4 Sermons That Changed My Life

Cedric Moss, Francis Chan, Bryn MacPhail

The past two days I have had the privilege of playing “host” to Francis Chan for a 2-day conference in Nassau, Bahamas. I had great expectations for Francis in relation to this event and, by God’s grace, he massively exceeded them.

I had difficulty falling asleep last night after hearing his message earlier in the evening. I was then wide awake at 5 am (borderline miracle), again thinking about Francis’ sermon and subsequently about the myriad of great sermons I have heard over the course of my life.

I have had the pleasure of hearing hundreds of great sermons, and am thankful for how God has used a variety of individuals over the years to influence my thinking and my living in profound ways. Last night’s message got me thinking about those rare messages that get etched in your soul and forever transform the way you live. Four such messages stand out in my mind. Conspicuously absent is a reference to the sermon which led me to receive Christ in the first place. That message didn’t come from a pulpit, or even from within a church, but at a Christian camp (Muskoka Woods) nearly 30 years ago, a few godly young men shared the Gospel with me and my life has never been the same. The 4 messages noted below have also changed my life in some very serious ways.

4. The Surpassing Value Of Christ
by John MacArthur at Muskoka Baptist Conference (early 1990s)

Preaching from Philippians 3, MacArthur had me diagnose the condition of my relationship with Christ in a way I had never done before. Until this message, I was content in delighting in my conversion—content in delighting that my status was “in Christ”. What I had not thought about yet was the destination of my faith. I had not thought about aiming my faith in any particular way. I was arrested by the apostle Paul’s example: “One thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:13, 14). MacArthur’s summary of that pursuit: “Christ-likeness”. Everything else, every other pursuit, is “rubbish” (“dung”) by comparison. (Phil. 3:8).

3. Be Amazed At Answered Prayer
by Francis Chan at a Desiring God Conference (2011)

I don’t often listen to sermons while sitting at my desk in my home office, but God had arranged in His sovereignty that I hear this particular message by Francis Chan. This message can still be heard online and though the message is somewhat long (an hour), I commend it to anyone looking for more intimacy with God through prayer. The section of the sermon that took a particular hold on me begins at the 34:00 mark, where Chan deals with the subject of unanswered prayer and unpacks Isaiah 58. What I can highlight from that text is the idea that God doesn’t listen to our prayers if we are doing particular things that are evil—or if we are failing to do certain things which are of great necessity.

In Isaiah 58, the concern is with the care and treatment of the poor and most vulnerable. The congregation I serve in Nassau, Bahamas, borders an impoverished community with one of the highest crime rates in the country. It was as though God was using Chan’s message that day to tell me that the trajectory of my ministry had to change (see the post from Sept. 20, 2011). It’s as though God was telling me, “You’re missing the mission I have for you. Here it is. Go to it. I will be with you and this and you will experience My favor.”

2. Stop Serving Jesus (As Though He Needed You)
by John Piper at Moody Pastors Conference (late 1990s)

I was in my mid-20s and already an ordained minister when I heard this message. I had committed my life to “serving Jesus”. Christ had done so much for me, and now it was time for me to do some serious things for Him—so I thought. Skillfully connecting 3 New Testament Scriptures, Piper totally changed my perspective on how I was to function as a pastor. The first thing I needed to hear was that God doesn’t need me. That’s what the apostle Paul told a gathering in Athens, “(God) is not served by human hands, as if He needed anything, because He Himself gives all men life and breath and all things” (Acts 17:25). That text momentarily paralyzed me. Now what?

Then came the 2nd text, from Mark 10:45, where Jesus announces to His disciples, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.” Piper’s translation: Let Jesus serve you. Not just when He saves you. Let Jesus serve you every day of your life.

Those 2 texts nicely set up the 3rd from 1Peter 4:11: “Whoever serves, should do it with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ.” Piper’s translation: Whoever does the work gets the credit/glory. Let Christ power your ministry so that Christ gets all the glory.

One of my elders at the time, told me many years later, that my approach to ministry and my preaching dramatically changed when I got home from that conference. The supremacy of Christ in all things became the aim of every initiative and every ministry step.

1. Your “Happily Ever After”
by Francis Chan at the Revive Bahamas Conference on April 5, 2014

I’m still digesting, and processing, this sermon—just 12 hours after Francis delivered it, not far from my home in Nassau, Bahamas. Since St. Andrew’s Kirk was one of the two congregations that organized this event, I had an opportunity to have close proximity to Francis Chan during his 2-day stay in Nassau. The crazy thing about what I will call “The best sermon I have ever heard” is that Francis wasn’t sure what he was going to speak on when he arrived in Nassau. He wasn’t even sure what he was going to speak on an hour before we started. He wasn’t even sure what he was going to say as he stepped forward to the podium!

I hope to eventually post the message online, but I can summarize the message using the gambling metaphor employed by Francis Chan: “I’m betting on God…And I’m all in.”

Francis showed us the various ways in which we try to establish heaven on earth, or a “happily ever after”, by investing too heavily in temporal things—i.e. having a certain kind of home, a certain kind of family life, a certain amount of wealth.

Because we are uncertain about what heaven will be like, and about how good it will be, we hold back in our investment into things of eternal significance.

As I examined myself, listening to Francis from just a few feet away, I was deeply convicted.

I’ve been hedging my bets.

I, too, am betting on God, but I haven’t pushed “all in”—not even close.

I’m trying to have the best of both worlds. But contrary to what some might say in our day, we’re not supposed to have “(Our) Best Life Now”. Our best life might come “Soon and Very Soon”, but our best life is not our earthly life. Our soul won’t be satisfied until we see Christ face to face in glory.

Intellectually, I’ve believed this for a very long time. Last night, Chan preached in such a way that my will and my desires were deeply affected. I want to push “all in”. I want St. Andrew’s Kirk to push “all in”.

We’ll need to learn how to wait for that glorious celebration. We’ll need to wait to celebrate because, right now, there is work to be done; there is a race set before us. And I’m not prepared to stop running until the very end—when I hear my Master say, “Well done.”

10 Things I Want To Say To My Former Congregations

1. It was very hard to leave you

I get attached to people very quickly, and so the prospect of leaving a congregation of people I love was not something I could easily do. I remember my final service (joint service) at St. Andrew’s (Beeton) on May 26, 2002 as if it were yesterday. I remember blessing each child personally. I remember Fiona Allan’s solo, “Give Me Jesus”. I remember how the tears flowed freely. The same kind of emotion accompanied our departure from St. Giles Kingsway, but in this instance it felt as though our grief and tears began many months before the actual transition. In both cases, we left behind many individuals who were like family to us.

2. Don’t be afraid to fail

When I began as a pastor, at age 25, I was fiercely afraid of failure. I’ve since learned that the greatest ministry risks are often accompanied by the greatest ministry rewards. I’ve seen things that shouldn’t work succeed–because God was in them. We have been conditioned to plan and evaluate using worldly measurements, but often God’s math is different. And, even when an initiative does fail, I have always learned valuable lessons in the process, which made the attempt worthwhile.

3. I’m sorry

I’m reluctant to count all of the mistakes I’ve made in ministry, but one regret in particular stands out among the rest. Those who know me recognize that I hold my convictions firmly. My regret is that I think the manner in which I held, and articulated, some of those convictions offended, and even alienated, some of the church members I was charged with shepherding. I owed them more grace than I demonstrated. For that I am sincerely sorry.

4. Don’t sweat the small stuff

For whatever reason, congregational leadership has a natural drift toward things of secondary importance. “How many pies do we need for the bake sale?”, “What colour do we paint the nursery?”, “Who moved the piano?” are just a few of the common examples that jump out from my experience. The most unusual example of this emerged from a meeting with the president of the congregation’s women’s group, who called to say that we needed to talk about a “huge problem”. Turns out, the “huge problem” was that one of our adherents was drinking too much milk(!) on Sunday morning, which was threatening the congregation’s weekly milk supply. Most of the time the small stuff can be easily resolved without taxing the mission of the church, or the energy of other church members. Don’t major in the minors.

5. Cling to Jesus

If someone were to ask me the key to fruitful ministry, my immediate reply would be, “Cling to Jesus”. Jesus said as much, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in Me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from Me you can do nothing” (Jn. 15:5). My experience has confirmed this. My proximity to Jesus, and my dependence on Him, is the most important variable for how effectively I lead others as a pastor. Clinging to Jesus isn’t just for pastors, it is vitally necessary for every follower of Christ.

6. Plan ministry for those you haven’t yet reached

My earliest example of this was when I was given a tour of St. Andrew’s, Beeton. I had asked to see the nursery and was led to a room with no toys or books. Instead, the room was full of cabinets and boxes—basically “junk” that no one was quite sure what to do with. I asked why the room was in this condition and the answer I was given was, “We don’t have any babies here.” My reply was, “And we’ll never have any so long as the room remains in this condition.” I give the leaders of St. Andrew’s, Beeton, full marks—they not only cleaned out the room, but went on to renovate and create a larger space for children who had not yet come to us. In business, you sometimes hear people say, “Dress for the job you want, not for the job you have.” Similarly, I think congregations should “dress” for the role they want to play, not simply for the role they are already playing.

7. Forgive one another

An unwillingness to forgive another church member can be one of the most damaging things to the health of a local congregation. I have seen this too often. A congregation can be doing many things well–the preaching might be good, the music might be excellent, the Sunday School may be effectively ministering, but if members are at odds with one another it can undo the good being done elsewhere. Jesus never said, “They’ll know you are my disciples if you gather to hear an effective preacher.” He never said, “They’ll know you are my disciples by your music program, and by your children’s program.” No–Jesus said, “all men will know that you are My disciples, if you love one another” (Jn. 13:35). It is massively important, if someone in the church has offended you, or performed under your expectations, that you forgive them.

8. Resist the status quo

I don’t know what it is that causes congregations to want to keep doing things the same way, forever and ever, amen. In a world, where change is constant and sometimes rapid, there are a plethora of local congregations doing ministry exactly the same way as they did 20, 30, 50 years ago. This is a huge mistake. It has been said that the final words of a dying church are, “We’ve never done it that way before.” I’m not talking about changing the message/the gospel, but I am referring to the delivery of your ministry strategy. Try new things–as Paul put it, “become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some” (1Cor. 9:22).

9. Be generous toward those outside the church

During my first year in Nassau, the focus of the leadership was to improve what we were doing inside our walls. Our growth during that year was marginal. In year 2 and 3, we changed our focus and intentionally invested time, energy, and resources in those outside of our fellowship. Primarily, we invested in the local orphanage for teens, Ranfurly Homes, and in the neighboring community to the south of us, Bain & Grant’s Town. (I’ve written about one of the effects from that investment here.) Our congregation is currently growing far beyond our expectations. It is a counterintuitive, God-thing, that the more we invested outside the church, the more we grew inside the church.

10. I loved you more than you likely realize

I’m not an overly emotional person–at least not in public–and I’m not very adept at conveying to others how I feel about them. For this reason it is important that I take the opportunity within this post to tell you that “I love you”. More than you’ll likely ever realize. It was common for me to go through the church photo directory and to pray for each family, photo by photo. I resonate with Paul’s words to the Philippians, “God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:8). Being your pastor was never a job for me–it was my passion and my great delight. Thank you for the privilege of calling me, for a season, to be your pastor.

A Time To Be Silent

If you have visited this blog in the last year, you would have immediately noticed that I haven’t been posting anything new. My posts went from less frequent in 2011, to intermittent in 2012, to scarce in 2013. In light of the myriad of posts I made between 2008 and 2010, I wrestled with what was behind my reduced passion for posting. Do I make a connection between my diligence in posting and my final years as Pastor of St. Giles Kingsway? And given the immense satisfaction I’ve had with ministry in Nassau, why so few posts? I don’t have a comprehensive answer for the change in my posting patterns. The best answer I can give comes from a single verse from the Book of Ecclesiastes, “There is a time for everything…a time to be silent and a time to speak” (Ecc. 3:7).

For a Pastor who enjoys speaking and writing, I’ve sensed a call in recent years to listen more than I speak, and to read more than I write. Perhaps this is for a season, or perhaps it is a part of God’s transformative plan for me. Time will tell.

Recently, I have felt my passion for writing return, and I’m glad about that. For example, in my sermon prep, instead of labouring to add to my “word count” to make my sermon long enough, I’ve been having to spend considerable time reducing my word count so as to not unduly lengthen Sunday worship! I’ve also had something on my heart, which I want to transmit in a post–a message to my former congregations. From Jan. 1998 to June 2002, I was the Pastor of a 2-point charge, St. Andrew’s PC in Beeton, ON and Fraser PC in Tottenham, ON. From June 2002 to June 2010 I was the Pastor of St. Giles Kingsway PC in Toronto, ON. I think about those ministries often. Later today I intend to write a post entitled, “10 Things I Want To Say To My Former Congregations”. After a season of blog silence, I feel as though it might be time to speak again.

800 Days In Paradise

My linkedin profile informed me this morning that it has been 103 days since I last posted on this blog. Undoubtedly, this is the longest gap between posts since launching my blog in January 2008. I don’t know how to account for this silence, and I can’t even say for certain that it won’t be another 103 days before I post again. What I can say is that after a little more than 2 years of pastoring at St. Andrew’s Kirk in The Bahamas, I have never been out “in the field” more than I have been here.

I don’t know if the Lord is turning me into a missionary or simply making me the kind of pastor I should have been all along. The best theological explanation I can offer is the one I gave during an interview with Wendell Jones on his television show. Having been prompted by The Great Commission throughout my ministry, I find myself newly challenged by the first imperative, which is the word “Go” (Matthew 28:19).

In the past, I have pastored as though I were in a fortress—focussing mainly on those who were already on the inside. Today, I find myself keenly interested in reaching those who have yet to confess Christ, and those who have yet to connect themselves with a local church community. I often find myself in the neighborhood just south of the Kirk, Bain & Grant’s Town. I find myself making weekly visits to the local orphanage, Ranfurly Homes For Children. I have even found it fruitful for me to be a part of the Nassau Street Hockey League.

The counterintuitive aspect of this new focus is that the more we focus on those outside of the Kirk, the more we seem to be growing inside the Kirk. We remain a modest sized congregation to be sure, but I marvel on how progress on the inside can be the consequence of giving careful attention to those on the outside.

I am so proud of the Kirk’s leaders who have not only supported this ministry trajectory, but have encouraged it. This emphasis in reaching the community would not have been nearly as effective if it were only me “going” out. The number of Kirk members engaging our community is increasing and, by every appearance, it is making a profound difference in the lives of, both, those serving and those being served.

I think what I am trying to say is this: After more than 800 days as pastor of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Kirk, I couldn’t be happier.

Many predicted that my “honeymoon” stage with this congregation would eventually come to an end—and it still may. But I’m confident that this honeymoon will transition into a relationship marked by even deeper love and concern.

I’m often asked—by those within the Kirk, and those outside the Kirk—how long do I plan on staying? Ultimately, that is up to the Lord, but my intention is to stay in Nassau a very long time.

There is much work to be done, and we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of all that God calls us to do. But I think it is important for me to remind the people I serve that I regard it to be a massive privilege, and a source of great joy, to be their pastor and friend.

See you in 103 days (or less).

Tebow, Prayer, & Bahamian Street Hockey

2012 Stanley Conch ChampionsThis might be the strangest title I have ever used for a blog post, so I should probably connect the dots for my readers.

After moving to The Bahamas in June 2010, I joined the Nassau Street Hockey league—playing for the Potter’s Cay Pirates in my first year and then playing for the (Stanley Conch Champion) Nassau Hurricanes in year two.

Aside from the fun I have playing hockey with a great bunch of guys, it has been amusing to observe how my teammates and opponents have engaged me. I’m pretty sure that a few of these guys aren’t used to having a pastor around, and I’m likely the first “preacher” to play regularly in the NSHL.

Some of the players have admitted to testing me with behind-the-play “bumps”, elbows, and theologically rich chirping. One of the comments I’ve heard a couple of times has followed my making a save, “Rev., let’s see you Tebow!” (In the event you don’t know what “Tebowing” is you will need to read this article.)

For many of these guys, the frame of reference for a devout Christian playing sports is Tim Tebow. I am a huge Tebow fan, but I’ve always resisted the invitation to “Tebow” after a big save. Which leads me to the reason for this post. How does a devout Christian engage God prior to, and during, a competitive match?

My instinct is to pray. I pray a lot before the game, and I pray a lot during the game. To my teammates and opponents it probably just looks like I’m intensely focussed. I don’t bow my head. I don’t close my eyes. I don’t “Tebow”. But I pray.

Tim Tebow

What do I pray for?

I pray for a bunch of things, but one thing I don’t pray for is a win. I wonder if my inspiration for not praying for a win will surprise you…It’s Tim Tebow. I’ve enjoyed reading Tebow’s autobiography, “Through My Eyes”, and hugely resonated with this comment in particular:

“I’m not sure God is into who wins or loses—He probably is more concerned with what you do in the process and what you will do with either result.”

I’m acutely aware that my attitude and actions on the rink can positively or negatively impact another person’s view of Christ and Christianity. Hockey is a rough sport and there is a fine line between playing tough and still keeping it clean. Accordingly, my most frequent prayer is for my attitude towards others. I’ve been speared, butt-ended, and even thrown into the net—it’s not fun, and it tests your self-control. That’s part of the reason I need to pray.

As a goalie, I also pray that I don’t let in any weak goals. That probably sounds very close to praying for a win, but I can honestly say that I don’t mind losing. What I mind is being the cause of our losing. I let in some bad goals this year, but thankfully that wasn’t the case in the Stanley Conch Finals.

I didn’t sign up to play goalie. Although I played goalie in ice hockey for 30 years, I didn’t like the idea of putting on all that gear in this tropical Bahamian heat. But when our regular goalie quit, I was pressed into action without even having all of the necessary equipment. Accordingly, I did pray for a measure of safety as one of the pieces of equipment I was missing was a cup. If Chris Wheaton had hit me with a shot there, I might never have walked quite right again.

So yes, pray before you play and, as you have opportunity, pray while you play. I don’t want to be overly demonstrative with that. I don’t want to draw attention to myself when I’m praying. But I do need to pray. I do so remembering the apostle Paul’s instruction, “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1Thess. 5:16-18).

I thank God for the opportunity to play street hockey in The Bahamas, and I am grateful to do so with a great bunch of guys–even when they slash me.