The Stranger That is God by Jake Johnson

“All moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.” — Frederick Buechner

“I’ve been to church, I’ve read the book, I know He’s here, but I don’t look.” — George Strait

It is the poet, not the pragmatic, who teaches us what it means to know God. To alter the words of G.K. Chesterton in Orthodoxy, I was damned by John Calvin, but I was almost saved by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Much of my friends lie among the pages of well-worn books, books that have seen just as much life as the stories they tell. They speak to me from their fictitious worlds, calling me further up and farther in to the life that I am often too numb to feel. As Josh Garrels reminds us, “there’s so much more to life than we’ve been told, it’s full of beauty that will unfold.” Perhaps the greatest danger of familiarity is forgetting the wonder of this journey of grace we call life. And yet, apathy seems to be the most common drug these days.

As I write this, laying against a wall on a rooftop in Kurdistan, surrounded by the beauty of the Azmer and Goizha mountain ranges, I look inward as my heart is flooded with shame. Surrounded by mystery and wonder, I am blinded by my own self-righteousness. Kissed by the sun, I turn from the warmth she offers me. Hugged by the wind, I refuse to accept the kindness that flows from her. For I am broken and ashamed, and a piece of me wishes to stay that way. As the rich man said, “I’ve come up empty, man, I am desperate, and I never want to feel the warmth of summer come again” (“You Were There”, The Call). Like the Torah thumpers of Jesus’ day, my heart can be so set on preconceived notions and ideas of who God is supposed to love and what he is supposed to do that I miss the very One who wishes to soften my heart and show me what this whole “life” thing is about. For I must confess, I am far more bewildered and scandalized by a God who washes feet and freely forgives than I am of a God who smites his enemies (as long as, of course, his enemies are my enemies). And yet, if the synagogue addicts had the courage to see, maybe they would have have realized the Great I Am was in their midst. He just looked a hell of a lot different than what they expected.

But isn’t that how it always is? God showing up in the unexpected, in the least likely? Theologian Chris Green says that, “until we meet God as the stranger, we will never recognize the stranger as our brother.” Green’s idea isn’t new — Abraham met God in the form of strangers at the edge of Mamre, Jacob did some WWE with a stranger in the dark, and the three amigos thrown in the human bonfire were accompanied by a guy they recognized not (but surely never forgot). And then you’ve got all those times Jesus shows up, nonchalantly doing or saying something that makes heaven an earthly reality, and yet the fools around him still don’t get it. And, of course, there’s that mysterious verse in Hebrews that talks about entertaining angels in our midst (Hebrews 13:2). But perhaps the best example of meeting God as the stranger is that hike those two guys took to Emmaus. It was in their walking away from God that they walked right into him, in their doubting that they found faith.

Paul talks about the gospel being offensive, but I no longer think it is because of those it keeps out but rather those it invites in. There is nothing scandalous about a “fair” and “just” God, so long as he meets our standards for what “fairness” and “justice” mean (which often, in our minds, mean retribution and punishment). The world is used to this type of god — it’s what we see throughout human history in all the Pharaohs and Caesars who have risen and fallen. But a God who stands in solidarity with all the prodigals, who forgives and loves and dies, and gets back up because even the tree we nailed him to couldn’t drown out his love — that is a God whose co-suffering love is scandalous to the Jews and folly to the Romans (1 Corinthians 1:23). And before you think I’m being anti-Semitic by saying that, think about how often Christians have expected a militaristic messiah just like the Jews. The ways of Jesus are just as scandalous to 1st century Jews as they are to many 21st century Christians. In God we trust, right?

I saw God the other day, in the face of an Arab refugee, her eyes as brown as hazelnut and her hair as black as coffee. Her bare feet caked in the dry and rocky soil of northern Iraq, they were calloused and cracked, and if they could speak would likely tell me stories far greater than any I’ve read. How beautiful are the feet that bring good news. Whether she knows it or not, the Kingdom is for those who are like her.

One of my favorite stories in the gospels is of Jesus eating at Zacchaeus’s house, found in Luke 19. We are told that on that day salvation came to his house, and it seems clear that it wasn’t some “mechanistic” salvation but rather the salvific beauty of befriending Jesus. Of course, the religious people were scandalized that Jesus would dine and wine with such a “sinner,” and I bet he didn’t even perform the ceremonial hand washing before the meal. He’s reclining in the home of the Jewish equivalent of Saul Goodman from Better Call Saul, a morally compromised man who likely smokes a pack of Lucky Strikes a day just to keep the stress and guilt at bay. And as Jesus and Zac break bread, the wise-crack tax collector is flooded with grace, and he recycles that grace into making reparations for all those he’s ripped off in the past. Who knows, maybe he gave up smoking that day, too. Or not.

But the reason why I find that story so fascinating is what it tells us about the nature of salvation. The text doesn’t give us some platonic, transactional take on Zacchaeus being “saved.” He didn’t say a sinner’s prayer, he didn’t raise his hand at the end of a service, and he didn’t fill out a connect card and drop it in the offering basket. But he certainly experienced salvation, which is to say he experienced healing. He experienced joy. He experienced transformation. He experienced resurrection. And maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t a “one and done” thing, but something in the making, something that had already happened, something that was happening, and something that would continue to happen. As Paul would later say, “we have been saved, we are being saved, and we will be saved.” There’s a lot to learn from this gospel passage, and looking at the relational nature of it, I can safely say that I think part of it is that the religious elite must recognize that true healing, true transformation (that is, salvation) cannot happen apart from encountering those we see as “others” — as “them.” If my faith makes me “too holy” to associate with those I’d rather throw stones at, it’s time I rethink what I believe. 

I’ve tried to leave Jesus. But I just can’t. He mystifies me as much as he disturbs me. He wakes me up to that which I am too numb to feel, speaking to me through the face of a refugee, the song of a bird, the smell of a shawarma, and the touch of a well-known hand. It is precisely in those moments that I find irony in the saying “to God be the glory.” While I believe in that statement, I think too many people believe that God’s glory must look like the glory and fame we see in the world, and so then God becomes a prideful, cosmic narcissist demanding the unwavering attention and allegiance of all, or else. Yes, I do believe that one day “every knee will bow and tongue confess that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:10-11), but I don’t believe that will come through the use of the sword but rather through embracing the beauty and wonder of the enemy lover. For Jesus is the “radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being […]” (Hebrews 1:3). In other words, the glory of God looks like Jesus. A humble, homeless man from the wrong side of the railroad tracks, who laughs and cries and drinks and dines — that’s what the glory of God looks like. He’s found in the simple and mundane as much as in the complex and magnificent, in the “sacred” as much as the “secular.” Jesus says that the flowers are clothed in more majesty than Solomon ever was, and yet we still think that God’s glory should look more like an earthly king than an earthy gardener. For of course, in our world, who has time to garden? Certainly not those who have made a name for themselves, who matter, who grind. Who has time to play in the dirt, to patiently care for something so fragile as a flower? Certainly not the pragmatic, the doer, the go-getter. It is the poet, the artist, the dreamer, the stranger — who not only stops to smell the roses, but who plants them.

And maybe, by rejecting the rat race of cynical success and embracing the ways of the flowers, and the strangers who plant them, we can come to see each other — and God — in a whole new light. After all, the sum of the law and prophets is to simply love others as we wish to be loved. But it’s a narrow road, to love, and few ever find it.

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Max Yelken

A young man looking for a sustainable life of adventure in a changing world.

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