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Jerry Vines’ final FBC sermon: openness, humor, exhortation

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (BP)–In the first day of a season of lasts, Jerry Vines, pastor of First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Fla., prepared Jan. 29 to step into his Sunday morning pulpit one last time.

Taking a group of media along, he stopped by the control room for First Baptist’s brand-new $3.5 million high definition television operation. Like a proud father, he pointed to the sophisticated monitors and the people who ran them.

“Isn’t this something?” Vines gestured.

Vines, First Baptist’s pastor the past 23 years and a former Southern Baptist Convention president, retires this month after delivering a final sermon Feb. 7 at the national Pastors’ Conference he leads each year in Jacksonville. Thereafter, Vines will continue to minister through Jerry Vines Ministries, to be based in Georgia.

A Bible clutched in his hand, Vines smiled broadly and walked sprightly within the 11-block campus of buildings housing the thousands who are the heartbeat of First Baptist. As one who anticipates a great change in life’s momentum, just minutes earlier he told reporters, “You can take the boy out of Georgia, but you can’t take Georgia out of the boy.”

Allowing reporters an inside look at his Sunday mornings, Vines, escorted by security staff made up of members of the Jacksonville sheriff’s office, led reporters on a trail through what he called the “catacombs” — long carpeted hallways and quiet stairwells — to a media suite. There he met privately with minister of music Rodney Brooks to reflect on the morning’s worship service, while the security personnel munched on donuts in a nearby conference room.

Vines told reporters he spent Saturday preparing his heart for this day.

“I felt sadness and gladness,” Vines said. “It was a very unusual experience, to say the least. I wouldn’t say today is a hard day, but it’s a different day.”

Vines said he knew when he started preaching that God had not called him to be the next Billy Graham but said he has “no regrets” in following his grandfather’s advice to “lift” up Jesus.

“Lift Him up, lift Him up,” Vines repeated his grandfather’s admonition. “I want people to walk away talking about Jesus … not about me.”

Walking to a little room near the back of the platform to don a special microphone and freshen up for the television cameras, Vines passed through a hallway where believers prepare for baptism.

“All the candidates get ready here on Sunday nights,” Vines paused. In 2005, Vines baptized more than 500 at First Baptist. With approximately 28,000 members, First Baptist generally has about 7,000-8,000 in worship on any given Sunday morning.

Thanking church staffer Bill MacLeod for adjusting his microphone, a smiling Vines said he once was asked if he was trying to be like country singer Garth Brooks. “I’m gonna pop you,” Vines said he told the jokester, clenching his fists close up to his face in retelling the humorous moment.

Striding out of a hallway behind the platform to emerge at the front of the church, Vines quickly shook the hands of dozens — including longtime deacons Harold McNeil and Lewis Blevins. He stopped and looked when church member Delenor Simmons showed him the baptismal certificate Vines and the late Homer Lindsay Jr., then the church’s co-pastor, signed in 1998.

With pews full of more than a dozen local leaders, including Florida State Sen. Stephen R. Wise of Jacksonville — Vines was greeted by a packed church when he finally mounted the platform that Sunday, one that was declared “Jerry Vines Day” by Jacksonville Mayor John Peyton.

“We should never underestimate the power of having a pastor like Jerry Vines right across from city hall,” Peyton said in reading aloud a proclamation honoring Vines.

Brooks, stepping up to the podium to lead music, paused after Vines made a joke about the tie Brooks was wearing.

“What can I say,” Brooks ad-libbed back. “What a tie it is!”

Directing a wooden rocking chair to be brought up to the stage for Vines, Brooks told him that was his first personal gift. The second, a large quilt that when unrolled sported a massive multi-colored selection of ties that various First Baptist members had worn to church throughout the years.

An emotional video testimony by Jim and Sherrie Bradley told of Vines’ personal visit to them to explain the plan of salvation to Jim. “Nobody really took the time out [to explain]” before that visit, Bradley said, calling Vines his “spiritual father” as well as the greatest pastor.

Tim Tebow, a member of First Baptist and a leading high school football player recently featured on ESPN after signing with the University of Florida, lauded Vines for having a big influence on his life while growing up.

“He has always shared the Word of God and shared it like it’s coming straight at me,” Tebow said. “There’s a lot of role models, but not a lot of role models with character.”

Saying he knew Vines was probably disappointed because he didn’t sign with Alabama, Tebow said he hoped the retiring pastor would be able to watch him play a game in Gainesville.

“Dr. Vines is a man of God and he knows God loves the Gators,” Tebow joked.

Giving Tebow a thumbs-up after the young man returned to his seat, Vines said he was “tongue-tied” by his words.

“Tim, I hope you win the Heisman Trophy,” Vines smiled.

In his sermon based on Colossians 2, Vines said the condition in the early church mirrored the current cultural teaching about Jesus.

“Jesus, we are told, is not the one and only, but one among many,” Vines said, describing this “supermarket” approach to the truth as inconsistent with biblical teaching.

Citing the Apostle Paul’s teachings, Vines said Jesus is “not just a Savior, He is the Savior; He is not just a truth, He is the Truth; and He is not just a way, but He is the Way. He is the preeminent One and only.”

Speaking of the creation, Vines said “Jesus Christ is the one and only above the creation.” Understanding that concept, he said, means looking closely at two words: “image” and “firstborn.”

On the image of God, Vines said, “[Christ] makes the invisible God visible through creation. Being the firstborn shows the power of Christ prior to all creation.”

On the argument of whether or not Intelligent Design is science, Vines said even evolution, which cannot be observed, cannot then be considered science since “there was no one there except God” at the beginning.

“When this world was created it was done so by the power of Almighty God,” Vines said. “Jesus Christ is, reverently, the Elmer’s Glue that holds the whole universe together.”

With that, the “same God who sustains this universe is the same God who will sustain you,” Vines said.

Jesus Christ is also the “one and only” over the church, Vines said.

The church is not a monarchy for a pastor, an oligarchy for the deacons or a democracy for its members, he said; it is a “Christocracy” of which Jesus is the head.

“It is His church. He governs the church,” Vines continued. “We serve a living Savior. He is the one who guides the church.”

Challenging the church to continue to reach the community by preaching, witnessing and fellowshipping, Vines said it is a strong church that produces young people like Tim Tebow.

“No wonder you are such a terror on the football field, Tim,” Vines said. “You came to a church that’s a holy terror to the devil.”

Vines noted that the Apostle Paul, in the Colossians passage, goes straight from talking about the creation to the cross. Calling it a sign of the times when churches are wary to talk about the blood of Christ being shed on the cross, Vines said the “seeker-friendly” approach may skirt the truth in a culture which seems bent on watching graphic movies such as the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “Silence of the Lambs.”

It is the “precious blood” of the “only one, one and only Jesus” whose blood was shed for the sins of the world, Vines said. “Nothing but the blood of Jesus.”

Watching while families, children, older and younger people responded to his altar call, Vines asked the choir to sing one last verse. Walking from the upstairs balcony, a middle-aged man with a cane made slow progress to the front. As the last note played and Vines looked out on the congregation, the man walked with a volunteer through a curtain beside the platform to register his decision for Christ.

It was the end of the invitation. It was also the end of 23 years of a Sunday morning dynasty.
Joni B. Hannigan is managing editor of the Florida Baptist Witness, newsjournal of the Florida Baptist Convention, on the Web at www.floridabaptistwitness.com.

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