"It was the most fun that I have ever had in ministry. We were a community of the desperate." These were the first words out of the mouth of church planter Ed as he recalled the early years of a church that he and his wife /co-planter Kate launched in Bangor, Maine back in the 1990s.
Ed and Kate were in their mid-twenties and fresh out of seminary. They had moved to Bangor without knowing a single person in the city. They worked tirelessly to build relationships with all whom they encountered. To this day, Ed and Kate remain awestruck and joyful in their description of the people who first joined the fledgling community. They did not attract the movers and shakers nor did they reach the beautiful and the self-assured. Instead, the founding members of their plant consisted of recent transplants to Bangor, several persons struggling with addictions, some ex-convicts, and many who for a variety of reasons were simply struggling to make their way through the world. What did these persons have in common? They were desperate for the very things that the Gospel alone can truly deliver - they were desperate for God.
In other words, they were precisely the types of persons whom Jesus himself impacted during his earthly ministry. Jesus' life models the creation of a community of the desperate – persons hungry for what only God can do and who will in turn carry this good news to others.
Our Scripture lesson for Christmas day (Luke 2:1–20) is so familiar that it is easy to miss its subtle and subversive messages. Luke shares the story of a census, the journey of Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, Jesus' birth in a manger, and the arrival of angels and shepherds to celebrate the event. When we read a well-known text, it is easy to assume there’s nothing more to discover in it. Resist this assumption and pray for fresh astonishment. Today let’s focus on the response of the shepherds at the end of the story.
The shepherds’ response to the angel’s announcement of Jesus’ birth illustrates a key principle: An experience of God’s presence and grace is never an end in itself. It is always a commission to mission. If an experience is authentically from God, it will always push us outside of ourselves and point to the loving service of others. The lowly shepherds become this new king’s first ambassadors.
The shepherds travel immediately to Bethlehem to assesss things for themselves. They proclaim the words of the angels to those who are present (v. 17). This leads to astonishment by "all who heard it" (v. 18). Perhaps the "all" even includes those staying in the actual inn that night. The shepherds then return to their flocks worshipping and praising God (v. 20). The example of the shepherds is significant. They receive the good news about Jesus, and they immediately shift from being lowly shepherds to heralds and ambassadors of God's good news. Their call is the same for us who know and believe the story of Jesus today. We who have experience outpourings of grace must become witnesses to the world of this fact. My mentor Alex McManus taught me: “The Gospel comes to us on its way to someone else and someplace else.”
A core value of Christianity is hope. Too often we make hope a mere insider value. In other words, Christians have hope because we put our trust in God. This is certainly true but it is not radical enough. We are to embody hope for others. We do this by serving as witnesses of God’s abundance to those outside our communities of faith. Christians are to be known to the world not simply as persons of hope, but more profoundly as persons who inspire others, especially on the outside, to have hope as well. This is the true witness of Jesus' birth - that a community of the desperate becomes the source of hope for the world.
How will you serve as a voice of hope for someone today? Who are the desperate in your circle of family, friends, neighbors and acquaintances?
Want more from Dr. Brian Russell? Watch his video on Advent and How to "Prepare the Way of the Lord" (Mark 1:1–8) on YouTube.