As I reflect back on my twenty-six years of ministry in Virginia Baptist churches, I remember many people saying to me, "We're glad for your ministry at our church, and you need to know that the things you did here were absolutely instrumental to prepare us for the next pastor who followed after you." Specifically, people have said that to me regarding the last two churches I served before coming to Bethel.
Now, upon hearing this, my ego has said, "Wait a minute! I believe my job was more than just preparing the way for somebody else!" Because we all like to think that what we're doing right now is more than just a foundation for another person to build on. But now that I've had time to reflect on this, I am not just comfortable with that idea--I embrace it. After all, the pastor who came before me in every church I served was probably told the same thing, that they prepared the way for me. Generations come and go, and all we ever do is build on what was given to us, and prepare the way for the next.
My morning devotion time led me to the ministry of John the Baptist, who was sent by God to prepare the way for Jesus. While his ministry was good for its own sake, and many people were touched by it, his mission was to prepare people's hearts for something beyond himself. In Matthew 3:1-12, there are four phrases that stand out to me, that I'd like to share with you.
- Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. That word "repent" simply means "change." You can't encounter Jesus without there being some kind of change in your life. Too many Christians expect to enter heaven without any substantial change to their lives or personalities--but the presence of Christ in our hearts demands change. It means more than embracing God. It means embracing all people, and learning to love unconditionally, the way that Jesus does. Because heaven is "at hand," (meaning HERE and NOW), our lives ought to be fundamentally changed. Instead of resisting change in our lives (and in our churches), we need to embrace it.
- Prepare the way of the Lord. In other words, it's not about me, and it's not about you. It never was. It's about the realm of God expanding in the world. It's about the Way, the Truth, and the Life coursing like blood through the veins of the universe, pulsing and drumming a beat to which we can all dance. My job, your job, is not to make it happen, but simply to prepare the way. We can't make it happen. We can't force it. As ministers--as Christians--all any of us can do is prepare the way for God.
- Bear fruit. It's impossible to call yourself an "alive" kind of Christian without bearing fruit. The living God wants living disciples to produce good things. This fruit is described as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. When you let the Spirit of God change you--really change you to your core--then you'll be fruitful. And this fruit will nourish other people, so that they, too, will be ready for the coming of Christ into their lives.
- Do not presume. The longer phrase is, "Do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father, for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham." John is telling them not to rely on their heritage, which can bog them down in religiosity, but to seek the things of the Spirit. This applies to Christians today as well. I think that the simple phrase "do not presume" simply reminds us not to go through life presumptuously. It's an invitation to be open to what God is doing, rather than assuming we already have it all figured out. Maybe God is doing a new thing, that your fathers and mothers never dreamed of! Be open--and so prepare the way of the Lord.
As I shift from full-time Christian ministry, to become a case manager who helps homeless people, I'm having to come to terms with my sense of identity. I'm aware that my calling hasn't changed--only the setting. I'm still ministering. This is still Gospel work. It's just the nature of ministry that has changed. And even if my job were in a button factory, I'd still be a minister. We all are ministers, if we take up the call of John the Baptist. We all are evangelists, if we embrace change, if we prepare the way of the Lord, if we bear fruit, and if we faithfully refuse to be presumptuous.
So as I leave Bethel, and as I leave the full-time pastorate, I hope people will tell me, "Our next pastor is doing such a great job! The church is growing and flourishing!" Because in part, I hope I've contributed to the success of the next man or woman to fill the pulpit, just as the pastor who preceded me contributed to mine.
And I hope that you will see that your job as a parent, as a teacher, as a manager, laborer, helper, employer or employee, or whatever your role is on this earth--is all about preparing the way for the next person to come along. It's about giving them something to build on. And it's about preparing the way of the Lord.