“I tell you, Pastor, the man won’t show. John’s just not dependable. He never shows up when we need him. I don’t know why you picked him.”
“He’ll be here,” I assured my head deacon, patting him on the back. Yet deep inside, I felt the same reservation.
Tonight was the annual Christmas program portraying the life of Christ, and John was scheduled to play the adult Jesus. He wouldn’t be needed until the very last scene, when he’d show up to say; “And lo, I will be with you always, even unto the end of the age.”
Still, that was the finale, and the climax of the entire evening. If he didn’t show up this time… I decided to pray.
“Lord, I know John only came to know You as Lord last Christmas, and sometimes he makes commitments he doesn’t keep. Some of the reasons he offers for not showing up when we expect him I can understand. Car trouble happens to us all, doesn’t it? And of course, there was the time his mother moved away, and his brother went to prison… All good reasons. But how many times does your mother call long distance just as you’re leaving for church?
“Lord, I’m not being critical of John. He’s committed his life to You, and is a warrior in prayer. He’s certainly had his share of troubles. His wife left him for another man. His father embezzled funds and ran off with his secretary, leaving John with a bankrupt business and a broken hearted mother. His brother is involved in drugs, and in prison. I visited him this afternoon, and he hasn’t accepted You as Savior yet. Please continue to soften his heart. “
I looked at my watch and out at the parking lot. John’s old car was still not here. And there was less than half an hour until the evening program. I hung a “Counseling” sign on the door to my office and then shut and locked it before hitting my knees once more.
“Lord, I don’t know why I feel so burdened to pray for John. If need be, I can fill in for him, I guess. I’ve filled in for people plenty of times. But, Father, John needs to play this part. It’s his chance to make amends with the others in this church who feel he’s let them down in the past. When he was saved it was literally a new birth for him. Many of our members are from small towns where they grew up knowing everyone. They don’t realize how hard it is for John. I’m not making excuses for him. I want the others to accept him like family.”
I glanced at my watch, went to the window, and sighed. No John. A knock at the door. I opened it swiftly. My head deacon stood there, his shepherd’s robe in place, staff in his hand. “He ain’t here, yet. Just lettin’ you know. You want me to get one of the ushers to fill in?”
“How many people out there?”
“More than 100, according to Joe. He’s started settin’ up chairs. I can get an usher.”
“No, that’s all right,” I assured him. “The Lord will work this out. Besides, John isn’t due to go on till the last minute.”
“If you say so, Pastor.” He turned to go, looked back, and said, “I hear the roads are icy, and it’s raining some. Grandma Jones might not make it.”
I nodded, closed the door, leaned against it, and closed my eyes. “Lord, why am I praying for this man when I need to be out there greeting people?” Only one reason: the Spirit was leading me to do it. I knelt again.
“Father, the roads are icy. I’m interceding for those traveling, not only to our church, but also everywhere. Christmas is in two days and we’re not the only church holding services. People are trying to get home, to airports, and across town. Please send angels to minister and protect them. Grandma Jones has arthritis and it hurts when the weather’s bad. She can’t drive in rain and her family attends a church closer to where they live. Please shield her from harm, and let her feel Your love and concern for her.”
Another knock jerked me back to the present. This time it was the head usher. “Pastor, the place is full!” His eyes were wide as a little child’s. “We’re plumb out of chairs.”
Just then, the pianist began playing Silent Night, my cue to start toward the front and open with prayer. I hadn’t even greeted anyone yet, and the program was starting. Guilt washed over me: I countered it by remembering that God Himself had called me to this time of prayer.
“Let’s go see what’s happening, Joe,” I said. “You lead.”
The church was filled with people: standing room only. I’d never seen so many on such a cold night. Even Grandma Jones was there, smiling and happy, her family in attendance. When the Lord Jesus is truly lifted up and honored, He draws all people to Himself. There aren’t always happy endings, but the Lord makes even the bittersweet life taste good when He enters it.
The program went on as scheduled, with music so clear and sweet and on key I could feel the angels smiling. The processional and the shepherd scene went so well, I honestly forgot to worry about whether John would make it until right before he was supposed to appear. My heart almost stopped beating as I realized I’d made no provision for a replacement. I turned slightly and looked for my head usher and deacon, who were both looking at me. They shrugged. I closed my eyes. Dear Lord…
“And lo,” said a resonant male voice that filled the sanctuary, “I will be with you always, even unto the end of the age.”
I looked up at the finest costume and makeup job I’d ever seen in my life. John stood there, arms out, a radiant smile on his face that brought tears to my eyes and tore the heart right out of my chest with gratitude.
“Thank You. Thank You, Lord.” I gave an invitation for people to know the Lord, and two members of Grandma Jones’ family came forward, and an entire family of visitors. It was glorious.
I think I must have talked to everyone after the service. Everyone came up and told me how great the music had been, and complimented the choir, pianist and organist. I sent my wife on home to put the children to bed and was helping Joe put away chairs before I realized I hadn’t talked to John. Disappointed in myself, I let out a sigh.
“What’s wrong, Pastor?”
“I never talked to John. And he did such a wonderful job, too.”
“He sure did! Best Jesus I ever saw anybody play. How d’you think he made that beard look so good? His was pretty scraggly. I heard him say he was ready to shave it off and forget it not more than a week ago. It looked pretty real, didn’t it?”
“Sure did.” I asked, “So you didn’t talk to him either?”
He shook his head. “I think he left right away. I didn’t see him around afterward. Did you? And he always likes to talk.”
I put the thought away and worked at cleaning up. Compared to putting it together, it took no time at all. Joe went home and I stayed to lock up. I was about to turn out the lights when I noticed blue lights flashing through the stained glass windows. When I went to investigate, I found a policeman.
“Are you Pastor Smith?”
“Yes, sir. May I help you?”
“Sir, I’m sorry to bring bad news right before Christmas.” He removed his hat. “But there was a five car accident on the freeway tonight. Apparently, one of the people killed was a member of your church. We found your name in his wallet as one of the contact people.”
He offered me the man’s driver’s license. It was John.
“Oh, no!” I held the small card in my hands and stared at the face of the man that just a few hours before I had earnestly prayed for, and then had completely ignored. This time, the guilt swamped me. Tears sprang to my eyes. “He was here only an hour ago, in our program.” I looked up at the officer. “He played Jesus.”
“When would that have been?” he asked. “About what time?”
I glanced at my watch. I’d been praying for him about 6:30. The program went on at 7:00, and had been over at 8:00. “Almost an hour ago,” I said. “I saw him at 7:45, I’m sure.”
He looked down at the driver’s license I still held. “It couldn’t have been him, sir, but I don’t see how there could be a mistake.” He took back the license and looked at the name again. “I don’t see…” Confused, he looked at me, a question in his eyes. “I went to your house first, and no one was home. Then a neighbor told me you were the pastor of a church, and I went to the one down the street by mistake…” He frowned, looked down at the license again and back up. “This man died around 6:45 this evening.”
The bells on the big church across town began to peal. No wonder I’d been burdened to pray. No wonder so many came. No wonder so many were saved. I lifted my face to heaven and had to smile. How like the Lord to substitute Himself when we are not equal to the task. Of course that beard looked good! It was real.