Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Isaiah's Ordination to a Difficult Ministry

[This entry follows a sermon titled "The Sinner Becomes God's Spokesman".  Click on the title to listen to the audio.]

I still remember that November afternoon in 1999, though I cannot now remember the exact date.  If I cheat and google "1999 Calendar" to make a guess, I would say it was November 7, but that is neither here nor there.  This special service started at 4 PM, exactly one hour after I had met with the deacons of First Baptist Church Concord.  Though the extent of questions during my oral examination left much to be desired, I was approved and ready to be ordained to gospel ministry.  My wife was with me, and two of my closest friends from seminary, along with their wives, drove from Louisville, KY, to Knoxville, TN, just for the occasion.

I was wearing the brand new, black pinstripe suit my grandmother had purchased for this occasion, and she, too, was sitting in the small congregation of about 30 gathered in what I fondly remember as "the old sanctuary."  The service began, and before long, Dr. Doug Sager stood at the front, opened his Bible, and preached my ordination sermon.  It is one I will never forget.  His text was Nehemiah 1, and being quite skilled in the art of alliteration, Dr. Sager spoke of spiritual leadership as demonstrated by Nehemiah.  His main points were (1) Nehemiah's passion, (2) Nehemiah's prayer, (3) Nehemiah's patience, (4) Nehemiah's preparation, and (5) God's providence.  Those points are written nowhere except in my mind, and when I look at Nehemiah 1, I can't help but think of them.  (When I teach through Nehemiah in the future, I'm sure it will take all my mental strength to keep away from using the same outline.)

Not long after the service concluded, I had the privilege of preaching in the evening service at the church I called 'home.'  I have no clue what text I preached.  I heard someone once recall that Charles Spurgeon told preachers to keep their sermons so they could weep over them.  I'm certain if I saw the notes from this sermon (and certainly if I heard the recording), I would weep over it.

Now, I do not recall this moment in my life just to walk down memory lane, though it is quite wonderful to do so.  I recall this ordination to gospel ministry because it is so different from the ordination service of Isaiah the prophet.  His, of course, was not preached by a man.  Just like the apostle Paul in Galatians 1, Isaiah did not receive his ministry from any man but from directly from God.  God preached his ordination sermon, and what a sermon it was!  It was certainly more memorable than my recollection of the outline from Nehemiah 1, but it was far less optimistic than my experience.

It seems that at the end of modern ordination services, there is great optimism that the one on whom hands are laid, and there is some merit to this.  The person being ordained is usually young, full of energy and ready to 'take on the world' from the pulpit.  Maybe this could be the next George Whitefield or Billy Graham or Charles Spurgeon.  Perhaps there will be another Great Awakening under the leadership of this new pastor.  Would to God that this were true!  Certainly, we should be praying for such a harvest of souls.  However, there is more to the story than the triumphalism that usually fills our minds and mouths at times like these.

This other reality lies in Isaiah's ordination sermon.  He is told to keep preaching and to keep telling people to listen (6:9).  However, nobody is going to listen to him...he is going to preach for years and years and see no fruit.  In fact, much of the fruit of Isaiah's preaching would not come for centuries later...we see it in our lives today.  The marvelous passages in chapters 52 and 53 about the suffering servant are greatly used by God in the preaching of Christ and Him crucified, but not in Isaiah's day.  In Isaiah's day, the vine of Israel would be spiritually barren...producing only wild grapes (5:1-7). 

An interesting story that relates to this was the early years of Charles Simeon's ministry at Trinity Church in Cambridge.  Though not exactly the same as what Isaiah faced, there was hardness of heart among the people, and it manifested itself in opposition to Simeon.  Though the bishop had assigned him to this church, the members didn't want him.  They wanted the assistant to become their pastor.  So, they refused to let Simeon preach on Sunday afternoons in what might be called a second service.  Instead, they invited the assistant, Mr. Hammond, to do it.  This refusal to allow Simeon to teach on Sunday afternoons went on for twelve years!  They were completely opposed to him.  He even tried to begin a Sunday evening service for the townspeople, but the church wardens locked the doors so they couldn't get in!

There is still more.  If you have ever seen old church pews, many had doors on the ends of each row, and the doors in Trinity church locked.  Church members locked the doors so that nobody could sit in the pews, and when Simeon put chairs in the aisles, members threw them in the church yard!  This happened for about ten years.  After this first decade or so, things began to calm down.  After a decade!  Many pastors would have packed their bags after about 6 months, but not Simeon.  He was convinced that he should stay steady in the ministry of the Word and prayer.  Charles Simeon ended up staying at Trinity Church for 54 years.  Who would have thought it?  He certainly didn't see that going in...all he saw was the opposition.**

Friends, the gospel we preach is foolishness to the world, so it should not surprise us if the world hates it.  It should not be surprising when the world opposes us for preaching such a gospel.  However, let us remember the ministries of the prophet Isaiah and Charles Simeon, and take heart.  From Isaiah, we are reminded that we merely plant and water, and God makes all things grow.  God's Word accomplished exactly what it was meant to accomplish in Isaiah's day (Is. 55:10-11).  Whether the result was revulsion or revival, Isaiah was to continue in the task of preaching sin, judgment, and salvation to his generation.  He never saw all the fruit of his preaching ministry during his day...the full harvest of that fruit is still yet to come.

From Charles Simeon, we are encouraged to keep on keeping on in the face of opposition.  There are times that, even over a period of decades, God will soften hearts through the consistent speaking of the gospel and through love for the brothers.  There was a time in which Simeon was given a legal decision that pew holders could not lock the pews and stay away, but he never used it.  Instead, he kept preaching the Word and loving the people.  After years of resistance, God softened the heart of that people.  We could see the same thing happen in difficult situations today, if we will not lose heart. 

We may never see the fruit of our labor in this life, like Isaiah.  It may take decades for a heart to soften, as with Charles Simeon's congregation.  Either way, we the apostle Paul's charge to Corinth as the Lord's charge to us: "Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain" (1 Corinthians 15:58).

**I got this information about Charles Simeon from puritansermons.com.