A preacher friend of mine sometimes says: If Jesus doesn’t offend you, then you’re not paying attention.
See, we live in a world that preaches to us constantly and subtly that we’re supposed to behave and to look a certain way, we’re supposed to desire and accumulate certain things, that each of us has our “place” in the community, and we dare not step outside it. That means different things for different people sitting here in these pews, and I don’t want to pretend to know or understand all the strictures that our world places on each one of us depending on our skin color or income bracket or age or gender or education level. What I do know is that if we look to our surroundings, out into the world, to find our identity, we’re going to end up being confused about what it means to be Emily (or Paul, or Jordan, or Elnora).
We all suffer some level of being confused, of being messed up. Whether it’s privilege because of our zip code or prejudice because of our accent, honor because of our diplomas or suspicion because of our skin tone, it’s impossible not to buy in to some degree of who the world tells us that we are.
So when we turn to Jesus’ words, when we look anew at Scripture, things don’t quite fit together; the boxes and categories that the world shoves us into aren’t the words and categories that God uses to describe us, and while we might have become comfortable with the person the world tells us that we are, we rub up against the truth that Jesus preaches, and we find ourselves suffering sore spots.
Perhaps Jesus’s preference for the poor itches like a tag on the back of your shirt. Or maybe his assertion that you are worthy of love feels like hot sun on your already-burned skin.
God’s Word challenges us, it picks at bits of our prejudices and rubs at our blind spots, urging us to repentance and then to reform. Encouraging, goading, maybe even shoving us toward a fuller vision of his kingdom.
If this discomfort isn’t a common part of our spiritual and social lives, then we’re the ones deluding ourselves and manipulating God’s words to be more palatable for our own purposes.
Taking offense at Jesus, suffering these sore spots in our hearts and identities, isn’t really a bad thing; it’s a sign that we’re paying attention and that we’re starting to flex those muscles in our hearts that are sensitive to God. As we awaken to the boxes that the world shoves us into and start to climb out of them, we get scraped up, and maybe we even start to let go of the heavy things we’ve accumulated that the world told us would make us happy.
A book I read this week put it this way: “What we’re all trying to do is find the person we were meant to be before the world told us who to be.”
How do we find out who we’re meant to be? Where can we draw a line between the person that’s been shaped up the way the world wants, and the person that God created to be a glorious addition to his kingdom? We can’t assume that we’re just naturally attuned to God’s true north; we’ve spent too much time swimming around in the great ocean of the broken and off-kilter world for that.
Like being spun around in circles before being let loose on a pinata, or struggling to find our footing again after playing on a merry-go-round; the world spins us around and disorients us from a God-focused direction in our lives.
Up north, where Jordan and I come from, there are blizzards so severe that you can’t see through them, they’re described as “whiteout conditions.” In this age of motor vehicles and electricity and GPS, they’re not quite as treacherous as they were back in pioneer days, but you still don’t want to get caught outside when a storm comes up.
Many of the historical novels and nonfiction that populated my childhood harbored stories of near-losses or death by these amazing storms. Farmers would go out to the barn to check on their livestock in a blizzard, and end up frozen in the courtyard just steps from their homes, not found until the spring thaw, because they’d gotten so turned around in the small space between the barn door and the backdoor. It was common practice to tie a rope between the house and the barn, and to hang on to it for dear life as you traversed the few yards between the buildings, so strong was the wind and so thick was the snow. Other times, you’d tie a rope to you and leave the other end in the house, so that they could pull you back in if you got lost.
My friends, our world is like a blizzard, easy to get lost, so hard to find our way back. White-out conditions make it nearly impossible to see the truth clearly. Noisy wind, whispered promises of success, demands on our time rip at our clothes and drag us in all directions. Our inner compass is de-magnetized and we wander about, wondering how to find the truth in the midst of such noisy and conflicting claims. How do we identify and cling to the truth that promises life?
The first step is realizing that we’re in a blizzard, and to determine to cling to the rope in our hands, no matter how much more comfortable it is just to wander.
In clinging to that rope of truth, the revelation of Jesus Christ as the son of God, we surrender to those uncomfortable and perhaps even offense claims that God makes through Jesus; it’s not an easy step to take. It’s one that Adam and Eve resisted, turning away from God and seeking out their own fruit, their own understanding, their own independent life-path that they believed would lead them into truth and peace.
It’s a step that most people didn’t want to make even when they were faced with God himself in the person of Jesus. People were so totally offended by Jesus’ claims and the truth that he brought them that they shut him up in a permanent way. He continually told the truth, and the truth was so contrary to what the people believed that we killed him.
The Good News is that the darkness and death of our selfishness and our hardness of heart, our unwillingness to listen and to trust God’s truth isn’t strong enough to defeat him in the war for our hearts. Though we wander and forget to hold on to the rope and maybe even refuse to hold it, God continues to find us in the blizzard and to offer his lifeline back to us. Even when we throw down the coarse rope in disgust, tired of the callouses it’s started to form on our hands, God waits at our side, ready to hand back to us the vision he has for our peace and our future. The devices and desire of our own hearts aren’t enough to silence the call God makes in Jesus, for through death, even when we killed Jesus and tried to silence his voice, up from the grave he arose.
The evil, temptation, selfishness, pride, and grudges that populate our lives are not enough to overcome or dilute or silence the TRUTH that God speaks into our hearts. The temptation to listen to the world is great, but the transforming power of God’s love is greater.
In the famous fairytale The Beauty and the Beast, the Beast had taken to heart all that the world implied about his worth and desirability, behaving selfishly, enacting terrible consequences — being a Beast.
Belle helped bring him out of himself, seeing a deeper, truer portrait that he himself had forgotten. Then at the climax of the fairy tale, when his character is tested and the curse upon him about to seal his animal state, he shows through his love and sacrifice for Belle that this new, true identity has taken root in himself. He believes Belle — the one who truly sees him — more than he believes the ugly lies about himself which the world has fed him.
And of course — I hope I’m not spoiling the ending for anybody — it’s in the Beast living into and acting out of the love and character he was created to give that he finds new life.