As you have done unto the least of these so you do unto me. –Jesus
I saw Jesus on Saturday in a rundown part of town and I didn’t recognize her. Yes, her.
I was standing outside the church checking my cell phone to see if we could close the doors and end the community day of prayer. All the sandwiches were gone, the gloves and hats had been given away, and the propane heaters had run out of gas, leaving behind a deep chill. I looked around at the for sale sign and the bullet holes through the stain-glassed doors of the church. It was Saturday. I was cold. I wanted to go home.
Then I saw her struggling up the stairs, a middle-aged woman in a thin maroon zip-up jacket. She looked at me with desperate eyes.
“Does this church give out food?” She began to cry and mumbled through her tears. “I haven’t eaten in days.”
I took her into the church and sat her down on the couch to rest her weary legs. The only thing left was potato salad. With a plastic fork in hand, she inhaled the potato salad and told us her story in between bites. She had been kicked out of her apartment and had been wandering the streets in the cold weather for over a month. She had nowhere to go and no one to call. A team of us spent the next 30 minutes sitting with her and making phone calls to try and find a shelter that would take her in. There was no room in the inn.
When I close my eyes I see her staring at me, hungry, helpless, and hurting. I see now what I didn’t then. I see Jesus. Jesus is sitting on the couch smiling as she chews her potato salad. Jesus likes potato salad! I see Jesus sitting at the bus stop trying to stay warm as I drive back to my heated home where my beautiful wife awaits. I wonder if Jesus is out wandering the streets again? Does she still have the leftover potato salad wrapped in a blue plastic bag? Will someone else take her in and feed her?
We are in the season of advent. It is the season of waiting and preparation for Jesus. We look forward with anticipation to the coming of Immanuel: God with us. We fill our houses and churches with cute little mangers and nativity scenes. We read the ancient passages about Mary and Joseph traveling perilously to Bethlehem being visited by shepherds and exotic wise men who followed a mystical star. But this year Jesus broke into all of those traditions and showed up early swaddled in a maroon jacket and sitting on a couch eating potato salad. Jesus jumped out of the Bible’s well-worn story and into mine. No donkeys, no manger, no star. Just a couch, some potato salad and one jackass who, just like the disciples, didn’t seem to understand who he was dealing with until the moment had passed.
I was looking for Jesus in all the wrong places, expecting him to show up on my terms. Jesus wasn’t supposed to eat potato salad. That wasn’t part of the story! I knew the script backward and forward, but apparently I missed the point. Jesus doesn’t play by our rules. He doesn’t say what we want him to say or look the way we want him to look. He doesn’t show up on our schedule. Jesus is not convenient.
The thing about Jesus is that once you see him you can’t stop thinking about him. He changes you. He makes you aware of your own brokenness. Once he opens your eyes and you see him, you can’t press undo. It would be easier not to see. It would be easier not to share in his sufferings. It would be easier not to care about the pain of the world. It would be so much easier not to look into the weary eyes of the wounded, but rather carry on with my comfortable life as if Jesus was just a cute little baby who showed up once a year in an adorable children’s pageant and had no impact on my life. But if that’s the story I choose to live by, then I missed the whole point of why Jesus came in the first place. He came to heal the sick, love the outcast, and bring hope for the hopeless. He came for me.
This advent season do not wait passively. Do not simply sit back and enjoy the ride. Do not read the same old story, sing the same old songs, and be unchanged. Jesus is waiting for you, but not in the manger. He is the stranger–the other. Look, listen, and love in unexpected places and in unexpected ways. Expect to see Jesus. Oh, and stock up on potato salad. Jesus loves potato salad.