By Joe LaGuardia
Those of you who know Bob Bala also know he can tell a great story. I’ve seen his grandchildren drop everything in order to sit with him whenever he utters the words, “I have a story to tell.”
This past week at a Relay for Life banquet, Bob told of a time when he was trying to sell a car to a Baptist preacher in the late 1970s.
The car was a 1978 Toyota Corolla, light blue station wagon. Bob and the preacher could not strike a deal. The preacher left, and Bob followed up over the next few days.
Finally, after the third or fourth call, the preacher told Bob, “God told me not to buy that car.”
Bob, in his unique way, was frustrated: How can any man–clergy or not–use God as an excuse not to buy a car?
A few days passed, and Bob made a deal with someone else who traded in a 1974 Toyota Corolla, light blue station wagon.
Bob called the preacher and told him, “Hi, Preacher, I’m calling you because God just sent me the car that he wants you to buy.”
Although that was not the end of the story, and we laughed for quite a few minutes after, I retell that story (with his permission, of course) because it reminds me of the politics of our day — Politics in the public square and politics in the pulpit.
I know that we pastors try to discern God’s will for churches and spend many hours in prayer, but even then I have never said to someone, “God is telling me x, y, and z.”
Now, that does not mean that I haven’t sensed God’s direction in my life or affirmed someone else’s experience with God, but I’ve never been so bold as to say with certainty what God has ever said.
We ministers–and the people of God, too–do not speak in place of God. Rather, we only come to proclaim the One who comes in the name of the Lord. We are not Jesus; we only prepare a path so others can hear directly from him on matters important to faith.
This Palm Sunday, many churches will follow in the example of those disciples of old who chanted, “Hosanna in the highest; blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.”
It was the time when Jesus triumphantly entered Jerusalem to head not for a crown, but for the cross. People went before him to cast their cloaks on the ground and praise God–a symbolic, but very real way of declaring that this Messiah is coming to be king of Israel.
Yet, when it came time to speak for God, they were silent. Only Jesus spoke to the powers that were in charge; and only Jesus was able to say, declaratively, what it was that God was doing in the larger story of the world’s salvation.
Palm Sunday is reminiscent of the baptism of Jesus, for it was at that time that John the Baptist declared that he too was preparing for the way of the Lord. When Jesus came to be baptized, John said that Jesus was the Lamb of God, the very son who came to save the world from its sin.
John said that only Jesus had the authority to speak for God and that “The Lord must increase while I decrease” (John 3).
God’s purpose for John was to prepare the way for the Spirit that others might hear God on God’s own terms. Even we preachers, who spin some great sermons, proclaim that truth: That Jesus might meet people in the pews right where they are in life.
Politicians are much like preachers (or is it that preachers are like politicians?), and many a candidate will try to speak on God’s behalf. It is their way of attracting the “evangelical” or “values voter.”
Yet, we must remember that God speaks in God’s own way, and the words that God speaks is usually words we need to hear, rarely intended for someone else.