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A Time To Celebrate

Dr. Erwin W. Lutzer | January 10, 2016

Selected highlights from this sermon

Years ago, we set out as a church to do something incredible and build the Christian Life Center. It reminds us of how Nehemiah and the people of Israel united to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. The task was costly and community driven. Many people sacrificed time, talent, and money for our cause. 

Today we celebrate all that the Lord has provided. All of the debt has been retired. And along the way, God’s taught us many lessons. Our God is a faithful God.

In the year 2005 – July 3rd – I preached a message here at The Moody Church, taken from the book of Nehemiah, chapter 2, verse 18: “Let us arise and build.” I began that message by talking about Abraham Lincoln who went to church one time, and when he came back somebody said, “How did you like it?” He said, “I was disappointed because the pastor did not ask us to do some great thing.” So I asked the congregation if together we could agree to do some great thing.

In my study here at the church I have a picture of Dwight L. Moody. He was a man who, against incredible odds, did one great thing – actually many great things. There’s no reason why he should have succeeded except by God’s grace and power. You know, the reason that The Moody Church was founded was because he was ministering to the worst of the children in terms of conditions and upbringing, and when he brought them into the church, the church said, “We don’t want them because they make too much noise, and they are smelly.” And so that’s why The Moody Church was begun. You know, if those churches had actually accepted these children from the streets, Moody Church might never have taken place. Isn’t it amazing how sometimes wonderful opportunities come to us, but they are disguised as obstacles and impossibilities? Moody could see beyond the closed door to make his own door, and God blessed him.

By the time I preached that message in 2005, Reaching Toward Tomorrow was already five years old, because that was begun in the year 2000. So if you ask the question, “What were you doing during those five years, well, we were raising funds, and we had many other projects. I’m talking about the heating system, or I should really say the air handling system in this wonderful sanctuary, totally rebuilt along with air conditioning. We bought two lots, one called the Walgreen lot, which is west of here. We paid $3.8 million for that lot. Fortunately we were able to borrow three million dollars without any interest. There was a foundation that graciously gave us that. And then we had to buy the lot upon which the Christian Life Center would be built, and so forth.

And remember that ten percent of these funds we agreed would go to mission projects. That’s over and above our regular missions budget, by the way. And as a result of that, we had already built a women’s center in Osiri. We had done a number of other things. We had helped a school in Cuba. We had brought Bibles to Cuba, but there we were. But now we were on the brink of the largest of the projects, and that was the Christian Life Center.

What I’d like to do today is to really finish the message that I began in 2005 by leading us all the way to celebration even as Nehemiah led his people to do that when the wall was built. If you want to follow along I’m just going to be looking at a few snatches of the history in Nehemiah. Of course, I’m not doing the book justice, but I’m going to use it as a template to show some of the parallels that they experienced when they arose and built that we experienced as well, and also to help us to understand the faithfulness and the graciousness of God in the midst of it.

First of all, I would say that their project, as was ours, was a God-directed project. Now here’s Nehemiah. He’s in the palace in Susa, the palace in Persia, and he is the cupbearer to King Artaxerxes. It was a huge responsibility. He had to drink the wine before the king did to show that it wasn’t poisonous, and he is deeply burdened because Jerusalem’s walls have been thrown down, and they’ve tried to rebuild them, and they’ve been unsuccessful. So what does he do? He prays to the God of heaven.

I wish that we could take time to read his entire prayer. You can do that on your own in chapter 1. But I’m in verse 11: “Oh Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of your servant, and to the prayer of your servants who delight to fear your name and give success to your servant today, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man.” “Now I was cupbearer to the king,” he humbly says.

When we began Reaching Toward Tomorrow, and we thought of the future, we knew that this had to be a God-directed project. Put yourself in our shoes in the year 2000. Here we are. We know that we’re going to be raising millions of dollars, and yet, at the same time, our church budget in its entirety I don’t think was more than two million dollars, so when you stop to think of it, how many more times your annual church budget needs to be raised?

Someone has said that all of us should attend to a task that is so big that if God doesn’t undertake, we will be taken under. Earlier when we began in the year 2000 I had to reorient my thinking. I had thought only in terms of thousands of dollars for projects. Now I had to begin to think in terms of millions. This was to be a God-directed project, and if He wasn’t a part of it there was no way that we possibly could have achieved it. So it was God-directed. We relied on Him. In the year 2000 and following there were some of the problems in terms of the economy, but we went ahead anyway. God directed.

Secondly, it was a very necessary project, you know, when Nehemiah was told about the situation in Jerusalem there in verse 3 of chapter 1: “The remnant filling the province who had survived the exile is in great trouble and shame. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates are destroyed by fire.” Great need!

Our need, of course, was very different than that. It was a need for space. Our forefathers, and now I’m thinking of people who built this church, gave us one of the most beautiful sanctuaries I believe probably in the United States. A little bit of prejudice there! But I don’t think I’m far out. You look at it, its Byzantine architecture inspired by the Church of Holy Wisdom in Istanbul, Hagia Sophia. But basically this was a preaching center. There was almost no Christian education space. The rooms for the children were very crowded. A room for 20 perhaps had 40. I remember a time when we had three Sunday school [classes] meeting outside [of the church], one along North Avenue (there was a room that was available), one along Wells Street, and one on LaSalle. It never really worked very well.

And not only was it a matter of space, but we had made a promise statement some time ago, and the promise statement was “Moody Church is a trusted place where anyone can connect with God and others.” The problem was there was no place to connect, so we said that if we ever built it, it was going to have a lounge, and it was going to have sitting areas where people could connect.

And when it comes to space and building, we believe that if it’s good for a few people to have a Bible study, it’s good for many people to have a Bible study, and a place to be equipped for ministry. And if it’s good for a few families to be nurtured in the faith and given guidance in this very confusing world, then it’s good for many families to be given that guidance. And if it’s good for some children to hear the Gospel, it’s good for many children – hundreds of children to hear the Gospel.

You know, sometimes people piously say, “Well, God isn’t interested in numbers.” Well, give me a break. He wrote a book in the Bible and He called it the Book of Numbers. (laughter) And if you are reading the Bible through this year, and God enables you to get through the book of Leviticus, you’ll actually be in the book of Numbers.

Numbers represent people. You know, there are those who say, “Well, we are really (what shall we say?) process oriented,” but we want to be people oriented. At the end of the day it has to do with human hearts. It has to do with souls. It has to do with families. At the end of the day it’s all about this community. And that’s why God laid this burden on our heart and we saw it as a necessary project.

Something else was certainly true of Nehemiah, and his was a community project. Now, I wish I had time to go into the text but, you know, if you take a quick glance at chapter 3, let me tell you what Nehemiah did. He organized the families in such a way that you built the wall that was right next to your house. So he has this group of families. They build this part of the wall. And next to him, this one built that part of the wall. Look, for example, at verse 2: “And next to him the men of Jericho built, and then next to them the sons of Imri built,” and all the way. Do you know how often that term “next to” occurs in this chapter alone? It occurs 15 times.

What Nehemiah knew is this: If you’re going to build your own wall right where you live, you want to make sure if the enemy is coming, he’s not coming through your part of the wall, thank you very much. Nehemiah was so realistic. I have to smile at this. It says in verse 5: “And next to them the Tekoites repaired, but their nobles would not stoop to serve their Lord.” So here are these nobles, written down in God’s Holy Book. “You guys thought that this task was beneath you. You thought that you were so wealthy and you were so privileged that you aren’t going to stoop to help.” (chuckles) And the Bible tells us that that was so. But, you know, I’m sure that these nobles enjoyed the protection of the wall just as much as anybody else. When the enemy came they were probably the first ones to find a place in the wall to hide. And it’s always that way when you have a project that is voluntary.

I bet… I was going to say I bet, but I don’t bet, just so that you know. I venture to say (And by the way, pastors not only don’t bet, they don’t even buy lottery tickets, just so you can get clear on that.) if one of you wins it, we’ll know all about it. (laughter)

Probably at The Moody Church there are people who benefit from the ministry. They’ve benefited from our investment, but they haven’t contributed to it. And my response to that is, you know, that’s fine. We want the ministry of The Moody Church to be as free as the Gospel itself, so everyone here is welcome. But nonetheless, the Bible says the nobles didn’t contribute. It was a community project.

I look back at the Christian Life Center and I see that we had various committees. We had a building committee. Most of them were volunteers. I think of Tom Sawyer who was the chairman. He was supposedly retired. We kept him so busy. He worked so hard on so many different details. I think that when Tom gets to heaven his crown is going to be so heavy that his head will actually be tilted.

And there were other committees. There were people who donated their time in terms of technology, in terms of decorations and all. It wasn’t, indeed, one person’s project at all. It was, indeed, a church project because everything that God does that’s wonderful is done in community. Oh, there are individuals that are highlighted in church history, but it’s the community, it’s the mindschuft, to use a good German word that our good friend, Ger Schultz, would understand. So it was a community project.

It was a costly project and here we get to everybody. Costly! Now you know that in your bulletin today there is a wonderful insert about Reaching Toward Tomorrow. The total amount that was needed was about 31 million dollars. We could say 30 or 31 million. As we look at the statistics we realize that maybe 7 million dollars was given in large gifts. I mean we received a million dollars maybe from this family, and from another family. I think one family gave us two million, others maybe a half million. Let’s say eight million dollars.

But now you begin to separate that and you ask yourself, “What about the other twenty some million dollars”? Who gave that? I’ll tell you exactly who gave it. Ordinary people who said they were going to be faithful whether they can give much or little, the kind of person who says, “I’m going to give fifty dollars a week; that’s all that I can afford, but to God’s glory I’m investing in future generations. I’m looking toward tomorrow to people who are going to come after us. I’m looking to the children of Chicago and I will make that investment.”

And then there were those, of course, who could give more throughout the years, and then we had our Thanksgiving offerings where we raised several hundreds of thousands of dollars, but it was a community project.

There was a time when I thought to myself, “Wouldn’t it be nice if some rich person came along and paid for it all?” And the answer is, “No, that wouldn’t be,” because what God wanted us to do is to realize that everyone is involved, and everyone celebrates.

Ministry in the city is expensive. That lot – the west lot – holds about 50 cars. We paid $3.8 million for that. Somebody said, “Did you find out how much that means per parking space?” The answer is, “No, I wouldn’t want to know that number. It is so absurd.” I told the people at the time that I was born on a farm in Southern Saskatchewan, and as far as I was concerned I thought you could buy half of Southern Saskatchewan for $3.8 million, but that’s the cost of the ministry in the city.

Did you know that we pay perhaps $225,000 to $250,000 a year so that people can get those parking vouchers so that you don’t have to pay at Piper’s Alley or wherever? So when you look at that little parking voucher and you take it, and you’re so anxious to make sure that you get it, fine. Remember somebody paid for that. RTT and the ongoing ministry of The Moody Church is a costly venture but, thank God, if that’s the price of ministry in the city, that’s the price we pay.

So it was costly. It was a celebratory experience. Now we get to the dedication of the walls, which really brings us to today. In chapter 6, verse 15, we’re told that the wall took 52 days to build. In 52 days with good leadership, and good organization, they were able to do what others had not been able to do over a long period of time, and they celebrated.

Now here’s chapter 12. Please write this down and look at it later. But I want to tell you how they dedicated the wall. Now the Christian Life Center has been dedicated long ago, but we’re celebrating today because of a payment that has been made that has totally freed us from any debt. But in chapter 12 you find at the dedication of the wall they had gladness, thanksgiving and singing. I’m in verse 27 and 28. And isn’t that exactly what we have today? We have gladness. We have thanksgiving, and we have a lot of singing.

And then, Tim, I want you to take note of this. It says in verse 31: “Then I brought the leaders of Judah up onto the wall and appointed two great choirs that gave thanks. One went to the south…” Skip to verse 38: “The other went to the north.” So what you have now is you have two choirs on the wall, one going south and the other going north, and they meet at what is known there as The Guard Gate. And we don’t know where all of these gates are. We have a good idea, thanks to archeology and ancient documents, but once you were at The Guard Gate you were really there in the House of God. The Temple had been previously built under Zerubbabel and Ezra. And at the end of the day that’s what it’s all about. It’s not just the building. I’m not talking about the house of God from the standpoint of the building, but the house of God from the standpoint of God’s people, all gathering together with one heart and one soul, worshipping God, even as we have done this morning, and even as will be done in years to come, here at the ministry of The Moody Church.

Now, as I look back, I ask myself, “What are some of the lessons that God taught us during this whole experience?” One is simply this. God led us one step at a time, showing us as much of the future as we were able hold or able to accept, and no more.

Let me give you a little bit of an inside scoop. When we began the Christian Life Center – before we began – we actually thought of the possibility of building only one story, and then a future generation, or at a future time we’d build the other stories because we didn’t see the amount of money that we needed to come in. We weren’t sure and we didn’t want to go at all deeply into debt. And so we began that. That was the beginning of thinking that way. And of course, we were told what you already know. Bad idea! Once all of the machinery is here and all the steel is here, and all the men are here… At least we said, “We will shell it all in, and then later the other stories can be built.” But you know, as the time came for the building, and money was coming in, and people were being faithful, we said, “We think that we can build a second story, which is very, very critical. The second story is our whole children’s ministry, dedicated to children.

And after that, as the project began, and was on its way, we said, “You know what? We think that we have enough ministry and enough money to do the third story, so we did the third story. But we said, “We won’t furnish it because, you know, we can’t add that extra expense.” But when the time came, we were able to furnish the third story, and you know, of course, you have the roof deck (I don’t know how many of you have ever been on the roof deck of The Moody Church) and all of that was entirely completed, not in 52 days but in 18 months. We thank God today that that building was entirely completed, thanks to the faithfulness of God’s people who gave regularly – the average Christian.

And then there’s a second lesson, and that is that this wasn’t the project of one person. It was the project of many, many people. You know, throughout life what I’ve tried to do is to stick with what I’m good at and then hand off to others what they are good at. And as far as the building committee was concerned, it was totally their responsibility. I know very little about building. Actually that could be very misleading so let me clarify. I know nothing about building.

I attended, you know, some of the meetings of the building committee. My responsibility was to be a cheerleader. I was there reminding the congregation of where we were at, and the challenges, and that was my responsibility, and they performed with such expertise. God gave us such experts, such knowledgeable people in every single area. I marvel at the gifts and abilities that we have here at The Moody Church, many of which probably are untapped because we don’t even know maybe all of the contributions that people can make and are making to the ministry. It is amazing to see how the Body works. Let me let you in on a secret. Most of the good ideas here at The Moody Church, and we had a lot of them, did not come from me. They came from other people. They came from members of the staff, and I have kind of been just their cheerleader, and saying, “Yes, let’s do it.” So today, as we think about celebration, this is a celebration for all of us.

And for those of you who weren’t here when all of this was happening, that’s okay because you are celebrating with us and as a result of that, you also are thinking about your own investment in this ministry and other ministries. We welcome everyone who is listening today to celebrate with us the goodness of God.

There’s another lesson, and that is that God exists from age to age, and God is the same from age to age. If you go to Israel today, one of the questions you want to ask is, “Can we still see part of Nehemiah’s Wall?” And the answer to that question is, “Yes, you can.” The guides will take you there in Jerusalem and they’ll show you how they have uncovered part of the wall, and how the wall went along this way and that way. And I remember standing there with Dr. Michael Rydelnik, and looking at the wall, and I was thinking to myself, “So that’s the wall where the choirs walked around.”

Now Nehemiah built 444 years before Christ – four centuries before Jesus came. None of those people were around when Jesus was born in Bethlehem. None were around to hear John the Baptist say, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” And by the way, just in case you are wondering, Moody Church is actually built around Jesus, who does take away the sin of the world. And you maybe came here today with a very heavy heart, and you are seeking an answer to your guilt, and to your distraught soul. I’m here today to tell you that it is Jesus that you are looking for, and He is the one who is the centerpiece of all that we do here at The Moody Church. The Old Testament saints were saved because of Him as well. God said, “I’m going to save you on credit, and eventually Jesus will die,” and Jesus will die for you, too, because nobody gets to heaven without Jesus.

If Jesus hadn’t come… Since that time – 24 centuries – nations have come and nations have gone. You have leaders, both secular and religious who have come and they have gone. Millions of Christians and millions of non-Christians have lived and died. Churches have been built, and churches have gone out of existence. Programs have been instituted that perhaps were very good and helpful, and they have disappeared, and new ones arise. At the end of the day what really brings us all together is God. The same God who laid it upon Nehemiah’s heart to do what he did way back then is the same God who led Dr. Kimball – Edward Kimball – to do what he did. You say, “Well, who in the world is Kimball?” Kimball is the Sunday school teacher who led D. L. Moody to Jesus Christ. And some day in heaven when D. L. Moody is honored, and the rest of us are far back of that line by the way – especially Bill and others (laughter) – when the day comes when that happens, Kimball will be up there with Moody because it was Kimball who led D. L. Moody to Jesus Christ.

And the children that are being saved as a result of our ministry here are going to grow up and they are going to serve the Lord, and Sunday school teachers and workers who led children to Jesus Christ will be up there too, and saying, “I’m the one who led this child to saving faith in Jesus Christ.” You see, that’s the way God does it - from generation to generation.

And by the way, speaking of growth, before we had the Christian Life Center we had about eight TMC Communities. Now, it’s my understanding that we have about sixteen, because to us the growth and the blessing of Jesus Christ needs to be spread far and wide. And the same God who led Nehemiah, who led Kimball, who led Moody, is the same God who has led all of us. And someday all of us will leave this scene. In 50 years we’ll probably all be gone. Maybe I’m speaking primarily for myself here because we have a lot of young people here, but certainly in a hundred years. We hope that in a hundred years Moody Church continues clearly and directly and confidently in those great doctrines of the faith that gave it the foundation and the strength that it has had for more than 150 years. May that happen, but may it also be true that we say to ourselves, “We did make an investment for the future. We reached toward tomorrow.”

Now let me close this time with a personal word. You know, of course, that… What does this day mean to me personally? Let me explain. As you know, I am in transition. Undoubtedly I will be transitioning sometime this year to the status of Pastor Emeritus. Next week the search committee is going to update all of us as to where they are at, and I knew a year ago that when I would leave Moody Church there would be some debt. Specifically in the process we raised, or needed (Let me say that.) thirty million dollars, as we’ve said, and we borrowed, however, four million from a bank. It was an interest-bearing loan. We did that because even after the CLC was built, there was an urgency. We needed to retrofit the two buildings. The whole office area had to be rebuilt. The washrooms had to be rebuilt. This facility needed a whole new heating system, and on and on it went, so we borrowed four million dollars.

When you think of the total package, that’s a very reasonable and small percentage, but we were paying it off at a half million dollars a years, and we were at about 2.2 million a year ago. And assuming that we would raise another half million dollars in our Thanksgiving offering, the total would be, you know, give or take around 1.8 million dollars. And as I thought about transitioning from the church, I didn’t like it, but it was a doable debt.

A year ago exactly in January we received word that there was a woman who died out east who willed her estate to Moody Church. Nobody was able to recognize her name. We looked her up in the Media Ministry, and discovered that she gave a couple hundred dollars every once in a while to the Media Ministry. And when Pastor Bob Gunter, who is our Pastor of Families, but is also an attorney, was asked to shepherd that estate and the will through the legal issues, he said that he went into her house and discovered that on her shelf were books from our Media Ministry. That’s all really that we know about her. So you never know. You hear that this happens but you don’t know. There may be challenges and so forth to the estate, but the money arrived in August, and it was $1.8 million. Does anybody see God in all this? (applause)

I mean, after that, our mathematicians sharpened their pencils. (chuckles) I don’t think anybody uses pencils anymore, but they don’t know what’s good for them. They did the math, and they said this. If instead of just 500 thousand dollars, our offering at the end of 2015 is 580 thousand (taking into account ten percent for these missions projects, etc.), we’ll be able to pay off every dime of debt. You folks came through with 580 thousand dollars. Can we hear it for God? (applause)

Remember this. God always gets the glory, but you are to be thanked. Every person who made an investment of time, of resources, or all that, that is given totally to God, and our debt is totally paid.

There’s a verse of Scripture that I want to leave you with that to me is powerful. I just see it written in my mind’s eye. People ask whether or not I have a photographic memory. I must because it’s often working in the dark. I see it there though. Psalm 115:1: “Not unto us, oh Lord, not unto us, but unto thy name be glory, for thy steadfast love and faithfulness.” Let’s all stand and give God glory, shall we? (applause)

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