Weeks before I accepted the job as Micah’s Executive Servant-Leader, a pastor friend of mine asked me a candid question.
“I want to make sure that you understand this is the kind of work that can take someone to the cross,” he said.
“Of course,” I replied. “How could work this important be anything but that?” Only now do I realize how very little I understood his question.
At the time, I thought he was feeling out my work ethic, testing my seriousness about the job. I knew I was taking on a difficult population, and I realized that my efforts could get controversial. But never did I expect the incredible roadblocks that would fall in the path of a vision that seemed to make so much sense.
When we think of the crucifixion, the journey to the cross,” it is easy to forget that Jesus did not simply springboard from a manger bed to the foot of the cross. After years of preaching on mountaintops, sharing stories and performing miracles, he carried the 80 to 110 pound crossbar for at least 650 yards of a narrow, cobblestone street. He navigated a jeering crowd who didn’t like or appreciate him. All, while surrounded by Roman soldiers who were less than sympathetic. It’s not surprising that popular tradition reports him to have fallen three times on a walk that spanned the length of five and a half football fields. So important was that part of his journey to the cross, that Jerusalem’s Via Dolorosa lends three of its fourteen stations to those very events.
As my pastor friend predicted, my work with Micah has held its own share of “falls.” There have been moments of sheer loneliness, when my staff was so small and the work so huge I wondered how we’d survive another month. At times, I’ve looked at a budget just large enough to pay my salary and cried for our inability to address the monumental desperation from our neighbors in need. And of course, there have been those kind souls claiming only to have my best interest in mind when they offer a gentle reminder that “those chronic homeless people just cannot be helped.”
I’d like to think, after ten years of service to the community, that these struggles are over for Micah. But somehow, the more success stories we spit out, the better program we build and the closer we get to the edge of greatness, the harder people fight to keep us in our place.
In a fit of frustration, one day, I asked my pastor friend to explain how this could be so. “How could we work so hard and have so much success in making God’s kingdom a reality, only to find greater obstacles in our path,”
“That’s exactly how God wants it,” he replied. I could almost see him smile.
You see, for all these years, my friend was trying to help me understand a very important lesson. Countless times in biblical history, people stood on the edge of greatness; at the cusp of doing something magnificent to bring about a particular prophecy. Sometimes they forged ahead. Other times they turned back. The turning back thing, of course, never went so well.
Take, for example, that same moment in Numbers 13-14 when the Hebrew people stood with Moses on the edge of the promised land for the second time. Their parents had already spent 40 years in the wilderness for their own lack of belief in God’s ability to help them conquer Israel, and they now faced the same decision. The evidence was in front of them. God had sent plagues, parted a body of water and led them through the desert to deliver them from Egypt. But when 10 out of 12 spies investigated the land they were supposed to claim and reported it to be inhabited with giants, the doubt and murmuring commenced. ”If only we had died in Egypt. Or in this wilderness!” they cried. “Why is the Lord bringing us to this land, only to let us die by the sword… We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt”
Moses, Aaron, and the remaining two spies, Joshua and Caleb, tried to reason with them. They begged the people to have faith in God’s promises, but nothing could overcome the people’s careful calculations of their own capabilities.
“How long will these people treat me with contempt?” God said. “How long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the signs I have performed among them?” And he banished them to another forty years in the wilderness.
When my pastor friend asked if I was prepared for a journey to the cross, it was this kind of pivotal moment that he was testing. He knew the temptation of many is to turn back when challenges seem bigger that the human spirit. He knew that I would someday wonder why things get harder the closer we get to God’s kingdom. And he knew that Jesus was crucified at the exact moment the world was starting to buy into his vision.
Just think of Jesus as he struggled through his own walk to the cross. So many times could he have turned back. He could have stopped preaching when people didn’t like what he had to say. He could have sent the disciples home at any point. He came the closest in those final hours he spent in the Garden of Gethsemane. “Lord, take this cup from me,” he begged.
What if he had not gotten up from his many falls? Might he have chosen to sabotage the whole thing and cause the Roman Soldiers to kill him on the spot? Any other death would have spared the suffering he was about to endure on the cross, but it would not have accomplished the same vision.
When we stand at the edge of true greatness, it seems impossible to cross the final mountain to arrive at the land of milk and honey. And if we live by our own calculations, our personal capabilities, we can’t! In fact, believing it cannot be done, limits God’s power to demonstrate otherwise. God is at His best when the journey is difficult and the job gets done anyway. If it’s too easy, we like to give ourselves the credit. But when we achieve the thing that no one thought could be done, God gets the glory he should.