“Come in and know me better, man!”
-The Ghost of Christmas Present, A Christmas Carol
A friend of mine got married last year. Part gift and part excuse for a father-son trip, his dad took him on an excursion many people only dream of. A month or so before the wedding they hopped on a plane and flew to Uganda. My friend’s been to Africa on several occasions, but this time was different. This time, they joined up with a jungle expedition and set off in search of mountain gorillas.
The tour group spent two days hiking through dense jungle, tracking the giant apes in hopes of catching a glimpse. After hours of hiking and sweating through the wilderness, their guide finally noticed marks of gorilla life. Bent grass, droppings, and other signs meant Kong wasn’t far off. The guide told my friend to be quiet and stay low. They crouched slowly toward what seemed like nothing. Then, rising from the grass, several black, hairy, rounded shapes came into view. They’d found the band they were searching for.
The nearest creature was a three-hundred-pound silverback. They snuck closer and closer. The guide knew how close they were able to get without disturbing the animals. Edging nearer, he bent a blade of grass over so the tourists could get a better look. It was one blade too many.
The silverback slowly lifted his head and shifted his eyes toward the group. He obviously knew he was being watched, and was alright with it, until they came a little too close. In the blink of an eye he was up on all-fours, and bolted toward the group. He covered a few feet in terrifying speed. My friend didn’t react. He didn’t scream or run. He just stood still. He remained motionless, not because the guide trained him to freeze in the event of a charge, or because he was paralyzed by fear. In his words: “I didn’t have time to move. He was three feet away before I even had time to react. I knew they were quick, but I had no idea how quick until I saw them first hand.”
Fortunately Kong stopped in his tracks after a few feet. He didn’t intend to hurt anyone, just show the tourists who was boss and instill a little respect. My friend was thankful, and didn’t think marriage was so scary after his experience in Uganda.
Lots of people I’ve talked to relate to God like they might a silverback gorilla. They may be curious, and perhaps even show a little respect. Ultimately, however, they experience fear or trepidation when thinking about the divine. You may know someone who makes jokes like, “Oh, I can’t go to church. I’d burst into flames as soon as I walked through the door!” This says a lot about who they think God is, and how they think he operates.
After all, if God’s so powerful, why would he want to have anything to do with us? Aren’t we bothering him with our petty problems? Is he waiting for us to bend one more blade of grass before he bolts, threatening to tear us limb from limb? Is he perched up in heaven, just waiting for the chance to cause us to spontaneously combust? Is God cruel, impatient or dangerous?
Being a pastor I listen to people share about their spiritual perspectives or religious background all the time. Many share less-than-flattering views of God. Some of them grew up going to church, lived in “Christian” homes, and even lead others in church settings. Their primary understanding of God’s nature, however, has been corrupted.
Many people had great parents or caregivers, but just as many didn’t. When a young man tells me he feels like God is always upset with him, or mustn’t be interested in his daily goings on (and this is a common theme), I usually ask him a few questions. One of the first: What was life at home like growing up?
I’m no psychiatrist, but many pastors will tell you there tends to be a common thread that runs between people’s vision of God and their experience of childhood. Authority figures leave an impression on us when we’re young. If dad or mom is cruel, impatient, uninterested, or perhaps not even present, we can tend to project these traits onto others later in life. Maybe we even project them onto God. This isn’t to say people who have had nasty childhoods can never grasp the notion of a loving God—quite the opposite. Many have had their paradigm of God turned upside down and inside out after learning about and getting to know the love of God through the story and person of Jesus.
I have a friend who was abused by her father for years. This obviously caused her great pain, and so later in life she coped with lots of sex, drugs, alcohol and an eating disorder. One day she cracked. She and her husband had to seek help. She met with a Christian counsellor for a number of months. She learned about the true nature of the God of the Bible, and began to sense the pain subsiding. She started to heal, and eventually even began the process of forgiving her father. She also chose to trust God in deeper ways.Today, she’s one of the brightest, warmest people I know—a loving wife, mother and businesswoman. She’s proudly shared her story with hundreds of people (which is not an easy thing to do); a testament to the possibility of healing and hope.
My friend had a bad father, but her experience of Jesus transformed her pain into joy and her emptiness into fulfilment. She’ll tell you this was primarily because she learned who Jesus was, and chose to trust him. Some of us have had bad parents, but even the best parents in the world aren’t perfect. The Bible teaches that God is perfect, however. Parents, friends, spouses or children have the potential to mirror his character, but they also have the potential to distort it.
No one is totally like God, not even the sweetest, kindest, sweater- knitting, cookie-baking grandmother you know. Grandma’s not perfect. No one is. This is why the Bible says God chose to live among us in the person of Jesus. The first Christians believed that God wanted us to truly know who he was and did this through Jesus’ arrival. He wanted to make himself clear. Someone once put it this way, by paraphrasing a portion of John’s gospel:
“The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neigh- bourhood. We saw him with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son, Generous inside and out, true from start to finish.”
If fear and trepidation holds us back from being open to God, maybe we’re missing the point of Christmas altogether. Perhaps we’re speculating about God’s nature, when we should be looking at Jesus instead. Another friend of mine says it like this: if you want to know what God’s like, don’t guess!
Cut from the same cloth.
My dad and I are quite similar. We relate well to one another because we share a number of traits. We also look a lot alike. As I age, I notice more and more of my dad’s personality in mine. In my case, this isn’t a bad thing—he’s a great guy. Remember what the book of Hebrews said about Jesus and God?
“He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.”
And also Paul in Colossians:
“He is the image of the invisible God…”
“For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily…”
The Bible teaches we can know what God is like by looking at Jesus. Many believe this is why he’s the most important figure in history, and why his influence and fame can’t be stamped out. Christians have sometimes horribly misrepresented Jesus over the years, yet his reputation for love and compassion stands strong. How good a person do you have to be to have endured centuries of intentional and unintentional distortion? Despite the bad rap many have given Christianity, Jesus’ reputation endures.
The night before he died, Jesus assembled his closest friends and followers. He shared a meal with them and downloaded everything he wanted them to remember. It appears that he knew he was going to die, and so his final moments with his disciples are words to note in John’s gospel.
Around the dinner table one of his friends, Philip, was struggling with what many of us wrestle with today. As we saw in part one, many people like Jesus, but we have a hard time accepting his divinity. Philip was in the same boat. The gospels say Jesus healed blind people, fed thousands by miraculously multiplying a few pieces of bread and some fish, cast demons out of strong and violent men, and even raised at least one person from the dead. In spite of all this, Philip still struggled to believe that Jesus was actually God amongst them.
Sometimes people say they might believe in God if he gave them some sort of clear sign of his existence. This didn’t seem to work for Philip, even when the sign was staring him in the face, controlling the weather, and walking on water. During supper, while Jesus was sharing his final lesson, Philip piped up:
“Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Fa- ther. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves.”
For those who try to use the gospels to argue that Jesus never claimed to be God, this is a challenging passage. Who’s the “Father” Jesus speaks of? The common consensus is that he’s referring to the Israelites’ one-true God.
To say that this is a bold statement from Jesus would be a massive understatement. According to him, the man sitting at the table sharing a meal with them and the God who created the universe were one and the same. Jesus says, My Dad and I are cut from the same cloth. I carry his character. If you want to know what the one-true God of the universe is like, watch me…Oh, and pass the bread sticks.
Closed fridges can’t wash feet.
A while back I had a couple of friends over and hadn’t prepared to host them. I realized I should probably try to be a good friend and offer them something. I pulled a bag of cookies from the cupboard and opened the fridge to grab the milk. Lifting the carton, I discovered there was little milk left in it. In a moment I’ll regret for the rest of my life I told them I had cookies, but not enough milk to go around and enough for me to use the next day. I could only offer them water. I didn’t think that moment through. Being good (and quick-witted) friends they immediately exposed my selfish sense of self-preservation, and proceeded to mock me for it. I realized it too, and tried to backpedal. Of course they were welcome to the milk. Awkward.
Now whenever they’re over and I offer them tea, or juice, or water, or anything, they respond with, “Except milk, right?” We laugh, and it’s a good reminder of how much I have to learn about hospitality and generosity. I still can’t believe I did that.
Jesus was a better host than me. The night before he was crucified, John says Jesus did something ridiculous, right in the middle of dinner. The next scene might sound bizarre because Jesus’ actions are rooted in an ancient culture. Believe me when I tell you that his actions were even more confounding back then.
“Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him.”
During dinner parties in Jewish homes it was customary to wash your guest’s feet. People wore sandals all the time back then, and living in the dusty Near East meant daily dealings with dirty feet. When guests sat on the floor and reclined for supper (as you still do in some of the Near East today) it was nice to have clean feet. The host of the party didn’t personally wash everyone’s feet, of course. Servants did this, specifically the lowest, most unimportant servant in the household. I’ve heard some suggest this job was so degrading and undignified that first century Jewish masters would never force Jewish servants to wash feet—non-Jewish servants would be left to do that kind of dirty work.
John’s account of the foot washing is strategic. It’s a key moment in the meal, and the gospel story in general. It’s probably one of the reasons Philip asks to “see the Father,” later on. Obviously Almighty God must be above this kind of work, and wouldn’t stoop to wash feet. Jesus did.
This was mind-blowing for his friends: “Why would Jesus want to expose himself to my athlete’s foot?” They must have thought. “I thought he was important! Important people don’t wash feet!”
When Jesus came to Peter and tried to remove his Birkenstocks, Peter flipped his lid and outright rebuked his rabbi. Jesus responded by saying, Pete, if you don’t let me do this then you’ll miss the whole point. This is what I’m all about, and if this doesn’t happen then you can’t be on the team. Peter’s reaction was: Well then, toss me in at the deep end. Not just my feet, but all of me. Peter signs up, still trying to work out what he was signing up for.
“When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.”
How’s that for an object lesson?
This vision of Jesus is important, and we see it all over the gospels. This is why people who claim to follow Jesus should be humble, kind, thoughtful, servant-hearted individuals. If you know a Christian who isn’t like this, maybe you could offer to help them learn more about their faith by kindly asking if they’d like to wash your feet…or offer you the last drops of milk from their fridge.
How to be great (and look foolish doing it).
To say that Jesus rolled up his sleeves and got his hands dirty is too meagre a metaphor in describing his attitude while living alongside us. Jesus didn’t just help humanity move house or unclog a drain. God amongst us, acting as Jesus did, goes beyond any comparable simile. The foot-washing is a standout example of how low Jesus stooped. He became as humble as humanly possible in his culture. He wholeheartedly exemplified the words we hear from him in Matthew’s gospel:
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Jesus correctly identifies how the world works. Your boss is top dog, and can make your life hell if she’s in a bad mood. The older kids at school are tough, and can push you around if they want to. Silverbacks will always display control over their territory, usually with aggression and force. This wasn’t how Jesus did things. He made this even clearer a few short hours later when he allowed himself to be arrested, tortured, and crucified. He did this, he said, to serve humanity.
This drastically changed the course of history. As we noted in chapter one, humility as we know it today was only embraced in the West as virtue, post-Jesus. One historian speaks of people’s choice of what to do with Jesus once they came to grips with his life and death: Logically, they had just two options. Either Jesus was not as great as they had first thought, his crucifixion being evidence of his insignificance, or the notion of “greatness” itself had to be redefined to fit with the fact of his seemingly shameful end.
The foot-washing was the precursor to the cross. The cross shows us, almost unfathomably, how much Jesus humbled himself. This act, the Bible teaches, was for the good of the world. The manger, the foot washing and the cross affirm a foundational Christian truth: Jesus got filthy so we can be clean. Jesus is the example for Christian living. Following Jesus means living like he did—it means living humbly.
How low can you go?
I recently met a man who helps out at the local homeless shelter. Norman is in his fifties, has long hair, a beard, and a warm, unique face. Norman also has some physical challenges, including scoliosis. He wasn’t diagnosed until he was a teenager, so everything seemed normal in his younger years. Things changed when he got to high school, however. Norman was shorter than his high school classmates, and got teased for it. His back was bent, and this significantly affected the rest of his body in form and function. He had some rough years, and at one point ended up on the street. During this time, a former employer told him about Jesus, and Norman became a Christian.
Norman now has a steady job, a home, a truck, and serves at the shelter every week. I asked him what he does with his spare time. He told me he picks up things people don’t want and delivers them to local charities. Norman collects goods and gives them to agencies in need, or sells them and donates the cash. He also likes to tell people he meets about Jesus. He agreed with me that serving at the shelter was a great way of sharing Jesus and his message. As Norman said, “It’s about serving.”
Norman seems to understand the Jesus we read about in the gospels. From this perspective, Norman is great. You don’t have to look or sound impressive by other people’s standards to make a difference. Jesus acted more like Norman than he did a three-hundred-pound silverback gorilla. Perhaps Norman has read these words from Paul in his letter to the Philippians:
“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied him- self, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
Before Jesus washed feet, blessed children, stood up for women’s rights, healed sick people or died on a cross, he was content to be born quietly amongst us. His birth and infancy displayed how much God was willing to serve humanity. Jesus’ greatness evidenced itself through his humility. Maybe that’s what real greatness is in the first place.
An unlikely Christmas convert.
The passage from Philippians in the previous section has an introduction I left out. Paul begins it this way:
“…make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose…”
Love, joy and togetherness would seem to be what many say Christmas is all about.
Other than what I find in the Bible, one of my all-time favourite stories is A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. I love the book, as well as a number of the film adaptations. The story of a nasty old curmudgeon’s conversion to Christmas moves me every time. Early on, Dickens introduces us to his story’s main character: Ebenezer Scrooge. He’s a distant, unfeeling, stingy old jerk. He also hates Christmas:
“Oh! But he was a tight fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, covetous old sinner. Hard and sharp a flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self contained, and solitary as an oys- ter. The cold within me froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his coffee in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw in one degree at Christmas.”
When we first meet Scrooge he’s cruel, cold, cranky, and closed off. He’s also rich, but acts like he’s poor, hoarding every penny, unwilling to share with anyone save the taxman. He doesn’t have time for people, shows no mercy to his debtors, is feared by the entire city of London, and wants to be left alone.
You probably know at least some of the rest of the story. One night he’s visited by a number of ghosts who open his eyes to the true meaning of the Christmas season. He realizes the horrible plight of the poor he’s been ignoring, is thawed by the love of family and friends, and reflects on his troubled past. He also faces a cold, hard reality: life is short, and everybody dies one day. This one night brings about a dramatic conversion in Scrooge and sets him on a new course of good-hearted, benevolent living. One of Dickens’ final descriptions of Scrooge is this:
“He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset…His own heart laughed and that was quite enough for him.”
Scrooge was no longer paralyzed by pride. His prior way of life saw only money compound, but his new way of life saw joy compound. His trans- formation didn’t change his position in life. He still had money, and he still had power. What he did with his money and power changed, how- ever. Instead of living in fear and only looking out for himself, he chose to live in love. He opened his heart to his family and neighbours, helped the needy, and lived generously. In short, Scrooge became humble. One writer defines humility this way:
“…the noble choice to forgo your status, deploy your resources or use your influence for the good of others before yourself. More simply, you could say a humble person is marked by a willingness to hold power in service of others.”
Greatness, humility, love, joy, togetherness—perhaps they’re all connected. Perhaps they have a root, an origin. I believe the baby in the manger, (later the foot-washing rabbi and the man on the cross) is our best example of that origin. Maybe grasping greatness begins with cradling the infant.