Candle-wishes on birthday cakes are fun and meaningful, like childhood songs, “Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight. I wish I may, I wish I might, have this wish I wish tonight.” We whisper and hum what we hope for. But, once we blow out candles, what do we hope in? Pandemic times like these demand anchors for our aspirations. Our wish needs a way. According to Psalm 91, the anchor, the way, is God.
Pandemic Takes Place in the Presence of God
The songwriter begins by putting the pandemic back where it belongs, beneath God’s presence. “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. (vs. 1)”
Resilient hope begins here. News of pandemic wants to make you feel like nothing else exists. Pandemic acts like a god taking center stage. It is like the noon-day sun heating the sky to wither us (vs. 6). But the pandemic isn’t the only character in our story. In fact, God is so near, that God is like one standing next to you in the sun. His shadow shades you.
Some tell us that we must separate public knowledge from private faith. Science, public health and faith don’t belong together. But this follower of God disagrees. It is time to re-connect our earthly experience with our faith in God. After all, the ancient pandemic spoken of in Psalm 91, took place under the same sun and moon that you see every day and night, on land that you could visit right now in the real world if not for expense, social distancing, and quarantine. The story we tell is this:
Pandemic is on the move, yes. But so is God!
We look pandemic in the face and take our stand. “I will say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust” (vs. 2)
Overcome Your Anxiety by Noticing Your Dwelling Places
But maybe you struggle to take hold of this shade. It would make sense if you did. Maybe anxiety agitates and fidgets you. You can’t feel the shade. God and your world are fragmented.
Anxieties have crawled over my life for years. When anxious I search for dwelling places. Certain dwelling places only inflame my worries. Like a two-day-old mosquito bite. Scratch it once and the itch reignites. Sometimes we are tossed about by everything we dread but cannot find anchor, partly because of where we are choosing to dwell. “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High” says the Psalmist (vs. 1). “Because you have made the Lord your dwelling place,” says the Lord (vs. 9). Sure, you might say, but how can you hold an anchor when your hands shake and your grip fails you? I’m trying to say, “exactly!” That’s the whole grace of it.
You don’t steady an anchor. An anchor steadies you.
So, pause today. Notice your dwelling places. Ask yourself this question: “Do the dwelling places I choose anxious me or anchor me?” Perhaps you’ve made the news your dwelling place. Perhaps you are scrolling, scrolling, scrolling to find dwelling places that in the end aren’t steadying you at all. What would it be like for you to let this Psalmist invite you to a different dwelling place? What would it be like for God and His promises to be your dwelling place today?
Overcome the Distance Between You and God by Considering the Metaphors
But, maybe thoughts of God only increase your anxiety. I get it. As we’ll talk about in our next post, even this Psalm gets misused to hurt people. God’talk doesn’t feel anchoring for you because of wounds. Or feeling agnostic about God you say you can’t know whether the God this Psalmist describes is real. Perhaps your apathy says, “It wouldn’t matter if we could know.”
Maybe any idea of God makes you anxious, hesitant or skeptical, especially from a God-talker like me.
But, if you were willing, what metaphor would you use to describe God? Anxious and pained, maybe you’d say, “God is tantrum-prone, a perfectionist jerk.” Agnostic, maybe you’d say, “God is like a fog.” Or, “God is a black void.” Or, “God is an introvert. He doesn’t like social interaction.” Apathetic, perhaps you’d say something like, “God is like the appendix in our bodies. We have no idea what use it is.” Or “God is a tree ornament. Fine to look at but makes no practical difference.” Read Psalm 91. Consider who the songwriter knows God to be. God is:
- A Bird Carrying You Beneath His Wings
- A Shield
- A Buckler
- A Dwelling Place
- A Commander
- A Guardian
- Name Knower
- With you in Times of Trouble
What if you chose one or two of these metaphors and grew curious about them? If it was your day to blow out the candles, which descriptors of God would you wish for? Which descriptors feel like the kind of place you’d like to dwell and hope in? How might your life change if these descriptors of God were true?
For more, see How to Handle a Pandemic, Part 1 OR Watch/listen to my sermon entitled, “How to Handle our Fear in a Pandemic”
It is hard for us preachers to let pits be pits, walls be walls and stones be stones.
Equivocating and Allegorizing
When Joseph is thrown into a pit we ask our hearers to think about where the “pits” are in their lives. When Joshua marches and the Jericho walls crumble we ask our congregations, “What are the walls in your lives?” When David picks up five smooth stones we ask our listeners to imagine what each stone surely stands for–faith or hope, perseverance or humility or love. “What are the stones we need to slay our Goliaths?” we ask.
Inevitably, when we ask these questions we cause our hearers to assume that the pits, walls and stones in the Bible each symbolize things like relational stress, financial worry or pornography. Just as God delivered Joseph from the pit He will deliver us from our relational stress. Just as God delivered Joshua from the walls God will relieve our financial worries. Just as God knocked the Giant down God will slay your pornography addiction with the stones of accountability, self-control and love. While it is true that in Jesus God will deliver us from such things as our varied stresses, worries and addictions, may I suggest that sometimes a pit stands for nothing more than what it is–dirt made good by God but misused by human beings to harm their neighbors. The walls did not act as a sign to Joshua that his sexual temptations could be kept at bay. The walls were part of an actual fortress with soldiers, blood and death set loose. The rocks David slung in his sling did not represent anything other than what they were.
Why does it matter that we let a pit be a pit?
1. When the biblical text doesn’t provide a symbolism for us this means that we are providing it from our own imaginations. God will still bless our sermons to the degree that we preach what is true; the text can still provide illustrative imagery for us and poets still have metaphor and simile with which to play for our reflection. But we run the twin risks of not dealing with what is actually there and creating something that isn’t there.
2. When we do not announce what we are doing as an exception to the norm or as a poetic descriptor, then we unwittingly apprentice our hearers to assume that allegory or equivocation is the normative way we are meant to read the Bible. Again, while the Lord has graciously blessed His people in history at times and seasons even though they used this method of reading, we also have to admit that teachings found to contradict the Scriptures have flourished when we dictate what is in the text by our own moods or illustrative assumptions rather than from the resources provided by the texts themselves.
3. Our other than Christian hearers in the West who are genuinely inquiring after God will increasingly attribute a disingenuine and/or naive posture to us regarding what is there in the biblical text. It will seem as if we are avoiding things in the Bible we’d rather not deal with (unjust slavery and the use of pits or war in God’s name) rather than helpfully explaining what is there.
4. Both Christians and other than Christians will experience us as promoting the application of the Bible that becomes dualistic–so focused on soul issues that we ignore the physical realities revealed by the Bible for our trust in God.
Why are we prone to equivocate or allegorize in these ways?
Maybe we’ve never studied or thought about this kind of discussion. Or, let’s face it, the pastoral week can require so much of us that the idea of trying to apply what it means that Joseph was in a pit to our lives today seems much harder on Friday afternoon than simply turning to stress, worry, addiction and soul-idols. At least we know that those “will preach” and we are certain to have something to say that will impact our hearers. Others of us assume that we cannot apply something from the text if our hearers have no experience with it. We fear being irrelevant. But I suggest that limiting what we say to only those things which our listeners have presently experienced will leave them woefully unprepared to handle all that goes on under the sun and all that we need the grace and wisdom of God for in Jesus. It will also make us terribly naive about the plight of other neighbors whose experiences in the world do not match our own.
What then do we do?
Pick a different passage! Or go forward thankful that God blesses our speaking true things even when done with wrong texts. Or, we can learn from Him in the context of our community to apply the pit, the wall and the sling shot rocks (along with other things like Arks, lion’s dens, hair colors and rivers) We certainly must resist going on a rampage criticizing every fellow preacher who uses such allegories or illustrations. Remember, God still blesses the truth we preach and our fellow preachers look to Him as we ourselves do. So, we needn’t concern ourselves with policing others. We start first with His grace and our own preaching.
To let the pit be a pit, then, we wrestle with what it means that human beings can use good created things like the ground we walk on to harm their neighbors. What did it mean for Joseph to experience God’s presence and love when dirt formed his four walls and no one held accountable those who did this to him?
To let the wall be a wall we have to address war done in the name of God where men, women and children die and the fortresses of some nations crumble while others rise.
To let the stones be rocks we have to address the physicality of justice and the death of our enemies in battle.
In our current generation, what could be more relevant? God has provided all that we need to address the questions of our times if we can learn to let it say what it says without symbolizing it away. We need each others help in Jesus to wrestle with such texts for a Christ-centered and grace empowered wisdom for our times.
He hollered and red-faced rebuked us! His text was, “do not be anxious about anything . . .” (Phil. 4:6) He scolded us for our anxieties and corrected us for our lack of trust in God. Then he read the next bit of the text. “but in everything by prayer . . .” (Phil. 4:7) Thunder rose in his eyes as he began to decry the absence of prayer in our lives and in our generation. Our sinful prayerlessness became his rant and the sermon raged on.
Notice the Tone of the Text
Strengthening this sermon begins with attention to the audience and tone of the text. To begin, the book of Philippians doesn’t rage at us. Its theme is joy! And, remember Paul’s tone. He says things like, “I thank my God for all my remembrance of you.” (1:3) “how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus,” (1:8) “my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown . . .” (4:1) Right before he speaks of our anxieties and our prayers he says, “Rejoice in the lord . . . let your reasonableness be known to everyone.” (4:4-5) Our point is this: When Paul told us about our anxieties and our prayers, he did so, not with red-faced rebuke, but with kind and pastoral affection and instruction to earnest, beloved and relationally struggling followers of Jesus.
Notice the Audience Receiving the Tone
In contrast, the Apostle urges these beloved followers of Jesus to “look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers.” (Phil. 3:2) Here, Paul calls people names. Notice however who he does not have in mind. First, Paul does not have in mind the earnest followers of Jesus that he writes to. This should give us a clue that we are misguided then if we use his letter to preach a sermon from it that takes a name-calling tone to the earnest followers who listen. Second, Paul does not refer to those who do not believe in Jesus. Therefore it is a mistake to preach a sermon from this text that takes a harsh or mocking tone toward listeners who are not Christians. Third, therefore, we remember that Paul called “dogs,” those who were inappropriately conservative and religious. These were “the circumcision;” pew-sitters and committee members that legalistically required adherence to aspects of Old Testament ceremonial law for a person to be saved in Jesus.
Play Match Game
When my kids were young we played “match game.” The game is played with cards that are laid face down. The goal is to turn up two cards that have the same number. Similarly, our sermon application is strengthened when we too match the tone of the text to the audience in the text who is receiving the tone. Otherwise, two problems occur. Either we preach with a tone the author of Scripture did not use when writing or preaching the very same text. Or we mismatch a tone to an audience member in a way that the Scripture doesn’t. In other words our voice has little resonance with the manner or intended audience given to us in the text. We don’t sound much like what God meant for us to sound when seeking to hear Him in this particular text. What tools can we use to help us more closely match tone and intended audience when applying our sermon?
Categories of Hearers
First, lets remember some wisdom from preachers who have preceded us. Some of these preachers, such as William Perkins or J.I. Packer identified something they called, “Categories of Hearers” for our sermons. I’ve co-opted their insights into the following language. Whenever we preach notice that in the text and among our listeners there are basically two categories of hearers; those who are hard hearted and closed toward what you are saying and those who are soft-hearted and teachable to what you are saying. Hard-hearted followers and non-followers of Jesus are resistant, unteachable, stubborn and sometimes defiant. Soft-hearted followers and non-followers of Jesus are interested, teachable, active in conscience. To play match game, notice the tone Paul takes in Philippians 3:2 with hard hearted religious folks. In contrast, notice the tone Paul takes in Philippians 4:6-7 with soft-hearted believers (even those who are struggling relationally with each other in 4:2, “I entreat . . .”)
Use the tool: “For Some of You”
Elsewhere Paul has given us a clear text to aid us in our match game of tone and audience for sermon application. “We urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all.” (1 Thess. 5:14) We do not want to admonish the fainthearted or the weak. We do not want to encourage the idle. And whether we are rebuking or encouraging our tone and presence must carry the quality of the Spirit’s fruit of patience. So how do we do this in a congregation with varying soft and hard hearted listeners? One tool is the phrase, “For some of you.” When applying “prayer” for example to the soft-hearted we begin with something like, “Now for some of you, you are cut to the heart already,” or “this is brand new to you and you are saying to yourself, ‘wow I never knew this before.'” Then we turn to those who might be resistant and we begin with something like, “Now for others of you, you are hearing this and you are saying to yourself, “I don’t need this!” “This isn’t important or This is a waste of my time.” Then, we encourage and help with patience those who are faint and weak. “Take heart” we say. “In Jesus there is hope for you.” Then we admonish with patience those who are resisting. “Watch out,” we say. “Be careful” we warn.
Notice the Imaginary Audience in Your Head
In the first year of my first pastorate I was preaching angry. A dear woman, an older saint in the Lord, came to see me. She entreated me with love to consider the anger and the tone. “It took me thirty years to believe that Jesus loved me,” she said. “Pastor, I just can’t let you take that away from me.” I began to realize that I did not have her earnest heart and faithful life in mind when I was preaching. I spoke to her in a way that God wouldn’t. I was thinking only of those who were making trouble in our little church. She heard me addressing her as if she were them. God has provided the tone of the biblical text and the audience as a resource to help us align the audience in our heads with the actual audience in the text and among our listeners. He is faithful to provide grace upon grace!
I forget how local the Bible is. But when I read that Jeremiah was the son of Hilkiah who was one of the priests of Anathoth, (Jer. 1:1) or when I hear the poet express his romantic love by saying, “Your hair is like a flock of goats leaping down the slopes of Gilead,” (Song 4:1) or when John tells us that “there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades,”(Jn. 5:2), my memory recovers.
Learning a God Intended Locality
I am reminded that the Bible was written by local preachers, regional poets and neighborhood scribes regarding those parts of creation, providence and redemption that paraded down the streets of their own towns within the shadows of their own mountains, and with the speech of languages that are foreign to my own. God intentionally communicated Himself in this way. As a Missourian from Indiana who speaks English I am meant to consider not just the slopes of Rock Hill or of Floyd’s Knobs, but of a Hebrew speaking person and his scenic views of Gilead. By doing so, a phrase from the late novelist, Flannery O’Conner, comes to mind. I borrow it for this context and I think that in the Bible God teaches me the “possibility of reading a small history in a universal light.” (Mystery and Manners, 58) Small, not in the sense of worth, but in the sense of a local geography. Within all its particular limits, weathers, supper times and doings, God does a universal thing. I’m starting to think therefore that when I fail to remember this local flavor of the Bible, my ability to carry out my pastoral vocation begins to suffer. I need the Spirit of Jesus to illumine and recover me. At least three reasons come to mind.
1. What if God intended the local flavor of the Bible to graciously apprentice us in double-love? How genius! God has built the sum of the Law into the very way He has communicated Himself to us by this Word. After all, the Bible forces me to care about cultures, times, customs, hills, lakes, ways of life, and personal histories that are other than my own. I have to esteem others better than myself, I have to humble myself, be initially quiet about my own ways, and patiently learn just to enter the Bible. Likewise, I cannot escape the reality that God is carrying out His purposes among neighbors whose yards, surnames, vocabularies, and skin-tones do not resemble mine. I have to learn to love Him and His care for other peoples and places. When we say in seminary that when we study the Bible “context is king,” we are actually saying that “neighbor love and attention to their locality” is paramount. And we are saying that God has made it so if I am to hear from Him and know Him. As I surrender to the local flavor of the Scriptures, my daily pastoral work is re-centered upon loving people wherever they are found and loving the God who is there with them in their locality.
2. What if God intended the local flavor of the Bible to show us His way and therefore our path? Isaiah did not deny or hide the fact that his Dad was Amoz. Nor did he exaggerate his role. He let us know his limits of place. He served in Judah and Jerusalem under the reign of certain local kings and not others. (Is. 1:1) I am no prophet. But as a pastor I am Zack the son of Vern who serves in Webster Groves, Missouri during the reigns of Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, and Obama. If I write in this blog about Lockwood, North Webster, Llewellyns or Steger, I risk losing some of you, and therefore of losing my sense of making a large difference in my generation. And yet, as much as I may desire my influence to announce names like world-wide, big city or best practice farm, my daily vocation and faithfulness will suffer if I do not attend to the street Lockwood, to the people and issues of North Webster where I live, to local gathering places like Llewellyns, or to the sixth grade school called Steger just a couple of blocks from my rented house. Prophets, priest, kings, sages and apostles gave themselves, even as our Lord did fully, to their local names and times. I too recover my purpose to get on with global things by paying attention to Jesus for the businessman in Old Webster, or with regard to the hail that banged and fought against my window in the dark morning here in Webster Groves or to the food pantry in Webster/Rock Hill for those here who need. Small histories in the hands of God do more than we know. This is God’s way. The local flavor of the Bible reminds me of my path.
3. What if God intended the local flavor of the Bible to distinguish vibrant community from provincialism? Gentiles are grafted in. Every tribe and tongue and nation bows. Dividing walls are broken down. Jonah must go to Nineveh. Paul who loves his own people more than his own life has a purpose for a people who are not his own. The local flavor of the Bible, does not approve of provincialism nor does it stifle mission. The temptation of those who give themselves to a locality is to pay no mind to those “outside” and assume that those “inside” are better, smarter, faster. The gospel frees us toward locality and from idolatry of place. In Jesus, the Bible apprentices us. Well, I need to go meet with a man on West Kirkham (also known at that corner as South Brentwood). My global purpose awaits!
I’ve become confused about what it means to waste time. This confusion is making a mess out of my ability to do life as a human being, as a family man and as a pastor. To waste time means that we squander what we’ve been given. Careless with seconds we prove inefficient through misuse of minutes.
Clock-Time Anxiety and Guilt
And this, I think is where my agitation begins. I find that I habitually measure waste by the ticking of a clock. Too many clicks and anxiety pounds upon my door demanding to be let in. Guilt sees me driving too slow. Highways are made for fast transit so guilt bangs on its horn. It tailgates me. It rolls down its window, gives me the finger and hollers, “Get off the road you %*# turtle!” Speedy completion equals well used time. Slow completion equals misuse and waste. Being on the move equals making progress. Busyness is focus. Slow advance is distraction.
Don’t get me wrong. Getting things done fast by using a hasty deadline-frenzy to motivate us makes sense when the task before us involves making sales calls, or changing diapers, or getting to surgery in the ER. Likewise, we have to “get a move on” as my people used to say, when getting the cows in, or staining the deck, or completing a building project, or finishing our homework. Waiting too long before getting a sleeping bag to the homeless in winter, or before mobilizing a swat team in crisis or before rousing a battle squadron amid ambush can have fatal consequences. Act too slowly to roll up your car windows and the afternoon rains will soak your seats.
I Want to Get There Quickly
But right here a dilemma confronts me. Moral, psychological, physical, vocational and relational growth, by their very nature, often require massive quantities of time. This is where my confusion comes in. As a human being, unless I’m a prodigy, learning the piano is going to take years of awkward mistakes and uncomfortable practice. When we say “I do” at the altar with our spouse this does not mean that “we are done.” The trust required to say “I do” is substantial. But things await us in life that will require that our trust grows even deeper. Growing trust rarely happens hastily. If I ask my eight year old to carry the container of juice boxes from the car into the house its all good, but physically he isn’t able yet to carry the sound system speakers for worship-team set-up on Sunday morning. Not because there is something wrong with him but because there is something right. He has to be eight before he can be twelve. Likewise, my first sermon can make a huge difference in God’s hands, but that doesn’t mean that I can apply the Scriptures the way a pastor of twenty five years can. And just because I can start ministry programs and build a church building in two years does not mean that the spiritual growth of the congregation (or our own spiritual maturing) will go at the same speed.
Haste and the Pastorate Cannot Co-exist
I’m trying to say that most of what I do as a person, a family man, and as a pastor, involves entering the kinds of things that require years and lifetimes to complete. The nature of love, growth, sanctification, thought and skill requires that I give hospitable room to the time commitments these worthy depths require of us. When I try to apply clock-time measures of waste to these slow-advancing treasures I get flustered, I impatiently pressure others, I feel like a failure and incompetent.I quit way too soon. Speedy measures of accomplishment cannot mentor us in the skills of waiting, persevering and longsuffering. Without these skills we will rarely experience the abiding joys and satisfactions that only a long labor can produce.
Many of those in our congregation can do their jobs with the motto, “Speed equals value and success.” But the nature of what we are called to do as pastors will require us to throw this motto out. It cannot work for us. Human beings simply do not grow in their love for God and each other in this way. And no matter what our job is, it is a damaging thing to translate this motto into the way we make a home and make love with our spouses, the way we parent our kids, or the way we personally relate from our hearts to God. Maybe we’ve been giving up too soon on weighty things because we’ve tried to use haste as our means of accruing weightiness. A life or ministry of substance cannot happen quickly. Dear friend, using your days to give people the hospitable room that their growth with Jesus and each other will require, is no waste of time! It is a noble way to spend a life.
Do Not Be Discouraged
With this in mind, I’d like to share an old story with you. It is told by an old hermit.
A man had a plot of land. Through his carelessness, brambles sprang up and it became a wilderness of thistles and thorns. Then he decided to cultivate it. So he said to his son, “go and clear that ground.”
So, the son went to clear it and saw that the thorns and thistles had multiplied. So, his resolve weakened and he said, “What alot of time I should need to clear and weed all this.” So he lay down and went to sleep. He did this day after day.When his father came to see what he had done he found him doing nothing. He said to him, “Why have you done nothing until now?”
The boy said to his father, “I was coming to work father when I saw this wilderness of thorn and thistle and I was too intimidated to start and so I lay on the ground and went to sleep.” Then his father said to him, “Son if you had cleared each day the area on which you lay down, your work would have advanced slowly and you would not have lost heart.” So the boy followed his father’s advice and in a short time the plot was cultivated.
The hermit then spoke about the grace of God and added, “do a little work and do not be discouraged.” (The Desert Fathers, Penguin Classics, 72-73)
I recently gave the charge for a good friend as he was installed as a new pastor for a local congregation. Some have asked that I write it down. So, I’ve changed the name of my friend and of the congregation. But here is the gist of what I tried to say.
“As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man named Matthew.” (Matt. 9:9)
For the Pastor
When Luke recounted this meeting between Jesus and Matthew, Luke focused on Matthew’s title and position in the community. “Jesus saw a tax collector,” Luke says.
Similarly, when Mark described this event, he focused on Matthew’s family line and relational connections. “Jesus saw Levi, Son of Alpheus,” Mark says.
But when Matthew describes the time that he and Jesus met, Matthew says something honest, humbling and freeing as he looks back on that moment. “Jesus saw a man,” Matthew tells us. “A man named Matthew.”
Dr. Freeman, my first encouragement for you on this sacred occasion is this: Long before you had the vocational title of pastor, or Reverend, or Reverend Doctor; Long before you were “in the know,” with relational connections, you were simply a man named John. Our Lord heard your prayers not because you had a title or connections, but because you were a human being, an ordinary man, with a name that was known to Him and a life that mattered to Him. You were simply a man saved by grace whom Jesus loved. You still are. Jesus sees you as a human being.
For this reason, may I mention to you a second encouragement as a freeing reminder? Take heart dear friend that you needn’t repent when you cannot be everywhere at once. Find help in the reminder that you are not meant to feel shame and regret when you cannot fix everything. Feel encouraged to know that you needn’t smite yourself and cower without confidence on those occasions in which it is obvious that you do not know everything. After all, being omnipresent, omnipotent and omniscient belongs to God. These characteristics always describe Him but they were never meant to describe you or any of us. Even the Corinthians or the Philippians had on occasion to go without Paul’s actual presence. They had to make due with a letter while he had to be somewhere else. So it is with you and with those whom you love and serve in Jesus’ name.
Some will want you to be God for them. You too might be tempted. They will applaud you when you try to be more than human and criticize you when you are nothing more. You might foolishly believe either and mistakenly pursue both. But this only reminds you why they and you both need a savior. Only Jesus can be everywhere at once for them and for you. Only Jesus can fix everything that any of us needs fixing. Only Jesus knows everything that our situations require. After all, beneath your titles and connections, you are really just a man named John. Trust that Jesus will apprentice others in how to handle their thoughts and emotions when they wish that you were more than human. Jesus will apprentice your thoughts and emotions too.
Here a third encouragement comes to mind. Consider the grace that a human being with an ordinary name can find in Jesus. Matthew, the man, the sinner, became a writer of the gospel. He became a preacher and a lover of people. Being ordinary and human never means that something good and precious cannot come from us. Quite the opposite, in Matthew’s story, we are reminded that you too, a man named John, needn’t labor in vain. What a marvelous purpose and dignity He has given you! You too by His grace can make a profound gospel difference for your ordinary neighbors in this local place.
For the Congregation
This leads us to consider those of us who are listening in. You each form the congregation of neighbors here at Grace Church that John will seek to love and do life with. May I suggest two things for you?
First, encourage John’s humanity. As a man, John is subject to the same temptations, joys and questions that any of us face in a life. He is a husband and a Dad. Each day is a mixture of storm and bloom. He will not always be at his best either through his own battles with sin or because of his having to feel and forgive those who have sinned against him. At other times, He will shine with the treasure within his clay jar, showing forth the evidences of grace and virtue that Jesus has purchased for him and worked in him. He will need the same prayers, encouragements, comforts, counsels and forgiveness that anyone else in your church family needs.
Remember, John has no superhero cape. He cannot be everywhere that you might want him to be, or to know everything when you might wish him to know it, or to fix everything the way you prefer in the timing you prioritize. Even a pastor is not Jesus and John is no exception. Like you, John is not the Christ. Like you he is a local human being. So, laugh together with him. Question with him. Cry with him. Eat with him. Pray with him. Celebrate with him. Look to Jesus with him. Seek Jesus to recover your humanity together.
Second, embrace and learn from John in his calling. As you remember John’s humanity do not forget His calling. Jesus has called John to pray with you, to look to Jesus with you, to open the Bible to you, and to walk through triumph and tragedy with you. He has gifts from God therefore that are uniquely suited to help you grow in your love for God and for your neighbors.
Moreover, John is a seasoned man and pastor. He has been a husband and a Dad and a pastor for quite a while now. He has God-learned wisdom from years of mistake-making, walking with others, traveling the country, working with churches, and taking stock of it all. When you remember that John is a human being do not forget that he nonetheless is a veteran pastor equipped by the Savior to strengthen you in your own calling and life.
With these two encouragements in mind, therefore, watch out for two temptations.
The first is that you so recognize John’s calling that you disregard his humanity and then painfully require of him those things that only Jesus can be and do. The second is to so recognize John’s humanity that you disrespect his calling and experience. When we do this, we prove ourselves arrogant or unteachable toward the place God is calling John to have in our lives.
So, now together, as a pastor and a congregation, you have the opportunity both in your humbled humanity and your purposeful callings to taste and see the goodness of the Lord as a family, a team. With each other, Jesus will show you a fruitful and meaningful life of love for His glory in this community. What a marvelous team the grace of Jesus will empower you to become! Human together, as a pastor and a people, the throne of the Savior’s grace and purpose awaits you.