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What do you do in those moments when you’re afraid you’ve got it all wrong—that something you said or did was off the mark?

I had to wrestle through that question after I wrote last week’s post about Michael Card’s words:

“A lot of Christians don’t embrace Jesus as their servant, and it’s my contention that if you don’t know him as your servant, you don’t really know him. It’s the shape of his life.” (Michael Card, session 2, 20min)

In spite of all the verses I shared about Jesus laying down his life for us in the past, continuing to wash our feet as he prays for and sustains us in the present, and waiting on us at the coming banquet table—all of which I knew were true—I sweated and squirmed. Was the slant correct? Had I adequately balanced the need to receive Jesus’ serving of us with the need to worship Him as Lord? I’ve grown up singing a song about Jesus as our Servant King, but to think of Him not just as a servant but as my servant, well, that feels like a different thing.

Verses from Isaiah came to mind and as I searched I discovered that in the Old Testament, Jesus is only ever referred to as the servant of God (Is 42:1; 49:5-6; 52:13; 53:11). How did this fit with what I’d written? Is there a difference between Jesus serving me and being my servant?

It helped to see that in all of those passages, Jesus’ work is on our behalf. He is God’s servant, though He serves us.

I kept digging, turning this time to the New Testament. 

The New Testament presents a more nuanced picture with its range of Greek words for servant, some used for Jesus’ relationship to His Father, and some for his relationship to us. (Stay with me here—there’s good news to be had!)

Pais (child, slave)

When the writers of the New Testament speak of Jesus as the servant of God (Acts 3:13,26; 4:30), the Greek word they use for servant is pais (or paida as it’s conjugated in these verses), which can simply mean a child (think “pediatric”) or it can mean “one who is committed in total obedience to another; slave, servant” (BDAG). Jesus, the Son, is committed in total obedience to His Father. That is great news. (Aren’t you glad the One guiding Jesus’ work in the world is not you or me or any other frail and biased person but the Creator who made and sustains the universe in love?)

Diakonos (servant, minister); diakoneo (to serve)

When Jesus is referred to as a servant of the Jews (Rom 15:8), or when Jesus says of himself that he “did not come to be served, but to serve [us!],” (Matt 20:28, Mark 10:45), the word “serve” is diakoneo (think “deacon”), which means “to render service in a variety of ways either at someone’s behest or voluntarily” (BDAG). 

The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament says, “As distinct from all these [other] terms [for service], diakoneo has the special quality of indicating very personally the service rendered to another. . . . In diakoneo there is a stronger approximation to the concept of a service of love.” In other words, while Jesus is committed in total obedience to His Father, He serves us voluntarily, lovingly, in a whole range of ways. We receive the gift of being served in all the ways God knows we most need, but we are never Jesus’ master. 

Much of the time, I’m not even sure what to ask for, so it’s a relief to be reminded that I’m served by One who loves me and knows far better than I do what I need. 

This is news that lightens our burdens in another way as well. We are also called to serve this way —giving ourselves first and wholly to God for the sake of others. We aren’t asked to serve many masters. We aren’t asked to keep everyone happy. We’re asked to serve and obey only God, the One who loves us perfectly and doesn’t forget that we’re dust and delights to give us His best, and as part of our loving of God, to love and serve others, but not to let them decide the shape of our lives.

Doulos (slave); douleuo (to serve as a slave)

A third Greek word for “servant” might help us here. (Still with me? This is the last one.) Douleuo (think doula) means “to be owned by another; to act or conduct oneself as one in total service to another, perform the duties of a slave, serve, obey (BDAG). We are to live in total service to God—because we can’t give this kind of total service and obedience both to God and something (or someone) else:

“No one can serve (douleuo) two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money” (Matt. 6:24 ).  

This word, douleuo, also shows up in the verse that pictures Jesus still serving us when he returns:

“It will be good for those servants (douloi – ones solely committed to another) whose master finds them watching when he comes. Truly I tell you, he will dress himself to serve, will have them recline at the table and will come and wait on (diakoneo – voluntarily serve) them” (Luke 12:37).

So then: Is Jesus our servant? Yes. He is our diakonos – one who voluntarily serves us in love. And I don’t know about you, but I sure need to receive his gracious serving in order to have the courage and strength to, with Him, serve the only One who can rightly direct my life.

And all my wrestling and questioning? Turns out there was Someone serving me, helping me in it, leading me deeper into truth (John 16:13).

This might change your year

How often do you think of Jesus as your servant? 

Perhaps more importantly, what do you feel as you read that question? A recoiling in immediate dismissal of the possibility? That mix of fear and guilt in the pit of your stomach when you see flashing red lights behind you? Quiet resting in that part of who Jesus is?

Michael Card’s words have been both challenging me and giving me hope this week:

“A lot of Christians don’t embrace Jesus as their servant, and it’s my contention that if you don’t know him as your servant, you don’t really know him. It’s the shape of his life.” (Michael Card, session 2, 20min)

I’ve memorized Philippians 2 where Paul reminds us that Jesus “made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant” (v. 7). I’ve listened to half a dozen Maundy Thursday readings and sermons about Jesus washing his disciples’ feet (John 13). I know Jesus’ statement that “Even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). But it feels quite different to quote those verses or tell those stories than it does to think of Jesus as my servant. Not just in the past, laying down his life to gain my salvation for me. Not just in a distant place, getting a home fixed up and ready for me (John 14:2) and praying for me (Heb 7:25, 9:24; Rom 8:34; 1 John 2:1), but here and now, with me, attentive, taking care of my needs before I even ask as does His (our!) Father (Matt 6:8, 33; Is 65:24). It’s another of those concepts that is so mind-blowing that it almost feels like heresy—except Jesus Himself makes it so clear: “Even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve. . . .” The Creator of the Universe has made himself our servant!

He is, of course, our Servant Lord—not someone we order around. But as Michael Card again points out, we don’t need to order a servant who is so attentive and knows perfectly what we need—witness the risen Christ with his nail scarred hands standing on the beach making breakfast for his tired, hungry disciples who’d been working all night (John 21). And note, as we see him standing there, that Christ’s servanthood didn’t end with his death. This same One who came to serve continues his serving of us through this life and into the coming kingdom where “he will dress himself to serve, will have them recline at the table and will come and wait on them” (Luke 12:37). 

Our faith is one of paradox: God’s sovereignty and our free will; a Saviour who is both fully God and fully man, Lion and Lamb, Servant and Lord. It sometimes feels easier and more comfortable to slip to one side or the other of these paradoxes—but that’s precisely when we both slip into heresy and miss the richest gifts that God has to offer us. It’s as dangerous, incorrect, and prideful to treat Jesus as only our Lord and refuse Him as our Servant as it is to presume that He’s there simply to provide for our desires and not bow to Him as our Lord.

We need to pay serious attention to Jesus’ words to Peter: “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me” (John 13:8). I think Michael Card is right: those words aren’t just about a one-time acceptance of Jesus’ death for us, but about the humility of daily accepting the tender, attentive care of our Lord who chooses to be our Servant even as we learn from him how to serve others. This is who He is. Accepting Him as our Servant as well as our Lord is part of making our home in Jesus and His love—the single condition Jesus lays out for our fruitfulness (John 15:4,9).

I can’t help but wonder: are so many of us so weary because we try to serve Jesus as our Lord but don’t also know Him as the One who delights to serve us daily?

Where do I accept Jesus’ care, and where do I, like Peter, push Him away, refusing to be served by Him? What holds me back from accepting His care? And how might my life change as I keep learning not only to bow moment-by-moment to the Almighty God who is Lord of all creation and of me, but to receive without hesitation the care of that same All Powerful One who is ever-present and attentive, praying for me, listening to me, stooping to wash my filthy, smelly feet, preparing a table before me, a home for me, and guiding me along right paths?  

It’s not enough for Jesus to be the Lord; He must be my Lord. It is also not enough to know Jesus as the Servant. If I want to hear His heartbeat and make my home in His love, I have to receive His serving of me.

One final question, then: How do I receive Jesus as Servant while still reverencing Him as Lord? Perhaps the first step is simply to notice and savour the daily ways Jesus loves and serves us, and to fall on our knees in awe and thanksgiving. (Don’t we all get more joy out of serving when the person we’re serving receives and delights in our gift than when they push it, and us, away?) And then—once we’ve received and savoured and have been filled up again—to join Him in His serving, not working for but with our Servant Lord.

For you who are highly favoured

Each Advent I marvel all over again at these words:

“Greetings, you who are highly favored; the Lord is with you.”

The words aren’t just for Mary. That same Greek verb which means “to highly favor” is used just one other place in the New Testament, this time of us: “. . . his glorious grace, with which he has highly favored us . . .” (Eph 1:6)

Mary is as surprised to be greeted in this way as we are. “You who are highly favored”. What does it mean? The angel clarifies with a phrase common in the Hebrew Scriptures, “The Lord is with you.” Each time this promise is given, the recipient is being entrusted with a particular task (Gen. 26:24; 28:15; Exod. 3:12; Judg. 6:12; Jer. 1:8; Acts 18:9–10). For Noah and Abraham and Moses, Gideon and Jeremiah and Paul, finding favor with God equates to being accompanied and equipped by God for a particular part in His great story. So for Mary. And so for us. . . but I’m getting ahead of myself. 

“You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus.”

Mary still has questions. “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel answers, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you. . .” (Luke 1: 35) These words aren’t just for Mary either. Luke, writing his story in two grand acts, echoes this phrase from the start of Act 1, in which Jesus is born of Mary and lives as a man in our world, at the start of Act 2, in which Jesus is borne in us into the world. Jesus speaks to his followers as the angel spoke to Mary, “when the Holy Spirit comes on you” (Acts 1:8), you will receive power to make the impossible possible, and the miracle of God living in a human body will happen all over again.

We each have our questions. How can this be? How can we bear the Son of God into the world?

Mary was young, Elisabeth was “well along in years.” (Luke 1:18) Mary lacked the needed situation (marriage); Elisabeth had been desperately trying within the perfect situation for years and kept coming up empty. With these two examples, the angel brackets and encompasses all of our impossible situations, and answers them all with a few simple words: “Nothing is impossible with God.”

The question for us is as mysteriously simple as the angel’s reassurance. Will we cling tightly to our questions, or will we open our questioning hearts to the power of the Holy Spirit and the presence of Christ? “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.”

“. . . the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you. . . ” (Col 1:27)

An edited repost from the archives.

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What does it mean to you today that you are highly favoured, accompanied and equipped by the God of the universe for a particular part in His story?

When Advent doesn’t look the way you hope

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Advent, for me, seldom looks the way I think it should. And, as I wrote two weeks ago, though I often find it uncomfortable, that uncomfortable place is usually precisely where the grace is.

This year is no different. 

I began Advent with anticipation, and with a plan to read through Malcolm Guite’s Advent devotional, Waiting on the Word. I didn’t expect the restlessness that would arise, the recurrent moments when, even though I’d chosen that plan and wanted to mark Advent, some other part of me would resist lingering with the reading, reaching for a detective story instead. 

How is it that, even in this month of preparation for one of the holiest events of the church year, I find myself once again saying with Paul, “I truly delight in God’s commands, but it’s pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight. Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge” (Rom 7:22-23, The Message)?

And yet, right here, once again, is grace, because instead of keeping the Advent story’s good news at a comfortable distance, reading the words and singing the songs, I find myself clinging to it for dear life. 

Right here in the awareness of my own need and my inability to fix myself is the starting place for the real living of Advent, the awe and the gratitude and the kneeling at the manger because God knows me and still He comes. Long before he entered the world as a baby, he knew my beauties and my failures and that I couldn’t fix myself, and instead of condemning or rejecting me, he came to be with me and to do in me what I can’t do in myself.

And, more than this, He comes not only for me, He also comes through me, choosing to live His life in me for the blessing of the world.

It’s been like this since the beginning, when He came through people who were as messed up as any of us. He isn’t ashamed to be known as the Son of David—a man after God’s own heart, to be sure, but also one who in the heat of passion not only committed adultery but murdered the husband of the woman he had stolen. He came through the line of Jacob the deceiver and Rahab the prostitute and Abraham, who, in fear, said that his wife was his sister, causing her to be taken into another man’s harem. He comes, now, into the world through you and me.

It’s right in this place where I feel most strongly my need for God that I’m most truly able to live Advent, to give myself over to God, just as I am, for him to come and live in me and through me and with me, doing in me what I can’t do.

I recognize the grace of answered prayer here too: I’d wanted not only to mark Advent, but to live it deeply. I’d prayed for God to make Himself a little more at home in me, to set me a little freer to be His alone, living in Him and with Him and for Him. Seems like that’s precisely what He’s doing in letting me see all over again both my desperate need for Him and His gracious love that brings Him right into the middle of my need and my longing. 

One of Advent’s surprise gifts (You won’t want to miss this one!)

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We began, eight days ago, to live this in-between month when the secular calendar is winding down toward the end of the year while the church calendar has already begun its new year with the first Sunday of Advent. Are we at the end of the story or at the beginning in this season in which we remember the coming of Jesus as a baby, welcome his coming into our lives now, and ponder and prepare for his future coming in glory?

It seems fitting that the end and beginning be intertwined as we prepare to welcome the One who is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, the One in whom past is gathered up and healed and future embraced and secured and both are brought together in the always present love of the One who holds us together.

There is, of course, a very important middle to this story, and we’ll relive that middle in a few months. But in this Advent season we’re invited to see the full scope: to step back and re-live the beginning and begin again to celebrate the approaching ending.

It’s not only time that’s gathered up into an eternal present in Advent. We ourselves are gathered up, held up, offered—the beginning and the culmination of the gift of ourselves from the Father to the Son and the Son to the Father and of us to ourselves as Christ enters our flesh.

Advent, in other words, shows us both who we’ve been and who we will be, and invites us to live a little further along the journey between the two. 

On the one hand, I read the news headlines—and my own journal—alongside the story of the first Advent and I feel so deeply our world’s need—my need—for a Saviour. I’m aware of my inadequacy and sin and smallness. How is it that the holy God who made us, whose heart broke as we turned away, would want to be close enough to us to enter our flesh?

Then I turn the page and in the second Advent I see you and me reflected in a completely different way. This time we are in possession of the kingdom (Dan 7:18, 22, 27). We are princes. we are the Bride, the King’s queen, co-ruling alongside the One who has made us his own. In another image, we replace the temple’s most holy place becoming the most holy place ourselves, our flesh made holy by the presence of the holy God who comes to make his home not just among us but within us. 

Advent season, then, not only reminds us how far we’ve fallen but how far we’ve been raised. We are paupers, and royalty. Sinners, and God’s holy bride. Desperately in need of a Saviour, and grateful recipients of all the life and joy and wholeness that the Saviour came to bring. Grateful recipients of the Saviour himself, the One who comes to us in our low condition, in our sin and need and cowering, not to condemn and shame but to love and save and elevate (John 3:17). The One who will come again, revealing himself as King and us as his bride, his queen. 

Could it be that all the ways God comes to us in the present, in this stretch in between his first coming in a manger and his second coming in the clouds, are to help us trust his goodness and love, moving us gradually from thinking and acting like the paupers we’ve been to thinking and acting like the royalty we’re becoming?

The central gift of Advent is, of course, God. Light curling small in the dark, placing himself not in a box under the tree but breaking open our boxes and placing himself in a womb and then a manger in preparation to hang on the tree, lighting the whole world. Without this central gift, there are no other gifts. But with it come dozens of other gifts.

Perhaps the most precious of those other gifts of Advent is ourselves.

This week, these lines from Christina Rossetti’s poem, “Advent Sunday,” and Malcolm Guite’s reflection on her poem in Waiting on the Word have wakened me again to one way in which Christ, in his first and final advents and all the ways he comes to us in between, offers us this gift of ourselves. At Christ’s return his kingship will be reflected in us:

“. . . For lo, the Bridegroom fetcheth home the Bride:

His Hands are Hands she knows, she knows His Side.

Like pure Rebekah at the appointed place,

Veiled, she unveils her face to meet His Face.

Like great Queen Esther in her triumphing,

She triumphs in the Presence of her King.

His Eyes are as a Dove’s, and she’s Dove-eyed;

He knows His lovely mirror, sister, Bride.

He speaks with Dove-voice of exceeding love,

And she with love-voice of an answering Dove.

Behold, the Bridegroom cometh: go we out

With lamps ablaze and garlands round about

To meet Him in a rapture with a shout.”

As Guite says about the image of Esther triumphing in the presence of her king, 

“Here Rossetti seems to be suggesting that acknowledging the kingship of Christ, far from being a demeaning, belittling or infantilizing act on behalf of the submissive Church, is in fact a radiant affirmation of her own royalty.”

(Waiting on the Word, p.3, bold mine)

In Advent, we remember both. Our need and the gift. Our sin and Christ’s righteousness which now clothes us. Ourselves as beggars and ourselves as Christ’s bride, serving alongside the God who first came to serve us.

May we kneel—at the manger, the cross and the throne—and give thanks.