The coming of the Promise. Fulfillment of prophecy in a mystery of yes and not yet. A baby born of a virgin on a not-so-silent night who grew up and changed the world, even to the marking of the calendar days. BC (before Christ) and AD (anno Domini) divide human history, even though the terminology has change with the secularization of the West. The “common era” of CE still begins with the events of this liturgical season.
As Christians around the world prepare to celebrate the Incarnation of God in human flesh, we take time to consider the magnitude of God’s greatest grace toward humanity: the virgin conceived (Isaiah 7:14), a child was born (Isaiah 9:6), and hope entered the world (John 3:16).
“We are rescued by grace poured out” (Jason Cook, 11/07/2021).
The text for the sermon was Ephesians chapter 2, and theme was “one new man.” Pastor Cook, with his usual wit and eloquence, compared the Church to a magnificent mosaic, made up of individual tiles. Alone, each tile may be beautiful or plain, but carefully combined by a master artist, the collection of tiles makes up a masterpiece. He proclaimed, “Salvation is possible by works—just not yours.” Only God’s grace with His mercy and love can redeem us to the Body of believers, a collection of mosaic tiles brought together to be a picture of Jesus to the world.
As followers of Jesus, we know intellectually that we cannot begin to approach the holiness of the Creator. Our egos, however, often forget. We begin to think about our legacy, our influence, and even our popularity as essential elements of how we live out our faith. Advent is an opportunity to consider with great awe and wonder the mystery of grace poured out. The Creator joined the creation through the very human process of birth. He who spoke the universes into being with a word subjected Himself to a physical (and messy) delivery of a squalling baby, born to a young, unmarried woman and her faithful betrothed without the benefits wealth might procure. From the great throne of the King of kings, He humbled Himself to the lowest and weakest of all humanity.
Love. Mercy. Grace.
Not by works of righteousness that we have done, but according to His mercy through grace He saves us (Titus 3:5-7).
The grace revealed to us came in the form of an infant, physically born. Fully human, yet still fully God, Jesus offers a grace we can never fully understand, but one in which we can rest, secure in knowing that God’s grace is perfect.
Real talk here. Total transparency. I am writing about the need for grace, but I’m not always good about extending it.
When I’m not writing I work at a fast food restaurant. It’s a perfect side gig: I love my teammates, the managers are fantastic (and patient), the hours are flexible, and when I clock out, my time is my own. I even enjoy most of the customers, especially when I’m working the drive through line. A couple of well spoken lines, jokes that I can repeat multiple times, and often a laugh. The hours go by quickly.
On the down side, I am by nature an introvert, so by the end of a shift, I am utterly spent, which means I’m still trying to keep this job in balance with my real work (writing) and all the other things that make up a life. It’s when I am at the end of my “people-ing” that grace slips away.
For the most part, customers are soothed by being heard and by making their experience as pleasant as possible, no matter how chaotic the day becomes. Sometimes a smile is sufficient. Other times there is just no satisfying the customer: the line is too long, the drive-through is too busy (although, with an average wait time of under four minutes, it does move along), the drinks aren’t mixed correctly, the order is wrong (a fair criticism), and on it goes.
I had one of the never-satisfied the other day. I had just cleaned the empty dining tables, taken out the trash, and swept. I was washing my hands when a manager asked me to check the dining room because a customer complained there was “no where to sit.” I looked around; there was ample open seating. As it turned out, the customer wanted to sit at a table that had been vacated while I was sweeping. No problem. I pulled out the sanitizing wipes and made my way over. The I recognized the customer as a member of a church I used to attend. She evidently did not recognize me as she scolded the staff for not having enough clean table. I pointed out the half dozen clean and empty places as I began to wiped down the booth she wanted. She said, “I may change my mind when everyone gets here, but this is where I want to sit.” She didn’t move as I began to wipe down the table, which meant I could not reach to the far side. It would have to do; the line was long, customers were waiting for pick up orders, and every team member was running just to keep up. A moment after I cleaned the table she went to the register and asked for table coverings. She did not attempt to hide her displeasure when the team member informed her that this restaurant doesn’t have them. Moments later her family came in. Nothing was good enough. They wanted more napkins, more sauce, more salt, all of which was supplied by a series of employees. All I could think was that I knew this person claimed to be a Christian, was recognizable as a church member, yet treated employees with contempt and distain for not anticipating her expectations on a very busy day. When the family left, they left sauces and napkins untouched on the table. I admit, that last bit annoyed me.
Where was the grace? We were obviously working to make the dining experience pleasant for everyone who came in. Not a single employee was still; everyone was at full speed. Food was flying from the kitchen. The drive through cars sailed through. Most customers were cheerful and understanding of the inevitable order errors. Not this one lady that I recognized from church. Not an iota of grace.
And then I stopped short. Where was MY grace extended toward HER? I couldn’t know her circumstances. Even though she appeared to be a grandmother having lunch with her family, maybe there was something else going on. I don’t know–and frankly, it shouldn’t matter. As a Jesus follower, I need to show grace to others the same way the Father demonstrated grace to me, in spite of my failures and flaws.
But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
I heard a song for the first time the other day and was moved by the message and the music. I appreciated the nod to old familiar hymns woven through. Mostly, though, I was struck by the focus on the blood of Jesus as the master key of salvation. We don’t sing about the blood often in our contemporary services, but the old hymns regularly pointed to the centrality of blood to the gospel.
I’ve been in a study through Hebrews the last several weeks and listening to a plan on a Bible app about finding Jesus in the first five books of the Bible. My pastor in in a series taking a deep dive into Ephesians. I was primed to respond to this song. The gospel is clearly presented in these lyrics. The propitiatory sacrifice of Jesus as a ransom for our sins, both individually and corporately propels us to move from hopelessness to transformation and gratitude.
The mystery of grace, the very nature of God poured out on people who are utterly selfish, requires more than acknowledgement. Grace is not cheap. Grace is not easy. It cost our Savior everything. Without the sacrifice provided by grace, there is no hope for life; we are the walking dead.
Only by blood.
Under the Old Covenant the faithful had to bring regular sacrifices to the altar. The burnt offering was brought to the altar and completely burned up. The symbol there is that everything we have and everything we are belongs to the Father to do with as He desires. The purification offering was to atone for sins. The faithful brought the sacrifice (a male animal without any blemish), placed his hand on its head, and then killed it. The priests took the blood of the animal and splattered it on the altar and at the entrance of the tent of meeting (Leviticus 1). The offering was then burned completely; nothing remained. Sin is like that. If even one iota of sin remains in us, we stand condemned by a holy God.
Over and over again, the people brought and slaughtered animals to atone for their sins. Over and over the priests splashed the blood, still warm, over the altar. Year after year, and still the task of purification was incomplete.
Until Jesus. The author of Hebrews reflected on the required ritual sacrifices, noting that the old covenant was established in blood: life for life. “Without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sin” (Hebrews 9:22). Jesus, as the perfect Lamb of God, fully human and yet without sin, entered the Holy of Holies, not by slaughtering and animal, but by submitting to his own murder on the cross. His blood for ours. He, Himself, by the shedding of His blood, became the atoning sacrifice for all who call on His Name. We can serve the Living God only because Jesus traded His life for ours. At that point, the work of atonement was complete. Jesus breathed, “It is finished,” and it was.
The New Covenant, then, relies, not on the blood of bulls and goats and lambs and birds, but on the blood of Jesus. “This is the blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” he said. And by that same blood, we are sanctified, not just for a year, but for eternity (Hebrews 10).
Only by grace.
In many of our modern churches we spend time considering how to live in this broken world. We study how to rely on Jesus, how to navigate a culture that rejects the values we hold dear, and how to live. These are all worthwhile topics, to be sure, but I think regular reflection on the foundation that brings us to all the “how-tos” matters. The “how-to” topics are concrete expression, things we do, checklists we can keep to make sure we are on the “right” path. But the “how-to” conversations often lead away from grace into legalism and pharisaical mindsets. Checklists are not necessarily wrong; they can be helpful. But checklists cannot replace the blood of Jesus. Checklists may become idols. In fact, for most of us, the idolatry of what we do prevents us from living free in the grace of His abundant and joyful life. Focusing on the checklist means we focus on ourselves.
“Jesus, keep me near the cross,” Fanny Crosby (1869) wrote. “Near the cross! O Lamb of God, Bring its scenes before me; Help me walk from day to day With its shadow o’er me. In the cross, in the cross Be my glory ever, Till my ransomed soul shall find Rest beyond the river.”
It is only by grace that we are redeemed. The blood of animals served only as a reminder that God’s holiness is unapproachable because, in our humanity, we are unworthy. The sacrifices of the old covenant were a picture, copies, shadows of the real redemption through Jesus’s blood. “There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Emmanuel’s veins, and sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains” (Cowper, 1772). “Alas and did my Savior bleed, and did my Sovereign die? Would He devote that sacred head For sinners such as I?” (Watts, 1707). “What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus” (Lowry, 1876). Only God’s grace, flowing from mercy and love as a gift to us as individuals can redeem us to the Body of believers (Jason Cook, 2021). Saved by grace, through faith, God’s gift.
God’s gift, given through the Blood of the Perfect Lamb. We must remember the necessary sacrifice that secures our salvation and sustains our sanctification. We must bow in abject gratitude and then proclaim His name. The focal point of our lives, the center of everything, is Jesus. His work, His perfection, His grace poured out on us delivered us. Thank you, Jesus, for the blood.
I was a wretch I remember who I was I was lost, I was blind I was running out of time
Sin separated The breach was far too wide But from the far side of the chasm You held me in your sight
So You made a way Across the great divide Left behind Heaven’s throne To build it here inside
And there at the cross You paid the debt I owed Broke my chains, freed my soul For the first time I had hope
Thank you Jesus for the blood applied Thank you Jesus it has washed me white Thank you Jesus You have saved my life Brought me from the darkness into glorious light
You took my place Laid inside my tomb of sin You were buried for three days But then You walked right out again
And now death has no sting And life has no end For I have been transformed By the blood of the lamb
Thank You Jesus for the blood applied (thank You Jesus) Thank You Jesus it has washed me white Thank You Jesus You have saved my life Brought me from the darkness into glorious light
There is nothing stronger Than the wonder working power of the blood The blood That calls us sons and daughters We are ransomed by our Father Through the blood The blood
There is nothing stronger Of the wonder working power of the blood The blood That calls us sons and daughters We are ransomed by the Father Through the blood The blood
Thank You Jesus for the blood applied Thank You Jesus it have washed me white Thank You Jesus You have saved my life Brought me from the darkness into glorious light
Glory to His name Glory to His name There to my heart was the blood applied Glory to His name
The Second Coming of Jesus: It’s gonna be big and you’d better be ready.
Context: Jesus had just pronounced woes on the religious leaders and lamented over Jerusalem.
From the Temple, Jesus and his followers walked to the Mount of Olives, about 1 ¼ miles away. As they left the city, the disciples admired the beauty of the Temple (Luke 21:5), which was significant both spiritually and nationally to the Jewish people.
This is the current view from the Mount looking toward Jerusalem. The Dome of the Rock sits about where the Temple would have been, so Jesus could see clearly the massive building shimmering in marble and gold from where he sat.
In my mind, Jesus is sitting quietly, thinking about what is to come both in the next few days and in the distant future. The disciples were likely debating what Jesus meant about the temple’s stones being thrown down. Maybe some, like the zealots among them, claimed that Jesus was about to take his place as the messianic conqueror they were all expecting. Maybe the more introspective considered the stones as a metaphor for the Law. Maybe others tried to figure out the logistics of moving those massive stones. In all likelihood, none thought farther ahead than his own lifetime, much less a future a hundred or thousands of years away. They were obviously perplexed, so they approached him to ask three questions:
When will these things happen?
How will we know when you’re coming?
What are the signs of the end of the age?
Matthew 24 (with Mark 13 and Luke 21) begins what scholars call The Olivet Discourse. It is the last of the major teachings of Jesus before the crucifixion.
Read Matthew 24:1-3
Group conversation questions:
Context: Jesus and the disciples were leaving the temple, a massive building with stones that weighed from a mere two tons to 570 tons. This picture of the woman shows just how massive the stones are. There is nothing holding the stones together but their sheer size and weight. The temple itself was 10 stories tall and the foundations went as deep as 65 feet.
Why do you think Jesus told the disciples about the destruction of the Temple?
What do you think the disciples expected to hear from Jesus? Keep in mind all we have learned about these men over the last months.
Read Matthew 24:4-8
What are the first signs that Jesus will return? How long have these signs been part of our world?
Read Hebrews 2:1-4. The literal translation from the Greek for verse 1 reads “For this reason ought more abundantly us to give heed to the things heard.” What should our response be to the signs we see today that seem to point to the imminent return of Jesus?
Read Matthew 24:9-28
Context: These passages are prophecies about things still in the future; for the disciples they were the very distant future. Still, the way Jesus phrased these words, it is easy to see how multiple generations might have believed they were approaching the end times. Christians still hold differing opinions on when Jesus will return. This chart is from 2009 and it’s clear that there wasn’t much agreement then. I suspect not much has changed, especially since the focus of the last 18 months or so has been on the here and now. (https://www.pewforum.org/2009/04/09/christians-views-on-the-return-of-christ/)
Can you think of some historical times when people thought for sure Jesus’ return was imminent?
List the events from this section that must happen before Jesus returns.
What does your list tell you about when “these things” (Matthew 24:3) will happen?
Read Matthew 24:29-35
Context: Jesus moved from the general (persecution, false teachers, lawlessness) to very specific prophecies tying the Old Testament to the future.
Why was it important for Jesus to refer to prophecies of the ancient prophets?
Make a list of all the things that will happen at Jesus’s return?
From the ancient past to the distant future, what does Jesus indicate is the most important thing for his followers to know? (see also Mark 13:31 and Luke 21:33)
Read Matthew 24:36-51
Context: Jesus again refers to an ancient story, that of Noah, to explain how, while the signs of God’s judgement are evident, the timing is unknowable.
Read Genesis 6 and 7. What is the same between what Noah knew about God’s coming judgement and what we currently know?
What did Noah do that we should also do?
What do you think is the most important thing believers can do to be ready for that day?
Jesus had just pronounced woes on the religious leaders and lamented over Jerusalem. He began with the temple, in all its glory and beauty. The temple was the centerpiece of Jerusalem, the center of Jewish culture, and the symbol of the Jewish God.
TheTemple was built between 537 BCE and 516 BCE, when the Jews began their return from Babylonian captivity. It was made of limestone under the direction of Zerubbabel at the time and was later renovated and expanded under Herod the Great. The Temple the disciples admired was 150 feet high (12-15 stories), covered in white marble and gold with bronze entrance doors. The courtyard of the temple was large enough to hold 300,000-400,000 people during the pilgrimages, particularly of Passover. Colorful tiles from the floors were discovered in 2007 and put on display in 2016. The stones were imported from Italy, Greece, Tunisia and Asia Minor and the layout likely resembled the design motifs of Herod’s palaces in Masada, Herodium, and Jericho, not random patterns underfoot. The top of the temple had gold spikes on it to prevent birds from sitting and nesting there.
However, when Jesus said that the temple would be completely destroyed, he was talking about more than an impressive building; he was talking about a way of life. First century social values revolved around loyalty to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and then to the extended family. Identity was less individualized and more associated with groups; there is a reason why the Scribes and Pharisees were largely unnamed. Society was built on a definitive hierarchical structure that began and ended in the temple and the rituals of the Old Covenant. It was the one thing that every Jew had in common. From the lowest day-laborer to the chief Pharisee, the Abrahamic covenant and the requirements of sacrifices and offerings were the same for all. The Jews were people of “one temple, for the one God.” To destroy the temple would disrupt a system in place for hundreds of years. The system was corrupt in many ways, but it was familiar to all and it represented something larger than individuals.
The disciples were understandably perplexed by Jesus’ words about the temple, but they didn’t ask about it immediately. Mark noted that the inner circle of disciples, Peter, James, John, and Andrew, were the ones who approached Jesus after they had reached the Mount of Olives. Jesus was sitting, so they had probably been there a little while. Based on what we know about the disciples from other passages, it is within the realm of plausibility that they had already discussed and debated the issue amongst themselves before deciding to ask directly. Still, it was up to the four closest to Jesus to approach him. It hadn’t been so long that Jesus had chastised them for their lack of faith almost immediately after the transfiguration (Matthew 17). I’m sure they figured they had some level of protection from correction if only those four went as representatives. Looking across the Kidron Valley from the Mount of Olives to Jerusalem, the Temple would have reflected the late afternoon sun in full radiant glory. How could such a magnificent place be utterly destroyed? And more importantly, when?
Before Jesus starts to describe the signs of the end, he issues a warning to the disciples that he repeats throughout the discourse: Do not be deceived; you do not know everything. Jesus speaks of events that will take place, but the focal point is not the events themselves; they are mere preludes to the One Important Thing. More than anything, Jesus wants his followers to be aware and alert (vv 42, 46). In v 8, Jesus compares the events he describes as the beginning of the birth pangs. The metaphor of childbirth is apt.
A full-term pregnancy is 37-42 weeks, and many women experience what is commonly called “false labor.” From the moment of conception, a woman’s body changes to accommodate the new life. Morning sickness gives way to a brief reprieve that turns into increasing discomfort as the pregnancy progresses. Somewhere in that 37-42 weeks the mother can reasonably expect the arrival of the child, and the more uncomfortable she becomes, the more she hopes the birth is sooner rather than later. True labor progresses gradually, but contractions become increasingly painful as the body prepares the path for delivery. Even then, no one can predict the actual moment of birth.
Applied to this passage, there are signs that point to the general time for multiple events: the destruction of the Temple, the Tribulation, and the return of the King, but no actual time is given.. Wars and rumors of wars, nations in conflict, and natural disasters are reminders that the justice of God will prevail, but we don’t know when exactly that judgement will occur. God is outside the bounds of time. Peter wrote, “The heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire being kept until the day of judgement and destruction of the ungodly. But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2 Peter 3:7-8).
The purpose of Jesus’ prophecy here is to alert us to false prophets and false teachers. Speculation about details is divisive. Paul wrote to Titus, “Avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless” (Titus 3:9). This passage lends itself to foolish controversies and arguments, not so much about the law, but about specific events and the timing thereof. So, in your groups, talk about persecution, the great tribulation, the second coming, and the sign of the fig tree, but keep in mind that NO ONE knows –not even angels–the day and the hour of the King’s return. Focus on truth teaching and faithful service so that you will be blessed at the hour of his coming.
The Olivet discourse has been called one of the most difficult passages in the Bible, mostly because it is unclear what generation Jesus was talking about when He said “This generation will certainly not pass away until all these things take place (Matt 24:35; Mark 13:30-31; Luke 21:32). That all three authors of the synoptic gospels record the exact same words means the words matter. But what generation and which things? Some choices:
The fall of Jerusalem and destruction of the temple in 70 AD
Partly the fall of Jerusalem (vv 4-35) and partly his second coming (vv 36-66)
Mostly the second coming
Generation may refer to race. There will be Jewish people until the end of time.
Generation may refer to a type of people. Sinful humans will roam the planet until it is replaced
Generation may be the generation that sees the signs unfold (Isaiah 13: 9-11)
Generation may be the disciples and early church. The destruction of the temple serves as a metaphor for the final judgement and times.
Part of what makes this passage hard to understand is the fact that we look back at the whole of Scripture, while the original hearers had the ancient prophets only. We can compare this discourse of the synoptic gospels to the prophecies of Daniel, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Revelation. We can also see 2000 years of historical events that seem to meet some of the criteria for the end times, from the destruction of Jerusalem through the Crusades, the 100 years war, world wars of the 20th century, genocides on every continent (except Antarctica), and pandemics that decimated the world’s population through smallpox, tuberculosis, bubonic plagues, leprosy, measles, cholera, and influenza. The earth still turns, and we are all still here, so none of those events signaled the final end of the earth and judgement. However, there is sufficient scholarship to believe that Jesus was answering the disciples specifically about the destruction of the temple by Rome in 70 AD and telling them to be prepared for it to happen soon. Luke wrote his account after the fall, possibly to add weight to Jesus’ divinity: his prophecy had come true by the time Luke’s readers read the text. It seems evident that the first part of the discourse refers to 70 AD, but the coming of the Son of Man is still to come.
The final answer? I don’t know. No one does.
HOWEVER, what we do know is that Jesus exhorted his followers (and us) to continue to do the work of the kingdom. We don’t need to know when He is returning, only that He WILL return. Luke expanded Matthew’s words by telling believers to be on guard, echoing Peter’s admonition to be sober-minded and alert. The adversary “the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion, looking for anyone he can devour” (1 Peter 5:8). We can be aware of the signs of labor without neglecting the work before us. When the time comes, Jesus will return. And we will rejoice.
Albl, M.C. (2009). The Essential Guide to Biblical Life and Times. Saint Mary’s Press.
I grew up in an American Baptist church, and I spent 17 years at a large church in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). I left the SBC church because I wanted a smaller and more multi-ethnic congregation, not because I had any issues. But the events of the last several months make me sad on many levels, and I haven’t yet read anything that summarizes my impressions and thoughts, so I am using this post to share.
Christianity Today covered the key factors in the SBC scandal that rocked the denomination both by its scope and the executive committee’s unwillingness to have a proper Biblical response. The previews of the February 2019 edition alone tell enough of the story’s history. That more than two years have passed without a complete investigation and consequences is both infuriating and heartbreaking. To make matters worse, the committee refused to release all the information citing “attorney-client privilege.” WHAT?
For two decades leaders in SBC churches have committed unspeakable abuses and the committees response was to be mindful of “fiduciary and legal considerations” including concerns about losing their insurance coverage. How about a Matthew 18 approach instead? Don’t want to air dirty laundry in public? Then keep your laundry clean.
In response, current SBC president said he was “grieved and prayerful.” I responded on Twitter: “Grieved and prayerful? How about furious and prepping to turn over some tables?” It’s always appropriate to pray, but Jesus also pronounced woes on the religious leaders who were more concerned about “fiduciary and legal considerations” than they were about the eternal souls of the people (see Matthew 23). In Matthew 22 he threw out the money-changers–not exactly an action of someone satisfied with “grieved and prayerful.”
On October 5 the Executive Committee FINALLY voted to waive attorney-client privilege by a vote of 44-31. And again, my response: WHAT? It should have been unanimous. The abuse allegations were 20 years old. The cover-ups started then. If the EC wanted to deal independently with the accused, they had ample opportunity and chose to hope the victims would go away. It was inexcusable then, and hiding behind fiduciary duty now is equally inexcusable.
Most churches in the SBC are still led by Bible-teaching men and women of integrity. The structure of the denomination is not of top down dictates, but rather congregational self-determination. The core beliefs of the local churches are derived from Scripture, and for the most part, pastors and teachers are faithful to them. The exceptions (those who abuse their sacred trust) and how they are not held accountable to anyone are at issue here. The victims of this scandal include those directly harmed by the evil actions of particular men, but also the faithful men and women whose testimony is stained by the evil of others.
It hurts my heart.
Where is grace in all of this mess? How do I extend grace? To the victims, it’s easy. To the leadership that kept the secrets of evil deeds, thinking they might be protecting the innocents? I don’t know. To those who perpetrated the evil? Unless and until they repent and restore life and hope to their victims, the only grace available is what I read in Matthew 25:31-46: Truly, whatever you have done for the least of these, you did also to Jesus.
The way forward is through repentance, restoration, and restitution. That Jesus has made that way possible is the essence of grace.
I read this tweet the other day and it made me reflect on the grace we as congregants need to show our church leaders. Exhausted and hurt are not part of the description of pastoral work, but based on the comments in the thread that followed the tweet, it seems to be a common sentiment. Part of the reason may be self-imposed “bad boundaries,” as this post notes, but it is my observation that we generally don’t treat our pastors very well. We expect them to be on call, to do the work of the church, to teach, to counsel, to evangelize, and to deliver a dynamic and entertaining sermon every week. We often complain when other teachers in the church take the pulpit. We skip church when the senior pastor goes on vacation. We resent the sabbatical.
Of course, I am painting with a very broad brush, but I don’t think I am too far from the experiences of many senior pastors. Many pastors leave the ministry within a few short years of their callings, with 1,500 clergy leaving pastoral ministry every month (Barna Research Group). In fact, most clergy (up to 90%) across all denominations will not stay in ministry to retirement age. So, the question is, how can we, the lay congregation, show grace to our leaders, especially our senior pastors? How can we help them know they are appreciated, prayed for, and supported?
I think the first thing we as congregations can do is stop putting our senior pastors on pedestals and expecting them to be all things to all people.
The character of a pastor-shepherd must be beyond rebuke, to be sure, but scripture never places the entirety of church ministry on the shoulders of one man. In fact, the principle role of a senior pastor is to “equip the saints for the work of ministry” (Ephesians 4:12). The work is supposed to be carried out by the congregation, not the pastor.
Elders share the teaching and leading responsibilities of the congregation. They are godly stewards who give instruction and have authority within the local body to ensure that the responsibility of managing church policy, ordaining teachers, and being role models to the congregation. Deacons also share in the responsibility for the maintenance of the church and ensuring it runs smoothly. Dividing the load allows the senior pastor to focus on teaching the congregation so that they are able and confident to do the work of evangelism and discipleship.
What might that look like? Pastors should be free to allow elders to visit the sick, preside over weddings and funerals, care for the shut-ins, and meet the physical needs of congregants. We, as laity, should not expect our pastors to accept every invitation we offer, nor should we grumble when we are shepherded by our godly elders (Acts 11, 14; 1 Timothy; 1 Thessalonians 5; Titus 1; 1 Peter 5). We should rejoice when elders step in to teach from the pulpit; we gain from their knowledge of the word. Our senior pastors are called to equip us, not to serve us. At the same time, they are not Jesus; they are broken human beings just like us.
Secondarily, we must cooperate and submit to their leadership, being appreciative of the work they are called to do.
Yes, I used the word. Submit. But we are called by God to submit.
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.
Hebrews 13:17 ESV
Included in the idea of submission is to esteem and appreciate the work our pastors do (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13). We support them in our giving, paying them a fair salary so they are free to do the work. We seek to understand their vision for the church so that we are able to cooperate.
We can show appreciation through attention during teaching times, asking questions, sending notes of affirmation, and taking concerns to him directly. We demonstrate support by imitating his leadership and remembering his teachings.
The most important thing: Pray
Church leaders take on a greater share of spiritual attack than most of us because they are equipping us to do the work of the kingdom. We must be on our knees for our pastors, praying for courage, wisdom, faithfulness, and joy.
“Pray for your pastor. Pray for his body, that he may be kept strong and spared
many years. Pray for his soul, that he may be kept humble and holy, a burning
and shining light. Pray for his ministry, that it may be abundantly blessed, that
he may be anointed to preach good tidings. Let there be no secret prayer
without naming him before your God, no family prayer with carrying your
pastor in your hearts to God.”
If we as congregations begin to treat our pastors as shepherds instead of servants, perhaps we will see a resurgence in long-term relationships between leaders and churches. It may mean a loss to UPS, but what a tremendous gain for the eternal kingdom.
Wars abroad, divisions at home, a global pandemic in its second year, and more vitriol spewed on social media than pictures of kittens and bad puns combined. People are quick to speak, slow to listen, and adept at jumping to conclusions based on incomplete information.
And that’s just in the Church.
Why are we in such a hurry to defend ourselves and our positions about every social issue within the context of the Body of Christ? Why do we argue over vaccines and masks? Why do we separate ourselves into political camps? Why do we categorize our brothers and sisters as “other” based on how they look, think, or act?
And why do we usually do that behind a screen instead of engaging in conversations and dialogue designed to promote understanding and unity?
I contend that one reason we divide comes in how we perceive our own identities.
Who are you? Our current culture says that our individual identities are found in intersections of oppressions or oppressings. According to the rules of societal engagement, you are either oppressor or oppressed. Oppressors must rid themselves of every hint of historical wrongdoing; the oppressed must rise up and ensure the oppressors are re-educated and replaced. The issue with this worldview is that it ignores the fact that we are all sinners, desperately broken, and in need of redemption. There is no doubt that there is a historical record of wrongs done by one group of people to another group; the practice is the natural state of humankind and continues all over the world to this day. No revolution, no education, no secular state has been able to overcome the desire for power that is inherent in the prideful heart of people. Nor is it possible for that to be accomplished in the human dimension. Humans will ALWAYS default to us versus them. Utopia is a myth.
Reality is that the human condition is irreparably damaged by sin. Every person who has ever lived is broken. Our identity is not found in intersections, nor is it found in groups. Intersections of oppression create an illusion intended to cover personal sin. Groups serve only to divide into us and them. But there is hope in a new identity that restores broken people. Paul observed, “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believed in him for eternal life” (1 Timothy 1:15-16 ESV). Paul was both oppressed as a Jew, even though he was a citizen of Rome, and oppressor as a well-educated Pharisee who persecuted followers of Jesus. Paul, then, might represent each of us, regardless of how society has labeled us. Paul rejected the labels of his culture and embraced the mercy of Jesus.
When we embrace the mercy of Jesus, we are adopted as the children of God. No matter what this broken culture says, we can throw off the politics of identity by claiming the inheritance that begins with forgiveness and continues with the riches of God’s grace, poured over us with all wisdom and understanding according to His good pleasure (Ephesians 1:5-6). We are Christ’s, sons and daughters of the Most High, justified by faith alone. As sons and daughters, we are also brothers and sisters, members of one family. Each of us has put on Christ, and in doing so, we have entered into a new identity, one where “there is neither slave nor free” we are ONE in Jesus (Galatians 3:23-29; Colossians 3:11).
If, then, we are one in Jesus, how can we continue to participate in arguments over things of this earth? This world is not our home; we have an eternal promise, a citizenship in heaven. Any glory of this world is the worst kind of dust compared to the kingdom that is to come (Philippians 3:8). Instead of turning against each other, quibbling over things that are meaningless in the scope of eternity, let us look ahead, together, standing side by side as we work out our salvation, pressing on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:13-20; John 14:1-6). We are a family, not competitors in a cultural debate over which group is “right.” We need to imitate our Father, not the current culture. As a family, we put on love above everything else, because love unites us (Colossians 3: 14).
Resting is hard for many of us, especially those of us who grew up in a community where work was prized above almost anything else. “Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise…” Productivity, even in ministry, becomes an idol, but it is an acceptable one. We take pride in how much we accomplish and we hold up our calendars as trophies of superiority.
The pandemic that rocked 2020 should have been a reset of rest and work in balance, and for many people the reset was real. For others of us, however, resting led to guilt over falling behind on plans and goals and work, so when restrictions were lifted, we jumped in doing double time to compensate for the jigsaw puzzles, movies, and books that kept us entertained for a year.
I know the feeling because that’s what I’ve done for the last few months.
When “wait” became my word for 2021, I should have know this season would be one of forced rest. God know that my temperament is one that seeks after accomplishment, so He ensured that this year, I would not be able to show a list of doing. Instead, He gave me opportunities to practice being. I haven’t been entirely cooperative, if I am perfectly honest. I looked for jobs in my field for months. When none materialized, I started up several side projects and looked for part-time work somewhere doing anything. I found that my resume made me look overqualified for pretty much everything, so I didn’t get call backs for entry level jobs. When I finally settled down to examine why, it was like the Lord told me to wait–and write; He would provide.
I started this blog with the intention of writing a book about the need for grace in the church. I still believe I need to write that book. This season of waiting and being seems to be designed for following through. It is also a reminder that Sabbath was made for humans, not the other way around (Mark 2:27). God designed a day for resting and worshipping because we (I) need it.
So now, I enter that rest with a little trepidation, but certain that the Father will supply my needs. I will fill my mind with His word. I will learn and write about grace. I will keep my calendar flexible, knowing that God will put me where He wants me too be while keeping me free to do the work He has called me to do. In time, not all at once. Day by day, practicing the gift of rest.
For he has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this way: “And God rested on the seventh day from all his works”…So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his (Hebrews 4:1-11).
How to please the Lord 101: Love God, love people. There is nothing complicated about what God wants his children to do. He says it over and over in every book of the Bible. Jesus himself summed up the commandments in two sentences: Love the Lord your God will your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37-39).
What does it look like to love the Lord with everything you have? It looks like loving others. It looks like true judgments, showing kindness, and offering mercy. Zechariah says it in chapter 7, verse 9. Micah says it in chapter 6 verse 8. Paul wrote in Romans 12 that believers should outdo one another in showing honor, and how else do we do that but by true judgement, kindness, and mercy?
The author of Hebrews and Peter and John all emphasized the importance of loving one another the same way that the Father loves us.
James wrote that faith without works is dead. It might be equally said that loving God without loving others is הֶבֶל (hebel), a vapor, nonsense, or foolishness, what King Solomon called “Vanity of vanities.” Love for God isn’t real unless it is demonstrated by loving one another through justice, kindness, mercy, and humility.
Love isn’t complicated, but it isn’t easy, either. We are human. We have annoying habits. We have strongly held differences of opinion. We interpret Scripture differently. Our experiences vary, our cultures conflict, and our expectations of how things should be often sit in opposition. In the US, the differences between us have been amplified in 2020 and 2021 by a pandemic (and how people should respond to it), racial strife (and how government should mitigate it), and disasters, both nature and human-caused. Human nature lashes out and social media makes it convenient to insist on being right instead of being unified. We must carefully consider not only what we say, but how we say it. Love is quick to listen. Love pursues goodness and truth. Love judges the self truly so that each one might be humble. In humility we act out our love for God by showing kindness and mercy to our brothers and sisters, just as the Lord commanded.
If God demonstrated His love for us by sending His only Son to be the atoning sacrificefor our sins, how much more ought we demonstrate our love for God by loving one another in right judgements, showing mercy, and being kind?