A sermon delivered by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, Nc., on January 1, 2012.
Even though I am a father three times over, I’ll be the first to confess I am mystified by that miraculous nine-month process we call “pregnancy.” Obviously, it’s not the “birds” and “bees” part that baffles me—sadly these days even grade school kids seem to know the “facts of life.” But I can read multiple textbook explanations about how a fetus develops and still be amazed that over a nine month period of time a human being is meticulously formed, and eventually born with a body and brain and soul that boggle the mind.
Granted, to the naked eye the whole process might seem random. We even routinely refer to pregnancies as “accidental”. I know because I came along 11 months into my parents’ marriage, and there’s no question I was unplanned! But from God’s perspective nothing about pregnancy is unplanned or random. At a level we cannot see, both Providence and science are work. Indeed, the marvelous way the human fetus takes shape inside a mother’s womb can make even the most hardened skeptic marvel.
As I marvel over the process of pregnancy, I realize my entire life is a similar kind of mystery. Whenever I return to my childhood home as I did this past week, I reflect again on the twists and turns of my life that made me into the 18 year old kid that wandered into Wake Forest University 41 years ago, primarily because a high school friend convinced me to apply to a school I’d barely heard of. At Wake Forest I just happened to major in religion even though I lost my faith, and just happened to meet and marry a gal named Joani who had a vibrant faith. And then on the way to getting a Ph.D, I just happened to attend Princeton Seminary where I recovered my faith and discovered my call to ministry.
Looking back I can see now how God was strategically shaping me to come to this church as pastor two decades ago. And more recently, I see how God introduced me to an organization called the Transforming Center that led me into a deeper life in the Spirit at a moment when I was so exhausted with ministry I was ready to throw in the towel!
Along the way I can’t honestly say I was always aware of what God was up to in my life—in fact, I was often clueless and frustrated by my lack of clarity. But in retrospect, I can see God’s hand moving in every stage of my life. Of course, there are painful parts of my life I still don’t understand, just like there are flawed pregnancies and other human tragedies I cannot explain. Tracing the arc of God’s activity in human affairs is rarely simple. But neither is it impossible.
In fact, I would submit that no matter how convoluted your life seems, if you were to sit with God and review your life together, you might find a rhyme and reason that would surprise you. Likewise, God moves strategically in the life of institutions. I believe, for example, that God has been at work in the 140 year life of FBC in ways that haven’t always been obvious, and we are approaching another strategic moment in the life of our congregation, a moment that the Apostle Paul might call “the fullness of time.”
One reason I’m convinced God moves strategically rather than randomly is the way he orchestrated the birth of Jesus. When Paul reviewed his own life, and indeed the whole of history, he saw anything but random chaos. Remember Paul never met Jesus in the flesh, but he had a life-changing encounter with his Spirit. And very quickly Paul realized that Jesus was the hinge upon which all of history turns.
As you read Paul’s letter to the Galatians, you can sense his view of history just beneath the surface. In the earliest eras of history, Paul believes God’s chosen people were like children who needed lots of guidance. God provided that guidance through the Ten Commandments and other supporting rules that, over time, morphed into hundreds of other rules and regulations.
These commandments and rules were helpful at first. But eventually they took on a life of their own, and soon the people were far more obsessed with the jots and tittles and loopholes of the Law than they were with God himself. Realizing his people were majoring on the minors, God sent a series of prophets to bring his chosen people to their senses, but to no avail.
Centuries went by, the Israelites fell into deep ditch, spiritually and otherwise, and it looked like God’s dream to have a covenant people model a kingdom way of life for all the world to see was dead in the water. Meanwhile, the Israelites stuck to their endless legalisms like glue, turning their religion into a heavy burden rather than a pathway to life.
But as it happens there was a method to this madness. When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, so that we might receive adoption as God’s children. Paul packs a philosophy of history and a theology of salvation into this one sentence that is incredibly profound.
Speaking like a theologically trained gynecologist, Paul compares history to a pregnant woman who endures a very complicated pregnancy. In fact, for the longest time it looks like this cosmic pregnancy might end in a miscarriage.
But when history reaches full term, God sets a number of strategic initiatives into motion. With perfect timing he arranges for Mary and Joseph to be engaged, for Mary to be impregnated by the Holy Spirit, for Caesar Augustus to issue a decree that assures Joseph and Mary would deliver a son just as they arrive in Bethlehem, for the shepherds to be tending their flocks the very night of Jesus’ birth, etc., etc.
The Son of God was born of a woman—otherwise he could not redeem the human family. The Son of God was born under the law—otherwise, he could not free people bound to the law through his sinless life and his sacrificial death on the cross. The Son of God was also divine, the “natural” Son of God – otherwise he could not have created a port of entry for all believers to be adopted into God’s family. Eventually, the Spirit of God would occupy and communicate with every believer’s soul – otherwise we could not know we truly belong to God.
We might assume it is impossible to be strategic and spiritual at the same time. But God proves that way of thinking is dead wrong. Consider God’s relationship to time. God is the creator of time, and simultaneously exists inside and outside what we know as time. God can see every period of time simultaneously—the past, the present, and the future. And 2,000 years ago God elected to insert Jesus into time-space continuum for a period of 33 years.
Why then and not now? Or any other time?
Could it be because the Roman world at that time was enjoying an unusual period of prolonged peace, what historians today call the Pax Romana? And because the Romans had created an unprecedented system of roads that made communication and travel safer and swifter than ever before? And because God’s people, the Jews, were strategically scattered about the Mediterranean world and were intimately acquainted with prophecies of scripture that fed their longing for a Messiah? Or because there was a common Greek language that was widely spoken and understood?
These and many other factors suggest that, God acted at the most strategic time, through the most strategic people, in the most strategic manner, to accomplish the most amazing result—the transformation of lost sinners into redeemed sons and daughters of God. Of course if Mary and Joseph and a host of others, including Jesus, had refused to cooperate with God, the results would have been quite different.
Our strategic God is always on the lookout for willing people to work alongside him and make his dreams for humanity come true. As we begin a new year together, I believe God is once again searching for willing people who will partner with him for the Kingdom.
A strategic God. A willing people. Combine these two, and anything is possible!