In this third part of our series, God Moved into the Neighborhood, we take a look at the fact that Jesus came to see us become our truest, God-created selves. In a world that encourages us to be true to ourselves, this advice only makes sense if we know to which self we are seeking to be true. Read (or listen) on to learn more…
Who Do You Want to Be?
If you spend much time listening closely to modern pop music you will quickly come to discover that one of the banner themes of this age is: Be True to Yourself. For example, singer Katy Perry has a song called “Firework” that was on Billboard’s Top 40 chart for almost a year including some time at the number 1 spot. At least part of the reason for this success, I would argue, is that the song taps into a longing in the human spirit to be more than we currently are. Now, I happen to think this is an entirely Biblical idea. We are called by guys like Paul and Peter and John to become fully reflective of the image of Christ which is far greater than any image we can produce on our own. Perry, however, isn’t thinking in these terms. Listen to some of the lyrics: “Do you ever feel like a plastic bag drifting through the wind, wanting to start again? Do you ever feel, feel so paper thin, like a house of cards, one blow from caving in? . . . Do you know that there’s still a chance for you ‘cause there’s a spark in you? You just gotta ignite the light and let it shine. . . .You don’t have to feel like a waste of space. You’re original, cannot be replaced. If you only knew what the future holds. After a hurricane comes a rainbow. Maybe the reason why all the doors are closed [is] so you could open one that leads you to the perfect road.”
Do you hear the idea running throughout these words? You’re meant for something more than the mundane, frustrating, limited life you live on a regular basis. You’re a firework just waiting to explode so that everyone can look at you and recognize your true greatness. You simply need to tap into the greatness that is inside of you. Be true to yourself because that’s where the real fuel lies. Disney will release a film version of A Wrinkle in Time next year. From the synopsis, part of the moral of the story is that we can make the world better when we embrace our individualism. Indeed, this idea of being true to yourself is a huge part of our modern culture. Young people are spoon fed from this worldview from nearly the time they are born. Think about it. The popularity of websites like Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Instragram, Snapchat, and other similar sites is in part due to this increasing desire to be recognized as a star, to be famous. Every kid who posts something to Youtube is hoping to be the next Justin Bieber who became a star because of Youtube. Tens of thousands of people try out for shows like the “Voice” or “American Idol” or ‘America’s Got Talent” in hopes of having their true greatness recognized so they can be the next superstar. “You are special,” we are told over and over, “and if you’ll just remain true to yourself, become your truest self, eventually the world is going to recognize and celebrate this.”
But, there’s a catch to all this for the thinking person. To which self exactly are we to be true? Depending on the situation, most of us have different selves we put on display. We only let our hair down for a very select group of people. Everyone else gets the self we think will be most useful for the situation. How do we know, then, if the self to which we choose to be true is in fact our truest self? Well, our culture assumes that we are born as our truest self. Now, that self is not immutable, not static in its form, but that’s okay because our truest self is really whoever we happen to feel we are at a given moment. For instance, consider Charlotte’s now-infamous “bathroom bill.” Whatever your particular feelings about the ordinance, there were a set of cultural assumptions built into it that how a person feels in a given moment is an accurate reflection of who he or she really is regardless of any other physical realities that might normally otherwise be taken into account. But, what if these assumptions turned out to be false?
This morning we are in the third week of our series, God Moved into the Neighborhood. In the first week we were reminded of the fact that when our world was broken beyond the ability to repair itself, God moved into the neighborhood. He came fully into this world in the person of Jesus Christ. Now, this is a mind-blowing truth in and of itself—God coming to earth to live among us as one who is us—but when we understand what Christ, the fully divine, second member of the Trinity left behind in order to come here it becomes all the more remarkable. The idea that Jesus left the full glory of heaven behind in order to live among us really does make Christmas something worth celebrating. That’s a lot more satisfying a reason to celebrate than some generic spirit of giving or perhaps simply a bowing to the popular, but false, god, Nostalgia.
Jesus didn’t simply come to live in the neighborhood, though. He came to this world to transform it. As we saw last week, the first step in transforming a malfunctioning system is to shed some light on it in order that we can see where all the problems are. This means that Jesus came to tell us where we are broken in order that we can get fixed. If we’re not careful and wind up in a behavioral pattern that’s an object of Jesus’ light, though, He can come across like some garden variety busy-body who’s more concerned with minding our business than His own. But with Jesus we need to turn off our cynicism meter because He is in fact the God of the universe who created it from scratch and knows intimately how it’s all supposed to work. And how it’s supposed to work is to create a climate of life for all who care to live it. Thus, Jesus didn’t come merely shining some irritating light. He came bringing light to live by.
Where we find ourselves this morning, then, is at a crossroads. You see, other than his work on the cross and His resurrection from the dead, we’ve gotten through everything Jesus came to earth to do. And, when you think about it, these two things are really contained in the “to live by” part of the light Jesus brings to our lives. So, in that sense, we’ve covered everything Jesus came to earth to do. All that remains is how we are going to respond to it and what will happen when we do. And that decision rests with us. Or perhaps putting this in terms of the idea that’s been controlling this whole journey so far will help make things clearer. A few years ago, a group of young families from Second Presbyterian Church, a pretty wealthy church in Richmond, decided to become intentional neighbors in the Church Hill neighborhood—one of the most infamous, crime-filled neighborhoods in Richmond. Like Jeff Johnson, they moved in with their families without fanfare, and began the process of ministering to their new neighbors. No doubt the residents they met were puzzled that they would leave behind their comparative glory to live there. But, they persisted in their attempts to love their new neighbors and eventually new relationships were formed. As they became more aware of the problems and needs of the neighborhood, this group of transformers started a ministry called CHAT: Church Hill Activities and Tutoring. This was a culmination of what they came to the neighborhood to do. The question remaining was this: How would the neighbors respond? Would they embrace this light and live by it, or would they reject it and crawl back into the darkness they had known for so many years before?
Indeed, how would we receive the light Jesus brought with Him? Well, John doesn’t answer this question in the opening lines of his memoir of his time with Jesus—we’re the only ones who can—but he does tell us what will happen if we do. He also addresses the fact that people choosing to walk in the light Jesus brings is far from a sure thing. Let’s take a look together at John’s description of what happens when we walk in the light Jesus brings. He begins by backing up just a bit to remind us of where we left off last week. Look at this with me: “The Life-Light was the real thing: Every person entering Life he brings into Light.”
We started out a few minutes ago talking about the modern, faddish notion of being true to ourselves. Let me mix metaphors a bit on you here. I love singing along with the radio or my iPod. I’m not above joining in on the drums if the moment calls for it either. On occasion, I’ll be listening to a song just below the volume level that allows for a full-throated warble. This, however, presents no impediment to my singing. I’ll just sing a little softer so I blend well with the original artist. My fellow radio-singers will understand: if you want to, say, sound like Bing Crosby singing White Christmas, you have to make sure his voice is louder than yours. Anyway, sometimes when I’m singing along at a lower volume than normal, I’ll turn up the volume only to discover that I’ve been singing along in a totally different key than the original. I know, right! It’s embarrassing. Or maybe that’s just the music nerd in me. (There are multiple dimensions to the tapestry of my nerdiness, by the way. Chemistry nerd, music nerd, theology nerd…)
Before I leave you wondering where I’ve taken us, let me connect some dots for you. Listening to the song at a low volume is like trying to live in low light. We think we can hear…or see…well, and we go with what we hear; but with a bit more volume…or light…we discover that what we thought was in tune was actually not. What we thought was real—real life, our real selves—was actually not. With Jesus’ light, though, we are getting something truly real. When we enter into life with Him, He takes us to a place where we can see what’s true and what’s false. We can see things as they really are. We don’t often have access to that sight in this world. We can only see one layer of reality—the outer layer. We can only take in what our eyes can behold.
Consider Ted Haggard, the former pastor of New Life Church in Colorado Springs, CO. From the outer layer of reality, it appeared that everything in his life was sailing along smoothly. He had a great wife and kids. He was pastor of a large and growing church. He was recognized nationally as a dynamic church leader. Everything seemed to be going his way…until the news broke that he was spending time on the side using meth and frequenting a male prostitute in Denver. Even someone like Katy Perry is subject to this bifurcation of reality. Every time she performs she is putting on a show. She is creating a version of reality that doesn’t accord with the real thing. And when we live apart from the light of Christ, we are always and only subject to the various shows going on around us…including the ones we put on ourselves. So, for our culture to urge us to be true to ourselves offers us up an impossible task. Are we to be true to our socially acceptable self? The one that fits the cultural bill? Are we to be true to the carnal self that no one sees because we’d get either ostracized or arrested for following through on what it wants? We are seeing the results of people doing that in the unfolding sexual harassment scandals that seems to catch more people in its net every week. Are we to be true to the self that is politically incorrect, but which desires to do real good and work for real justice? Which one? Our culture’s call is an impossible task because for most of us, we don’t even really know who we are. We are living in a form of darkness and on our own we can’t bring any light to it. We can only languish in one form or another of death. And yet, again, when we are ready to live, the Life has Light to live by. This Life-Light is the real thing.
But, and here’s the catch, if we want to remain mired in the darkness, we can. Jesus and His light are easy to both miss and reject. Listen to the next thing John says starting in v. 10: “He was in the world, the world was there through him, and yet the world didn’t even notice. He came to his own people, but they didn’t want him.” Now, when I read that, I have to stop a minute and reflect. Nobody recognized Jesus for who He was just by looking at Him? Really? Nobody? How could people be around Jesus and not know who He was? Well, perhaps this idea isn’t so far-fetched as it sounds. Did you ever watch the show “Undercover Boss” on CBS when it was on? The basic premise was that the CEO of a company disguises himself and goes to work in a variety of entry level positions in the company at various locations around the country. I’ve watched it a few times and it’s always a pretty compelling show. In one episode the CEO and founder of a fitness center made the rounds. He visited a gym whose owners knew who he was minus the disguise. For several days he worked with them—the owner of the company and the reason they even had jobs—and they didn’t have any idea who he really was. Now, unlike with Jesus the learning experience here went both ways, but it does show that the idea that the creator could be here and be totally missed isn’t as outlandish as you might think.
In the same episode he visited another gym where he worked alongside a girl with a really bad attitude who thought she knew better than anybody which of his policies were worth following and which weren’t. While never giving up his disguise he tried to steer her in the direction he wanted her to go, but she would have none of it. She outright rejected his ideas and even took it upon herself to fire him in spite of the fact that she didn’t actually have that authority. You can perhaps imagine her reaction when she finally learned who he was and was rightly fired herself. Now, it wasn’t his goal to see her fired. He wanted to see her embrace the ideas that he knew would allow her to succeed as much as possible in the job and in life, but she wouldn’t take the bait. In the same way, Jesus wants to see us become fully who He designed us to be. He wants to see us accept the life He offers in order that we might walk in His light. But we don’t have to. We are able to refuse His offer and reject His advances in favor of being true to whatever we happen to believe is our truest self. We can hang around and wait for our firework to ignite and leave everyone, including God, amazed by our awesomeness. Eventually, though, the joke is going to be on us. The big reveal will arrive, and it won’t be a happy time.
There is, however, another way. Look back at the passage with me to see where John goes next. He takes us back again to where we started. Look at v. 12: “But whoever did want him, who believed he was who he claimed and would do what he said, he made to be their true selves, their child-of-God selves.” Going back to the show “Undercover Boss,” the real emotional high point in every episode comes at the end when the CEO schedules a meeting with all the people with whom he’s spent the last few weeks working. One by one he brings them in to let them in on the surprise and talk to them. Over the course of his time with them he usually goes out of his way to get to know them. He asks about their lives, their dreams, their aspirations. He finds out their passions and some of their biggest needs. Then, after sharing with them where he sees they are really excelling as well as some places where more growth is necessary, he starts giving. One girl had a passion for art and so the CEO gave her something like $25,000 to leave the company and go to school. If she came back and worked for it again later that was great, but the goal was to simply empower her to achieve her dreams. Another co-owner couple never had time off for their family, so the CEO gave them a two-weeks paid vacation, one week to spend at a resort, another to spend with family. One woman who worked at a casino liked to deliver flowers to a local nursing home on her break and worked hard to scrape together enough money to purchase them herself. The CEO not only gave her access to all of the casino’s old flowers (they replaced them daily) he also allocated funds specifically for her to be able to expand her ministry. And I confess, I watch all these with big fat tears in my eyes because these people are having some of their deepest needs ministered to by these CEOs who ask for nothing in return save continued loyalty and hard work. These people are getting a chance to become more fully who they desire to be because of the generosity of the bosses.
But what if there was something these employees could be helped to achieve beyond simply who they desired to be? What if their desires were too small? What if the things they did want versus the things they could desire if they only knew they should were like comparing mud pies to Thanksgiving feasts? What if they were living in a broken neighborhood swamped by darkness on all sides and all they needed to do in order to start living in the light was to receive the life-giving transformation work from the one who came to provide it? Hear John’s words again. We may not have to receive the life and light Jesus brought with Him to earth, we may be able to resist it even once we have bathed a bit in its glow, but when we embrace it, “whoever did want him, who believed he was who he claimed and would do what he said, he made to be their true selves, their child-of-God selves.”
This is what happens when we walk in the light of Christ. We become our truest selves. In Christ we become ourselves. In a sense, then, our culture is right to encourage us to be true to ourselves. It is absolutely right on the fact that when we are true to ourselves we will find the peace, hope, love, and joy for which we long so eagerly. It is simply, yet gravely, wrong about who that self is and where we will find it. As Katy Perry’s song “Firework” proclaims, the world tells us to look inside for this star. But it’s not there. Looking to ourselves is what got the neighborhood so broken in the first place. Besides, what’s naturally inside us isn’t our real self. It’s the false, dead self that sin creates and sustains. Our truest self is the one God created for us to be to His glory and our joy. This self is only accessible when we are walking in the light of Christ. In this sense, in Christ we become ourselves. We become our truest selves, the self to whom we should be faithful above all else. When we are walking in the light of Christ we are able to see the places where our various false selves rise up to call us into conformity with the world around us. We can see these clearly and reject them. We can reject them so that we aren’t distracted and turned aside from who God designed us to be: our real self. All of this we have when we take up the challenge of walking in the light of Christ. In Christ we become ourselves.
You know, while “Firework” really is an anthem for the modern age, there’s something ironic about its controlling metaphor. Fireworks certainly are flashy. They draw all eyes to them. They are beautiful and make people ooh and aah. But, they’re cheap, they don’t last long, they don’t have any kind of a legacy, and if you’re not really careful with them they’ll burn you. Is that really the self you want to be? Is that the self to which you want to be true? A self that’s cheap and doesn’t last long? A self that leaves nothing to remember and might hurt people? Why not choose a self that’s of inestimable value; a self that is eternal; a self that will long be celebrated in the halls of heaven; a self that will bring healing and joy to everyone around it? This is the self God designed you to be. This is the self you’ll be able to see when you walk consistently in the light of Christ. It is the self you will be when you are found in Christ. In Christ we become ourselves. The Christ who left glory to move into the neighborhood and shine light for us to be able to see clearly where and how we’re broken so that we can be made right will lead us to become fully who God designed us to be when we receive what He has to give. In Christ we become ourselves.
Sound good? Here’s what you need to do and then we’re out of here. If you want to give a real gift this Christmas season, give someone the gift of yourself. Not any of the selves you wear around to fit in with the culture, but the self God designed you to be who will unquestionably be a blessing to everyone who encounters it. This will only happen in Christ, though. In Christ we become ourselves. Become that person and come back next week as we wrap up the series by taking a look at the final gift Christ came to give when He moved into the neighborhood. You won’t want to miss it.