Steve’s Letter – September 2014
SEPTEMBER 1, 2014
In a National Review article (7/21/14), Charles Cook wrote about how being a “nerd” or a “geek” in our culture has become sort of the in-thing. His point is political but in passing he referenced a sketch from the TV show Portlandia that takes place in a bar. A beautiful woman and model says that modeling isn’t her thing and that she is really a nerd. At that point a dorky-looking man tells her that he is, in fact, a “real nerd”—someone who wears glasses to see, who is shy and who “isn’t wearing a nerd costume for Halloween” but is dressed how he lives. “I get sick with fear talking to people,” he says. “It sucks.”
One of the heretical downsides and dangers for orthodox/evangelical Christians revolves around the incarnation of God in Christ. Sometimes we seem to be saying that Jesus put on a costume for a little while and just played the part of being human. The issue is the transcendence of God as opposed to the immanence of God. Those who are theological liberals have a tendency to err on the side of immanence, ignoring the divine. Those of us who are orthodox and Bible-believing have a tendency to err on the side of transcendence, ignoring the humanity of God in the incarnation.
I once taught about the incarnation of Christ at a conference and, in order to make the incarnation clear, I said, “Jesus blew his nose just the way you do.” A very angry lady came up to me afterwards and said, “That’s blasphemous!” I asked her why and she said, “It just is!”
“You don’t think,” I asked, “that Jesus blew his nose?”
“Well,” she replied, “Uh…maybe. But you don’t have to be so vulgar about it.”
As I just wrote those words, I was feeling quite self-righteous until I remembered my own reaction to a question from a student who asked me if I thought that Jesus struggled with lust. My reaction wasn’t dissimilar to that woman’s reaction to my “nose blowing” comment.
Why were we so bent out of shape over the obvious and true statements regarding the humanness of Jesus? Let me tell you. Because the implications of those statements in particular and of the entire doctrine of the incarnation in general say things about God that are quite disturbing and things about us that are quite irritating.
Let me give you some Scripture. Then we’ll talk about it.
In Hebrews 2:18, the writer wrote that Jesus “because he himself has suffered when tempted, is able to help those who are being tempted.” And then in Hebrews 4:15-16 the same writer makes one of the most astonishing statements in the entire Bible. He wrote, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” And then the Apostle John wrote in his biography of Jesus, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…full of grace and truth” (John 1:1, 14).
I don’t know about you, but there is something quite irritating about a messy God. Charlie and Ruth Jones of Peculiar People fame gave me a coffee mug (from which I’m drinking as I write) that has this on it, “Gourmet Presbyterian Coffee. Predestined to be brewed decently and in order.” We want the sacred and the secular kept separate, the holiness of God to remain holy, and our religion to be in order and proper. This talk about God blowing his nose and struggling with lust just isn’t…uh…well…decent.
It was the same feeling expressed by Peter when Jesus washed his feet (John 13). “You shall never,” Peter protested, “wash my feet!” In other words, messiahs don’t wash feet, blow noses or struggle with sexual temptation. It’s just not done…
…but Jesus did it.
And in the doing of it changed everything we ever thought about God.
A long time ago I became convinced that a “pastor on a throne” was not a good image. (Someone once said, “They put the preacher six feet above everybody else, give him a microphone and shine a light on him. Then they tell him to be humble.”) In those days the church I served had a gigantic pulpit—it looked like the prow of a ship—and just behind it, a very large pulpit chair where the pastor was supposed to sit until he preached. The image was rather daunting so I decided to humanize it a bit. I burned the pulpit (actually my wonderful staff, knowing how I felt, got rid of it and wouldn’t tell me how) and I got rid of the massive “throne” where I was expected to sit. Then I sat in the congregation with my family and only came forward to preach or lead. Not only that, I told everybody else who participated in the worship service to do the same. “We, like everybody else,” I told them, “bring our gifts of worship from the people to the throne of God and before God’s people.”
I thought it was a very cool move that taught biblical and theological truth and, at the same time, allowed me to sit with my family and participate in worship. I thought that the congregation would rise up and call me blessed and smart, telling everyone how fortunate they were to have me as their pastor.
Not even close.
In fact, some people in the congregation started a petition (I’m not making this up…you simply can’t make up stuff like this) urging me to sit on the throne and preach from the big pulpit. In the petition they stated that their pastor was a model of authority for the adults and children in the congregation. They didn’t want a messy God and certainly didn’t want a “messy preacher” speaking for him. I get that.
Do you know something even more irritating than a messy God? It is the underlying presupposition that we are messy too. The central witness of the Bible is that God ran to us because we were too helpless, needy and sinful to run to him. John said that “we love him because he first loved us.”
I’ve often said (because I believe it so deeply) that one can tell how big a problem is by ascertaining what it takes to fix it. In our case it took the blood of God’s own Son which suggests that we are a serious mess and unfixable sinners. To paraphrase Paul’s words (in 2 Corinthians 8:9), “He who was rich, sovereign, decent, proper and pure became poor, messy, indecent and improper so that by his love we might become rich.”
A friend of mine once told me why he thought so many people were so angry at me. “Steve,” he said, “it’s because to admit radical grace, one must admit that one is a radical sinner and to admit the amazing love of God, one must accept the fact that one is amazingly unlovable. That’s not going to happen.” Maybe.
But there is one other thing. Do you know what is even more disturbing than a messy God and our mess? It is the call issued by a messy God for us in our mess to reach out to a messy world. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness [his righteousness not ours] of God. Working together with him, then, we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain…” (2 Corinthians 5:21-6:1).
I’ve been reading a book of devotions, Saving Grace, by my friend, the late Jack Miller, taken from sermons he preached. (It’s published by New Growth Press but won’t be out for a few months. When it’s out, you’ll love it too.) Jack’s daughter, Barbara (yeah, the same “Barbara” about whom she and Jack wrote the book, Come Back, Barbara), wrote in the introduction that the devotions were “filled with challenges to understand how deeply broken we are by sin, to go to Christ in repentance and faith, to remember the love of the Father and the gift of the Holy Spirit, and to pray constantly as sons and daughters of the living God. Jack never thought these truths were simply so we could feel better about ourselves…He taught that the gift of the Spirit always overflows to the world and touches others with the good news of repentance and forgiveness of sin. We are the carriers of that gift.”
That’s it…a God who determined to be messy reaching down to extremely messy sinners so that those messy sinners (even in their mess) would tell other messy sinners about a messy God who loves them.
In our home’s living room we have a framed photograph taken by a dear friend of ours who then committed suicide some years later. It is a photograph of a bent and broken tree, stripped of its leaves and without life, silhouetted against a sunrise with the sun’s rays falling on the broken tree. Under the photograph are these words, “Let this tree be like the broken spirit of a man and the rays like his love making what was once broken whole again.”
He does that…even for our friend. Looking at that photograph and even in being sad for our friend, I hear her and his voice that God does it for me too.
He asked me to remind you.