Jesus has two favorite disguises: the least of these, and the servant.
It’s hard to say which he likes or uses more. Sometimes he combines them, appearing as the lowly servant, the slave in rags. Is he here to help or be helped?
The funny thing is, he tells us plainly these are his two most common disguises, and yet we often miss him anyhow. We keep looking for that lantern-jawed hero, and he keeps showing up as the chinless beggar or the shuffling cleaning lady. We want spectacle. He prefers hiddenness. We want miracle. He deals mostly in cups of cold water. We look for a man in fine clothes. He shows up, unnervingly, with none at all.
But we can’t claim he didn’t warn us:
“…I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”
Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?”
The King will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matt. 25:35-40).
I wear, he says, the disguise of the least of these.
And I wear the disguise of the servant:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross! (Phil. 2:5-8).
I tell you that to tell you this: I had several sightings of Jesus last week. Cheryl and I were the guests of World Vision Canada on a tour of some of World Vision’s projects in northeast Brazil. I have been on several ministry-related trips before, and I anticipated this would be like those.
It was and it wasn’t. I saw, as I have on every trip like this I’ve been on, remarkable work being done by dedicated people. I witnessed, as I have each time, the gospel in motion: being lived, and breathed, and declared in word and deed.
But what was different this time was how often I caught sight of Jesus himself, in one of his disguises, or both together.
One story to serve for dozens.
In a shanty-town – in South America, they’re called favelas – we met Paulo. He looks like an ex-bouncer, and maybe is. He wore a shirt of the brightest pink I’ve ever seen. If Plato’s right, and everything on earth is only a dim reflection of a heavenly prototype, that shirt is the prototype for pink.
As we walked through the favela with Paulo, it quickly became clear that he was a local hero: children ran to him, teens high-fived him, adults rushed up to shake his hand. At first I didn’t know why, but as the day unfolded, and we heard Paulo’s story, it all became clear.
Paulo is Jesus. He makes the word flesh and moves into the neighborhood. He has, in his own words, two goals: to keep children from all that would destroy them – drugs, crime, prostitution, no education, no dream – and to rescue those who have already fallen prey to these things.
He’s succeeding beyond anything I could ask or imagine. We heard the testimony of three of his boys. All had been drug dealers. All had done prison time. One had killed others. Everyone had given up on them.
But not Paulo. He loved them, and called them to Christ and his kingdom, and stuck with them, and poured into them. And slow, slow, each came. They found hope, and healing, and a life worth living. They found Christ.
And now they go and do likewise.
All because one man was so available to Christ that Christ could fully inhabit and does his work through him. At first, I didn’t see it, it was so cleverly disguised. But once I did, I could see nothing else.
But it makes me wonder: how often am I missing Jesus right in my midst?
And even more: Am I Jesus in disguise for anyone?
There’s a biblical prophecy I’ve freshly discovered. I eagerly await its fulfillment and am doing whatever I can, whatever I must, to hasten it. The prophecy is in Zechariah 8. It begins with a vision of what a community looks like when God reigns within it. But here’s how the chapter ends; here is the vision’s crescendo: “This is what the Lord of Heaven’s Armies says: In those days ten men from different nations and languages of the world will clutch at the sleeve of one Jew. And they will say, ‘Please let us walk with you, for we have heard that God is with you’”(8:23).
That’s evangelism. Good news is embodied. It is a way of life, a thing plain for all to see. The evangelized, not the envangelists, do all the talking: let us go with you! The lost take the initiative. And the lost come from every tribe and tongue and nation.
This is the dream of every church – for God’s life among us to be so obvious, so fragrant, so magnetic, so contagious, that all peoples clamor for the privilege of joining. Rather than us grabbing hold of people, people grab hold of us. Rather than us telling anyone, “God is with us,” they tell one another that.
All these things happen “in those days,” which refers to a promise God makes at the beginning of Zechariah 8: “I a returning to Mount Zion, and I will live in Jerusalem” (8:3). The vision is a description of what happens in, to, and through God’s people when God dwells in their midst.
Several things happen in this vision but let me draw out one: there is a breaking of ethnic, cultural, and political divides through an in-breaking of the gospel. “People from nations and cities around the world will travel to Jerusalem…[saying], ‘Come with us to Jerusalem to ask the Lord to bless us. Let’s worship the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. I’m determined to go.’ Many peoples and powerful nations will come to Jerusalem to seek the Lord” (8:20-22).
Good News, the gospel is for all nations. It embraces and welcomes all languages – Urdu speakers and Inuit and Norwegians and remote tribes tucked in the folds of Burmese mountain jungles. It’s for the homeless under the bridges of Los Angeles, the untouchables in the streets of Calcutta, the drug addicted in sweaty apartments not far from where you live. It’s for rich people who live atop hills and poor people who live in ditches. It’s for the old man in his lonely room, and the teenage girl struggling to find her identity, the single mom wondering where the next meal’s coming from. It’s for the discouraged dentist, the confused mill-worker, the weary postman. It’s for everyone, everywhere.
This is evangelism Bible-style. This is evangelism that is cross-cultural, transpolitical, multiethnic, intergenerational, class defying, and wildly bountiful.
And natural. No one strategizes. No one takes classes for this. It’s just that a people who live with God in their midst evoke, simply and powerfully, far and wide, curiosity about God. A community like that makes others envious in the best sense: we become attractive and compelling to the world.
God asks us to do something before he releases any of this: he asks us to do justly.
“But this is what you must do: Tell the truth to each other. Render verdicts in your courts that are just and that lead to peace. Don’t scheme against each other. Stop your love of telling lies that you swear are the truth. I hate all these things, says the Lord” (8:16-17).
A crucial shift in Zechariah 8 happens midway through. It’s announced by the phrase, “But this is what you must do.” Up until this moment, Zechariah 8 has been a litany of things God promises to do. Right after this moment, it continues with things God promises to do. But inserted in the middle of the prophecy is something God requires us to do.
God hates injustice. He hates deceit. Unless we deal fairly and honestly with one another, unless we have a bone-deep commitment to justice and truth, all the good God intends to do for us and through us gets undone by us.
We have a passion for sharing God’s truth with the lost – for helping friends, neighbors, loved ones, our communities to come to see know, and love God. But as we hold on to this hope, we must also understand that God requires us to do justly. For if we are not living out the redemptive, just, and whole Christian life, it can be hard to recommend it to other folk.
It’s snowing in Alberta today, and minus 10. It’s snowed all week. Actually, it’s snowed here since October 6, non-stop, except for a few times it stopped.
It’s almost April. And minus 10. And snowing.
Someone didn’t get the memo. This is no longer fun, funny, or charming. It ‘s no longer tolerable. I am close to organizing a petition to have south-western Alberta removed to BC, with full benefits.
In the book of Job, when God finally shows up to pepper the poor sufferer with a barrage of questions, he asks,
“Have you entered the storehouses of the snow
or seen the storehouses of the hail,
which I reserve for times of trouble,
for days of war and battle?”
The question is rhetorical. The answer is supposed to be, “Of course not. How could I?” But that was only because Job had never been to Alberta. If Premier Alison Redford hadn’t already been deposed over spending tax-payers’ money for her First-Class flights to exotic locals (a crime of passion for which I have deep sympathy), I’d write and ask her to consider changing the provincial motto. It’s currently “Wild Rose Country.” I think “Storehouse for Times of Trouble” is more befitting.
I’m especially distraught because this was the weekend I intended to finally bring my motorcycle out of cold storage. I had it all planned: the insurance kicked in yesterday, the bike was to go in the shop this morning, I was to be terrorizing the locals by mid-day.
But it’s snowing, and minus 10.
So I sit writing this, nursing a grudge, cursing the weather.
And then I catch myself. This is a hardship? This is a grievance? Why am I so soft, so pampered, so entitled?
My whole life I’ve had to push against the massiveness of my own littleness. “Nothing is as hard to suppress,” the great Jewish Philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “as the will to be a slave to one's own pettiness.” How I know it. The plight of those who genuinely suffer is often lost to me in my grousing about minor inconveniences: a delay, a detour, a disruption. Ice on the walkway.
So I teach myself, daily, to give thanks in the face of my overwhelming temptation to complain. It changes nothing. And it yet it changes everything.
Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.
I love my new job. And I loved my old job.
For 24 years, I was a pastor, and it was good (except the times it wasn’t). This past 7 months, I’ve been a professor. And it is very good, and so far I haven’t found the underside. Do I love professoring (my coinage) more than pastoring? It’s hard to say. They’re hard to compare. All I know for sure is that my heart sings now in a way it had stopped singing.
There are probably many reasons for that. One, I think, is simply practical: I am home most evenings. In the pastorate, most my evenings were taken up with some church-related duty or another. After too many seasons of that, something eroded in me. Some deep weariness took hold of me.
But now I have most evenings free. The first few months, I gorged myself on that. I went nowhere. I saw no one. I sat home and read, or watched movies, or puttered around the basement. I drank a lot of tea.
It was life-giving.
And then it got boring.
So Cheryl and I started inviting people over to our house, and readily accepted invitations to go to other peoples’ houses. In fact, in the 7 months we’ve live here, we’ve hosted more meals in our home and eaten more meals in other people’s homes than we did in our last 5 years in the pastorate.
I’m beginning to realize why Jesus placed such a priority on sitting down to a meal with someone. Something happens around a table that doesn’t, or only rarely, happens elsewhere. It’s some magic that can’t be conjured, manufactured, or faked. Stories are told. Histories are remembered. Dreams are evoked. Laughter breaks out, and sometimes tears. A depth of honesty emerges. A sense of shared humanity weaves hearts together.
It’s ironic, maybe tragic: I spent so much time as a pastor I trying to create this, and so little experiencing it.
I don’t know if I’ll ever pastor again. I just know, from here on out I don’t want to miss the simple, beautiful, subversive power of meeting another human being around the table.
I am preparing (among approximately one thousand other things) to teach this spring at Regent College a course on the story of David.[*] So I soak daily in his story and his songs, and then scrounge and rummage around in a multitude of commentaries, biographies, novels, reflections. Though David has been for me an almost constant companion since I first came to faith over 30 years ago, the better I know him the less I understand him. He is a walking contradiction: poetic, barbaric, tender, ruthless, holy, lusty, child-like, serpentine. He shows extravagant mercy at one turn, gaudy blood-thirst at the next. He can switch from piety to villainy quicker than blinking.
The man embodies paradox.
I’ll try to draw all this out in the course I’ll teach on David, as I’ve tried to draw it all out in the novel I’ve written about him (forthcoming). David is not our role model: he’s our mirror. He is not our exemplar: he’s our brother. He often inspires us, but just as often startles and disgusts us, puzzles and enrages us. He exposes our own heart’s strange wild mess, the chiaroscuro of light and dark raging in our own bellies.
But the deeper and longer I inhabit his story, the more and more one thing stands out above all: God loves David, and David knows it. “Like everyone else,” Harold Bloom writes, “from Samuel, Saul, and Jonathan down to the present, Yahweh is charmed by David…. Yahweh is the God who fell in love with David.”
In Louis Ginzberg’s monumental 7-volume work The Legend of the Jews, a skillful compilation of the Jewish haggadah or oral tradition, he retells the story of David in Paradise. According to the legend, David is the superstar of the afterlife, a personage of “glory and grandeur,” whose throne sits opposite God’s and from which David “intones wondrously beautiful psalms.” David’s “crown… outshines all others, and whenever he moves out of Paradise to present himself before God, suns, stars, angels, seraphim, and other holy beings run to meet him.”
But the main thrust of the legend is David’s relationship with God. God throws a lavish feast on the Day of Judgment, and God at David’s bidding himself attends. At the end of the banquet, God invites Abraham to pray over the cup of wine. Abraham declines on grounds of his unworthiness. So God asks Isaac, who for similar reasons declines. God then turns to Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua. All beg off for reasons of unworthiness.
Finally, God asks David to bless the cup. And David replies, “Yes, I will pronounce the blessing, for I am worthy of the honor.”[†]
At first blush, this shocks us. It seems brazen effrontery, damnable hubris, reality-defying delusion. Who do you think you are?
On second thought, this sounds biblical. The heart of the Bible’s message, muted in the Old Covenant but shouted aloud in page after page of the New, is the improbable, astonishing, breathtaking good news that I am the one Jesus loves.
I am the tax-collector whose house Jesus had to enter, so that salvation could invade it. I am the leper who cried out to Jesus on his way past Samaria, so that he could speak wholeness into me and then woo me back to worship him. I am the lame man whose friends lowered me down through the rafters, so that Jesus could speak forgiveness and healing to me. I am the invalid Jesus found in a dark part of town, bed-ridden and complaining, so that he could say to me, “Get up, take up your mat, and walk.” I am the prodigal he saw a long way off, who ran to me, threw a feast for me, put his robe and ring and sandals on me. I am the elder brother who refused to join the party, and so he went out to me and begged me to come in. I am Lazarus, the one he raised from the dead and then invited to recline with him at the table.
I am not worthy to bless the cup, except he makes me so. At great cost, all by his own doing, Jesus makes me his own, loves me without condition, forgives me without remainder, places his own name on me, puts his own Spirit in me, and goes ahead to prepare a place for me. He’s made me a chosen people, a holy nation, a royal priesthood, one who belongs to God.
I am the one Jesus loves.
As are you.
I never tire of telling my students at Ambrose Seminary[‡] this. It is the wellspring of all we do and all we are. All life and ministry is overflow. And the inflow is this one thing: knowing and relishing and never forgetting that I am the one Jesus loves.
There is a famous story about the theologian Karl Barth, maybe as legendary as the story Ginsberg tells about David – and yet, like that story, resonant with deep truth. It goes like this: near the end of Barth’s life, having written the most monumental theological work of the 20th Century, having read virtually every other theological work ever penned, a journalist asks him, “What is the greatest truth you’ve ever heard?”
To which Barth replies, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible the Bible tells me so.”
Amen and amen.
[†] Louis Ginzberg, Legends of the Bible, 550-551.