in a downward spiral, but the culture shall not prevail. Our nation is at a spiritual low, but Christ's kingdom advances against the night. Our testimony has been sullied by compromise and scandal, but his blood has not lost its power to cleanse. His name has not lost its power to save. His Word has not lost its power to conquer. His covenant endures, and his church shall yet rise to trample the gates of hell and declare his inevitable glory.