Now there were at Antioch, in the church that was there, prophets and teachers: Barnabas, and Simeon who was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. 2 While they were ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, "Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them." 3 Then, when they had fasted and prayed and laid their hands on them, they sent them away. 4 So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia and from there they sailed to Cyprus. 5 When they reached Salamis, they began to proclaim the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews; and they also had John as their helper.
I hope you'll forgive me for going way outside the ordinary way of preaching this morning. To be faithful to this moment of expository exultation and to the portion of God's Word that was just read, I will point to some crucial things in this passage, but the lion's share of this message will be an attempt to interpret this moment in the life of our church with the help of this text and with a view to the remarkable things that are converging on us just now. I think we are at a defining moment this spring in the life of Bethlehem. Before I explain that, look at three things in this text.
While They Worshiped and Fasted
First, the Holy Spirit called out from the prophets and teachers in Antioch two men for a new ministry while they were all worshiping and fasting.
Now there were at Antioch, in the church that was there, prophets and teachers: Barnabas, and Simeon who was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. 2 While they were ministering to the Lord [i.e., worshiping] and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, "Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them."
Notice: The Holy Spirit "calls," and the leaders of the church "set apart." Both are important. The divine work and the human work. But they are not separate. The divine work of the calling is perceived in a human heart and mind. And the human work of setting apart is done with prayer to God and fasting, as you can see in verse 3: "Then, when they had fasted and prayed and laid their hands on them, they sent them away." In other words, all along the way God is taking up the human into his purposes by calling, and the human is relying on God in prayer and fasting.
Surely it is no mere coincidence that they were fasting and worshiping when the word from the Holy Spirit was made plain: Set apart Barnabas and Saul for the work I have called them to. God acts in worship to spread worship. That's what is happening here. Barnabas and Saul are going to leave the worshiping community.
A worshiping community is not easy to leave. Ask our missionaries. If you have grown to love a people, and especially a people gathered for worship, leaving them is hard. But do we just live our lives doing what is easy? How does that make Christians any different from the world? But the point of doing the hard thing was this: to spread the very thing that was loved -the worship of Jesus Christ. That is what Barnabas and Saul were going to spread throughout Asia Minor.
Tried and Proven Men
Second, the men called by the Holy Spirit are the tried and proven men. We don't know much about Simeon, Lucias and Manaean. But we know a good deal about Saul and Barnabas. They were the most prominent and the most well-known and respected teachers. Saul we know well, since the book of Acts is structured mainly around his great, earth-shaking ministry. Barnabas we don't know as well, but we should know him better.
Here are the highlights. He was well-known and respected even by the apostles from the earliest times, according to Acts 4:36. His name was Joseph and they nicknamed him Barnabas, which means "son of encouragement." He is the one who reached out to the despised Saul after his conversion and vouched for him among the churches (Acts 9:27). He is the one whom the church in Jerusalem sent to Antioch when they heard that the Gentiles had started turning to the Lord (Acts 11:22). So Barnabas had already left something familiar to go to something unfamiliar at least once before. And Barnabas and Saul were chosen by the church in Antioch to take the offering for the poor to Jerusalem (Acts 11:30).
The point is this: These men were leaned on by the church. They were not the kind of men abut whom you would say: Well, it won't hurt if they leave the church for another ministry. They are the kind who, when they leave, you take a deep breath and wonder how things will carry on after they leave. That is the kind of people the Holy Spirit called to leave Antioch and start a new mission.
A Movement of Church Planting
The third observation is simply and gloriously that the result of their going out was a movement of church planting that changed the Roman world. In Cyprus, Antioch of Pisidia, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe churches sprang up - people who worshiped Jesus Christ and laid their lives on the line for him. On that day of fasting and worship in Antioch, these five teachers had no idea what they were unleashing on the world. That is God's way: He calls for obedience and faithfulness, but he keeps the future blessings of hardship and triumph in his own secret wisdom.
A Defining Moment in Our Life Together
Now what does this all have to do with us here and now? What does it have to do with EDUCATION FOR EXULTATION?
Three strands of God's providence, at least, are converging right now in the history of our church - probably more - that make this a defining moment in our life together.
Strand #1 - A Pressing Need for Educational Space
The first strand is a pressing need for educational space. This has been obvious for over three years, and the planning since 1997 has been toward a major building project that involves tearing down the old sanctuary and putting in its place a four-or five-level educational wing, under the banner of EDUCATION FOR EXULTATION. In other words, two things have led to this: the old building is dilapidated, and the increase in the number of children has been about 75% in the last three years. The increase in teenagers in that time has been over 50%. Most of us would like to see that new building in place by the fall of next year -debt free.
That is one strand of God's providence: a dilapidated old building that has served us well for over 115 years, and a bulging children's and youth ministry. That is what we saw and felt in 1997 when we conceived of this new building.
Strand #2 - Unexpected Growth of Sunday Worship Attendance
But we made a miscalculation in our assumptions, and that leads to the second strand of this defining moment: namely, the sudden and unexpected growth of Sunday morning worship attendance. I went back yesterday and read the 18 assumptions in the key 1997 vision document. The explicit assumption was that in 1998 we would have 1296 in worship, in 1999 we would have 1399, in 2000 we would have 1510, and in the year 2004 we would break 2000, and so on.
Well, we have been taken completely off guard by what has happened. Last week the attendance in worship was 2,105. On four out of the first seven Sundays this year, the attendance has been over 2,000. And that's not counting the nurseries or preschool kids who are not in the sanctuary. In other words, the second strand is not just the need to meet the expanding educational demands, but to dream a fresh dream for what would please God in the way we handle this growth in worship attendance. This is the question that will rest most heavily on the elders tomorrow night. In a few minutes I will call for you to fast and pray for them. Be thinking about it.
Strand #3 - The Call to Send People to Grace Church Richfield
But now there is a third strand of God's providence that is converging on this moment. In a kind of Gideon venture, God is calling us to send people away in the very moment when we will be trying to pray in millions of dollars. I have no doubt in my mind that this is of the Lord, and that he means it for his greater glory and for your joy - especially for the joy of those of you who will hear his call to go.
Here is what has happened. Grace Church Richfield, located at 7101 Nicollet Avenue South, has been without a preaching pastor for over two years. One of our own attenders, Paul Dreblow, has been the interim for almost two of those years. During that time, and for several years before this interim, strong ties between our two churches had been developing. During the int erim, the elders of Grace (who are here with us this morning), along with their people, forged a document that is in the packet of materials to put in your EDUCATION FOR EXULTATION notebooks this morning: The Chief End of Grace Church Richfield, attached to the February 11 letter from Rick Gamache. This document captures the Biblical and spiritual and mission vision of Grace Church Richfield. When I first read it about a year ago, I thought it was one of the finest statements of God-centered philosophy of ministry I had ever seen.
In March of last year, Kenny Stokes and Paul Dreblow wondered if there should not be a fuller partnership between Grace Richfield and Bethlehem since they needed a pastor and we dreamed of some kind of church planting. They prayed and fasted and discussions began, including a key time at Chuck Steddom's house. On July 25 last year, the members of Grace said yes to the document, The Chief End - that is who we are. On August 15, as a whole church, they gave the green light for the elders to explore some kind of alliance with Bethlehem. We at Bethlehem were supportive of this and were excited about it.
On October 19 last fall, the pastoral staff at BBC received and read a letter from the elders at Grace Church Richfield proposing what they called "Partnership for Rebirth." This would involve several possibilities: our sending them a preaching pastor, an infusion of worshipers, and new members and workers and leaders. That morning, in my memory, was like Antioch in Acts 13:1-5. Here we were, bulging at the seams and struggling with where to put everybody. And there was a church - deeply like-minded, eager to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples - in a place that hundreds of our people could get to more easily than getting here, and asking us to dream with them about an alliance that would give a rebirth of life and growing fruitfulness to their witness in Richfield and around the world.
We took this very seriously and went to prayer. When we looked up from prayer, three of us said, almost simultaneously: "I think Rick Gamache should be their pastoral candidate." It was as if the Holy Spirit had spoken - I think he had. Rick has been at Bethlehem for 12 years. For four of those years he has been the Manager for Theological Support in Desiring God and Manager of the Bookstore. For three of those years he lived with his wife Delaine in the other part of my family's duplex. And he has been the teacher of the Joint Heirs Sunday School class. Rick and Delaine have four children: Bronte, Thaxton, Cosette and Yaroslav, whom they just adopted from Russia. Rick is a graduate of Bethel Seminary. We knew that we would not be able to keep him in DG forever.
We were so moved by God's action in that prayer meeting that we went straight to find Rick and said, "We want you to come to the staff meeting right now." When he came, we said what we thought God was doing and asked if we could pray for him. We gathered around and laid our hands on him and prayed. There were other names that came to us in that prayer time as well. One was Randy Westlund, one of our long-time elders. Randy and Kathi have committed to go with Rick, and the church there is designing a way for Randy to move his eldership there and so join the leadership team.
To condense a whirllwind of activity between October and now: On January 30 Rick preached his candidating sermon at Grace, on February 6 they voted to call him as the preaching pastor, and last Sunday Grace voted to give me the green light to trumpet the call today for as many of you as the Lord moves to go with Rick and Randy.
That is what I am doing. I am asking that you pray and think seriously about leaving Bethlehem and becoming part of this fresh start at Grace Church Richfield under the leadership of Rick Gamache and Randy Westlund and the two elders at Grace, Mark Alderton and John Huspeni.
It is a defining moment for us: Can part of our handling of growth on this site in the years to come (and right now!) be the transformation of Bethlehem from a mainly centripetal force attracting people to this site, into a mainly centrifugal force sending venturesome bands of people with faith and courage to start new churches or to give new infusions of worshipers and workers and leaders, as in the case of Grace Church Richfield.
Before I give a concluding challenge, I'd like you to hear from Rick Gamache. How God Leads, A Word from Rick
I want to take just a couple of minutes and give you a peek behind the scenes of God's leading Delaine and me to Grace Church Richfield because I think that it serves as a lesson in how God leads his people in general. And so I hope it will prove helpful for those called to go to Grace Church Richfield (whether five or fifty of you) and those called to stay at Bethlehem.
I am holding a year's worth of journal entries written by my wife Delaine. And they represent the means by which God, more than likely, won't lead you
to Grace Church Richfield. On June 15, 1998, God very plainly, in the context of Word-saturated prayer and in response to a sermon preached from this pulpit by Brent Nelson, declared to Delaine that we would be leaving Bethlehem for the pastoral ministry shortly - nine months before the elders at Grace Church ever approached Bethlehem about a possible partnership!
But that kind of subjective perception leaves one with almost no sense of confidence that what was heard was really from God, which is one of the main reasons it is the least-common means of God's leading. So scribbled on these pages are Delaine's prayerful expressions of frustration and doubt because God had not seen fit to simply declare to me that I was to be a pastor.
Though I knew God had stirred Delaine for a new venture in ministry, I didn't know that these journals existed until I was well into the candit ating process with the elders and search committee at Grace Church. Delaine simply, and very wisely, put her hand to her mouth and prayed. But I knew enough so that when Pastor John approached me to consider this opportunity, I stood dumbfounded only able to think over and over again, "My wife's a prophet, my wife's a prophet." But still there was no direct declaration from God to me.
So I went to the Word. And I judged my motives and my qualifications for the task by it. And I prayed the Word, specifically that I would not "be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of my mind, so that I may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect" (Romans 12:2).
God's will needed to be proved. For me this meant that the opportunity at Grace Church needed to be examined and verified by my mind, my renewed mind. So, in utter dependence on the Holy Spirit, I learned everything I could about Grace Church to see if it was the right fit. I sought wisdom like James encourages us to (in faith and without doubting - James. 1:5-6), not just external compliance with instructions God may or may not have given to my wife.
But, in the end, I still had two very good choices before me -Desiring God and Grace Church Richfield. Then something very wonderful and very startling happened. I began to desire one more than the other. In order to prove what the will of God was, I examined (the Word, myself, and Grace Church), verified (by prayerful reflection, counsel, and a pulpit search committee process), and, finally, I embraced that which I desired more - the preaching pastorate at Grace Church Richfield. It was startling because I love my ministry and my co-laborers at DG and Bethlehem, and I love you all very much. And it was startling because the desire, "intense and all-absorbing" (Charles Spurgeon's definition of a call) as it was for Grace Church was not without it's pangs. Delaine wrote on that day in June 1998: "This is exciting and painful if we are to leave our beloved Bethlehem . . . to leave would feel like birth pangs."
I don't doubt that for you five or fifty who are to come to GCR the decision to leave Bethlehem will be painful. It will be. But I also know that if you go prayerfully to the Word, and if you come to the informational meeting on Wednesday and the infusion meetings on Sundays in utter dependence on the Holy Spirit, seeking to be transformed by the renewing of your mind in order to prove what the will of God is for you and Grace Church, then your desire to stay or to go will be God-shaped, and that God-shaped desire will be your guide.
So here's my prayer for you, and I know I speak for Randy Westlund and Mark Alderton and John Huspeni. Paul wrote it to the Colossians, we say it to you:
Since the day we heard of the infusion of worshipers from BBC to GCR, we have not ceased to pray for you and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you will walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; strengthened with all power, according to His glorious might, for the attaining of all steadfastness and patience; joyously giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in Light. (Colossians 1:9-12)
A Concluding Challenge
I would like to welcome Rick and Randy and Mark and John and the Bethlehem Elders to the platform for prayer.
Here is my request: I want to call a fast tomorrow. Would you please fast during at least one meal, and use some of the time to pray for two things?
One is for the Elders' meeting tomorrow night as they try to see God's way of weaving the three strands of God's providence together at Bethlehem: a building for education, a way to handle Sunday morning growth, and a dream for becoming a centrifugal sending base for new and revived churches.
The other is: Should you be a part of the move to Grace Church Richfield? And more broadly - Lord, would you send just the right people to Grace with Rick and Randy?