Our Unlikely God

A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to preach this at Oasis Community Church. I wanted to share it with the Stumbling Toward Grace readers. Thank you for another opportunity.

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For those of you who don’t know, I’m in marketing at PATH Intl., which is the organization overseeing therapeutic horsemanship. Marketing for this kind of an organization can seem easy. After all, you mention “special needs” and people go “awwww.” You mention horses and people go “awwww.” So pretty easy job as far as PR goes. The problem is, not a lot of people know who we are, so we do marketing to make our organization better known. We want to get our message to the largest number of people possible, to the largest number of people who actually care what we do, and do it all for the least amount of money. So there’s always a weighing of the pros and cons of any marketing strategy. Yes, an ad in People Magazine reaches a great many people. However, not necessarily the people who care anything about our organization. So maybe Horse and Rider would be better for our audience and it reaches a great many people. However, it’s too expensive for our nonprofit organization. Just Horses is a small publication that only reaches the horse people in Idaho. But the ad would be cheap. Is it worth it though for something that reaches that few people?

I can almost hear the marketing meeting that God had with the angels before the birth of Jesus.

God says, “It’s time to announce the birth of My Son.”

Angel #1 says, “We need to announce it to as many people as possible! What’s the biggest city on earth?”

Angel #2 says, “That would be Rome. World power.”

Angel #1 says, “Not only that, but their communication system is second to none. Roads to all the major cities and they control the trade routes of the seas.”

Angel #2 says, “We could do far worse. With announcing it at Rome, we can be well assured that the whole world will hear of the birth of this magnificent Son.”

But God smiles and says, “I’m thinking Bethlehem.”

Angel #1 says, “Bethlehem? But it’s so tiny, so insignificant. It won’t make much of a splash.”

Angel #2 says, “Lord, that’s just crazy!”

Angel #1 says, “That’s okay. We’re in PR. We can still spin this. Who are the parents?”

Angel #2 says, “A king would be good. Maybe just passing through Bethlehem.”

God smiles again. “No. Just a simple carpenter and his young wife. They’re pretty poor. Oh, but there will be kings.”

Angel #1 says, “Well, thank You for that! Now, we can publicize the royal family of these kings. What is their lineage? Does it come down from Kings David and Solomon?”

God says, “Not quite. They’re not Jewish. They’re Gentiles. From the East. Astrologers.”

Angel #2 says, “Wow, that’s going to be a tough one to pull off, God. I mean, how are we supposed to announce it to the whole world? Can we at least still sing your praises from the heavens?”

And God smiles even bigger. “Oh yes,” he says. “And wait until you see who I want you to sing for.”

 

Who do the Heavenly Host sing for? That’s right. Not the kings. Not the worldly powers. Not the rich people. Not the priests or the teachers of the Law. The King of the Universe, the Holy Anointed One, the Messiah, God’s own Son is heralded by the Heavenly Host to a bunch of shepherds.

The first part of Michael Card’s song “God’s Own Fool” expresses it perfectly:

Seems I’ve imagined Him all of my life
As the wisest of all of mankind
But if God’s Holy wisdom is foolish to man
He must have seemed out of His mind.

We serve an unlikely God, who delights in unlikeliness. We see that unlikeliness with the shepherds. How unlikely was it for God to use the shepherds?

Today, we tend to think positively of shepherds because Jesus said He was the Good Shepherd. We recite the 23rd Psalm at times of distress in order to comfort ourselves and others. We get warm and fuzzy feelings when we think of sheep, or especially lambs.

But the truth is, sheep are dirty. Their wool picks up loose sticks and leaves and dirt. They’re not clean creatures. They won’t clean themselves the way a cat will.

Because of that, shepherds weren’t admired in biblical times. They are called loathsome to the Egyptians in Genesis 46:34, and being a shepherd was considered punishment. Numbers 14:33 says, “And your sons shall be shepherds for forty years in the wilderness, and they shall suffer for your unfaithfulness, until your corpses lie in the wilderness.”

“The shepherds were despised by the orthodox good people of the day. Shepherds were quite unable to keep the details of the ceremonial law; they could not observe all the meticulous hand washings and rules and regulations. Their flocks made far too constant demands on them; and so the orthodox looked down on them as very common people.” (Barclay, p. 17)

And yet, it is to these loathsome, unclean people that the angels announce the birth of the Messiah.

Have you ever had times where you felt it was unlikely that God would use you for anything? Maybe because of sin in your life, maybe because you see yourself as insignificant. We know enough theology to be able to parrot the words we hear so often, that God loves all of us and saves us in spite of our sin and our uncleanliness. But sometimes I think we believe that we’re just barely scraping by, that we’re getting into heaven by the skin of our teeth. That God is scouring over the record of our lives, looking for the one thing that will allow Him to send us on our way to Hell. And instead of being welcomed into Heaven with all the saints, He peers at us over the rim of His glasses and disapprovingly says, “Well, you found the loophole that says I should let you in, so fine. Go stand over there in the corner, but don’t you dare think of eating any of the cookies.” And so we hang our head low and scuttle off to the corner, hoping no one sees us and questions our presence in this place of shining whiteness, us with our dirty fingernails and snot-crusted nostrils. And sure, we got in because of that loophole, but there’s no way in Heaven or in Hell that God can use us. He saves that for pure people, for the missionaries and the ministers. Not for us.

If you believe that you are an unlikely person to be used by Him, that’s great! Because the truth is, we have been set apart by an unlikely God. He is the God who delights in using prostitutes and murderers. His story is told by common people, and He is served by anyone who loves Him. He uses everyone He has saved.

So take a look at yourself. Where is God using you? Where is He saying, “YOU are the perfect one to do this particular task”? No matter what the PR people say. The chorus of Michael Card’s song calls us to follow this Madman.

So we follow God’s own Fool
For only the foolish can tell
Believe the unbelievable, come be a fool as well.

Come be a fool as well. We serve an unlikely God. Be unlikely. Be what no one suspects. Love the people God brings in your path, even if other people raise their eyebrows and wag their fingers. Be unlikely.

 

From Golgotha to the Grave

SepulcroIt’s a long walk from Golgotha to the grave. Not in terms of footsteps or roads or the hours, minutes and seconds that make up a day. Not in terms of anything that is measurable.

It’s a long walk from Golgotha to the grave. In footsteps that drag with grief gone wild. On a road that still recalls the stirring whirring dust devils created by a crowd wanting to see the latest spectacle. In the hours, minutes and seconds when the sky turned black and it seemed the devil had his day.

Bitterness consumes and eats away at joy until it is no longer to be found. Sadness is an anchor that drags a soul under turbulent waters until it is difficult to breathe. Hatred burns away flesh and humanity until nothing is left but unfeeling and uncaring bone. Fear crouches in the shadows of the mind until freedom is mired in the mud.

It’s a long walk from Golgotha to the grave, and a lifetime is lived in the word “until.”

But joy grows in the soul until it blossoms as it finds meaning in sorrow. Faith provides strength and courage until it is no longer needed because its object has become Reality. Hope stirs in the cold heart until bitterness and regret are vanquished. Grace is the wings that hide a wounded soul, heals the brokenhearted, opens the eyes of the blind and makes the lame to walk until all things are made new.

It’s a long walk from Golgotha to the grave, and a lifetime is lived, crucified, dead and buried in the word “until.”

Love overcomes hatred and fear until death itself is no longer the final word. Love burns bright in the darkness until a stone is rolled away. Love destroys barriers until an empty tomb is revealed. Love consumes. Love burns. Love blossoms. Love stirs. Love heals. Love is crucified. Love dies and love is buried. Love frees. Love redeems. Love resurrects. Love dies until all men are drawn to Himself, to LOVE.

It’s a long walk from Golgotha to the grave, and a lifetime is embraced and loved in the word “until.”

Why do you look for the living among the dead? See? The stone itself has been rolled away.

Home

10534433_805460239487698_3486483049073214227_n-2I visited our storage unit today. It’s been two years since we had to toss most of our collected stuff, pack up the few things we couldn’t part with and put them in storage.

I say “few things,” and yet I was amazed at how much stuff there was in that small unit. Boxes of books mostly. But not what I was looking for. Steve’s and my anniversary is tomorrow, August 10. Our 40th. I wanted to find a wedding picture to post on Facebook. I wanted to say, “Look at how young we were,” “Look at his long hair,” “Look how pretty I was,” “Look at how far we’ve come.”

I couldn’t find any pictures of the wedding. Not one. Not of our dating days, our rehearsal dinner, our wedding, our honeymoon, our daughter’s first years. I left the storage unit feeling strangely displaced. I am homeless.

I’m not homeless in the way the man on the street corner asking for change is, and believe me, I am grateful for that. I am emotionally homeless. I have lived in apartments, one or two of them very nice luxury apartments, for more than 20 years. There are many pros to apartment living–or cave-dwelling as a friend of mine calls it. For one, if anything breaks, I’m not responsible for fixing it. I have no yard work, no sidewalks to shovel in the winter. There are massive downsides, however, and perhaps the biggest one is why Steve, Joshua and I had to evacuate our apartment two years ago and place a good portion of our lives in either the dumpster or storage.

I saw a Purina advertisement today for adopting cats. The text on the Facebook post said, “No one likes waiting to get home.” As you can see, the cat’s expression is one of longing and sadness. At least that’s how I interpret it. And I wanted this cat so bad it made me cry. Not just any rescue cat. THIS cat. No one likes waiting to get home.

I wanted to give this cat a home. I wanted to give her love. I wanted her to belong. Home. No one likes waiting to get home.

I’ve waited for more than 20 years. I want home. I want to belong.

Even the word “home” tugs at something inside me, something visceral and primitive as though home is one of a human being’s most basic instincts and needs. Home.

No one likes waiting to get home.

Please, God, shine a light in the window for me. Help me find home.

Lessons From the Bike

ImageIt’s been a long winter. I didn’t get a chance to ride as much as I wanted to. (Unlike some of my friends, I’m a wimp when it comes to snow and ice.) But on my ride today, I started noticing flowers. Tulips surrounded the base of several mailboxes and dandelions dotted the park. The smell of blossoms on the trees intoxicated my senses and made me absolutely giddy to be on my bike. No matter how long the winter, it always gives way to spring.

And while it is true that winter gives way to spring, it is also true that spring, summer and fall will eventually give way to another winter. But I can’t think about that now, not in the midst of spring, not with flowers dotting the grass and trees casting their blossoms in front of me. If I think about that now, it robs today of its joy. During spring, it is time to live in the present and focus on the glorious feel of my legs as they push the peddles, the wind in my hair as I scream down a hill, the tiredness that feels so good when I get off the bike. Live in the present. I can live in the future when it is winter when it might be best to not focus on the present and instead know that no matter how cold it is, spring will eventually come.

It’s a matter of balance, this living in the present and looking toward the future.

In the past month, I’ve had some things happen that have left a winter coldness in my heart. I’ve been depressed, angry at God, lashing out at friends to try to assuage the pain, punching out at life as though I could knock it out. I’ve raged at friends but maintained a chilly silence with God. And yet, winter gives way to spring.

Albert Camus in The Stranger said, “In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger — something better, pushing right back.”

Here I am in this present moment. I am pushing back.

Good thing I rode my bike hard today. Snow is coming tomorrow.

Easter Devotion

ImageThere is a saying I’ve seen a few times on Facebook: “If life doesn’t break you today, don’t worry. It will try again tomorrow.” And in the end, it seems, brokenness wins. Like a contagious disease, it has visited all of us. Like a thief, it robs us of peace, of joy, of life. For some of us, it has visited very recently, and we turn our tear-stained faces to heaven and hold our empty hands to God and ask why.

Jesus has been dead for three days. The “problem,” according to the religious leaders, has been taken care of. Jesus has been dead for three days. It was expedient for them for Jesus to die. It was necessary. In fact, it was necessary for US as well for Jesus to die. And Jesus has been dead for three days.

Brokenness. We talk about brokenness and what that means, of what we can expect from brokenness, of what beautiful stories, strong faith and dependence on God may come through the anguish of brokenness. And we have found that we are not alone. Our Lord was broken.

Like all of us, Jesus suffered and endured brokenness. Isaiah tells us in a prophecy about Jesus that he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows, that he was smitten and afflicted, pierced and crushed. He endured what St. John of the Cross called the dark night of the soul. Have you felt like that? Have you felt plunged into a darkness that will never end? Do you long to cry out, but your mouth is filled with sand?

Jesus has been dead for three days.

And so we join Mary on an early morning journey to the tomb. We know what it feels like to walk that road with Mary. Her heartbreak is universal. The reality of brokenness, despair, and grief are as near as the loss of loved ones, the heartache of children with disabilities, the failure of our marriages, the sinking feeling of never quite measuring up to our own expectations, and the deep grief of death. Mary’s sorrowful walk that Sunday morning is our walk on many a morning.

But whatever else is to be said, it is clear that the grave is not the end, that the tomb does not have the final say.

A shaft of light breaks through the darkness. Mary struggles to believe, not knowing what to make of the empty tomb, of a message that brings hope to her aching heart, of her Most Loved One calling her name. Mary!

We are so like her that at times it is painful. We believe, and yet we are overwhelmed with grief and loss. We believe, and yet we mourn at how awful the world is and how pointless some things seem. We believe … and yet we are not sure.

Our path of faith is similar to Mary’s as well. At the tombs of our life the risen Lord calls our names. Lift your head when brokenness, despair, and deep grief settle in and defeat seems sure. Look for the victory of Christ. It is at hand. You are His, you are engraved on the palm of His nail-scarred hand, and He will never let you go.

Death is defeated. Brokenness is defeated. Oh, to be sure, they are real. But they are not the end. The story is not finished. Through the victory of Christ who was broken FOR US, we are not alone.

On Friday, Jesus said, “It is finished,” and the temple curtain that separated sinful man from his holy God was torn in two.

On Sunday, the stone at the tomb was rolled away and He calls our names. It is the beginning.

Between Celebrations

crown of thornsWe just finished Palm Sunday, commemorating Jesus’ triumphal entry in Jerusalem and the beginning of Holy Week. Next Sunday, we celebrate Easter, commemorating of course Jesus’ resurrection. But between the two celebrations are days of incredible pain, heavy sorrow, nerve-wracking fear and almost unbearable grief.

They huddle in a dark room, this small band of brothers who have lost their beloved leader, teacher, Master and friend. They don’t dare light candles to chase away the shadows, and they start in fear at every footfall outside. Have they been discovered? Are the soldiers coming for them? Tension fills the air and sometimes breaks out in whispered accusations. Why didn’t you do something? Why didn’t you say something? Gazes drop in shame. Why didn’t I say something? Why did I run away?

Where is Judas? They have heard rumors that he killed himself. Good! some of them think. I’m glad he’s dead, that thieving, scheming betrayer. And yet he is missed. He had been one of them. He had been a brother. And yet because of his actions, their friend is dead, their friend who taught them to call Jehovah Daddy, who had multiplied the loaves and fishes, who had healed limbs and calmed the storm.

One of them remembers the taunts at the cross. “He saved others but he can’t save himself!” and he tries hard to push the hate-filled voice out of his head and yet like the serpent in the garden, it slithers into his soul and lodges there. “He saved others but he can’t save himself!” The words are joined by another mournful wail, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” He knows he is the only one here who heard that cry, and yet he can’t tell anyone that. So in this roomful of brothers, he sits and mourns and feels more alone than he has ever felt in his life.

Where is hope? Where. Is. Hope. To him, to the other 10 in the room, it seems that hope died when Jesus did.

Shadows deepen. Life is dark. Even today, we huddle together and face the dark. “In this world you will have trials and tribulations, but take heart,” He said. “I have overcome the world.” But at times, those seem like hollow words. “I will never leave you or forsake you.” But at times, we feel alone and and we feel forsaken. We fumble in the dark for a hand to hold, to somehow believe that we are not alone, that our grief will be comforted, that our tears will be wiped away. And so we gather up the tatters of our faith again like an old woman gathers up yarn to knit a blanket.

We live in the shadow of hope, we dwell in the shadow of the cross. Today, it’s Friday. It’s filled with pain, with overwhelming grief, with fearful doubt and crushing sorrow.

Today, it’s Friday. But Sunday is on the way.

An Enemy

Jesus in the Garden, from The Passion of the ChristThink of the miracles of Jesus. What is the first miracle that comes to your mind? Put yourself in that miracle. Picture yourself as the one witnessing that miracle. Jesus walking on the water. Turning water into wine. Calming a storm. Healing the man born blind. Raising Lazarus. Picture yourself as the one receiving the miracle. Eating the bread that Jesus multiplied. Having your disease healed. Sailing on a sea that is suddenly calm.

There are 37 miracles of Jesus recorded in the Gospels, all but one of them occurring before the crucifixion. 37 miracles. In the miracles of healing, Jesus was almost always responding to someone asking for healing. The Centurion asked Jesus to heal his daughter. Peter asked Jesus to heal his mother-in-law. A mother asked Jesus to cast demons out of her son.

But there is one miracle that doesn’t generally come to our minds. It is the last miracle Jesus performed before the crucifixion. Put yourself in this miracle.

You are the servant of a well-respected religious leader, the high priest. You have grown up knowing the laws, following them, respecting and obeying those who teach the laws. But lately you have been hearing about a rebellion beginning. It surrounds a man named Jesus from Nazareth. The leaders you have always respected, served and obeyed fear him. And hate him. This man, this Jesus is an enemy to all you hold dear and everything you have known. He breaks laws, including the most sacred Sabbath laws, and he encourages others to do the same.

And now the high priest and other religious leaders have found a way to trap this man, this Jesus. You are one of the first to volunteer to go with the authorities and have him arrested. As you march through the streets, you feel the righteousness in you build. You are doing right; you are not only the servant of the high priest, but the servant of God.

It is in the Garden of Gethsemane that you find him and a few of his upstart followers. Vaguely you are aware of the betrayer greeting Jesus, and you nominally hear Jesus say, “Must you betray me with a kiss?” This fades into the background for you, because you are focused on the small band of men and the confusion and the shouts and the anger and the fear and the fact that one of them has drawn a sword and a sudden blaze of speed and you hear the air whooshing by your ear before you hear nothing at all and the agony streams from the right side of your head and the shrieks you hear seem to come from far away but it is you who is screaming as your own sword drops and you clap your hand to where your ear had been and it comes away sticky with the wetness of the blood that looks black in the dark and once-peaceful garden.

“Put your sword away!” Jesus’ command to his disciple comes buzzing through the blur of pain and blood. And Jesus reaches out and touches your ear. The bleeding stops as bone grows and skin stretches over cartilage. Pain, which had been so mind-numbingly intense and real, is now only a memory, already fading. You are healed. But you are his enemy! You as much as your master want him dead. And yet, he touched you. He healed YOU, his enemy. Words that this man, this Jesus had said come back to your mind: “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” and “But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,” and “Whenever you stand praying, forgive.”

This man, this Jesus, is practicing what he has so often said. He is forgiving his enemies. He is forgiving YOU.

This was the last miracle of Jesus before He was crucified and hung on the cross for the forgiveness of sins, the forgiveness of OUR sins. His last miracle was a miracle of not only healing but of love, of forgiveness, of reaching out to love and forgive an enemy. We place ourselves in that enemy’s place, knowing that all of us do in fact stand in the place of the man whose ear Jesus healed, for we have been enemies of God, and we have been forgiven. “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”