I remember feeling excited when I was a young and growing Christian. I understood strongly that a follower of Jesus can change the world. I knew that God had a special purpose for my life. There was a deep-felt hope in the holy promise and potential that come from following Jesus.
People begin as Christians in different ways and for different reasons. William Allen White, in his famous eulogy for his daughter, Mary, pointed to her altruism. He said, “…she felt the church was an agency for helping people to more of life's abundance, and she wanted to help.” That was her rationale for joining First Congregational Church. And historically that was a more common basis for church membership back then: the emphasis was less on self-fulfillment, and more on service to humankind.
Things began to change with the baby-boom generation and then with Generation X. More of us were drawn to the church with a sense of God’s unique plan and purpose for our lives. And this is good in a way; but it comes with a risk of being self-absorbed. Maybe it’s in the nature of things since we’re excited for how God’s has moved in our experience. We get excited for God’s call upon our lives. We get excited for our potential to make a difference with God at our side.
Perhaps it’s sometimes necessary as a starting point, but it isn’t the place you should stay. The launch pad is not the destination. It’s good to grow beyond that.
I thought of this while I was studying the Nunc Dimittis, which is the song that Simeon sang in Luke 2:29-32. After hearing it sung at a funeral for a friend I decided to spend some time preaching on it and on the texts surrounding it. It seemed appropriate as my pastorate in Emporia draws to a close. The song breaks down in the following way:
First, there’s a sense of release: “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word” (2:29). God keeps us around for a reason. But what does it take for a person to leave in peace? Sometimes a personal note of excitement comes with a sense that the task has been completed and it’s time to move on. This was the case for Simeon. He had received confirmation that God was keeping him around until he saw the Messiah (2:26). This makes it sound like it was a burden. Maybe, as with Paul, he would’ve rather departed to be with the Lord than to stay put. But perhaps he could also say with Paul that to live is Christ and to die is gain (Philippians 1:21-23).
Second, there’s a sense of witness: “…my eyes have seen your salvation” (Luke 2:30). The text uses the Greek word soteriōn, which is closely related to the English word soteriology – i.e. the doctrine of salvation. Jesus Christ doesn’t just proclaim salvation; He embodies it. He is also spoken of as light in 2:32a – much as He proclaimed of Himself in John 8:12 when He said, “I am the light of the world.” Simeon had personally seen this; he held the power of God in his arms (in Luke 2:28) – and he knew his purpose was complete.
Third, there’s a shift that happens as Simeon moves to ponder what this light means for every single human being in every age – and not just him personally. It’s important for all of us to move beyond self-absorption to a sense of the wider salvific work of God and His glory. This is why Simeon pondered God’s salvation as something that was “prepared in the sight of all people” (2:31, cf. John 3:16). There have been many good religious teachers in the world, but there is only one Jesus – and He meets a common need for all humankind. That’s why Simeon says that He is “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to the people Israel” (Luke 2:32). In Christ, God has expanded beyond the initial nationalism of Israel and Judah, fulfilling the Old Testament prophecies by bringing salvation to non-Jewish (i.e. Gentile) believers. And yet it’s amazing to think of how it happened: From all the empire nations and religions of the ancient world that were so popular, back when Israel wasn’t even a blip on the radar screen – but now they’re all gone. And today our Bibles contain the teaching, wisdom, and prophecies of the God of Israel. The gospel is good news for every person in the world, whether they realize it or not.
It’s good to take interest in other people’s faith experiences. My great-grandfather was converted in a Salvation Army service in Colorado, and went on to serve Baptist churches in Kansas and Texas before having longer pastorates in Nebraska, Wyoming and California. Like him, I’m going out west to continue my service in the Lord’s work. Ralph Jackman had pastorates in Minnesota and Michigan before coming here. Mike Matheny served pastorates in Wisconsin after leaving here and before retiring to Florida. And Chad Poland, who returned to Maine, recently announced his move to new pastorate in Bangor – where he went to seminary. There are all kinds of good accounts of how the good news of Jesus is carried out by his servants.
I remember a visit I had with Demarick Patton several years ago. (He works as a Cru missionary down in Florida. Some folks will remember his grandmother, Viola Hastings, who was a dear sweet woman in our church years ago.) Over lunch I told him about my calling, my journey into ministry, and what brought me to Emporia. He shared about his testimony and ministry too, but then he said that ultimately all of our stories get submerged into Jesus’ story – which is THE story that matters overall. And he was absolutely correct. It’s a good thing when God lifts our visions and understanding of the gospel beyond ourselves – to the point where we can see the larger salvific work that aims at all of humanity, and ultimately the glory of God.
God bless you,
Andrew McHenry, Pastor - First Congregational Church
The blog of Andrew McHenry, Pastor of First Congregational Church of Emporia, Kansas.