It continues to be a joy to serve the Lord together with you. In view of the scriptures which we proclaim, the name of this congregation is so fitting: “Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth” (Psalm 50:3). To be clear, that perfection does not belong to us but is solely Christ’s. And that’s the beauty of it, this is Christ’s Church!
The season of fall is always a time of change. Schedules change along with the weather and foliage. For some, these transitions are welcomed (i.e. deer hunters). For many others, fall climate changes give an unwelcome shock to the system.
As a congregation, we too are busy transitioning into fall ministry: Sunday school, Bible studies, confirmation, facility maintenance, community outreach, weddings. The goal of all these activities is change. No, we’re not attempting frivolous changes such as the color of the carpet. Rather, the ministry of the Word is aimed at changing the human heart. Sometimes this is welcome; at other times our hearts can be stubborn and resistant to God’s Word.
A terrific story of gospel transformation is found in the life of John Newton. Those who knew Newton in his youth found him to be a deplorable character. At the age of 11 (following the death of his mother) he became a sailor on merchant and slave-trading ships. Among sailors, he was known as one of the “most vulgar and blasphemous of men.” For eighteen years, he lived in discord with others, rebellion, drunkenness, and debauchery. On one of his ships he even led a mutiny attempt. In his journal Newton confessed, “I made it my study to tempt and seduce others.” He claimed to be a freethinker. When John Newton later penned this hymn, he wrote every word from experience: “Amazing grace/ How sweet the sound/ That saved a wretch like me!/ I once was lost/ But now am found/ Was blind but now I see” (Lutheran Service Book 744:1).
It happened during a severe storm on a 1748 voyage in which Newton’s ship almost sank. During the squall, he was tormented by the words of scripture, “Because I have called and you refused to listen, have stretched out my hand and no one has heeded, because you have ignored all my counsel and would have none of my reproof, I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when terror strikes you, when terror strikes you like a storm and your calamity comes like a whirlwind, when distress and anguish come upon you” (Proverbs 1:24-27). But the Lord did not leave him in that agony, but granted repentance leading toward life. “If you turn at my reproof, behold, I will pour out my spirit to you; I will make my words known to you” (Proverbs 1:23). Transformation!
The transformation of the human heart takes place when we are rescued and found by Jesus. We have all rebelled against God, acted arrogantly toward our fellow humans, and participated in debauchery. We were lost. Yet the Gospel has revealed that Christ Jesus sought us out. He claimed our sin by the cross. He was distressed and anguished for you. He was mocked for you. He died for you. Jesus rose from the dead to give you transformation!
Surviving the storm, God’s Word and Spirit were deeply planted in Newton’s heart. He became an abolitionist, pastor, and talented hymn-writer (penning over 300 original hymn texts). His preaching was particularly inspiring, captivating, and biblical. Many people traveled from across England to hear him. His congregation had to add on to the sanctuary to accommodate the crowds. Transformation!
Here’s some lyrics from another beloved Newton hymn: “Glorious things of you are spoken/ Zion, city of our God;/ He whose word cannot be broken/ Formed you for His own abode/…Savior, since of Zion’s city/ I through grace a member am,/ Let the world deride or pity,/ I will glory in your name./ Fading are the world’s vain pleasures,/ All their boasted pomp and show;/ Solid joys and lasting treasures/ None but Zion’s children know.” (Lutheran Service Book 648:1, 4).
May God grant lasting transformation to all Zion’s children, especially you, this fall.
Yours in the Savior’s Grace,
Pastor Scott Johnson