A Hungry People Make a Happy Pastor

Reflections on 33 Advents Together

Dear Bethlehem,

This is my 33rd Advent season with you. That’s half the Christmas seasons of my life.

Twenty-two years of that first half I was in school—from age 6 to 28. It is as though my life has had two parts: Bethlehem and preparation for Bethlehem. Perhaps, if I live long enough, I will someday speak of three parts. But for now, it’s two, and it seems very simple.

Wonderfully simple. Memory has a way of simplifying things. It strips away a few million details that at the time seemed major, and it leaves only the big outlines. Of course, God was in those details. It was he and not I who wove them into the tapestry that I now look back on with wonder. I can’t see the threads any more. A few thousand of them are recorded in my journal, if I choose to look at them. But mainly I simply marvel at the tapestry God has woven.

You are that tapestry. Not the buildings. Not the programs. Not the budget. But you. The ones who worship. The ones who pray. The ones who witness to the world. The ones who have gone to the nations. The ones who love and serve and give and wait for the Lord Jesus. You are the tapestry. “What is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? For you are our glory and joy” (1 Thessalonians 2:19–20).

We have been together long enough for you to know what Paul and I don’t mean by that. We don’t mean that the tapestry is more precious than the One who wove it. We mean this: If we delight in a generous King, we delight in the fruit of such kingliness—happy subjects. If we delight in a strong Savior, we delight in his saved subjects. If we delight in a boundless Treasure, we delight in those who prove it to be inexhaustible. If we delight in a Feast of truth and goodness and beauty, we delight in those who share our tastes and savor the banquet with us. If we hope to see the Christ whose glory is to save sinners, it will be our hope, our joy, to see him—not alone—but with the trophies of his mighty grace. And that you are.

And if he has made us, in any way, the means of your everlasting joy—planting and watering—then this will be our crown, our glory. But the root and the radiance will all be his. For “neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:7). I have worked in this garden for almost 33 years, but, as Paul said, “it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Corinthians 15:10). Where that is not true, there is only chaff.

When we took family vacations my children always wanted to come home to Bethlehem. When I preached anywhere else, I thought: Most of all I love preaching at Bethlehem. When any opportunity for serving somewhere else arose, the conviction stood: There is no garden more fruitful, no people more pleasant than the family of Bethlehem. You have been an easy people to shepherd with the word of God. Hungry sheep make a happy pastor.

The year is closing. My pastoral leadership is closing. Technically I am on staff until March 31, 2013. But the joyful future is already so present, and things are coming together so beautifully, that my leadership role now is mainly as an available consultant. I watch this with inexpressible gratitude to the One who said that his mercy is “from generation to generation” (Luke 1:50).

That’s a quote from Mary’s Christmas song, as she carried in her womb the Savior of the world. All of us may speak this way when we carry Christ in our hearts. Cherish this privilege more than any other. This is how I love to think of you: “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27).

As for me, I say with Mary again, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant” (Luke 1:46–48).

I love you,

Pastor John

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