When you need help

Photo by Austin Kehmeier on Unsplash

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.

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

Photo by Greyson Joralemon on Unsplash

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.

The good news of being (un)worthy

This week I surprised myself. For a long time, my counsellor has wanted me to say, “I am worthy of. . .” rather than “I am worth enough to. . .”

I have resisted.

“Worthy,” used of myself, has felt too presumptuous, too entitled. Too opposed to grace. In my mind, God alone is worthy, and all I receive is by grace.

And that is true. For many things, that word does belong only to God. God alone is worthy to be worshiped. God alone is worthy to receive glory and honor and power. 

But this week, without prompting, I found myself changing an unhelpful and untrue belief to the statement, “I am human and I am worthy of presence and care even when I am sick.”

I’m realizing that the word “worthy” always begs two questions: Worthy of what? And why?

I’m realizing, too, that there’s inherent worthiness and bestowed worthiness and lived or earned worthiness.

Inherent: God is inherently worthy of worship. That’s who He is.

Bestowed: Every human being (and, for that matter, all of creation), is worthy of respect and care from ourselves and from other humans simply by virtue of being made and loved by God.

Lived: And we’re called to live lives worthy of the call we have received, and to entrust leadership to those who have shown themselves worthy (Eph 4:1, Phil 1:27, Col 1:10, I Thes 2:12, I Tim 3:4, 8, etc).

In case we’re tempted to get too big for our britches, God makes it clear: we are not worthy of his love. God loves us because He loves us, not because of our intelligence or service, our good behaviour or even because His image is woven into each of our cells (Deut 7:7-8). His love is freely given, sheer grace. This is good news. We did nothing to earn God’s love, and we can do nothing to make Him stop loving and longing to draw us deeper into his love.

And yet, He makes it equally clear: His love bestows a certain worthiness on us. In the world’s economy, the man in the sleeping bag on the downtown corner and the woman too sick to talk or walk or sit may have a net worth of nothing, or worse than nothing. But in God’s kingdom, they are just as worthy of our respect and presence and care as we are, simply because we are all made by God in his own image, and treasured by Him (Gen. 9:5-6).

Why do I hazard a step into exploring this word that can be so easily misunderstood? Why not stay safely back in the realm where the word “worthy” is reserved for God alone, and think of myself as unworthy?

  1. Both Jesus and Paul use the word “worthy” more times of human beings than of God, and if I want God to shape my life, I need to prayerfully ponder Scripture and be open to God shifting the way I think of Him—and of others and myself.
  2. As Jeremy Begbie says, “All good theology is done on the cliff-edge—one step too far and you tumble into idolatry, one step back and the view is never so good.”[1]
  3. As is evident in some of our beautiful old hymns, if we don’t think carefully about what we mean by “unworthy,” we can easily slip into the error of equating “unworthy” with “worthless.” And that both insults the God who handmade us and leaves us trying to defend or prove ourselves, or give up on ourselves and the work we’ve been given, or any number of other unhealthy postures.

No one who has been individually crafted by the God of the universe to reflect His own glory, and has had the breath of life breathed into her by that same God who counts each hair on her head and knows what each of her days will hold and has planned and suited her for special work that only she can do, can ever be considered worthless, or unworthy of our love and care.

What, then, do we do when we recognize that while we are unworthy of God’s love, we are, by that love, made worthy of the respect and care of ourselves and our fellow humans?

Well, what did Jesus do with his much greater worthiness? He didn’t cling to it, flaunt it, or use it to get his own way. He didn’t need to cling, flaunt, or manipulate, because He knew who he was. And so, having nothing to prove, He was free to humble himself, stooping with a basin and towel and letting his arms be stretched wide on the cross, so that we might begin to believe that we, too, are made worthy by His love. He lived the love He had received from His Father. He acted in a way worthy of the calling He had received.

He calls us to do the same: to rest in His love that makes us worthy, and then, secure in that love, to love others in a way that lifts them up too (John 15:4,9; Matt 11:28-30; Phil 2:5, John 13:14, 15:12-13).

“With this in mind, we constantly pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling, and that by his power he may bring to fruition your every desire for goodness and your every deed prompted by faith” (2Thes. 1:11).

__________________


[1] Jeremy Begbie, Theology, Music and Time (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 279.

Photo by Jared Subia on Unsplash

Why—and what—to remember

I’d been looking for ten days and finally, on my way home from church yesterday, I spotted a couple of cadets, small and tidy in their uniforms, with pans of poppies hung around their necks. I picked a poppy from their tray, slipping a coin into the slotted box.

There was only one more day this year that I could wear the flower before slipping it into my drawer to save for next year, but still it seemed important to buy it.

On this Remembrance Day, I, along with the people of my own nation and those of many others, want to remember the members of our armed forces who have died in the line of duty.

Photo by Neil Thomas on Unsplash

I want to remember their hopes and dreams, their blood-sealed belief that freedom, justice, and peace are worth fighting for.

I want to remember, too, the many who have given their lives in another war and whose voices from under the altar cry for God’s justice (Rev 6:9-11).

I don’t talk often about this war. Mostly I think that’s because I find it more helpful to focus on my leader than on the enemy, listening for God’s voice, trusting his love, trying to obey his commands. 

But might it sometimes be because I don’t want to remember? Because I’d rather look away from the truth that war is not past tense, nor happening only on the other side of the world?

Whether I like it or not, I, along with every other person in this world, am smack in the middle of a cosmic war that will not end until Jesus returns, taking his rightful place and bringing the true and never-ending freedom, justice and peace for which we long.

“This is no afternoon athletic contest that we’ll walk away from and forget about in a couple of hours. This is for keeps, a life-or-death fight to the finish against the Devil and all his angels” (Eph 6:12, The Message).

Life and peace, justice and freedom, are at stake. Focus and obedience matter.

Remembering the reality of slavery and the costly path to freedom is not optional. It is a repeated command, a cornerstone of a well-lived life.

 “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm” (Deut 5:15).

“Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years. . .” (Deut. 8:2).

“Do this in remembrance of me” (I Cor 11:24).

God doesn’t command us to remember the reality of the war in order to make us afraid. He calls us to remember in order not to be afraid.

But do not be afraid of them; remember well what the Lord your God did to Pharaoh and to all Egypt” (Deut. 7:18).

I look and remember—yes, there’s a war, and I’m in it—and then I look back at the One who has already won the battle at the heart of the war, guaranteeing the war’s final outcome. I don’t need to fear the already conquered enemy, just to do my part in the clean-up operation. The outcome of the war does not rest on my shoulders.

And so I look, not to tremble, but to remember that what I do matters.

I look, not to design my own battle strategy, but to recommit myself to my Leader who conquers death and destruction through love and calls me to join him. 

I look, not to gaze at the enemy, but to bow in worship of my loving, victorious King.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

“The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever” (Rev. 11:15).