I completely broke down during worship recently. I was overcome with emotion — kind of out of the blue. I was speaking and just lost it and could not compose myself. If you were there, you know how long I wept up front… (Aaaaaawkward.) When I finally pulled myself together I said the usual, “Wow, I don’t know where that came from” — but apparently it came from somewhere pretty deep and profound. Let me try to unpack where it came from.
I was reflecting on my 35th birthday. During my twenties I was often trying to make sense of my life and spent a long season in “the desert” trying to figure out my call and purpose. When I felt like I was falling behind, spinning my wheels, going nowhere and discouraged, I took comfort in the fact that even Jesus, the Son of God, didn’t begin his “real ministry” until age 30. So at 24 years old, I could breathe a sigh of relief knowing I still had 6 more years to figure things out. Oh, I was busy in my twenties — with ministry and other jobs — but I still hadn’t found my true calling yet. At 28 when I was struggling and wandering a bit, I still had 2 more years to get on the right track and still be like my Savior. And on and on it went.
Then my life and ministry reached that “prime time.” I was 30 when I heard the clear call to plant a church — the same age Jesus’ started his public ministry. I took note. It was a special year for me as I courageously took on a task I felt far too young to accomplish. The voice of doubt would mock me: “Who’s going to follow the lead of a young pastor who’s barely out of his twenties and never pastored a church before?” There are churches where gray haired folks don’t respect younger pastors. In those moments I hid behind Jesus and told myself and others that if they have problem following a 30-year old preacher, then they better find another religion!
Then my 34th year came….and this is where the emotions swell and I am overtaken with some deep sadness and sense of loss. I don’t quite know why but I can try to describe my feelings. Jesus, you see, died (we think) at 33 years of age. The Savior of the world never saw 34. He had fulfilled his earthly purpose in just 33 years. He had accomplished his mission in about 3 years of ministry.
It’s just strange that I would be given more years of life than the Son of God.
It’s unfair that I should be given more breaths than God in the flesh.
And, frankly, I think I felt a bit alone as if I had to face 34 without Jesus. He’d never been there. I wanted to keep mimicking Jesus and following the path he blazed. He started his public ministry at 30 and so did I. He spent his 31st, 32nd, and 33rd birthdays with the community of disciples he had formed. (Yes, I realize this is silly. Jesus is still present with me each passing year…but that earthly age-affinity was another way I felt connected to Jesus and another way I was trying to follow and model my life after his.)
Now this past week I turned 35. For some reason this seems unfair to me. I have outlived Jesus now by two years. I know it sounds foolish and its theologically incorrect, but I guess there’s a part of me that wishes Jesus would have lived a full human life. I wish I could walk with Jesus through each phase of his life….to watch him get married and be a godly husband, to see him become a daddy and raise kids in a kingdom way, and to follow him into middle age, to see how he passed on a godly legacy to his children and grandchildren, to learn how to age gracefully and face those last twilight years where one’s body aches and mind begins to fail, and to watch him die courageously and with hope.
But he finished his race in just 33 years.
And I’m now 35 and I weep uncontrollably in front of my congregation.
I don’t quite know why. But if I ventured a guess it has to be that I want to make him proud. Each additional year I’m given on this earth is a gift and I want to make every breath count for the Kingdom. (I fail daily, no doubt. I squander plenty of breaths on trivial, non-kingdom distractions. But in a very deep place I desire to make my earthly life and ministry count.) I want to make my Heavenly Father proud and each year reminds me of how far short of the standard I fall. No doubt Jesus is smiling at me as I write this and would simply say (with a wink), “Jeremy, I’m the Son of God. I accomplished in 3 years what 100 pastors couldn’t do in 100 years of ministry each (and that’s not even counting the divine stuff like dying for the sins of the world and rising again!).
But then again, in his own way, Jesus did live the full human experience. He found his bride (the church) and shows me how to lay down my life for my wife in self-sacrificial love. In his own way, Jesus is the father of many children — disciples who are his spiritual offspring as we follow after him. His life is the greatest legacy any father can aspire to leave behind. He certainly provides the most inspiring example of what it means to end life well and face death courageously and in hope.
A full life is not measured in number of years but in faithful obedience to the race marked out before us by our Father above. Some live 99 years with hardly anything to show for it, while others finish their race and receive the “Well done, good and faithful servant” in just a passing blink on this earth.
Let me close with a puzzling scripture that scholars have had a difficult time making sense of. Colossians 1:24 says, “Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my body what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.”
The Apostle Paul seems to indicate something that sounds downright heretical at first: that there was something incomplete or lacking in Christ’s earthly ministry. Paul sees his own ministry (especially the sufferings he endures) as somehow continuing Jesus’ ministry and completing it in someways. Yes, Jesus certainly finished his main mission on earth by dying on the cross and rising again to overthrow sin, Satan and death. That’s why on the cross he could exclaim truthfully, “It is finished.”
Yet, there is another sense in that Jesus’ Kingdom-bringing ministry was not completed in those 33 years, and his bride the church is called to join with the Apostle Paul in carrying on his ministry, extending it further, “filling up…what is still lacking” in Christ’s earthly ministry.
So, what an honor and privilege (and somewhat of a scandal?) to be in some small way taking Jesus’ earthly ministry beyond age 33. So, let me ask all of you who are older than 33 today this question: How are you actively extending Jesus’ ministry in the world in each year you live beyond 33? Are you living those years for yourself? Or are you using those years to continue Christ’s ministry in your sphere of influence?
May God give us the strength and courage to live every breath for His Kingdom!