Tuesday, January 20, 2015

How Short Is Long Enough?

I grew up as a child of the 80s watching gymnast Mary Lou Retton in the 1984 Summer Olympic Games.  With her short-cropped brown hair and winning smile, she was a whirlwind of positive energy.  We watched on the edge of our seats as she flipped on the rings, gripped the bar with white chalked hands, and vaulted across the floor mat.  For many of my generation, Mary Lou became a symbol of power and purpose combined into one small, all-American girl.

Unlike many modern-day sports stars, hers was short-lived.  She was in the limelight one moment and then virtually gone the next when she retired from competitive gymnastics just a short two years later.

Back then, I knew her gold-medal performance was the result of hard work and a life of dedication, but I couldn't grasp just how dedicated she was to her craft until I grew into adult with my own pursuits that required such diligence and persistence for success.

When looking at the life of John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus, it seems that his entire life was also spent year after year in preparation for his ministry.

Scripture tells us that John the Baptist was at least six months older than Jesus.  As the angel told Mary, "your relative Elizabeth has also conceived a son in her old age; and she who was called barren is now in her sixth month" (Lk. 1:36).

Great things were expected of John.  The angel told his father, Zechariah, that his son would "'be great in the sight of the Lord; and he will drink no wine or liquor, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit while yet in his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the sons of Israel back to the Lord their God. It is he who will go as a forerunner before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers back to the children, and the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous, so as to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.'" (Lk. 1:15-18).

It wasn't just his family, though, who had high expectations for John.  After Zechariah prophesied after his son's naming, "All who heard them kept them in mind, saying, 'What then will this child turn out to be?” For the hand of the Lord was certainly with him'" (Lk. 1:66).

As the son of a priest, as a child identified by God as the forerunner of Messiah, as a babe indwelt with the Holy Spirit from the womb--John's life would have been focused from birth to fulfill this calling. Everyone would have been expecting great things.  Talk about pressure...

Some scholars believe the verse that reads "And the child continued to grow and to become strong in spirit, and he lived in the deserts until the day of his public appearance to Israel" (Lk. 1:80) implies that John would have even left home as a young child to become part of the Nazarite community in the desert, training daily for priesthood and devoting himself completely to the task at hand.

This was discipline beyond what we can even imagine with the strictest boarding school.  It was all consuming.  Then, in Luke 3, John's ministry finally begins.  Luke pinpoints its start in the midst of much darkness: "Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip was tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene" (v. 1).

His entire life had been preparing for this moment, and when it finally came, he made the most of it.  As we discussed here earlier this month, people of all social classes flocked to him in the desert.  

But then the Messiah came.  John baptized Jesus.  And just as quickly as his ministry began, it was over.  John's own disciples even began to understand this and followed Jesus, instead: "Again the next day John was standing with two of his disciples, and he looked at Jesus as He walked, and *said, 'Behold, the Lamb of God!' The two disciples heard him speak, and they followed Jesus" (Jn. 1:35-37).

At the next mention of John, Jesus hears "that John had been taken into custody" (Matt. 4:12). Then, just as quickly, John's head is served up on a platter for Herodias in such a silly, meaningless end to such a well-devoted, serious live.

Like old kindling that ignites the hearth into bright flame long enough to light the logs around it before burning quickly to ash--this was John.  A lifetime of preparation for 1-3 years of service in which he lit the hearts of those around him into flame for serving Jesus.  

I don't know about you, but sometimes, I wonder why I'm here.  What is my purpose.  What ministry am I supposed to do.  Is there, like John, a single mission I'm working towards?

I can't answer that question--not for myself and certainly not for you.  But what I can learn from John is that (1) dedication to the task God gives me and (2) submission to Jesus' agenda over my own must be the game plan.  

Maybe God will show us our mission early in life as He did with John.  Or maybe we won't know our mission until it is upon us.  Either way, I believe God expects us to prepare, prepare, prepare.  

Let us seek to discipline ourselves in the spiritual disciplines with the fervor we would exhibit if we knew that tomorrow were the day we've been waiting upon...for who is to say it is not and we simply haven't been given that insight yet from on high.

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