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At the Crossroads

May 18, 2014

Sermon:  At the Crossroads
Text:  Jeremiah 29:11-13

Every month a Jewish rabbi, a Methodist minister, a Presbyterian minister, a Unitarian Universalist minister, and a Baptist pastor meet at a Chinese restaurant for lunch. That sounds like a joke, but it really does happen.

This past month the rabbi did not have a ride. His car was in the shop, and his motorcycle was unavailable. He asked me, “Can you give me a ride?”

I answered, “Certainly.” After we had gotten in my truck, I said, “Tell me how to get there.”

He asked, “Where’s your GPS?”

I answered, “I don’t have a GPS.”

“You don’t? How do you get around without one?”

I held up my cell phone.

“Oh…I’ve seen your cell phone. I don’t know how you get around without a GPS. You probably still use road-maps.”

My cell phone is almost new. I have had it six years. It makes phone calls, and they tell me I can receive messages on it. I have not figured that one out yet though.

Two weeks after this conversation, I received a package in the mail – a GPS. The rabbi had written, “Far be it for a Jewish rabbi to tell a Baptist minister where to go.”

You would agree that we all need a little direction every now and then. We will close the service today with the hymn “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah.”

I have used the GPS several times since then, and it has proved to be quite a handy device. Clare, however, does not like it. She complains, “Why is another woman in your truck telling you what to do? That’s my job. I do not like her.” Most of the time when Clare is riding with me, we do not turn on the GPS.

I found out that the device does not work in a parking deck, like the one at Regional. It sends the message, “Cannot establish contact with the satellite.” That response made me realize that a big eye somewhere in the sky is tracking me, watching me, every place I go.

Many of you remember that I had a pretty back wreck at the intersection just below Billy D’s Restaurant. I was pulling out across Pine Street when I had the green light, but the other guy apparently did not know what color of light he had. He rammed me, doing a lot of damage to our vehicles. In fact, the accident totaled both trucks. It also did a lot of damage to my personal body. I am not sure GPS would have helped me that time. I have never aspired to have a road named for me, much less an intersection, but it is now called Parson’s Peril. Be careful when you cross that intersection.

Graduates, now is an exciting time because you are at a significant intersection in life. You have many big decisions to make. We are proud of you, and we want you to do so well. We also want you to be careful because danger lurks in the future.

As you walked down the aisle this morning, I was thinking about how our lives have intersected over the years. I can remember holding some of you in my arms and dedicating you when you were little babies. I can remember baptizing most of you. I have watched you grow and develop from a baby into the teenager that you now are. My, how you have grown! How many times have you heard that comment?

You have many questions to answer. Questions about your vocation include What am I going to be? Am I going to college? If so, which one? Am I going to enter the work force? Will I enter military service? Where will I live? Will I live near my family? Questions about your life after college or the military include Will I get married? If so, to whom? How will I know if I am marrying the right person? Will I live here, or will I live elsewhere? Later, you will ask, Am I going to have children? Depending on your answer to that one, your questions will multiply.

Moses led the people of Israel through the wilderness for forty years, about two generations, we are told in the Bible. I have been here in this church about one generation – your generation. It has been a great delight to serve in one place long enough to watch children pass through the early stages of life. I have seen some of you born into the world, and I have had the opportunity to dedicate and to baptize some. I have watched you grow and develop into the people God has created you to be. God is not finished with you. Paul writes to the church in Philippi, “I am persuaded that he who began a good work in you will continue it…” (Philippians 1:6). Our hope and prayer is that God will continue to be a force in your lives.

The last eighteen years of my life have, in many ways, synchronized with your lives. I, too, am at an intersection, just a month away from retirement. Years ago I decided many of the issues that you now face – decisions about my call to the ministry and my decision to marry Clare. I have been in the ministry forty-eight years. During that time I have served as pastor in three churches. I can say that Morningside is tops. Morningside is a wonderful church.

Clare and I made a decision to have children, which was not easy for us. Two miscarriages preceded our first child, and another miscarriage occurred between our second and third child. You all know that we later lost a son. Our family moved from Louisville, Kentucky, to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and to Cambridge, Massachusetts. When we returned to Spartanburg, Clare said, “Kirk, I don’t want to move anymore. I have moved my entire life, and I’m ready to stay in one place.” We have lived in our home for thirty-four years.

Now that we have reached these intersections we have never encountered before – graduation for you and retirement for me – we must both ask the question, How do we proceed?

Yogi Berra quipped, “If you come to a fork in the road, take it.” We cannot live by that humorous saying. The real questions are, How do we, as Christians, respond at this crossroad? and How do we make these big decisions?

The prophet Jeremiah gives us directions in a wonderful passage we have heard twice already this morning. Jeremiah’s directions are not like those of a GPS. Jeremiah’s directions come from God Himself: “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to do you good and not harm, plans to give you hope and a future.’”

Do you believe that God has a plan for your life? Do you believe that plan is for “good and not harm”? Can you enter the future with a sense of hope because you know that God is guiding your life?

Jeremiah gives the exiles in Babylon, people who were discouraged, this wonderful reassuring promise: “God has a plan for your life.” He tells them that they must pay attention to the directions. This promise is for the ages, not just for the people of Israel and Babylon. This promise applies to every single one of us.

How do we discover this plan for “good and not harm,” this future and hope? We must simply rely on prayer. Listen to Jeremiah’s words: “You will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:12-13). What a promise! We discover God’s plan by engaging in the life of prayer. When coming to the crossroads, think about praying. Think about proceeding with God’s plan. What way do I turn? When do I go? How long do I wait? We all have these questions.

When Miz Clare and I were dating, I drove many, many times to and from Macon, Georgia, where she lived. What a long four-hour drive! Can you believe that interstate highways did not exist back in those days? We had only back roads, blue-line highways. I drove through the uttermost parts of the earth down to Georgia, passing through numerous small towns.

Late one night as I was driving home after visiting Clare, I went through a town in Georgia. A policeman pulled behind me and followed me all the way to the outskirts. He then turned on his light and stopped me. After requesting my driver’s license and registration, he asked, “Mr. Neely, have you been to our town before?”

I answered, “No, sir.”

“Mr. Neely, are you colorblind?”

“Yes, sir. I am colorblind. I’ve been colorblind all my life.”

“Do you know how I know that? You stopped at every green light and drove through every red light all the way through our town. Mr. Neely, the men who came to hang the lights hung them all upside down. The green light appears on top, and the red one is on the bottom here. I’m giving you a warning this time; but if I ever stop you again for breaking lights, I will write you a ticket.”

“Don’t worry, sir. I won’t be back.” I never returned to that town.

Traffic signals direct us about what we are supposed to do. Sometimes we must stop, and sometimes we must continue. Blinking lights give us the warning to slow down and proceed with caution. Take your time. Yield. I can never tell whether those blinking lights are red or yellow. Every intersection offers signals and signs to follow, but you will miss every one if you are driving too fast. You must slow down and pay attention.

The best way for you to proceed with making decisions is through the life of prayer. I have come back to one passage again and again: “You will seek me, and you will find me when you seek me with all your heart.” God directs my life, tracing my route better than any GPS. He corrects me when I am wrong and keeps me on the straight-and-narrow if I allow Him to do that. The Call to Worship this morning, Proverbs 3:5-6, is so important: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will direct your paths.” It is not a matter of deciding what we are going to do – right or wrong. No, we must trust in the Lord. We must lean not on our own understanding. We must acknowledge him. This verse in Proverbs is another way of saying exactly what Jeremiah tells us in this great passage in Jeremiah 29.

These students who will soon graduate and a pastor who will soon retire all stand at the crossroads. Morningside Baptist Church is also at an intersection, a crossroad, that is not totally unfamiliar. This church has been at this intersection before, though it has been a long time.

In two weeks Morningside will mark its sixty-fourth anniversary. This church has been in service to the LORD and His kingdom for sixty-four years. Look back at the very beginning of this church – a tent revival at the corner of Converse and Caulder near the Duncan Park ball field. That revival, which was supposed to last one week, actually lasted almost a month, if memory serves me correctly. The members of Southside Baptist Church saw the tremendous response to that revival and decided a church needed to be located there. Southside made arrangements to purchase an old military chapel at Camp Croft and move it to the corner of Converse and Caulder. Morningside Baptist Church began there in 1950.

During these sixty-four years this church has called only six pastors, with Mike McGee and I accounting for thirty-four years. Morningside has a reputation for having long-term pastorates. God has a plan for these graduates. God has a plan for me. God has a plan for this church. Do you believe that? “‘I know the plans I have for you,’ says the Lord, ‘plans to do you good and not harm.’” God has a plan for this church. He has kept His hand of blessing on Morningside Baptist Church for sixty-four years. Do you think He will turn his back on the church now? I do not believe that for a minute. He will continue to guide and lead. How? He will give you directions, but you cannot rush ahead of Him. The French Foreign Legion’s motto is “When in doubt, charge!” That path is not advisable in this case. You must access the directions of God by waiting and by praying. If you will seek God with all your heart, He will surely direct your paths. He has made that promise.

Let’s go back even further in the history of the church, back to the first century, by considering that small group of disciples. When Jesus died on the cross, they thought it was the end of the life they had known for the past three years. Then Jesus conquered death by his resurrection. He continued to appear to these followers for forty days. One day he took them out to a mountainside and gave them the Great Commission: “You are to go into all the world. Begin in Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria. Then go to the uttermost parts of the earth. Go into all the world and make disciples” (Matthew 28:19-20). Almost in an instant Jesus was gone. He had ascended into heaven. The men stood on that mountain gazing into the sky until an angel called them back to their senses, asking, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand here gazing into the heavens?” The angel directed them to return to Jerusalem and wait.

Can you visualize what that waiting was like? I imagine they asked, “What do we do now? The Master is gone. Now what?” They waited and joined together constantly in prayer, according to Acts 1:14. Then it happened. The Holy Spirit descended and empowered the church, giving them the opportunity to proclaim the gospel in word and deed. This frightened band of disciples, bereft because their master had gone, changed the whole world. Acts 17 refers to them as the people who had turned the world upside down.

The history of the church is a narration of people who wait, not passively, twiddling their thumbs, but actively through the life of prayer. When the church does that, God keeps His promise and fulfills His plan. He sends an advocate, the Holy Spirit whom we celebrate on this Day of Pentecost. God sends the Holy Spirit; the church is empowered, the gospel is proclaimed; and lives are changed.

The evidence is overwhelming that God had a plan for that fledgling church from the very beginning. They trusted. They prayed. They waited. They obeyed. God acted, causing exponential growth. A fisherman from Galilee stood and preached, and people from all over the world heard the sermon in their own language. Three thousand people were converted that single day. From there the remarkable story – about how God can work through people who love Him, who trust Him, and who enter into a deliberate time of prayer – continues to unfold.

Graduates, now that you have reached this new crossroad, this intersection you have never crossed before, I want you to approach it with trust in God. Approach it with prayer. Ask God, “What would you have me do now?” He will not show you the entire future at one time. Gracious! We would be scared to death if we saw everything unfold at one time. God will show you the next step.

I have come to an intersection I have never before experienced. I am going to do what you do. I am going to trust God, and I am going to pray. I am fully confident that He will direct my next steps.

Morningside has come to an intersection. What will the church do? I hope you will trust God. I hope you will wait and pray. I hope you know that God will show you the next step. He will show you one step at a time so that this great church can continue to experience the blessings of God. He will direct you so that you can continue to be a light for the Lord Jesus Christ right here on this corner, 897 South Pine Street.

“The Road Not Taken,” one of my favorite poems, was written by Robert Frost for a friend who was having difficulty making a decision.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

The word “crossroad” is strange when you think about it – cross road. The word brings to mind a teaching of Jesus: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Matthew 8:34). The crossroad is the way of the cross, the most important intersection that anyone ever approaches.

Most of these graduates have made a decision to follow Jesus. Perhaps some here today have not made that decision. This is the day. You stand at an intersection, at a crossroad. You must choose. “I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back, no turning back.” If you have not made that decision, could I invite you to do so today? You respond.

Kirk H. Neely
© May 2014

 

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