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?
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.
Just released through Amazon, available in Audio or ebook format:
Recently I was interviewed by Daniel Darling of Leadership Journal on my transition from Pastor to Professor.
I’ve never snowboarded, but I’ve skied most my entire life.
My first time, age 12, I fell off the T-bar half way up the track, which forced me to the backside of the mountain: a jagged edge of wild and dangerous steepness, thickly hummocked with moguls. The run was ranked, in the parlance of ski hills, black diamond. Experts only. Too stupid to walk to base, I hurled myself down that slope headlong, skis crisscrossing, poles windmilling. It was pure slapstick. It was a burlesque of pratfalls and face-plants.
I lived to tell the story, and ever after have had a sweet tooth for black diamonds.
But, as I said, I’ve never snowboarded. I watched, 25 or so years back, as the first few boarders appeared on ski hills, timid and klutzy. I watched as their numbers doubled, quadrupled, exploded, and their skill grew. Now half the mountain teems with them, swooping and soaring.
Though the sport bears a rough resemblance to skiing – both involve strapping your feet to a thin slippery blades, standing on some frozen wind-scoured pinnacle, and flinging yourself to the wind – I can tell it’s very different. Different muscles, different technique, different sense of balance. Different as riding a motorcycle is from driving a car. Different as rowing a boat is from paddling a kayak.
Different as pastoring is from professoring.
Which is my real point. I finished, in early December, my first semester of professoring (I made that word up) after 24 years of pastoring. Though the two vocations bear rough resemblance to each other – both involve strapping your heart to some burning concern, standing on some rickety lonely perch, and flinging yourself to the wind – I can tell you they’re very different. Different muscles, different technique, different sense of balance.
A 3-hour lecture, for instance, has little in common with a 35-minute sermon (other than, when you’re off your game, your listeners experience both as eternal drudgery and existential misery). The lecture is expansive, the sermon distilled. The lecture aims for breadth, the sermon conciseness. The lecture seeks to range over wide ground, the sermon to get to the point. In a lecture, you pace yourself. In a sermon, you uncork yourself.
But more than that, the rhythms of the two vocations are vastly different. In the pastorate, there is no natural beginning or end. Everything flows into everything else, world without end. There is a beauty to this: stay long enough, and the child you dedicate becomes the young woman whose marriage you perform who becomes the young mother whose child you dedicate, and so on. The academy, on the other hand, has a very precise timetable of beginnings and endings – classes start this date, run these weeks, end that day. You have an intense relationship with a small clutch of people for a short stretch of time. Then it’s done. You stop, breathe, re-gather, and start again.
It has been difficult to make the transition – it’s been embarrassing and frustrating at times to go from something I’d attained some mastery of to something I’m a rank and clumsy novice at.
But the challenge has also been invigorating. I loved my first term. I love this new sport. It’s snapped me out of a trance of repetition, pulled me out of a rut of complacency. It’s stirred in me fresh hunger to learn. It’s awakened instincts and muscles never used or long dormant.
It’s forced me to the backside of the mountain.
And there I’ve discovered, I still have a sweet tooth for black diamonds.