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.

***

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.

Mary, the Mother of Jesus—In Glory

Happy Easter

____________________

Mary, the Mother of Jesus—In Glory

He died while I stood at his feet. And when they took him down, I held him – my baby, my son – in my arms one last time. I followed with the others as they wrapped him in burial cloths, and I remembered wrapping him in swaddling clothes when he was born. I laid him in the manger; they buried him in the tomb. And when they rolled the stone in front of the tomb, my heart was encased in a stone every bit as heavy.

That Saturday was the longest day I have ever lived through. I remembered the words that generations would call me blessed. How God? How?

My throat was ravaged raw with the tears I had already shed, the agony of wails that felt ripped from my soul. My heart ached, and I wanted to pray, yet no prayers would come. I went into the room that John the Disciple had set aside for me. He was a sweet young man and had taken Jesus’ words from the cross seriously. He would take care of me for as long as I needed. And maybe I could take care of him too. Maybe in some way he could help fill the aching hole that only grieving mothers know. Surely that was what my son had intended.

My son. My son …

The sleep I fell into was deep and dreamless, feeling more like my mind was trying to escape the pain rather than rest.

I don’t know what time it was when I woke, but it was still dark. I could hear rustlings outside as though the birds were starting to stir. Dawn wasn’t far off. My muscles felt heavy and my eyelids dragged downward. I should go to the tomb.

And with the thought came a feeling deep in my belly, like the birth of something great, something wondrous. I remembered how Aunt Elizabeth had said that her baby John had leapt in her womb when he recognized my son Jesus. I felt that way now. Something inside me had leapt. I laid my hand over my stomach.

What could be happening? Could it just be a part of the grief? And yet, there was no denying the little spark that wasn’t grief. I couldn’t explain it.

I could hear commotion downstairs. I walked to the top of the stairs but paused before going down. This wasn’t my house, and I didn’t want to interrupt. I could hear Mary of Magdalene talking excitedly to John. I heard Peter’s voice too. I listened closely for the words. The stone had been rolled away. The tomb was empty. I staggered against the wall and put my hand again on my stomach as I heard her words. The spark roared through me. The tomb was empty.

I turned back to my room, and there he was, shining with life, with the glory of heaven. He didn’t need to speak. My mother’s heart knew it. My son. My Jesus. He didn’t say anything, but he smiled at me and I knew a joy that surpassed everything, even the joy I felt the night he was born.

Simeon said a sword would pierce my soul. It had. I had treasured all these things in my heart. All of them. And it was true – generations would call me blessed. I am blessed.

He is no longer simply my son.

He is my King, my Savior. The Risen One.

Two Marys – Good Friday Monologues

I wrote these two monologues for Good Friday last year. My Easter monologue will be posted on Sunday morning. Please feel free to use them if you’d like. I only ask that they be attributed to me and that you let me know how you used them, if you do. Thank you!

Mary Magdalene

Have you ever met someone that you knew as soon as you met them that they would change your life? I felt that way when I met Jesus.

You see, I had been depressed for a long time. Some people said there were demons in me. Other people said I just had a lot of illnesses. To be honest, I didn’t care what they called it. All I know is that life was awful and I was miserable. Life was nothing but torment. My sister Martha and my brother Lazarus did what they could to take care of me, but I know it was stressful to the whole family. It was hard for us to have friends or to be a part of the community. I was an outcast.

But then I met Jesus. There is something wonderful when someone accepts you for who you are. He could see past the erratic behavior and the language, moans and shrieks that would come from me. He saw deep inside me. He saw what no one else could see. He spoke one word and the demons left me. Instantly I felt a peace I had never known before. I had been healed! Life would never be the same.

My heart belonged to Jesus from that moment on, and nothing would change that.

Jesus often visited our home, and there was nothing I liked more than to sit at his feet and listen to him teach. I could hear whispers sometimes that I shouldn’t be there. It wasn’t right for a woman to be taught in the same manner that men were. But where else should I have been except at his feet? His feet. The feet that walked down dusty roads.

I learned a lot from listening to him, and some of what I heard made me sad. He talked about his death, about things that would happen to him in the future. None of the disciples seemed to really pay attention to what he was saying. But I couldn’t get rid of the sorrow inside me.

How could I bear it if he went away or if something happened to him? I loved him. My whole life was wrapped up in his. I didn’t want to be like one of the other disciples and tell him that these things couldn’t happen. They could happen. They would happen. How could I show him how I felt about him, show him that I understood?

I remembered the perfume I had. It was the only thing of value I owned. I could think of nothing better for my Master. So one night when he was at our home for dinner, I took the perfume and poured it over his feet. His feet. The feet that walked on water.

The smell of the perfume filled the room, and I loved him so much that I would have done anything for him. I let down my hair and began wiping his feet. I could hear whispers then too, that I shouldn’t have wasted the perfume, that I could have sold it and given the money to the poor. I could feel my face burn with shame. Was it wrong of me to show my love for him?

But then he spoke. His word at one time had driven the demons from my body and my mind. And now his word drove accusations away. But I heard words even I didn’t want to hear. “My burial.”

Was I the only one who heard that?

And now standing at the cross, his mother beside me, I look at the bleeding and tortured man in front of me. His arms are stretched out as though they could embrace the whole world. His feet are nail-pierced. His feet. The feet I anointed for his burial.

I remember his words. But I remember other of his words as well. About death. About being raised. About promises of an afterlife. And although my heart is full of sorrow, there is life and hope within.

And I think about his feet. His feet. The feet that will walk down the road again.

Mary, the Mother of Jesus—In Grief

There were so many things I wanted to say to you, my son, and I always thought I’d have the time. And now it’s nearly too late. So I’ll say them now.

I was so young when the angel Gabriel appeared to me and told me about God’s blessing upon me. I was confused. I just didn’t know how it could happen. And I was a little worried too, worried about Joseph and how he would handle it. It seems now that all of that was a lot for a teenager to handle. I look now at the young girls in Galilee, ribbons in their hair and laughter in their voices, and I can’t imagine that I was ever that carefree, ever that young. I feel so old now.

When I look at you I see the little baby you were as I held you in my arms the first time. I was so tired. Your father and I had traveled by donkey to Bethlehem for the census. It was an uncertain time, so scary and tense. Your father tried hard not to show how nervous he was, but I could tell. And then when we finally got there and there was no room for us anywhere, he was almost at a breaking point. I know I was. He apologized so many times when he led me into the barn. But I didn’t care. I just needed some place warm and quiet so I could lay down. I was in so much pain, I couldn’t concentrate on anything else.

That pain was nothing compared to now. When I first became pregnant, I said to your Aunt Elizabeth that all generations would call me blessed. I’m not so sure now.

I never told anyone about the day we presented you at the temple. You’ve heard what the prophet Simeon said about you, that you would be a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to our people. And you have been, my son! Your kindness to the outcasts has drawn people to you, and in you, people have seen the face of God. But it also drew unwanted attention to you, anger, hatred. At times I wanted you to be a little quieter, a little more cautious around the Pharisees. You could have! You didn’t always have to provoke! You didn’t always have to speak the truth, did you? And yet, I know that doing that, that softening your words or backing down, would make you a different man. Do I wish you were a different man? How could I want that? You are the hope of Israel, the hope of all mankind.

What I never told anyone was that Simeon said that a sword would pierce my soul. I never knew what he meant. But I know now, my son. I know now.

I always wanted to protect you from pain. I hated every bruise and scrape. But I couldn’t protect you from pain when you were little, and I was helpless to stop any of the violence inflicted on you today. I felt the lashes that fell on your back, the back I used to wash when you were a little boy. I screamed until my throat was raw at those who hurled awful names at you, the son whose name I whispered daily in my prayers. I wept when they crushed the crown of thorns on your head, the head I kissed goodnight every time I put you to bed. But when they drove spikes through your hands—hands I held as we walked down the road—I felt the sword pierce my soul.

I stand now at your cross. There are no miracles this time. The light has gone out of my life, even as it is draining from the sky.

All generations will call me blessed. I’m not so sure now. I’m not so sure.

Redeeming Brokenness

Read the story of The Broken Pot here. It will open in a new window so that you can easily find your way back here.

I love this modern-day parable, because man, oh man, do I feel like a broken pot. Some of my flaws are evident to anyone who knows me. Some are deeply hidden. I’m sure there are some that only God sees.

What this story exemplifies, and what I believe to the core of my being, is that God uses our flaws in ways that perfect people can’t be used. I am able to say “I know what you mean,” and really know what they mean. I have lusted in the dark hours of the morning. I have murdered in my heart and never felt a moment of regret. I have stolen. I have coveted. I have gossiped. I have been lazy. I have fed a sanctimonious soul with the food of “At least I haven’t done that.”

All of that enables me to go to my neighbor, my friend–even at times my enemy–and say, “I know what you mean.” Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. Forgive us our trespasses. Forgive me. Forgive my trespasses.

And please, God, use them. Use my trespasses to Your glory. Use them to water flowers for Your glory. Use them to help ease the path for someone else, so that they don’t feel so god-forsaken and all alone.

Help me to discover what You’ve known all along–that Your strength is made perfect and complete by my brokenness. You are the Redeemer.