Our Coming to You Was Not in Vain

I Thessalonians 2:1

When Paul wrote to the new Christians in Thessalonica, he summarized his brief visit with them this way: “You know, brothers, that our visit to you was not a failure” (I Thessalonians 2:1). The English Standard Version renders it this way: “For you yourselves know, brothers, that our coming to you was not in vain.” All week long I’ve been pondering the last phrase of that verse because it seems appropriate for my final sermon as your pastor: “Our coming to you was not in vain.”

In order to understand what Paul means, we need a little background. The story begins in Acts 16 when Paul and Silas crossed the Aegean Sea from (in modern terms) Turkey to Greece. When they came to the Macedonian city of Philippi, they found a group of women praying by the river. One day, a demon-possessed slave girl began following Paul around. When Paul cast out the demon spirit, the girl’s owners became angry because they could no longer make money by using her as a fortune-teller. They stirred up a crowd, caused a huge commotion, and had Paul and Silas severely beaten and thrown in prison. At midnight, while Paul and Silas were singing hymns, a violent earthquake shook the city, causing the doors of the prison to open and the chains on the prisoners to be broken. But Paul and Silas did not try to escape. That very night, they led the jailer and his family to Christ and baptized them. The next day the authorities asked Paul and Silas to leave Philippi for their own safety and to prevent further disturbance.

From there they went to Thessalonica where Paul preached in the synagogue on three Sabbath days. Although he was only there a few weeks, he managed to start a church and start instructing the new believers in the Christian faith. Not everyone was glad he had come to town. Eventually, certain Jews stirred up the rabble so that a riot ensued. Under cover of darkness, the believers spirited Paul and Silas to Berea where they at first found a good hearing. But the Jews from Thessalonica came to Berea, stirring up so much opposition that Paul left for Athens. There he preached the gospel on Mars Hill and came face to face with the intellectuals who regarded him contemptuously as a “seed-picker,” a country bumpkin not worth noticing. Some believed, some doubted, and others mocked Paul’s message. Eventually he made his way to the major port city of Corinth where he established a church and preached for a year and a half. Once again the Jews attacked Paul and dragged him before the local authorities.

Here is the record of Paul’s visits to these five cities:

At the end of the day, the applause of the world matters not at all.

Philippi—Beaten and jailed.
Thessalonica—Riot, Paul escapes by night.
Berea—More trouble, Paul goes to Athens.
Athens—Ridicule from the intellectuals.
Corinth—Taken to court, falsely accused.

Why Did You Leave Us?

This is where our text comes in. When Paul got to Athens, he sent Timothy back to Thessalonica to see how the young believers were doing. Because of the riot, Paul left Thessalonica before he really wanted to. His premature leaving caused many believers to wonder about him and his ministry, and some were tempted to give up their faith under the continuing pressure. When Timothy came back with his report, he told Paul that the church was doing well but was under intense pressure from outsiders. Certain rumors against Paul were being spread because he left town so suddenly. There were also various moral and doctrinal problems in the church. Although Paul wanted to return, circumstances prevented him. So he wrote a letter of encouragement to this young church. That letter is the book we call I Thessalonians. He writes to answer several important questions, including …

Why did you leave us so suddenly? Don’t you love us?

Paul’s basic answer comes in I Thessalonians 2:1 when he declares, “My coming to you was not in vain.” It was not wasted time or a fruitless visit. Then he develops that answer in three parts.

First, he talks about his ministry among them in verses 1-12. He highlights four aspects of the way he conducted himself in Thessalonica. His coming was marked by …

1) Boldness (1-2) “We dared to tell you the gospel amid much opposition.”
2) Sincerity (3-6) “We were not trying to please men, but God.”
3) Compassion (7-9) “You became dear to us.”
4) Consistency (10-12) “You are witnesses, and so is God of how we lived among you.”

Second, he deals with their response to his ministry in verses 13-16. As I wrap up my ministry at Calvary, these statements mean a great deal to me.

1) You accepted the Word of God when you heard it.
2) You suffered for your faith.

Third, he reveals his heart to them in verses 17-20.

All I know is the next step we must take.

1) Though we are apart physically, you are never far from my thoughts.
2) Circumstances have separated us for a time.
3) We will be together in heaven someday.

Listen to how he puts it in verses 19-20: “For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you? Indeed, you are our glory and joy.” In these words we have a delightful glimpse into Paul’s heart. How did he feel about his followers? They were his hope — because he kept thinking about what God was going to do through them. They were his joy — both now and in heaven. They were his crown. The word refers to a wreath of leaves given to the winner of a race in the Isthmian Games. His reward in heaven would be the pleasure of seeing all those new Christians standing with him. The New Living Translation translates verse 20 this way: “You are our pride and joy.” Not just in heaven, but right now, you are the most important thing in the world to us. We think about you night and day, we pray for you, we never stop telling others how proud we are of you.

At the end of the day, the applause of the world matters not at all. And no pastor will be remembered for the sermons he preached or the books he wrote. The only thing that will stand the test of time is the lives he has touched for Jesus Christ. That record will last forever.

Four Simple Statements

Let me apply Paul’s comments with four simple statements:

Circumstances are what God uses when he wants to remain anonymous. 

A) The gospel is rarely easy or popular. For every person who receives us gladly, many more will have nothing to do with us. If we are waiting to win the world by acclamation, it isn’t going to happen. The gospel wasn’t popular in Oak Park when I came, and it isn’t popular here as I leave. For 90 years this church has preached the gospel. Here is my advice: Keep on preaching it. There is no reason to stop now. Sometimes the best thing you can do is to keep on doing what you are already doing whether anyone pays attention or not. If you keep doing right long enough, sooner or later it will pay off.

B) Ministry built on integrity will stand the test of time. We live in a day when churches turn quickly to glitz and glamour in order to attract more people. I’m all in favor of changing our methods as long as we don’t compromise the message. But whether we change or not, our methods are not the bottom line. Integrity matters. Honesty matters. Truth matters. Those things never go out of style.

C) God ordains the comings and goings of all his servants. He ordained that Paul should go to Philippi, and he ordained that he slip out of Thessalonica under cover of darkness. He sent him to Athens, and then he sent him on to Corinth. Nothing happened by chance. It is the same with all the servants of God. I have never doubted that God sent me to Oak Park 16 years ago. So many things happened, and I fought against it for so long, that I have never doubted that I was here by divine appointment. But just as God sent me here, he now leads me on from here. All I know is the next step we must take. The rest is hidden in God’s heart. In due time we will know what we should do, and by God’s grace, we will do it. Do not think that men of God come and go on their own. What we call circumstances are really the fingerprints of God. Or as I heard this week, circumstances are what God uses when he wants to remain anonymous.

God has already called the next pastor of Calvary Memorial Church, and he is already on the way to Oak Park.

I’ve been thinking lately about your next pastor. I don’t know anything about him, don’t know who he is or where he is. But God knows. God has already called the next pastor of Calvary Memorial Church, and he is already on the way to Oak Park. He just doesn’t know it yet. I hope that when he comes to Calvary, he has as much fun here as I’ve had over the last 16 years. I suppose fun is an odd word to describe the pastorate, but that’s the word that comes to mind. I’ve enjoyed being here, and I hope my successor does too. But beyond that, I pray that he will experience a magnificent outpouring of God’s Spirit on his ministry, far beyond anything I have known. Why shouldn’t that happen? I would love it in the days to come, if there is a mighty moving of God that starts in this place, spreads across Oak Park, invades Chicago, and moves across the United States, and then goes around the world. If that happens, then I will say what all my predecessors have said. I will say that I helped lay a few bricks on the foundation of what God is doing at Calvary across the generations. We all build on those who came before us. I certainly did. The next pastor will do the same. I wish him every blessing from heaven.

D) Build your life on the Word of God, not on a human leader. Surely this is one note that we must not miss. Paul kept moving from place to place, preaching and teaching and building up the church of God. No leader stays forever. Years ago, I noted that no pastor of Calvary had never died in office, retired from office, or been dismissed because of impropriety. That is still true today. When one pastor leaves and another one comes, we learn again that God’s work depends on God, not on God’s messengers. We come and go; the message remains the same. Build your life on God’s Word, not on the man who delivers it.

Thank You

As I come to the end of my final message, I want to wrap up with a few personal comments. Mostly I want to say thank you. Thank you for welcoming us into your hearts and your homes. Thank you for caring for us in so many ways. And thank you for allowing us to serve you for the last 16 years. I feel as Paul did, that our coming to you was not in vain.

Oak Park is home to me. 

First, our coming to you was not in vain personally. When we came to Oak Park, everything seemed new and strange to us, and we felt very much like outsiders. But the church embraced us wholeheartedly. I have always felt that God gave me the heart of the congregation from the first Sunday I preached here. Through the years, I have slowly become a Midwesterner, albeit with a Southern accent. Oak Park is home to me. I have lived here longer than I lived in my hometown in Alabama. Marlene reminded me that we have lived in Oak Park over half our married life. And – most importantly – Oak Park is home to our boys. What Alabama is to me, and Montana is to Marlene, Oak Park will always be to our boys. This will always be home for them.

We have learned so much that we didn’t know. When we came to Oak Park …

I didn’t know what mostaccioli was.
I had never heard of Italian beef.
I had never had a Polish sausage.
I had never had good pizza.
I knew nothing about the Cubs or the White Sox and had hardly ever watched either team.
I didn’t know about the Lakefront or Soldier Field.

And I had never eaten at my favorite restaurant — Parky’s on Harlem Avenue. I suppose I have been there at least 300 times. I always have the same thing — a Polish with everything (including sport peppers), greasy fries and a large Coke. It used to cost about $2.70. Inflation has pushed the price to around $4.60. I sit in the car, eat my food, and listen to Rush Limbaugh or Dan Patrick on the radio. It doesn’t get much better than that.

You prayed for us during hard times, and you loved us even when we goofed up.

You invested in our family. You allowed us to grow and you watched our children grow up. When we came, Josh, Mark and Nick were 9, 7 and 4. Today they are 25, 23 and 21. You prayed for us during hard times, and you loved us even when we goofed up. We leave here having been enriched in every way by our time in Oak Park.

Second, our coming to you was not in vain corporately. I leave a church much different than the one I came to. So much has happened in the last 16 years. I made a list of a few highlights: the Unity Walk, the Pastor’s Stroll, the new constitution and the new elder board, the Crossroads service, the Contemporary service, the Upper Room service, Awana, Wednesday night suppers, the Billy Sunday presentations at Forest Home Cemetery, Calvary in the Park, the Bible Reading Marathon, the Prayer Warriors, the Bible Bus, the 9/11 remembrance service, Exalt services in Mills Park, the service under the big tent, the Legacy Campaign, the building renovation, Celebration Sundays at the high school, the Calvary 500, Day in Our Village, and a whole spectrum of new programs and outreaches, new missionaries commissioned, short-term trips all over the world, taking Anchor for the Soul to Ground Zero, sending hundreds of thousands of books to prisoners, incredible Christmas concerts, Good Friday services, Christmas Eve services, the Internet ministry, the sermon email list, the weblogs, First Watch, Evangelism Explosion, the “God Speaks Today” series, the growing racial and ethnic diversity of our congregation, ministry to singles, college students, divorced, a multitude of support groups, and the transformation of the spirit of the church. We became larger, younger, more conservative, bolder, more diverse, all at the same time. And I think there is more of a family spirit today than when I came.

I have never been part of a greater church.

I have never been part of a greater church. In my heart, this is the most wonderful church in the world. We will never forget you. You will always be in our hearts, and a big part of us will always be right here with you.

“The Gospel Always”

Third, our coming to you was not in vain eternally. This church has always emphasized the gospel of Christ because that is what matters most. Several years ago, while going through the archives, I ran across an ad that appeared in the newspaper during the ministry of Lee W. Ames, one of the early pastors of our church. The ad must have run in 1921 or 1922. It read something like this:

Madison Street Church (later Madison Street Bible Church, still later Calvary Memorial Church)
Lee W. Ames, Pastor
Everyone Welcome.

Below that came the service times for Sunday School, morning worship, youth fellowship, Sunday night services, and Wednesday night prayer meeting. There was a three-word slogan at the bottom of the ad: “The Gospel Always.” I like that because it sums up the history of this great church. “The Gospel Always.” As I leave you, I have but one hope for our church. May it always be said about us that we still preach “the Gospel Always.” I am not worried at all about how you organize yourself or what programs you have or when you schedule your services or what style of worship you prefer in the future. Do whatever seems to best to you. But don’t change the main thing. For 90 years it’s been “the Gospel Always.” May it be so till Jesus comes again.

Kris and Ed Sagan

I know that by God’s kindness, many people have come to Christ in the time we have been together. I’d like to share one email that stands for all of them. This comes from Kris Sagan. She and her husband Ed came to Calvary in 1993:

May it always be said about us that we still preach “the Gospel Always.”

It was good to see you Sunday and this morning in the parking lot. I haven’t checked your blog in 3 or 4 days, so I just did a quick scan, saw your post, and wanted to write a note of thanks.

Ed and I have been going to Calvary about 12 years now. When we first walked through Calvary’s doors, we were engaged to be married and both of us were seeking the truth about God. We stumbled upon Calvary on Easter Sunday 1993 after trying to go to a Methodist church in town but had missed the service. We were driving by Calvary when we saw people heading inside. Some were carrying Bibles so we decided to go in. We sat in the balcony and I remember you announcing that a new contemporary service would be starting the following week. I don’t remember what you specifically preached about (probably Christ and the good news of the resurrection!) but I do remember feeling that we were in the right place. Over the next six months God opened our hearts to his Word and your teaching. That fall, on different Sundays, we each accepted Christ as our Savior – the best decisions of our lives.

Over the years we have grown from baby Christians into grown-up Christians. We are so thankful that God didn’t give up on us and that he placed us within the Calvary family. It never ceases to amaze me…God puts on your heart to preach what I need to hear.

Best regards,

Kris Sagan

Lately Ed has sent me several emails about the beautiful cross that hangs on the wall in the apse behind the platform. Here is part of what he wrote:

You have implored us in the congregation to run to the cross, and I honestly can not think of any greater piece of teaching that is more necessary or true right now than this. I caught myself thinking a simple thought last night, that the CROSS is what led me to Calvary, the hope of salvation by Christ’s death on the cross IS what saved me, and it IS this hope that I cling to. The church’s foundation was built on the blood of Jesus Christ.

I understand (or at least believe I do) more why the cross in Calvary’s sanctuary is bare and will remain that way until Christ returns – because Jesus Christ, our Lord and savior, is ALIVE! Over the last several weeks I suddenly ‘saw’ the cross and this truth for what it is – JESUS died and RESURRECTED to overcome death and give us all hope and assurance that HE is the ONLY way to heaven.

Meet Me in Heaven

Jesus is the only way to heaven. If you plan to go to heaven, you must go by way of the cross because there is no other way to get there. Last Wednesday night, I happened to see Frank Catrambone at the midweek supper in the Dining Room. He hugged me, and with tears in his eyes said that he was sorry we were leaving. We talked a bit more about this and that. Then he said to me, “I’ll meet you at the gates of heaven.”

Let that be my final word to you, my beloved congregation. Meet me in heaven. In a little while Marlene and I will be gone, and it may be that some of you we will never see again in this life. Meet me in heaven. As I take my leave of you, I exhort you with all my heart. Meet me in heaven!

Do you want to know how to go to heaven? I close my final message with words you have heard me say over and over again. If you want to go to heaven, there is one thing you must do.

Run to the cross!
Run to the cross!
Run to the cross!

Run to the cross and lay hold of Jesus Christ who died for you. Lay hold of Jesus by faith and never let go. Behold the dying form of the Son of God, bleeding for you. His death has paid the price for all your sins. Run to the cross! Do not hesitate. Do not wait. Do not put it off for some better day. Do it now.

Here is my final sentence. Run to the cross, and I’ll meet you someday in heaven. Amen.

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