The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

THE GOD OF NEW BEGINNINGS

Delivered 7/2/2000
Text: Revelation 21:1-5a
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

...or as we learned it in the wonderful language of the King James Bible, "...BEHOLD, I make all things new." What a glorious promise! Especially glorious to those persecuted Christians who first heard the words of Revelation. Their lives were in constant danger because they refused to deny their Christ and bow the knee to Caesar. They knew tears as friends and loved ones were dragged from hearth and home. They knew pain as they felt the sting of the Legionnaire's lash. They knew death as fellow believers were drenched in pitch and used as live torches for the emperor's garden or were wrapped in animal skins to be set upon by wild dogs. What a comfort it must have been to hear that "the first things have passed away...Behold, I make all things new."

Can you feel something new here at First Presbyterian in Warren this morning? I hope so. What will be new for us as the church as we begin this ministry together, as we move into a new millennium? As has been said, "God is always calling us to be more than we have been."(1) So, let me suggest three things that appear evident on the horizon: first, there will be new opportunities for evangelism and church growth; second, there will be a continuing change in the way we understand the church's mission; and third, there will be an increasing emphasis upon the family and family values. "Behold, I make all things new."

Opportunity #1 - Evangelism and church growth. Here? Can a well-established 178-year-old congregation in a stable community actually grow? Absolutely. If Warren, Pennsylvania is a normal American community (and by all indications, it is), then half of our city's population is unchurched. And I use the term "unchurched" in a technical sense - we will call "unchurched" anyone who has not been to worship, other than a wedding or funeral or a Christmas or an Easter, within the past six months. That means there are people on our own church roll who are "unchurched." There is a fertile field for growth out there.

Will they respond to us? Well, according to an interview with pollster George Gallup,(2) the vast majority of those who do not come to church DO evidence high levels of belief in God, the divinity of Christ, heaven and hell, the Second Coming, and so on. Gallup says,

If I were to indicate just one step for any church to take in order to grow, it would be simply to ask its parishioners to bring somebody to church the next Sunday. Only 4 out of every 100 Americans are completely nonreligious - that is, have no religious preference, do not go to church, and say religion is not very important in their lives.
Gallup notes that three out of four of these folks either are now or at some time have been part of a church. He says, "The odds are that they are going to come back."

There is another major factor besides an increase in population which points to great opportunity for church growth - age. Medical advancements now enable the average person to live nearly eight decades. Contrary to the worries of some about walking into a Presbyterian Church on a Sunday and looking over what looks like winter in Vermont, that aging is GOOD news for the church: records have shown for years that the most loyal, faithful members are the elderly - the phenomenon has been called "cramming for finals." Equally important these days, however, is the graying of the Baby Boomers. They are reaching the age at which their lives are stable (job, housing, family). To many in the 30-to-50 age bracket, church membership is a part of that stability. To get many of them started, all it takes is an invitation. Can you do that?

If you need some encouragement, in another Gallup survey, when the pollsters asked, "Do you expect to attend church or synagogue more often or less often in the next five years?" almost half said they expected to attend more often. The figure was even higher - 59% - for those under 30 years of age. Wonderful! "Behold, I make all things new."

Opportunity #2 - a continuing change in the way we understand mission. In generations past, in the minds of many, the mission of the church was taken for granted - it was reaching out to those in far-off pagan lands. The task of the church was to win the heathens for Christ, and in the process, share with them the benefits of Western civilization. "Denominations organized themselves as missionary societies and their budgets were subscribed and over-subscribed because the people understood the priority of the missionary frontier...National bureaucracies and national buildings were structured to educate for mission and administer mission"(3)...and the farther away, the better. To be honest, the approach was more than a little arrogant.

Times have changed. The church is beginning to understand itself, not as a mission-supporter but as a mission station. Building hospitals in Asia or schools in Latin America or churches in Africa are still worthy enterprises, and we still do them, but there are some tasks that we have right in our own backyard which are begging to be handled. In Western Pennsylvania, there are hungry people; in Western Pennsylvania, there are homeless people; in Western Pennsylvania, there are people without adequate medical care; in Western Pennsylvania, there are people who cannot read or write; in Western Pennsylvania, there are people who have no church. Certainly, we could take offerings or organize events to raise funds to meet these challenges as our parents and grandparents did to meet needs in far-off lands, but that gets us off too easily, and we know it. More and more we understand that our hands and hearts, not only our pocketbooks, must be involved in dealing with these problems. Can we be involved?

Opportunity #3 - An increased emphasis on family and family values. Several issues must be addressed. First, it must be noted that, for good or ill, the "Ozzie and Harriet" model of the American family - Dad going off to work, Mom staying home to manage the household, and the kids in school - rarely exists in this nation anymore. Nationally, only seven percent of American families fit that picture - 93% do not. Thirty percent of America's households have only a single parent...almost one out of three!

Six out of ten female adults work at least part time - many others would if they could. That means an increasing need for quality day-care. Fathers are expected to take a more active role in parenting. I remember the first year my son played Little League Baseball; I know I saw more of his games in that year than my father ever saw me play in my entire Little League career, and of course, I saw tons more after that. Fine. What my Dad did or did not do was all right then; now it is not. The pressures of nurturing children these days are different from those experienced a generation ago.

Those pressures, of course, are exacerbated by the social problems that continue to haunt us. National statistics on drug abuse, crime, violence, alcoholism, sexually-transmitted disease, teenage pregnancy, and so on continue at unconscionable levels. People (and especially parents) are getting fed up with the perpetuation of these numbers. They want appropriate avenues for addressing and correcting them. They want the values that made this nation great transmitted to the new generation. Where are those values taught? Nowhere else like the church of Jesus Christ.

You are all familiar with Alcoholics Anonymous. AA is one of the most successful rehabilitation programs ever to come along. The great secret to their success lies, at least in part, in their use of a fundamental principle of human nature - we need each other to survive. As the Psalmist noted long ago, "God sets the solitary in families."(4) AA is not a Christian group per se, although one of their twelve convictions is that dependence on a higher power must be confessed if one is to beat drinking. But they operate using the same principle that fuels the church when the church is operating at its best - togetherness...a family.

Today over one-million Americans are involved in local support groups. As one magazine highlighting the work of AA writes, "AA succeeds in part because it insists upon self-sacrifice. Members find themselves paying attention to other sufferers...`It's a feeling that you've finally arrived and found a home,' says one member. `Mutual support is the whole thing.'"(5) Family.

Indeed, AA's definition almost takes on spiritual overtones, defining itself as "a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and hope with each other that they may solve their common problem and help others recover from alcoholism." Mere togetherness has produced incredible benefits in AA. How much greater could the results be in the church as even deeper relationships are built? Can we offer that? "Behold, I make all things new."

Of course, one thing that faces the church as we move to the 21st century is NOT new. All of these challenges will take money to meet. The church will continue to need God's people to be faithful in their stewardship. It would be a genuine pleasure for me never to have to remind folks of that, but I have been around long enough to know that, Behold, some things will stay the same!

Opportunities. Evangelism and church growth, a new understanding of mission, an emphasis on the family and family values - those are on the horizon for the church as we move into the future. They are all related. You see, new people will be MOST attracted to those churches that evidence a sense of mission beyond their four walls and at the same time a sense of family within those walls. Christian people understand that being Christian means being involved in the world Christ came to save. And it means being involved with each other as we bear one another's burdens, as we laugh together, as we cry together, as we share our faith in Jesus.

Speaking for myself, I am looking forward to a very special ministry together at First Presbyterian Church. My prayer is that this will be a time to reaffirm our commitment to reach out beyond ourselves in mission, to recommit ourselves to one another in Christian fellowship and love, and in the process, encourage folks who are looking for a church in which they can feel at home to join us in our work and worship. Let us take seriously the fact that, as we begin a new day here, God is continually calling us to be more than we have been. (AMEN!)

The good news I have for you this morning is that we serve a God of New Beginnings. The Bible is full of beginnings. God begins the world with creation. God begins humanity with Adam and Eve. Then, when Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden, God gave them clothes, sent them on their way, and began again. Then the world became such a horrible place that God found Noah, had him build an ark, put himself, his family, and every animal imaginable in it, sent him on his way, and began once more. As time went on, God chose Abraham to father a special people - a new relationship with humanity was begun. Soon God's special people were in bondage in Egypt; they cried out for deliverance, so God sent them a rescuer, Moses, through whom they were freed from bondage and brought into the Promised Land, and God began again. Then, as scripture says, in the fullness of time, God sent a redeemer to bring the good news of another "new beginning," one that offered salvation for all and eternal life through Jesus, the Christ.

Finally, at the end of history, things will not really END at all. As Revelation has it, we find "a new heaven and a new earth." No more tears, no more pain, no more death. "See, I am making all things new." Over and over, in the midst of our sinfulness, in the midst of our wandering, in the midst of our fear, in the midst of our failure, this God of new beginnings begins again and again with us.

Do you understand the implications of that? It means that the God of New Beginnings is more concerned about our future than our past, both as individuals and as a church. Hear it again: this God of New Beginnings is more concerned about our future than our past. One more time: the God of New Beginnings is more concerned about our future than our past. Oh, that is GOOD NEWS! Yes, your past and my past may well be a record of one failure after another, but that does not matter...not to this God, the one whom we come to know in a very personal way in Jesus Christ.

This weekend America is commemorating the birth of our nation. Two-hundred-twenty-four years ago, our forebears said, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." These were not wild-eyed, rabble-rousers. These were people of means and education (including one Presbyterian minister). They looked to the same God of New Beginnings whom we serve today and saw a better life of freedom for all.

I wish we could say that their dream was realized, but sadly, we know there is still a way to go. I wish our hopes and dreams for the church would have been realized by now too, but there is still a way to go for that as well. But I firmly believe it is on the way. After all, one day long ago, a persecuted little band of believers heard God say, "Behold, I make all things new." That God is your God. That God is my God. That is the God we meet in Jesus, the God who calls us to be more than we have been, and that is the God who, by the power of the Spirit, will enable us to be so. "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."

A new day has dawned in Warren, an exciting day...brought to us by the God of New Beginnings. And I am looking forward to it. You too?

Amen!


1. Loren Meade, The Once and Future Church, (Washington: Alban Institute, 1991), p. vi

2. 2Interview by Timothy K. Jones, "Tracking America's Soul", Christianity Today, 11/17/89, pp. 22-25

3. Meade, p. 20

4. Psalm 68:6

5. 5TIME, 5/20/85

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