Looking back over the past year, there are many lessons I’ve learned. I’ve learned anew God’s faithfulness to care for His children, and I’ve gotten a tiny glimpse into His enormous heart of love with my first grandchild. I’ve learned that Jesus wants me to know Him, not just know about Him, and He wants me to teach the Bible, not just someone’s opinion of the Bible. But I think the biggest lesson I’ve learned is how Jesus expects the church – make that how He expects me – to respond to the “least and the lost.”
What do good church folk do when someone comes in who is rough around the edges, who doesn’t dress in the acceptable modest style, who uses the language of the streets instead of the language of the sacred? Do we (and I’m including myself here) offer a handshake followed by a liberal application of hand sanitizer? Do we walk away shaking our heads at the way they’re dressed? Do we cringe at the things they say in our small group? Do we make it clear they they don’t fit in? Jesus had a word for the religious leaders of His day that we as a church need to take to heart. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces . . . you will not let those enter who are trying to” (Matthew 23:13).
Look at the Christmas story one more time. God sent His son to be born to a poor teenage girl and to be raised by a common laborer father. The fact that they were poor is confirmed in the consecration offering they gave of a pair of birds (Luke 2:24). He trained in the woodworking trade of his father Joseph. The glorious birth announcement was given, not to the religious elite nor to the king, but to lowly shepherds doing the most menial work of all. Throughout Jesus’ earthly ministry He was found among the lepers, the lame, the blind, women with scandalous lives, men who cheated their neighbors, the demon-possessed, and the outcasts. His closest friends and followers were tax collectors and fishermen, not students from the best Jewish schools. When he was in the company of religious folk, He didn’t rub elbows – He often rubbed them the wrong way and the sparks would fly. He saved His most severe rebukes for them, calling them hypocrites, blind guides, snakes, and a “brood of vipers,” but gently told the ones outside the religious establishment, “Go, and sin no more.” He blessed, He touched, He noticed, and He welcomed. I believe He expects no less from those who claim to be His Body. I think Jesus wants us to put away our hand sanitizer and our ideas of who belongs in the church and to simply be a refuge of welcome. I think people need to feel accepted before they will accept the Gospel. Then I think we need to love them as we disciple them to follow Christ. Is it easy? No. It requires effort and patience and a humble, obedient spirit, but so did dying on the cross.
I want to hang on to all the lessons God taught me in the past year, but the one I want to hold the tightest is this one: Jesus doesn’t turn anyone away (John 6:37). The truth is when He found me I was one of the least and the lost, and He welcomed me with arms stretched the width of the cross. May my heart and my arms be open wide to whomever Jesus sends to me this year.
Holy Father, this year, let me be a caring shepherd to lost sheep, a warm embrace to a hurting heart, and a conduit of Your love to the one on the outside looking in.