HAVING BIG SHOES TO FILL
Luke 4: 14-21
A missionary in Zambia wrote these words three years ago:
My blog post today is a little different, but bear with me as I hope it will give you all some insight into who I am as an individual, my faith, and my motivation for service as well as what a great privilege it is to walk this land in service with our partners.
Throughout my time working and serving in Zambia, I have been privileged to visit, live on, and work from many “mission stations”. These mission stations were in the large part set up in the latter part of the 19th century by our missionary forebears. I am always struck by these missionaries’ incredible dedication and sacrifice to God and the communities they served. The attrition rate of these missionaries was huge, close to 100%. Very few ever returned to their homeland and loved ones. In those days you left home with the knowledge, understanding, and expectation that this was going to be a one-way trip.
While the reasons for service may be different, I guess the closest modern day comparison you could make is to NASA’s plan to send a group of volunteers to Mars on a one-way trip. Setting aside the ethical arguments and different theological reasoning attached to this, the circumstances related to the two “journeys” are similar: both involve journeys of great distance in the service of others that have no guarantee of return.
I have always used the stories of these missionaries’ service and sacrifice as a motivational tool. I think that this is a legacy that all those who walked this land in service before us would be proud of. I am not walking in the footsteps of giants but indeed standing on the shoulders of giants. [Ruairdh Waddell, World Renew Blog)
Over the years, there have been preachers with big shoes to fill. Look at the children of Robert Schuller; the children of Billy Graham; the children of Martin Luther King Jr. Look at people who aspire to go into space following in the steps of astronauts Sally Ride or John Glenn or Neil Armstrong. Look at people who want to be athletes, following in the footsteps of basketball star Michael Jordan or tennis star Serena Williams; or in the footsteps of a quarterback Tom Brady or a gymnast like Simone Biles. Countless people have role models, or people they admire, who inspire them. Sometimes they are people in history books or biographies; other times it’s people that they’ve met in person. Having aspirations can lift both a civilization and the human spirit.
Imagine the young man Jesus of Nazareth, the hometown boy, having to step into his new role of listening to Divine guidance. It is likely that he was not uneducated. Expert in Middle Eastern New Testament studies, Dr. Kenneth Bailey, wrote this:
In Jesus’ day, across the villages of Galilee and Judea, there were associations of serious-minded Jews who called themselves the haberim. These associations were composed of men who were employed in secular trades but who spent their spare time debating the law and trying to apply it to the world. A young Jew … had the option of joining such a group. If he decided to do so, he was committed to becoming a “student of the rabbis” and participating in their discussions…. It seems natural to assume that Jesus joined the habirim. [Jacob and the Prodigal, Intervarsity Press, 2003. Pp. 24-25]
Have you ever had an aspiration to enter a field of study, or play an instrument, or join a sport because someone in your family, or someone you admired, was good at it? And were you scrutinized, and perhaps even dismissed as you tried your hand in that work? Then you may know what Jesus faced on that day in his hometown. On the day described in Luke chapter 4, Jesus was handed a passage to read; it was from Isaiah, one of the greatest prophets in the annals of Judaism. There are 66 chapters in the book of Isaiah, but by the providence of God and the selection for Jesus, he read Isaiah 61, words saying that the Spirit of the Lord was upon the great Isaiah, the almost mystical prophet of old, and now this 30 year old Jesus claimed his words as he finished the reading and said to the congregation: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” The shoes of Isaiah were too big for Jesus in the sight of the townspeople! They could not buy what he was selling. And—as often happens when an Old Testament passage is included in the New Testament—a few words were dropped or changed. Jesus left out the phrase that he’s been sent to “bind up the brokenhearted.” And he added “to set at liberty those who are oppressed” from Isaiah 58:6.” “The Mishnah (guidance of Jewish practices) stipulates that in any public reading of the Prophets, the reader is permitting some editing.” [Bailey, p.25]
Clearly Jesus was trying to slip himself into very big shoes; the shoes of the great Prophet Isaiah. And the listeners were caught off-guard. They were there to hear a local man read Scripture, not a declaration of God doing a new thing through him. It was a rough time for both the congregation and the speaker. Can you imagine Jesus saying in his nightly prayer: “Father, things aren’t going too well here!” When we start to do a new thing, and not just follow in the paths of the great people who have gone before us, people will resist you. Jesus felt it that day.
After so much time has passed, we in the 21st century may take that scene flat-footed, not getting the radical nature of what was said and claimed. But it was radical. And thus Jesus’ began his impact on our world. And he met resistance. Stepping into a role filled by other competent men or women has always been a challenge. If you recall such times, perhaps we stepping into big shoes or, standing on the shoulders of giants. In golf new golfers stand on the shoulders of Ben Hogan or Arnold Palmer. People in government today may feel like they are standing on the shoulders of Abraham Lincoln or Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Who are the people who have gone before us, carving a niche in our chosen field, or setting the standard for the tasks? Instead of feeling like we can’t measure up, imagine all of those who have gone before you are calling out their encouragement to you! Turn off the voice of the critical mother, or father, or coach. Listen to the great cloud of witnesses, both here and in the hereafter, who are smiling at, and calling out to, you. I wonder if in Jesus’ prayer time, he heard not only encouraging words from his Heavenly Father, but perhaps good words from his insightful mother Mary. And who know? Maybe he heard words from angels or prophets themselves.
Breaking new ground is never easy. Imagine if Steve Jobs or Bill Gates just let IBM keep cornering the market with giant, heavy, slow computers. Imagine where NASA might be now if an insightful manager had not realized the brilliance of three women—Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson—depicted in the wonderful film “Hidden Figures,” and counted on them for their calculations to steer rockets out of harm’s way and back to earth. What a contribution they made. Some just stood in their own shoes, cutting a whole new course across time. They had no prior shoes to fill. Sometimes we need people of courage, skill, and integrity to offer the shoulders on which the next generation can stand.
In addition to great prophets and great judges in the Old Testament, God decided to do a new thing. He did it through Jesus. There was no glass ceiling to break, but there were townspeople to convince. It didn’t go well. Take comfort in knowing things didn’t go well for Jesus. But it was necessary. Sometimes we listen to our heart, where God dwells, and forge ahead. May you listen to God as you choose the path you will take today, and in all of your tomorrows.
Jeffrey A. Sumner January 27, 2019
HAVING BIG SHOES TO FILL