Duluth, GA (September 6, 1998)-Not so many years ago, the area around Duluth, Georgia, was rural with a capital 'R'. In the 1950s, Bethel Presbyterian Church was a country church with seemingly no future.
But one elect lady was adamant that the church should survive. Mary Alice Juhan came from the Presbyterian Church in nearby Lawrenceville, determined that this witness should not die.
Her vision has materialized. The successor congregation, Old Peachtree Presbyterian Church, is thriving amidst booming population growth in what has become suburbs of Atlanta.
Old Peachtree Presbyterian is the result of a merger in 1989 between Bethel and Oakland Road Presbyterian, a mission work in Lawrenceville. Even since that union, the congregation faced hard times; and its future was not assured. An interim pastorate by Bob Sweet helped heal wounds and bring stability. And since the pastorate of Alan Johnson, which began in February 1995, the church has once again prospered. Its 1922 building is no longer adequate for the growing flock; and plans are for a new structure to be added to the seven acre property with room to accommodate 190 worshippers.
The sanctuary is tastefully appointed. The congregation sits on comfortable padded chairs. Hymns of the faith from the new Trinity Hymnal-but no psalms-are sung enthusiastically, accompanied today on a piano by Tom Patete, Executive Director of Great Commission Publications. Tom and his wife, Jane, have made Old Peachtree their home since moving to Georgia almost five years ago.
The sermon today is the fourth and final message in a series on Jonah. The prophecy, says Pastor Johnson, is "a story of God's mercy-to Jonah, to the sailors, and to the city of Ninevah."
"Jonah should have been leaping with joy! . . . Jonah should have been thrilled! Instead, he was as filled with anger as angry can be, . . . [b]ecause Ninevah was still standing." The preacher stated that Jonah was angry for two reasons: because of the Ninevites, who were Assyrians, an arch enemy of Israel; and because of the character of God. "Why, God, can't You be like me?" The prophet, like Jesus' disciples in Luke 9, wanted to blast the enemy: "the John Wayne approach to the gospel."
God began to teach by means of an object lesson: the vine which grew up overnight, and then was eaten by the worm which God had also prepared. "Jonah was sitting there in his misery-hot on the outside and hot on the inside and it wasn't much fun." And then, the Lord sent the hot, dry, oven-like wind. At this point, says the preacher, "God has Jonah right where He wants him," in order to drive home two points: a lesson about mercy instead of anger, and a lesson regarding misplaced priorities.
Mr. Johnson notes that Christians have carried placards which read, "God hates queers." He continued: "Isn't the spirit of Jonah still around? He's given to us a ministry of grace," rather than of wrath.
In terms of misplaced priorities, it was clear that Jonah had more concern for the gourd than for the 120,000 people of that great city of Ninevah: people who, like so many Biblically-illiterate and theologically-ignorant folks of today, did not know their right hand from their left. The preacher pointedly asked: "What makes you more angry-when your carpet gets ruined, or when your neighbor stops going to church? What concerns you more-the stock market dropping, or the people in the Middle East who worship Allah?" A pindrop could have been heard on the carpeted floor.
The wideness of God's mercy, said Mr. Johnson, was more than the wideness of the ocean: the wideness of God's mercy is seen by "the outstretched arms of Christ" and in that God "sent His Son to die for sins."
The sermon concluded: "Should I not be concerned, the Lord said, about that great city? Of course He should-because of His character."
The congregation was dismissed to enjoy its traditional
church dinner on the first Sunday of the month. And as the church
contemplates building a new structure, it also can rejoice in
another milestone. For Mary Alice Juhan, who faithfully attended
the service today, turned 90 just a few days ago.