G.K. Chesterton wrote in his autobiography, "The only way to enjoy even a weed is to feel unworthy even of a weed" (Autobiography, 332). How much more does the true enjoyment of the church — not a weed but the bride of Christ — depend on a sense of unworthiness in her service?
Before the psalmist could exalt in Psalm 8 in his dominion over the world, he had to feel the words, "What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?" (Psalm 8:4).
So, I hope you'll understand when I say that my joy in knowing you and my joy in serving you and feeding you and leading you has been all the greater when I have felt the most clearly and deeply my unworthiness of the amazing gift that you are to me.
When a Christian feels a sense of entitlement, anger and unhappiness are almost sure to follow. I say this not from seeing mainly, but from sinning mainly. The happy ones are the humble ones. When we know how little we deserve, we look for the gift in everything.
1. A Heartfelt Request for Forgiveness
So the first thing I want to do in my closing remarks is to ask for your forgiveness. I am not aware of any personal grievance that anyone has against me. I could be wrong. And if I am, I hope you'll help me with that. But I have something else in mind, namely that in a room like this, some individuals are more keenly aware than others of the disproportion, the imbalance, between the tributes expressed and the flaws known.
Some of you, however, are sitting there quite content with the way things are going tonight. And in ten years you're going to be listening to a sermon by Jason Meyer on the Christian ministry and your first thought in that message will be, "That's true. That's a perfect expression of what the pastorate is." And your second thought will be, "Pastor John wasn't very good at that." And so, in advance of those experiences in the years to come, I'm asking for your forgiveness, and I mean it.
I know that the true spiritual blessings of this church, and I don't mean the kinds of blessings that if the world saw them, who have no spiritual taste, and would still praise them. I don't mean any of those. If you have no spiritual taste for Jesus and you can still praise them, think, “Not interested.
I'm interested in Christ-exalting love and Christ-exalting joy and Christ-exalting peace, kindness, meekness, faithfulness, self-control. I know that the spiritual strengths of this church are owing to the manifold mercies of God, not the merit of the pastor. And on the other hand, I know beyond any shadow of doubt, and I could draw the lines very easily for you, that the weaknesses of this church are traceable to my weaknesses. And you could use far less gentle words than “weaknesses” if you were so disposed.
So point number one: I hope that you will forgive me for the failures in the ministry that have been many.
2. Gratitude for the Congregation
Thank you first for this evening. Thank you to the orchestra, the choir, to the band. Thank you to the first children's choir and then the second children's choir. Thank you to Matthew Westerholm and Sam Crabtree — Matt for taking us from Abraham to glory, and Sam for helping me stay the course. Thank you for that booklet that I haven't had a chance to study yet and for the buckets of happy things you took to the grandchildren and the meal you gave us at eleven o'clock this morning and again at four this afternoon.
And thank you Bethlehem for your merciful response to my ministry. You have welcomed me, you have encouraged me, you have followed me, and you have learned from me as your shepherd and teacher and leader, and I have no complaints about you. All my regrets are about my leadership, not your response. Thank you for embracing the word of God as it really is the word of God as I've tried to unpack it. Thank you for embracing the call to pray for me so faithfully.
I have believed from time to time, and it may be true, that I have been the most prayed for man in the Twin Cities for the last thirty years. That may be true, which may be why I have survived in the ministry. Thank you for embracing each other in Christian love with joy and with forgiveness and with forbearance. Thank you for embracing the world and our mission to it. And most of all, thank you for embracing Jesus Christ as your Lord and as the supreme Treasure of your life. That's number two. Thank you.
3. Honoring My Faithful and Supportive Wife
I want to thank God for my wife publicly and honor her — honor you, Noë — as I leave this work. She did not sign up for this. As she said when she married me 44 years ago, she thought she was falling in love with a medical doctor. And the vow she took on December 21, 1968, at our wedding was to be faithful and a supportive wife for better or for worse.
And never once — you need to hear this — never once in 33 years of pastoral ministry has she even hinted that she wished I would leave this work. Never has she spoken ill of you as a people. If I saw only darkness, which happened from time to time, she would point me to the light. So Noel, it is not an overstatement, but an understatement to say this ministry would not have been possible without you.
4. Highest Tribute to Jesus Christ
Lastly, I want to pay the highest tribute to my Lord and my Savior and the supreme Treasure of my life, Jesus Christ.
Only because he died in my place, only because he rose again from the dead triumphant over death and hell and sin and Satan, only because he reigns at the Father's right hand tonight and has been reigning all these 33 years sovereign over every maverick molecule in the world so that there are no maverick molecules or atoms or whatever the subatomic particles are. There are none that are out of his control. Sovereign over the psychological brainwaves in everybody's head and sovereign over the devil and all the demonic forces in the world. Only because he died for me and rose for me and rules for me has there been anything of value accomplished in my life.
He will bring the secret things of the heart to light at the last day. There is only One person together with the Father and the Spirit who knows my heart and yours, and that is Jesus Christ. You're just guessing in these tributes. He's not. And you and I, and here I lean on Edward's final sermon, you and I will meet again at the last day, and we will give an account not only for every idle word before the Judge of the universe, but for all the motivations of the heart that, at that day, will be playing for the first time in history.
So beware of judging before the time. You don't know me, and I don't know you finally. We make our best judgments, and we pay our tributes appropriately. Jesus knows us. And because he died for us and rose for us, and reigns for us because there is blood and righteousness, the chiefest of sinners may with lion-hearted boldness say, “There is not now and there will not then be any condemnation." This is what we live by. This is our only hope as a church. Our only hope as a family is to live by that kind of grace and mercy.
So I conclude with the words of the apostle Paul, which I preached on after my first year here from 2 Timothy 4:
The Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. [I hope you will join me there!]. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen. (2 Timothy 4:17–18)