Over a decade ago I wrote a series of essays based on my study of John. I observed that there were a number of passages that spoke to me as a pastor, which was a bit of a surprise in John. I will be posting these, one at a time, as we work through John a second time, about 12 years later.
To this John replied, ‘A man can receive only what is given him from heaven.’ John 3:27
You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor. Exodus 20:17
Be content with what you have, because God has said,
‘Never will I leave you;
Never will I forsake you.’
What a great ministry! John the Baptist had come out of the wilderness with a powerful message. He was the last of the Prophets who came to the people of God with the repeated message to return. Return to God. Return to the Word of God. Return to faith and obedience, and leave behind all your disobedience.
What was amazing was that the people did return. They went away from their materially rich lives to declare their poverty before God out in the wilderness. This man John thundered beside the Jordan, and the nation shook. They came to him and he baptized them for the forgiveness of their sins.
Baptism would have been an insult in normal times. It would have meant that they were no better than the gentiles, those unclean worshipers of man-made idols and myths. These were not normal times. John’s voice rang out and struck a chord in the hearts of the people. They agreed with the prophet and repented by the hundreds.
No one had every seen a ministry like this. Not since Jonah preached to Nineveh had such a response been seen.
After John baptized Jesus, things began to change. Jesus, the long-awaited One, had come and had begun his own ministry. His ministry was destined, as John well know, to be greater than his own.
One day some of John’s disciples came to him. They spoke with a note of alarm in their voices.
“Rabbi, that man who was with you on the other side of the Jordan — the one you testified about— well, he is baptizing, and everyone is going to him.”
This is where we receive our first word for pastors. It confronts the biggest challenge to pastors in our number-conscious and ego-driven age. It confronts us on the question of covetousness. It rebukes us with words that cut to the heart of our ministry envy.
To this John replied, “A man can receive only what is given him from heaven. You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but am sent ahead of him.’ The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must become greater; I must become less.”
John’s Disciples were very upset. That other One, the One John had recognized, that One that came onto the scene after John had boldly prepared the people, that One and his disciples were now baptizing. They were taking John’s ministry from him. What, they thought, was John going to do about it.
John’s answer was contentment. His contentment was in the knowledge that he had done with vigor and with integrity the work he had been given. He even had a measure of glory. He and his ministry would soon fade away, but the Promised One had come.
I don’t know of any verse that we show our disagreement with more than John 3:27.
I receive in the mail almost every day cards, letters, tapes and catalogues that promise the secret of successful ministry. There is a close race going on between the credit card offers that arrive at my home and the ministry consultant offers that arrive at the church. Most recently the ministry consultants have been winning.
We have come to the conclusion that the key to success is out there somewhere. We scan the business world for organizational and motivational models. We keep our eyes on the Internet so that we don’t miss the rapid changes sweeping by on ever faster microprocessors. We watch the entertainment world to see what fashions and what songs will draw the people. We listen to the psychologists and sociologists who tell us what is wrong with people. We even believe when the almost always incorrect futurists project from the known to the unknown with confidence.
We believe, if we can be judged by our actions, that consultants and mailings are more important to the work of the kingdom than prayer and preaching. We believe that if we do not keep up with the world, we will be swept away by the tidal wave of change.
But John gives us this other word. “A man can only receive what is given him from heaven.”
Certainly this means that we can only receive the gold and silver and stone that we build into the ministry from God’s resources and God’s methods.
Certainly this means that most of what comes in through the mail slot and on the computer screen will be burned with all the straw and stubble of past efforts at ministry-glorification.
Certainly we must shut up out ears and run for our lives from this Vanity Fair of Man-Made Ministry.
John’s prophetic message was to return.
We need to turn our eyes away from our own need for success in the world. Maybe it would be good not to count the average attendance – or if it must be counted, let others less vulnerable than the pastor keep the numbers.
We need to turn our eyes away from the other shepherds. If another servant is gathering more sheep or baptizing more sinners or building newer sheep pens, it is of no importance to my calling.
We need to return our eyes to where they belong. We need to return our eyes to the Good Shepherd, and follow wherever he leads.
Wherever he leads….and be content.
“Lord, you have assigned me my portion and my cup;
You have made my lot secure.
The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
Surely I have a delightful inheritance.”
* * *
My boundary lines have fallen in unexpected places. As we approached graduation from seminary, my wife and I received a call from a small church in the borough of Queens in New York City. We held them off because we had not had a chance to talk to district superintendents of our association. That proved to be like many of my fishing trips: There no bites, not even a nibble!
So we went. Our first placement was a church of about 50, if we exaggerate only slightly. They were first and a few second generation German immigrants in a strongly ethnic German and Italian neighborhood populated by avidly nominal church adherents. The preceding pastor had left the church “bleeding and on the floor,” as the elder we met quickly informed us. The church building sat across three city lots and had no parking except a driveway. I watched one day as the other elder placed my name on the church sign under the English, but above the German message. I started as pastor of half of a small church.
We served, mainly in healing the bleeding church, and perhaps in cracking the door open to the community, for nine years. We had no numbers to show, except that the median age went down after all the funerals that came in the first year or two.
We would have happily stayed for another nine, except that the church needed a new leader. Having been healers, they were not ready of us to be leaders.
We set out our resume. Like infant spiders riding the winds to their new home, we ended up in Madison, Wisconsin.
I remember arguing the point with the Lord. Madison is a small city in a small state. It was not the urban ministry we had in mind. As if to answer me, on a flight out to finalize details of the call, the plane that left LaGuardia airport, for some reason, circled the whole of New York City. The plane flew over each of the five boroughs, and went right over our neighborhood. I remember thinking, “good-by to adventure.” The plane also circled Madison before landing; It was a very much smaller circle.
Was this a demotion? Had we proved ourselves to be minor-leaguers? It was our calling, we were certain, and we received it. This ministry has proved to be a very adventurous place. We live where post-modernism is not a lecture subject, but a firmly held assumption by our secular neighbors. We live where about a third of our neighbors are gay or lesbian – the first neighbors to welcome us was such a couple and their children. We live by one of the notorious inner-city pockets of at-risk families and crime. Madison is home to the state government and a world class university of decidedly liberal values. The church is in the city, but not a typical urban church; It is what it is.
It fits us, though we often lose our sense of humor. It is for us a “pleasant place”, to use the Psalmist’s phrase, though we still aren’t reconciled to retirement here.
“A man can receive only what is given him from heaven.”
Churches struggle with their call. In Queens the elder joked about our “dynamic stability”. With each older member who died, or with each family that left for the suburbs, we received a new member. It was one for one, no matter what we did. We said, “Oh, if we could only grow to 100, then we could have a really vital ministry.”
In Madison, in a church of 100, the church wondered if it was viable because we were “only” 100. My first task was to teach and repeat that we do not find our calling by comparison or by copying other churches, but to receive our calling from the Lord. I still repeat that lesson often because it is counteracted almost weekly by some author, consultant, denominational official or when we notice who gets media coverage and who does not.
It is like wealth. We are “wealthy” if we have more than most other people. Each culture has it’s own measurement. But the scriptures tell us to be content with just food and clothing. In the same way, we have a “successful” church if we are bigger than most, or if we have more pastors or better music or a better preacher than others.
But if John can only receive what is given him from Heaven, can we as churches measure our “wealth” or “success” by any other measure than that we can only receive what is given us from Heaven. If God grants numbers because we are sent to a ripened field will we take the credit? If we have few numbers because we are sent to a place with unyielding soil, will we reject the gift of God?