Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, our strength and our redeemer. Amen

On December 15, 2019, almost a year ago, I stepped back into this pulpit after a 2-month recovery time from a back operation and pneumonia. I looked back at my calendar in preparation for my report to you at this year’s Annual Congregational Meeting. I began the sermon that morning with these three sentences: “It is certainly a pleasure to be back in a place where I feel I belong. Every day is an improvement over the last. Maybe there’s a sermon in that for another time.” And maybe this is the time.

During the past six and a half years I have had the honor and pleasure of being your servant and pastor. I am certainly not a theologian, nor a Biblical scholar, but my goal is to be the best pastor I can to all of the members of this congregation.

In the readings today the word that kept popping out at me was wilderness. From Isaiah 40, “A voice cries out. ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord’”. And then from Mark, “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness”.
So, what is this about wilderness? We know what the wilderness is in Palestine and the surrounding areas. Basically, it’s our vision of desert. In fact, some versions translate wilderness as desert. There was and still is hardly any plant life and very little water in these regions.

But this not the only reference to wilderness we have in the Bible. Remember the Israelites were in the wilderness for 40 years before they entered the promised land. Jesus, immediately after being baptized spent 40 days in the wilderness. Many of the prophets would escape into the wilderness and then came back to deliver the message God gave them.

It seems the wilderness is a place of nothingness, it’s empty; and what’s there is in chaos—winds, heat, and cold. But it is a place one could go to contemplate, to study the words God had given the prophets.
During the months of January and February of this year, there was an energy in this congregation that I have rarely experienced. Our attendance was growing; we had a “Children’s Church”; we were reaching out to the people of the Shady Grove and beyond; we were worshipping God with excitement and we were doing what He has called us to do. You and I could feel the Holy Spirit moving in us.

Then it happened. We stopped having services in this sanctuary after March 15. We had been hit with a pandemic—something called a coronavirus, later to be known as COVID19. Most of us were stunned like being hit beside the head with a 2X4. And as did many congregations, we escaped into the wilderness. We stayed in our homes with little physical contact with other people. Nobody knew what to do. For two or three Sundays I did a service from my study, put it on YouTube, and distributed it on Facebook. And I learned how I hated being in front of a camera without seeing faces. After that we did a service in the parking lot with most people in their cars and a few in their lounge chairs. After a couple of rather warm Sundays we moved under the trees out front of the sanctuary and conducted the service from the “front porch”. I thank Dupre Percival for the use of his equipment (sound system and keyboard) and Don Alcorn for faithfully setting all that up each and every Sunday. With the exception of one cool, damp Sunday in September, we met outside under the trees, with the sun and breeze, and yes, the birds. The services were great! All that time, the service was recorded and broadcast through Facebook Live to those who felt uncomfortable coming into a group situation. And that’s fine. It’s my goal to continue this practice for the foreseeable future. We just need to get a better camera, one that can “see” the entire chancel area.
You are to be commended for your faithfulness in attendance both outside, here in the sanctuary, and through the internet. Your faithful contributions are amazing! Even under this pandemic you have shared your abundance with St. John’s and ministries beyond.

During the year, I have participated in the project at Kinard Manor, a recovery house for women who have made bad decisions in the use of alcohol and/or drugs. This project (at least my involvement) is drawing to a close. On December 11, beds will be put together with mattresses and will be “made up” with sheets and spreads ready for the first residents.

I hope and pray that the vaccine being distributed now is the answer in getting back to what you and I call normal. It would be great if we could get this sanctuary filled again. I and we have learned a lot during this past year. We’ve faced things that none of us have ever dreamed about. And we wait as God patiently waits on us to repent; and we wait patiently knowing that God will answer our prayers in due time. I pray constantly that we can pick up where we left off in the middle of March. I believe the Holy Spirit is still in us and that the Spirit will burst forth out of the desert as we will burst forth out of these walls and wherever we might be at this time. I pray we come out of the desert with a new energy and a willingness to serve and grow. And I know we will because God loves you and so do I!

Amen and amen.