Christians mark time in a peculiar way. We begin a new year at Advent just as the calendar year comes to an end.  This juxtaposition of the sacred and secular puts us in the odd position, spiritually speaking, of both looking ahead and looking back at the same time.  In Advent, we anticipate the coming of Jesus, and the beginning of God’s determined effort to save all of us by becoming one of us.  Then, if you’re like me, we’ll probably spend at least some time during the final days of December reflecting on the twelve months that have passed: What we did—and didn’t do—with that time, what we gained and what we lost, and how we have changed, hopefully for the better but sometimes for the worse.
      ‘Tis the season, then, for beginning well and finishing strong.  This is true for us as individual believers.  It’s also true for us as a community of believers.  As your pastor, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how Providence Baptist Church can finish 2018 strong—and, at the same time, begin well the new Christian year that starts with Advent.  Both are important.  As the apostle Paul tells us in Philippians 1:6, the God who initiates is the same God who fulfills. 
“I am confident of this,” Paul writes, “that the One who began this good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”  We honor God when the ways we finish what we start—and begin what we’ve been called to do—are worthy of God’s work among us.
      So: Finishing strong.  In 2018, we launched our Providence Will strategic plan and began focusing our attention and resources toward five priorities: Cultivating Generosity, Making Disciples, Engaging Cotswold, Blessing Charlotte, and Sending Apostles.  We welcomed new leaders for our Weekday Education Ministry, Ursula Taylor and Kim Gray, and we are in the process of searching for new leadership for our Adult Discipleship ministry.  We are moving forward.
      The missions and ministry of Providence, though, require our ongoing financial support.  Thus far in 2018, our staff has done a remarkable job doing quality work while consistently—and conscientiously—keeping ministry costs under budget.  Even so, as we approach the end of the year, we find ourselves with a significant deficit to overcome.  This isn’t unusual for us, but it will require us to finish strong.  How will we do it?  The simple answer is that we’ll do it by fulfilling the commitments we’ve already made to support the missions and ministry of Providence in 2018.  If you made a pledge of support for this year, it’s time to follow through with it.  Simply by doing what we’ve already said that we would do, we can turn today’s deficit into a significant head start for 2019.  I am confident we can do this.            The second way I’m asking you to finish 2018 strong is by devoting deliberate, diligent time to prayer between now and December 31, asking for God’s leadership in our Providence Will initiatives and for God’s guidance in our new minister search process.  In both instances, we are quickly coming to the end of our discernment periods.  Soon it will be time to act.  In order to finish these first steps in strong fashion, we need to be intentional about lifting Providence, its ministry, and its future up to the Lord.  To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, our great concern needs to be not that God is with us but, rather, that we are with God.  That is what matters.  And that is why we need to be strong in prayer as 2018 comes to an end.
      As for beginning well, let’s go into the Advent season with our priorities in the right order.  Paul makes this explicit in 1 Corinthians 16:2.  “On the first day of the week,” he writes, “each of you should set aside a portion of your income, as God has prospered you,” for the support of the church and its ministry.  In other words, first things first.  Do what’s right before you do anything else.  If you haven’t yet made a commitment to invest in the missions and ministries of Providence in 2019, start the new year by making that pledge of support.  Just as the Magi brought offerings of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to honor the Christ child, we do the same with the offerings we give that make good work in Jesus’ name possible throughout the year.
      Finally, in the spirit of this gift-giving season, I’d like you to reflect on just what it is that you love about Providence Baptist Church.  What is it that brought you here?  What is it that keeps you here?  Now, think about the people in your life who may need the kinds of gifts that God has given you through Providence.  Who are they?  How can you share with them these gifts that bring you such joy?  The Advent season is an easy time for inviting others to join you here, either for worship or for one of the many other events on our church calendar in December.  Begin well by introducing someone new to Providence.
      Discerning readers will, by this point, have noted that two of the four action items mentioned above involve our financial commitments to Providence—fulfilling the ones we’ve already made, and making new ones for the year to come.  That’s intentional.  The late Cecil Sherman, who served here for a time as interim pastor, once put it like this: “When we are at our best, we use our money for godly ends.  That’s the goal of stewardship.  It funds churches, but that’s almost incidental.  Most important, it grows Christians.”  That’s what I want Providence to be about as we finish strong and begin well: Growing Christians who trust God, give generously, pray hopefully, and share the love of Jesus by inviting others to discover this community of faith that has meant so much to us.  With God’s help, I have no doubt that we can do all this—and more.

      May the peace of Christ be with you!