Unattractive

This is a sermon I had the privilege of sharing with my congregation today. The backwardness of Jesus, dare I say his unattractiveness, really intrigues me. Almost bugs me at times. So what do we do about it? Well, here are some thoughts to chew on…

Normally, I’m a pretty egalitarian person. I can’t stand arrogance. Nobody has the right to see themselves as more than a human. A sinful – although fearfully and wonderfully made – human. I find myself observing others and saying “Hey! Just who do you think you are?!?” People that have 17 items in the 10-or-less checkout lane at City Market. “Who do you think you are?!?” People going 45 or 50 miles an hour down North Main that recklessly cut me off, only to wind up right next to me at the great equalizer, the next red light. “Who do you think you are?!?” But I’m not completely consistent in this view. I defy my own norm when it comes to how I view leaders. I tend to put them on pedestals. I just started reading a biography on Thomas Jefferson. Oh my gosh! Let me tell you some of the cool stuff I’ve already picked up. We all know about his talents as architect, politician, farmer, etc. But in reading the biography, I learned about the rich tradition of surveying in the Jefferson family. His father, Peter, pretty much was responsible for drawing up the first accurate map of Virginia. Tom was so proud of Dad that he took up this skill-set at a young age. Later on in life, he ended up passing that knowledge on to his nephew, Meriwether Lewis… so we have Thomas Jefferson to thank for the Lewis & Clark expedition… how cool is Thomas Jefferson!

But see, there I go. I’ve put him on a pedestal. In reality, even Tom was a sinful – although fearfully and wonderfully made – human being. But he was a leader, so I end up concentrating on this, his insatiable thirst for knowledge, his political wisdom, his jack-of-all-trades arsenal of talents. I need my leaders to be these flawless, larger-than-life figures.

Can anybody here relate to that? Why do we do this? No doubt Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s acting fame helped them attain office. Ted Kennedy, like him or not, will stay in the Senate as long as he wants, because he’s a Kennedy; he hails from Camelot. Why was the “war hero” status of President Bush and Senator Kerry such a hot topic in the last election? Even Mother Teresa, as much as she probably wanted to, couldn’t stay out of the spotlight. Celebrity. Leaders. The words are inseparably linked. Why do we need our leaders to be strong, and on top of things?

Well, the good news is that we’re not the first people to struggle with this. The people in Jesus’ day did as well. Turn with me to Isaiah 53, and we’ll look at a portrait of a leader. [… Verses 2-3 …] When I was studying up on this chapter, I discovered an interesting minority opinion that argues that the subject of the passage is God’s people, or Israel. But it’s a minority opinion for a reason. Just thought you should know it exists… Anyway, God must have known this whole appearance issue would give us trouble, because He gave us plenty of warning in Isaiah’s prophecy. We had all the time in the world to adjust our expectations.

So let’s fast-forward from Isaiah to right around when BC became AD. A baby is born in a little town, Bethlehem. Now, there is a little bit of glamour here; it is David’s hometown. Judaism’s poster-boy for the honest pursuit of God. But that’s the extent of our story’s glitz & flashiness. Bethlehem is probably packed full because of Caesar’s decree for everyone to go register in their hometown. So this infant, born to poor parents, comes into the world in a manger. A stall. A place for cattle to stand and be fed. Quite a contrast from the antiseptic sterility of the maternity ward down the road at Mercy. What if the infant Jesus got sick from all the germs there? But you know what? Isaiah gives us some heads-up. Let’s go back to verse 1. “For He grew up before Him like a tender shoot, And like a root out of parched ground.” I took a little Hebrew lesson about this verse, and it really illuminates the image our prophet Isaiah may be trying to conjure:

1) “tender shoot,” {yo-nake’}; like a young plant, sucker, suckling, sapling.

2) “out of parched,” {tsee-yaw’}; dryness, drought, desert, dry land, barren.

Basically, Christ’s humble beginning seems unimportant. What’s really worth noticing about a sapling of a boy in Nazareth? He can be likened to an insignificant “shoot,” a bit of vegetation that is scarcely noticed and oft-trampled… To me, the expression “out of parched ground” paints a picture of a plant struggling in a harsh and dry environment. A Jewish nation wishing to hold on to its heritage under cold, calculated, unsympathetic Roman control.

And after Isaiah’s disclaimer about Christ’s birth comes my favorite part of this morning’s text. “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” The idea is slightly more literal here. Christ does not look like a royal person in beauty and majesty. At least in terms of what the world expected to see in a king. The Bible doesn’t give us a definitive description of what Jesus did look like, but Isaiah says he doesn’t look like this. Since he is a carpenter, we can probably conclude with some degree of certainty that our Jesus looks healthy, or hardy, in stature… but not handsome. He probably doesn’t exude charisma. He probably doesn’t display a flashy and striking lifestyle. In Christ’s outward appearance there is nothing to attract or delight our senses.

So if I’m a decent Yahweh-fearing Jew in that time, what is my reaction? Do I look to Scripture to see if this Jesus guy measures up to who the Messiah is supposed to be? Nope. I need my leaders to be strong, to have it all together, to be larger-than-life, remember? So I despise and reject him. He becomes to me one of those people you just don’t make eye contact with. But you know what’s crazy? That’s just the way God wants it… for us not to be drawn to Christ by our eyes, but only by our heavenly Father; (John 6:44, “No one can come to Me, unless the Father who sent Me draws him…”) God doesn’t want to attract people to himself through someone who appeals to our sensory-based desires… He wants to attract those who are willing to look deeper than just appearances. And this still holds true today.

So Jesus on earth is unconventional. He’s undignified. He’s unattractive. So what? How does this apply? Well, it’s when we realize and embrace Jesus’ “backwardness” that his true beauty and life-changing power will impact us the most. What I want you to do is simple. Spend time in the Gospels this week. Beautiful stories from those who spent time with this unattractive carpenter. Read the stories that talk about Jesus, and really think about what’s going on there. Compare them to the norms of how things operate these days. You’ll see raw love, undeserved miracles, and absurd declarations. A man verbally betrays Jesus three times, and what happens? He says, “Peter, I still believe in you. I still trust you to carry out my work.” Backwards! So look for ways that you can respond to the situations around you in backwards ways. And then when something about the way Jesus did things strikes you as odd, tell someone! Verbalizing it helps you realize just how backwards it is. Even if you’re sitting here and wouldn’t call yourself a Christ-follower, I challenge you to read about this Jesus, just as history if nothing else, and see how backwards he is. A pastor I deeply respect, a gifted communicator named Andy Stanley, often reminds those at listening to his sermons, “Many biblical principles work for anybody. Unconditional love makes an impact regardless of your theology.” So whatever you believe, pursue the backwards Christ this week. And it is only when we realize and embrace Jesus’ “backwardness” that his true beauty and awesome power will impact us the most.

I really didn’t plan this for Election Day, but since talking about being followers… What if you and I would take the time to look deeper than appearances in deciding whom to follow? What if this Tuesday we didn’t really pay attention to which candidate is endorsed by whom or which candidate can debate more effectively, but we looked for the candidate whose heart most closely mirrors Christ’s? Yes, sometimes it’s hard to discern the condition of someone’s heart. But who said this supposed was easy? Or what about someone who really has a “backwards” campaign platform? And within a bigger scope than participation in our democracy, what if we followed Jesus’ backwardness by striving to imitate it? What if Christ-followers in Durango loved so unconditionally that the public’s perception of our faith became associated with what we are for instead of what we’re against? I’m really saddened by all this drama surrounding Ted Haggard. Now there’s a man who makes known what he’s against, and how does the world view him when he inevitably messes up? Yeah, we don’t need that. The Scriptures where we can read about the unattractive Jesus weren’t given just to make our own lives better or to get us into Heaven; they were given so that we, as a body, could shine like a beacon of hope, of humility, of backwards love. Let us pray that the power of God – the same power by which this backwards, unattractive man saved the world – will transform our lives and the lives of those around us.

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5 responses to “Unattractive

  1. The more time I spend dwelling on Haggard, the more compassion I feel. My most current sentiments on that situation are in a comment on Matt’s blog.

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  4. I really like this message because it really puts my view of Jesus into perspective.

  5. Sophia-
    Thanks for stopping by.
    I really enjoyed putting this sermon together because, like you, the scripture really forced me to get outside the box with how I perceive Jesus.
    How has your perspective changed over time?

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