Every one of us has certain expectations at Christmas. We expect to buy gifts and we expect to receive gifts. We expect the lights and the colors and the sights and the sounds of the season. We expect to eat a lot! We expect long lines in the department stores, and apparently this year more than ever, we expect to avoid those lines by ordering on-line and having it delivered to our home or office. We expect to be rushed from event to event, from party to party, from school play to church social. We expect to see family and friends. There is much about Christmas that is expected.
We expect, too, when we go to church at Christmas that we’re going to hear something about the Christmas story. It is quite unexpected to be reading and hearing about John the Baptist at Christmas! God did some pretty unexpected things that first Christmas—like coming into the world as an infant! But, God has always done the unexpected, and John the Baptist is an example. Besides, this is Advent, and remember that Advent is a time to prepare for the coming of Christ, and John the Baptist was sent by God to prepare for the coming of Christ. God used an unexpected time, and an unexpected person, and an unexpected message to speak His revelation.
It was an unexpected time. Luke sets the time in the context of the political and religious climate of the first century ancient near east. Israel was under the hand of oppressive leadership, both politically and religiously. Luke, ever the historian, notes Tiberius, Pontius Pilate, and Herod and his brother Philip as the political leaders, and Annas and Caiaphas as the high priests—who would be considered the religious leaders. Additionally, the prophets (who were God’s spokespersons) hadn’t spoken in over 400 years. Everyone expected that God didn’t care. Yet, when it was least expected, Luke tells us “it was at this time a message came from God…”
There was also an unexpected person. This message, Luke tells us, came to John, the son of Zechariah. We call him John the Baptist. It was quite unexpected that God would use this strange man who lived out in the desert and had a crazy wardrobe of camel hair, and had a steady diet of locusts and wild honey. No, we would expect that God would use the religious leaders, or even the political leaders of the day. Don’t they speak for God? Ha! We can’t always assume that God will use the religious leaders to do His bidding. This passage…this event…challenges me. After all, I’m considered a religious leader. It forces me to ask, “What am I doing with what God has entrusted to me?” And, we say we live in a Christian nation (debatable, I know), but seriously, we can’t ever expect our political leaders to speak for God. We can pray for them. We can hope they’ll be in tune to God’s will, that they’ll embody some kind of spirituality, but this passage reminds me that God chose a crazy man from the backside of the desert to deliver his message to a hurting, longing world.
There was an unexpected message, and that was “The King is coming!” It was a call to get ready, and there was some pretty specific instruction as to how that was to look: repentance and baptism. Well, what was unexpected about that? After all, these were not foreign concepts to first century folks. The Old Testament has many examples of people turning from sin and God forgiving them. One of the most prominent examples the Jewish people knew was of David’s repentance when Samuel confronted him concerning his sin with Bathsheba. David said, “I have sinned against the Lord!” But, Samuel said, “Yes, but the Lord has forgiven you.” Zacchaeus, in Luke 19, is an example of a Jewish person who repented. After his encounter with Jesus, he gave away half his wealth and paid back up to four times that which he had cheated from others. I’m not sure whether you realize it or not, but that’s a lot of money!
Likewise, these Jewish people would be well familiar with the idea of baptism, for Gentile converts who came to the Jewish faith had to be baptized to be considered Jewish. They were baptized into the faith. But, baptism was for Gentiles. The unexpected twist was John was preaching baptism to Jewish folk. They needed to be baptized? Now, that was unexpected! It was an unexpected person in an unexpected time preaching an unexpected message. There are a few implications we can draw from this passage.
First, God is never not near. God is always present, even in those times we can’t see or feel him…even in those times when God seems silent. Sometimes (so I’ve been reminded), God is simply too near to see. God hasn’t forgotten us! God hasn’t forgotten the United States of America. God hasn’t forgotten the Syrian refugees. God hasn’t forgotten the hungry child in Africa. God hasn’t forgotten the lonely widow. God hasn’t forgotten the unemployed oil field worker, and God has forgotten you. When we least expect it, God will be right here…meeting our need, but more importantly, doing His will.
Second, life always happens in God’s time. Our problem is our understanding of time. How is it we say that we never have enough time, but we’ll make time for that project or meeting or social event we desire to attend? We mark time by dates on a calendar, by days and weeks and years, by hours and minutes and seconds. The ancient Greeks had two words for time—chronos and Kairos. Chronos time is that time we mark with the calendar and watch. We measure it. Kairos is different. We can’t translate it precisely, it refers to time that is opportune. Chronos is quantitative. Kairos is qualitative. God operates by Kairos time.
Third, God uses nobodies from nowhere. I’m the perfect example of that fact. I’m just a Bubba from Jackson Parish, LA. Jackson Parish may not be the backside of the desert, but it’s as close to the backside of nowhere as you’ll ever come. Never in a million years would I have ever dreamed of pastoring First United Methodist Church of Monroe. Actually, being a pastor at all was not one of the things on my check-list of things to do. But God uses nobodies from nowhere to speak to a hurting and broken world.
Even after I came to ministry, I could never believe I’d pack my family up and move them 800 miles away to go to seminary, but God calls, and when God calls we go. Because God uses people from the backside of nowhere to make a difference in the Kingdom. Never would I believe that I would pastor some of the best churches in Louisiana. Seriously, I’ve had colleagues share horror stories of churches served, but I can honestly say that I’ve never had a bad appointment. Not one.
Never in a million years would I believe I would have the opportunity to serve the church as a District Superintendent, but when God calls we answer, and I served the best district in the Annual Conference for two years. And, I must confess, never in a million years would I believe God would ever call me to offer myself in service to the larger Church as a candidate for the office of bishop in the United Methodist Church. But, Vanessa and I believe that is what God is calling us to do in this coming year. Now that is totally unexpected!
What does this mean for First United Methodist Church? Nothing, for now. Nothing will change in the near future. Bishops are elected by the Church, and election for bishop will be held in July 2016 at Jurisdictional Conference. Because it is an elected position, there is the very real possibility that nothing will change. I will stand for election, and if not elected, I will continue serving as your pastor. If elected, however, I will begin service as a bishop immediately and FUMC will be appointed a new pastor. In the meantime, I will continue to preach and lead as I’ve done over the past two and a half years. The vision God has entrusted to us will continue to move forward in the same manner as if I were not surrendering to this call.
I love serving you as your pastor, and nothing would please me more than to continue serving you as such for a very long time. God may, indeed, make a way for that to happen. Surrendering to this call is simply my desire to live in obedience to God. Vanessa and I have wrestled with this call since January, and after having said “No” on two occasions, we were compelled to not say “No” a third time (I’ll have to tell you the whole story sometime).
I know there are a multitude of questions. I confess I don’t have all the answers. This is a new experience for me, too, so we’ll walk this journey together. But, I’ll answer as many questions as I possibly can in the coming months. I covet your prayers for Vanessa, my family and myself as we offer ourselves to the broader Kingdom of God in this way. And, continue prayer for our congregation as we seek God’s will for all our lives.
We still have to live in the meantime. How appropriate, especially since Advent reminds us that we “live in the meantime”—between Jesus’ coming and his coming again. In the meantime, Jesus still meets us in quite unexpected ways. Where is He meeting you?
Until next time, keep looking up…