- The Washington Times - Monday, July 10, 2000

Excerpts from a sermon given yesterday by the Rev. James G. Somerville at First Baptist Church of Washington, D.C.

It's not often that you get a visit from a prophet, but three months ago in North Carolina I did. He was tall, dressed in jeans and T-shirt, and he went to a big Pentecostal church. Why had he come to see me, a Baptist preacher?

"Jim, I have a word from the Lord," he said. "Don't lose your first love."

The words are from Revelation 2:1-5, when the Lord said to the angel of the church in Ephesus, "I have this against you, that you have abandoned your first love." …

For all of us, it is possible for the strange newness of Christianity to become old, for the holy to become common, for the warm fires of first love to grow cold. The prophet who brought me that warning made me think about "first love."

I was 13 years old when it happened. It was Christmas, and my two older brothers, Ed and Scott, were home for the holidays… . I woke up around midnight and heard Scott in our kitchen talking to my mother. He spoke a strange language, a high-pitched voice punctuated every few seconds by a yelp of laughter, a whoop of joy… .

He kept talking about a church where he had received the Holy Spirit. Something strange, powerful and holy had happened to Scott. When I asked if God had a message for me, Scott closed his eyes and spoke with a choked and sad voice. Tears streamed down both cheeks. I was horrified.

It was the pouring out of a broken heart. When it was over, I went to bed without a word, shocked and embarrassed. I lay on my bed wondering what I had done to break God's heart. How could I possibly mend it? …

It was one of those moments when God comes near and we see what we truly are. "Woe is me," Isaiah said, "for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips." …

But what can you do when you've broken God's heart? I started by going with Scott to that church, a concrete-block building with green pew cushions. The minister pounded the pulpit and waved his Bible, and people shouted, "Oh, Jesus," and murmured the same strange language as Scott. For someone who had grown up in the Presbyterian Church this was all new, but I wanted that gift of "speaking in tongues" so badly.

I wanted my mother and brothers to know God's broken heart had been mended. So I knelt and prayed for the gift of tongues, but week after week it never came. I turned to reading Scripture, but instead of mending God's broken heart, I only became more convinced that I had broken it.

"All have sinned," the Bible said. "Repent and be baptized." So in the summer of my 14th year I waded out into the Big Coal River as repentant as I knew how to be… . In spite of all that, the prayer, the reading, the baptism, I still felt as sinful and sorry as ever.

I found myself turning away from a God I couldn't face. "I still believe in God, sure," I said then. "I'm just not sure He believes in me."

Until about 10 years after my baptism. My wife, Christy, had just graduated from college, and we were driving to the beach. She had dozed off, and I began thinking about all my attempts to mend God's broken heart… .

Then it occurred to me that my salvation wasn't up to my mother or brother, or even up to me, ultimately. My salvation was up to Jesus Christ. If what the Bible said about Him was true, then what He really loved to do was save sinners. My heart started beating faster. "Wait a minute," I said.

If I'm a sinner who really needs to be saved, then what's stopping us? And right there, at mile marker 78, I felt the burden of trying to earn my own salvation slip from my shoulders. By God's grace and through God's labor not mine I was born again. Before I started reaching toward God, God had been reaching toward me. The first love, really, was not mine for Him, but His for me.

Next week: a sermon by the Rev. Harold E. Hayes at New Liberation AME Church in Landover, Md.

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