I'm fortunate that my preacher, Jonathan Storment, is also a dear friend. Jonathan and Josh Ross, who is also a friend, have a new book out entitled Bringing Heaven to Earth: You Don't Have to Wait For Eternity to Live the Good News.
Bringing Heaven to Earth is a great book and I was honored to endorse it. I asked Jonathan and Josh if I could share an excerpt from the book. Regular readers know I'm passionate about the local church, so I was excited that Jonathan and Josh chose to share this story from my own church here in Abilene.
My favorite hymn is “O Holy Night.” It’s easily one of the most profound, powerful songs ever sung. “Fall on your knees.” This was not written as a request, but as a mandate. In the light of the gospel and the power of God’s love and grace, we have no choice but to kneel in worship.
Heaven has entered earth in the form of a Baby, and now “the soul feels its worth.” What a great line! The chains are released because the slave is our brother, because the soul feels its worth. I think I understand why we keep this hymn in the “Christmas song” category. It conveys such power and insists on such a humble response, we can only handle it a couple of times a year. And from a historical standpoint it’s incredibly accurate.
When most of us think of human rights—when we think of equality and opportunity, justice and mercy—the biblical foundation for these things is entirely influenced by the Jesus story. Heaven has intersected earth and changed everything. The soul has felt its worth.
Jesus is God’s Way of letting the soul feel its worth. At its heart, the gospel is about a God who chooses to be among us.
God chooses to be among the people who ordinarily are overlooked. He paid special attention to shepherds and teenagers and fishermen and single moms and small children. Jesus showed special care to lepers, blind persons, those with physical disabilities, crooks, liars, hookers, and worse. That’s who God decided to be with.
Rene Girard was a French philosopher who taught at Stanford University. He was a brilliant anthropologist who was fascinated with one question: “Why, in modern times, does the marginalized person have moral authority?” This reality confused Girard because, outside of the movement of Jesus, there was nothing comparable to it in ancient culture or literature. The ancient world celebrated the strong and heroic, not the vulnerable and weak. Girard found this fascinating in light of greater attention being paid in the modern world to liberation movements and efforts to protect the rights of minorities and to combat human trafficking. What was motivating all these efforts to come to the aid of marginalized and powerless people?
Girard traced this social phenomenon back to the life of Jesus. He discovered that with His birth and death, Jesus introduced a new plot to human history. The victim mattered. The people who were oppressed mattered. And to the confusion of his peers at Stanford University, Girard, a man respected for being a great thinker and widely known as a secular humanist, started following Jesus.
Our world thinks the most important thing you can do is take the right position on the right issues. Jesus reminds us that the most important thing is to be standing in the right place. Girard’s great insight was that Jesus changed the world by standing in solidarity with all the “wrong” people.
Jesus created a new ethic, which His followers adopted and lived out. God in human flesh celebrated life among the least of these, until the outcasts and overlooked people on the margins of society started to realize that they mattered too. Gradually it took hold, so that a growing number of cultures adopted an ethic that insisted that everyone mattered. It sounds like such common sense to today’s Western mind. After all, we assume that these truths are “self evident.” But in Jesus’s day, this was a breath-taking, groundbreaking insight that no one had ever considered before.
Who would have thought that asking a Samaritan divorcee for water, or having a party with a corrupt tax collector, or touching lepers would have such far-reaching implications? Who would have thought that a Judean peasant who never wrote a word that was preserved, and who never traveled farther than forty miles from the village where He was born, would so radically alter the world? But centuries later, Jesus’s life slowly deconstructed an economy in the West, in a world that was unknown to the ancient near east. His life, example, and justice ethic overturned a system built on slave labor and slave trading. And he did it with parties. By choosing to socialize with those who were despised by the “acceptable” people, Jesus opened people’s eyes to the entrenched lie that some lives matter more than others.
God in human flesh partied with all the wrong people.
A few months ago, the church I serve had a party for Martha. Martha had been in prison for more than a decade, and after she was released she had to spend years on parole. On the day her parole finally ended, we threw a party to celebrate Martha’s freedom. She was re-entering society fully, and the church thought that was worth a celebrating with cake and punch.
For an evening, people celebrated something really significant. There were tears and hugs and high-fives and junk food. But Martha’s party really started a few years earlier.
When she first entered prison, she was incredibly lonely. The other inmates received letters from friends and family, but Martha didn’t have a support group. She was more than incarcerated, she was alone.
One day a prison chaplain suggested that she read the New Testament, mentioning that Paul’s letters could be considered God’s letters sent to Martha.
Then the chaplain gave Martha a Bible.
At first she ignored the chaplain’s advice. Two-thousand-year-old letters couldn’t replace notes from a friend. But eventually Martha picked up the Bible just to skim through it. When she did, one word caught her attention and eventually got her to read the whole Bible.
The word that stood out is found in the first verse of the first chapter of Paul’s letter to Christians in Ephesus:
“I, Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus.”
And the soul feels its worth.
Josh Ross is the preaching minister at the Sycamore View Church of Christ in Memphis, TN and is the author of Scarred Faith.