Isaiah 43:10–12 —
“You are my witnesses,” declares the Lord, “and my servant whom I have chosen, that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me. 11 I, I am the Lord, and besides me there is no savior. 12 I declared and saved and proclaimed, when there was no strange god among you; and you are my witnesses,” declares the Lord, “and I am God.”
I am so thankful to Kenny Stokes for preaching in my place this morning on such late notice. I’m sorry I was not able to be a part of that worship service, but I was more sick in these last four days than I have been in years. And my heart goes out in a new and fresh way to those of you who live in daily pain or discomfort of any kind.
We can all understand if someone says, “It’s hard to be excited when you’re sick.” But this week I felt just the opposite. My heart said, “It’s hard to be sick when you’re excited.” And I’ve had a growing excitement about this night for weeks. So when those flu symptoms came on like a steamroller Wednesday night I said: “No, Lord, please, no! Don’t knock me out of this, please.” So I am thanking him right now that I am with you, and before we look at Isaiah 43 I want to tell you some of the reasons why I am excited about this night.
God Is Never Stuck
This season that we are in right now, which we have called “the Antioch Moment,” at Bethlehem, is in fact more typical than it is extraordinary. It has some unusual aspects to it, but more deeply, and more importantly, it is typical. We’ve been here before. This is one of the great values of knowing your history — or just your own story.
And what makes it typical this season — this Antioch Moment — is the great biblical principle that no matter how stuck we may feel at any given moment, God is never stuck, and is always at work for us. Here the biblical picture from 2 Timothy 2:8–10. Paul says,
I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal. But the word of God is not bound! Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory.
Amazing. Paul is bound. But the word of God is not bound. Paul is stuck, but the word of God is not stuck. Paul is in prison. God is not. This has been the story of Bethlehem as long as I have known her. It’s the story of my life. I think it’s the human story.
Even When We Hit Walls
We hit walls again and again, personally, relationally, organizationally. We hit them, and we pound and we dig and we cut and bore and we climb — to somehow make progress. And days and weeks and months and maybe even years go by and it seems that we are stuck — bound, in prison. But that is never the whole story! That’s what this evening is about. As many times as we have felt stuck, bound, imprisoned, unsure of the way to go in the history of this church — hundreds of times — the word of God has never been bound. God has never been perplexed or stuck or bound or imprisoned.
He’s at Work Right Now
And if you watch him carefully enough, and how he has worked in and through the stuck-places, the logjams, the detours, the imprisonments of our lives, you can develop an eye for what he is doing when others may think all is on hold while we wait for the prison doors to open. And right now he is doing amazing things. And they are all the more amazing because the Antioch Moment seems to many like a waiting moment. God is not waiting.
For example, against all odds, a major new vision paper for adult discipleship has just had the finishing touches put on it this past week. When the elders put their final approval on it, it will shape profoundly the way we think about small groups and households and men’s ministry and women’s ministry. It will give us guidance in staffing and in the whole question of how we move people from new believers to mature, solid followers of Christ.
Which ties into the structural side of the Antioch Moment. You recall the elders commissioned Tom Lutz, one of the elders, to do a major assessment of the way the staff is structured here with a view to greater clarity in the lines of accountability and greater fruitfulness of ministry. Tom has had hours and hours of meetings and his putting together his report for the elders.
This is remarkable that a major philosophical clarification on adult discipleship, and major organizational clarification in staff responsibilities would be happening in such perfect tandem. This was nobody’s timing but God’s. And add to that, the major relational clarification of staff dynamics that is happening with Paul Tripp’s investment with the staff in the past weeks.
And if those three (philosophical, organizational, relational breakthroughs) were not enough add a few more. There is the God-given momentum of the geographical reality of our growth toward the south and the negotiation for a piece of land tomorrow morning about 10 AM for the south campus. And there is continual clarification of the transitional plan for how we can most effectively hand off the baton of preaching and vision to the next leader over then next several years.
So no matter how stuck or bound or tentative some may feel in this Antioch Moment, God is anything but bound. He is weaving together major strands of philosophical clarification in our discipleship, organizational clarification in our structure, relational clarification in our staff dynamics, geographical clarification for our South Campus, transitional clarification for senior leadership.
And in the midst of all this upper-level clarification, God is not bound on the ground either — carrying on with the troops in the Good News Festival and Clinic reaching out to the neighborhoods, and the revitalization of prayer ministry among our college and seminary students, and the bursting nurture program for global missions, and the church planting dreams of Mike Bartlett and Brett Louis and Eric Hyatt, and the growing Hispanic ministries and Somali outreach efforts and Russian language translation, and the full-blown seminary and college programs serving and being served by the church, the $10,000,000 given to TCT over the last seven years over and above our annual church budget, and the nitty-gritty building of the 2012 budget around the dreams of new staffing changes and additions—and the dream of giving $1,000,000 toward the South Campus land purchase.
It really is all rather breathtaking, and confirms to me once again that no matter how bound or stuck or tentative I may feel, or you may feel, the word of God is not bound.
A Sovereign God with Stronger Purposes
And why is the word of God not bound? Why do none of our limitations ever frustrate God’s purposes? Why can we sit in prison and God’s invincible plans move forward? The answer is that God is sovereign and his purposes are always bigger and stronger than our ability and our availability.
That was true 25 years ago. And it is true today.
Twenty-five years ago this fall Bethlehem was bound up and log-jammed in months of discussion with First Baptist Church over the possibility of a merger. We both wanted it to work. We invested seven months of long, late-night meetings. And then we could see it unraveling. And finally we broke it off, and that last meeting brought more men to tears than I have seen at any meeting in my whole ministry. In the months following, the investment seemed like an incredible waste of time — as though we were all bound, and tied up in knots for seven months.
But the word of God was not bound. On September 21, 1986, our two churches met together at First Baptist — the only common service we had and I preached from Isaiah 43:10-12. And if for that night alone that frustrating detour happened, it was worth it.
Why Bethlehem Exists
God gave me a simple and clear vision that night for why we exist, and I have gone back to it again and again. In Isaiah 43 God is speaking to his people whom he calls his servant — and it applies to us as well who belong to his Servant Jesus. He said,
“You are my witnesses, declares the Lord, and my servant whom I have chosen, that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me. I, I am the Lord, and besides me there is no savior. I declared and saved and proclaimed, when there was no strange god among you; and you are my witnesses, declares the Lord, and I am God.” (Isaiah 43:10–12).
The text begins and ends: “You are my witnesses!” What an amazing calling. That is who we are in this world. We testify for God. The living and only true God. That is why we are here.
How Are We His Witnesses?
On what basis do we do so? Verse 10: Because I have chosen you that you may know me. You didn’t find me out. I found you out. I chose you to know me. And that you may understand me — that I am he. That I am the only true and living and sovereign God. You have not grown in the knowledge of God on your own. I chose you to understand me. I grant understanding. And I chose you that you might trust me. You didn’t create your own faith, I gave it to you and worked it in you lest anyone should boast. “I have chosen, that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he.”
I recall looking out over those skyscrapers downtown and saying: God lays absolute claim on this city and every person and industry and business in it. They are all his. But who knows this? Very few! How shall they know? You are my witnesses. “I declared and saved and proclaimed . . . and you are my witnesses, declares the Lord, and I am God.” The world will know that I am God if you tell them and show them. That is why you are there, Bethlehem. My supremacy is over all things is your conviction and your passion. You are my witnesses Downtown, North, and South, until I come!
To Exalt Jesus
Those were not wasted days. Few things matter more than crystal clear vision for why we exist. And now it is clearer than ever. For we know like we have never known that
Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high. (Hebrews 1:1–3)
We are his witnesses! We exist to testify to Yahweh, the God of Israel, who has come in the flesh as Jesus Christ, and died for sinners and risen triumphant over death and now lays absolute claim every person and every molecule in these Twin Cities. Every knee shall bow. And in advance of that day there is hope. Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord Jesus will be saved. And we are his witnesses. To make him known. To magnify him. We are chosen for him — to know, to understand him, to trust him, and to be his witnesses.
This is why we have existed 140 years Downtown, why we bought and built out a North Campus, and why we aim to establish the South Site with its own firm and stable garrison for decades to come.
May God put it in your heart to give deeply and pray earnestly and witness boldly. Amen.