I remember Christmas of 1989 like it was yesterday. That Christmas was especially exciting for me, because on Christmas Eve my mom called me out to our second-story deck with an exciting proclamation, “Come look! Santa is here!”
Without hesitation, I jumped out of my bed and ran down the hallway to the sliding glass door where I stepped out into the frigid Tennessee night, eyes still glazed over from the few minutes of sleep I had gotten. After all, if you want Santa to come, good little boys go to sleep quickly.
As my vision came into focus, my mom pointed in the direction of the common alley space between the houses. At that moment, I saw something no young man is supposed to see on Christmas Eve: a hefty man clad in a red velvet suit, looking in my direction and waving with a white-gloved hand.
Even at six years old, I was skeptical. I waved, smiled and immediately bolted into the downstairs bedroom where my parents slept to check to see the whereabouts of my dad. Sure enough, he was there, under the covers and sound asleep.
I counted that moment as a win, woke up the next morning to my brand-new Reebok Pump sneakers and enjoyed Christmas with the family.
But I just couldn’t let it go. My skepticism got the better of me. A few months later, I broke one of the cardinal rules given to each of us five boys (of which I am the youngest): “Don’t go in Mom and Dad’s closet!”
I had heard that multiple times as a young man. But today, I just knew what I would find in that closet would be worth the possibility of a reprimand. I would find that Santa suit, and I would uncover the ruse my parents laid before me.
I went in, poked around and starting moving the hanging clothes around to get to the very end of the closet rod where I had convinced myself I would find that red velvet suit I had seen a man about the same height as my dad wearing.
Unfortunately, instead of finding that suit, I managed to somehow pull the closet rod off of its holder. All the clothes came crashing down and fell on top of me.
The noise of the clothes falling and my screaming quickly prompted my mom to come see what the ruckus was. There was no way of getting out of it, I was in trouble! It didn’t matter why I was there. I had broken that rule and deserved punishment.
I told that story when I was 15 years old at my home church in west Texas. I had just come from a Super Summer in Abilene, Texas where I felt the Lord had prompted me to pursue a life in ministry.
My pastor let a few of us split up a sermon that Sunday and wrote on my notes next to the point I was tasked with, “Illustrate it!”
I was talking about sin and how the only thing that can make us righteous before God is our faith in Jesus. No excuses.
As a 15-year-old having grown up in church and saved at a young age, the ability to connect with a larger congregation was limited, but I figured everyone can connect with Christmas.
In the seventh chapter of the book of Luke, Jesus gets invited to dine with a Pharisee. I love this story because most people focus on the time he was invited to dine with tax collectors and take that as a moment to point out that he was open to digging into the lives of sinners and showing them that they need a Savior.
Well, the good news is that Jesus will eat with anyone – even someone who was associated with a group known to be enemies of the ministry of Jesus.
A woman, whom Luke immediately describes as a “sinner” and a “woman of the city,” came into the house when she found out Jesus was there and began to anoint Jesus’ feet with ointment, using her tears and her hair to rub it in.
The Pharisee was shocked and embarrassed, calling out the supposed prophet status of Jesus by saying a prophet would never allow that behavior by such a sinner.
Jesus then goes on to use a parable to help the Pharisee understand the situation. The point of the parable was that all of us are bankrupt and no one has the ability to pay the debt that is owed to God for our sins.
Whether we feel that debt is small, like the Pharisee did, or large, like the “woman of the city” did, Jesus forgave her of her sins because she “loved much” and then finally told her, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
Over and over again, Jesus would not tell people that their faith has saved them and to go serve in the nursery or play in the praise band.
Yes, those things didn’t really exist in the way they do now, but I hope you understand my point.
Jesus sent them off with a story of reconciliation and an opportunity to share the good news they had just received with other people and to live in peace.
At age 15, my sinful past was being disobedient to my parents. I had the ability to share what Jesus had done in my life and illustrate it the best way I knew how.
At age 36, after changing my plans of law school to seminary and being in student ministry for more than 10 years, I have much more life experience to illustrate what God has done in my life.
Beyond saving me from my sins, He has answered prayers, lifted me up during trials and filled me with the Holy Spirit to proclaim with boldness the good news of Jesus at many different times.
My story has been shaped and molded by what Jesus has done for me. As a believer, I follow in the same footsteps as the “woman of the city” or the Samaritan woman or the tax collectors in using my story to help other people better understand the love of God.
As student pastors, we need to use every opportunity and life experience we can to do what my pastor told me to do: “Illustrate it!”
The more we illustrate for others what God has done for us, the more our students will look at their own lives and realize they can do the very same thing.
John Yates is the student pastor of First Baptist Church Gulf Shores.