The Good Looking Stranger


desert 1

Usually a message like this takes three or four days to write and polish up, with the hopes of it eventually becoming the meat of a sermon or the lion share of a blog post.This one is different.   This one I began three years ago.   It was originally intended for a class in Kentucky.

After I got down there, I second guessed myself and wrote a different submission.   Although I knew that there would be some critique of my message, it wasn’t this that kept me from delivering it then.   Instead, it was simply that I couldn’t finish it.

I didn’t like the way that it flowed; and to some degree I still don’t.   Years ago, I was introduced to the practice of Lectio Divina; or perhaps some modernized version of it.   It’s a way of reading and digesting scripture that makes the stories, the lessons and images become a part of you.

In this modernized approach, you take the story, and become part of it.   If it takes place in the market square, as you read the stories, you close your eyes and force yourself to consider the smells, and the sound.   Feel the sun on your face, and the sand in your shoes.   As you move deeper into the story, focus less on reading the words and more on being in the story.

Try to imagine yourself walking beside Jesus, Paul, Adam or Moses, as a witness to the moment, and allow the scripture to move beyond words and to become something more.     Imagine, live, and hear the stories, for in the end, when you close the Bible, they will become something more precious and infinitely more personal.

Maybe that is why I didn’t share this years ago; it was just too personal.

I guess as I say this, its less of a sermon than a monologue.   For this story, I remember sitting and closing my eyes.   As I did, and as the noise and the clutter of my day disappeared, I started to picture the moment.   Hopefully, I can help you see what I saw… and I guess what I see.

It begins with Jesus standing just a few feet into the desert. If you can picture the sand, and the sun.   At the same time, stop and sense the hesitation.   Since the anxiety that he felt as he took the those first few steps into the desert.

I imagine that he was so filled with anxiety as well as anticipation, that his knees shook.   He knew he had to go, even if he wasn’t exactly sure as to why.   He had put off the journey for too long.   For years he pretended not to hear.   He ignored the whispers that kept calling him from the comfort of his home to the edge of the desert.

Finally, the call became too loud as God’s call eventually will become if they go unanswered. Eventually he knows that he had to find a way to silence the pit in his stomach and make this trip.     As he approached those final days, all he could do was look around and see what he was giving up and it hurt.

He saw his former playmates all grown.   In the market he saw his best friend with a beautiful young bride.   There would be no bride for him.   He wondered what it would be like to grow old all alone. He tried to picture that heartbroken, tired, old man with nothing.

On another trip around the small village he called home, he saw another friend, bringing livestock into his barn.   For a moment they stopped, laughed, and exchanged well wishes before going their separate ways.     Jesus only took a step or two before he slowed to a stop.

He looked over his shoulder, stopped and stared at the barn, and the house, and the clothes that his friend wore.   None of these things would be his either.   He kicked the sand at his feet with his sandal, and watched sand and pebbles scatter. As the dust settled he wondered how in God’s name he could be fit for the service to God, when he keeps looking back.   Once again, he began to doubt.   Was he doing the right thing?   How could he be so sure one moment and so confused the next.

There was certainly a war that waged in his chest.   He wanted all those things too.   These were the dreams of his youth.   He wanted children. He wanted a wife.   He wanted a home.   He wanted it all. Yet, that nagging whisper that had long ago become a scream left him sure of only one thing;   his future would be vastly different. As he listened to that whisper, lumps would form in his throat.

He tried to explain to his mother, and his brothers and sisters, but they thought he was crazy.   “One day, you’ll regret this,” they all told him.   The told him that he wasn’t as smart or as educated as others, and he wouldn’t accomplish what he wanted.   They reminded him of the unsavory details of his birth.   “You were born out of wedlock, Jesus, and no one is going to take you seriously…Youre a Bastard, Jesus” they said.   They said he was making a mistake.

They couldn’t understand why him.   He tried to articulate the God that he had come to know, but they wouldn’t listen.   They told him to be quiet, or the whole family would suffer.   Careless talk could at best hurt their business, at worse get them all arrested.

Through their appeals for him to both remain silent and to think twice his resolve grew.   Instead of arguing he kept quiet.   They would never understand.   Eventually he would have to leave. Leaving was his only answer. As he made those final preparations to depart, his heart hurt.   He wished – he prayed – that he didn’t always have to feel so lonely.

In his head that war continued to wage.   When he found himself at the river he wasn’t sure whether it was by accident or whether he was supposed to be there.   For the longest time he stood and just watched.   He watched the hermit dunking people in the river and preaching with water up to his waste.

He knew John all his life, but could help but wonder about him.   It was not only that he was different from all the other preachers – and some called those differences madness – it was more the words he said.   He could shake his words, and for days later, he was both filled with excitement and fear.   For a long time he questioned whether God wanted him to be like that hermit John.

That thought was a scary one.

When the day finally came for him to leave, it was not much different from the countless before it.   Anyone else would have looked and said it was nothing special.   It wasn’t raining.   It was any more sunny or dry or windy than the day before.   It was just a normal day for everyone else, but this day was the day it would all start.

As he quietly left the house, he paused, just long enough to stop and scan his family beginning the preparations for their day.   As he did, his eyes met his mother, and in a moment he realized that she knew.   After a second of wide eye recognition, she nodded.   Jesus wiped the tear from his cheek and walked out the door.

It wasn’t long before he was taking his first step into the desert.   The sun had come up and was hot.   He had no clue where he was going but he hoped where ever it was there would be shade and water.   He had brought enough food and water to last him for several days.   Surely, he thought, he would be somewhere by then.

Despite the best attempts at rationing the food and the water ran out too quickly.   When it became clear that it would, he almost considered turning around.   He kept telling himself that God hadn’t sent him out to the desert to die.   He had to trust God.

Each night he would lay his blanket against a rock or a random tree, and start a small fire.   At night the desert grew cold, and the warmth of the small fire would quickly put him to sleep.     Each night before his eyes closed he would stare at the stars and listen to the rustle of the night.   He would go to sleep with Psalm 19 on his lips; “The heavens declare your glory.”

They certainly did.

When the sun rose in the morning, he would begin his journey again.   With no water, and his skin burnt from the sun, he started to doubt.   He started to think he had made an incredible mistake.   He started to believe that he would die in that desert; without food, without water, with nothing.

When he reached his absolute lowest, and there was no water in him for tears, is when he spotted him in the distance.   At first he thought it was a mirage, or his mind playing tricks.   As he got closer he realized that it truly was a man – perhaps the most beautiful well put together man he had ever seen – and not a figment of his imagination.

When they were a few hundred yards apart, the man smiled and waved him over.   “Sit my friend,” was his greeting.

He said he was a traveler too.   He was going to change the world too.   He handed Jesus water, and began his story.

The stranger spoke of all the wonders and beauty that awaited him on the journey.   His words were enticing and beautiful and captured the weary Jesus’ attention.   As the stranger told him of his wonderful exploits, and all the riches at his disposal, Jesus wearily closed his eyes and pictured all the wonderful things described by this stranger.

He was brought out his daydream by the man grabbing both of his hands, and with a strangely appealing smile, he looked Jesus in the eye.   “Come with me, my friend.   Be my partner.     All these riches will be yours.   You will live in comfort.   You will have the finest silks.   You will have the finest lodging.   Jesus, my friend, the food;   the food will be unlike anything you have.

Jesus at first didn’t say anything. He closed his eyes.   As he sat there he could imagine the softness of the silk as he slept.     He imagined what it would be like to have that beautiful home himself.     He could smell the food.   The images danced in his head, and set his stomach into a frenzy of desire.   As his mind wandered to that soft and scented place; he heard the whisper;

“Trust me. Trust me. Trust me.”

Jesus opened his eyes and looked at the stranger, and then lowered his eyes.   When he raised them again, he shook his head.     He said he could not go, and told him about his journey.

He told him about God leading him here, with a mission, call, and a ministry to find.   He told him about the lifetime of whispers as well as how he tried to ignore them.   He said that he couldn’t go; that he had to remember the scripture that said that People couldn’t live by bread – and finery and luxury and silk alone… but by every word spoken by God. They lived by God’s word and God’s call, and God’s teaching.

But the good looking stranger kept pushing the weary Jesus.   “How do you know you aren’t confused?“ “How do you know that you just think that God is calling you?”   “How do you know that you just aren’t wrong?”   Questions like these flowed from the stranger an hung in the air as Jesus thought about what he said.

The good looking stranger again moved closer and once again held Jesus’ hands.   “Why do you put it to a test?”   He looked off into the distance as if he was looking for help forming his words for several seconds.   After a few more seconds of pause; he again returned his gaze to Jesus.

“Yes… Test him.   If he had brought you so far already, he will surely get you the rest of the way there.   If this call of yours is legit – if it’s truly from God – then nothing you can do can stop it from coming true.   If it’s God’s will it will happen.   Maybe the answer is to test it.     Turn around.   Go back.   Heck,… even climb to the top of the holy temple in Jerusalem and throw yourself down!   Doesn’t scripture say that angels will keep you from even stubbing your toe?”

Jesus didn’t say anything.   Again, the stranger’s words made his head spin.   His head kept telling him to turn around and go back; maybe this stranger was right.   Lost in doubt and question, again he lowered his head.   But as he did, his head started to move from left to right.   “No,” he said “This isn’t how it works, our scripture tells us to trust.   It tells us to trust God, and not to put him to the test.”

It seemed like that was the end of it.   The good looking stranger smiled and shrugged.   After a few moments, they both decided to finish this journey together.   This awkward pair; a ragged, tired and hungry young man, and the well dressed stranger, began walking to their now shared but uncertain destination.

For the longest time they walked in silence.   Despite the lack of exchange, there was a debate waging in Jesus’ head.   For a long time, it was doubt that had the upper hand.   It was doubt which echoed in his head telling him to go home.   It told him he was too young.   It told him he was too wrong.   It told him he was not smart enough.   It told him he was the son of an unwed peasant girl who would amount to nothing.

As he walked he glanced at his hands.   They were calloused and hard.   He was barely thirty and already his hands were worn from a lifetime of hard work.   As he walked he stared at both of them with each absent minded step.   As he walked, the calluses became the marks of a former life.   For a long time as he considered them, he was sad.   They would always be there… these symbols of the town, home, family, career, and that he has given up.

He stared and he stared.   After a while, the heartache became something else.   Eventually so did the calluses.   They might be the signs of his old life; and they were signs of surrender; and he slowly became alright with that.   Those calluses’ were not reminders of what he was losing, but rather what he was gaining.

There, as he walked without words with that good looking stranger, those calluses, they had become a sign of trust. In that recognition another voice gained volume, and this time it silenced the doubt.   “Trust me.”   “Trust me.”   “Trust me.”   Each time he heard the words they became louder and softer to his ears.   Eventually, he smiled, and said out loud that he would.

With that the good looking stranger stopped, and with real concern in his eyes, he looked at the young Jesus.   Then the man waved his arm in a full circle, and Jesus noticed from their spot they could see for miles.

With a volume that increased with each moment, the stranger grabbed Jesus and pointed at the horizon.

“See all of this?   You can see for miles!   Over there is the temple!   Look how it shines.   Or over there, do you see the rich land so perfect for farming?     What about the village way over to your left?   There is so much.   There is so much to be had down there.   There are riches, and there is wealth.

Come with me, forget this God, and they will be yours.     Look down at that ridge, in those homes there is comfort, there is family, and there is fine food.   Forget this holy quest and stand with me, and I can make them all yours.

With me, I can give you all of this.   People will know your name in every village you see.   You will walk through any market and they will call you by name.     People will fear and respect you.   They will bow to you as you walk by.   You will be king.   You will be rich.   You will be full of all the goodness that this world could possibly offer.”

With a slow and dramatic pause… the good looking stranger added a final thought…   “Put down your God and follow me.   Let this be your lord.   Let this be your god.     Forget the god of silly journeys and surrender…   Worship this, worship me and what I offer, and you will have more than you can ever know or hope for.”

With that, there was no more for the stranger to say.   He stood silent, but his eyes never left Jesus.   He watched as Jesus scanned the horizon back and forth.   The only thing that could be heard was the light rustle of the wind, and their breathing.

Finally, Jesus moved.   He looked down again at his hands.   One hand rubbed the other. He felt the calluses on his hands and he shook his head.     “No,” said Jesus “I will trust him.”   Finally, his jaw flexed and his hands clenched.

“I will trust in him,” he said “I will remember, and I will trust.   I will remember to worship God and only God. “   With a wave of his hand across the horizon, a smile formed across his face.

“All of this,… Yes, I will take it all, but I don’t it to fill my stomach, my head or my heart.   I don’t want this to fill me.     I want it because its God’s, and God is there.   This is God’s most wonderful creation, and if God’s there, I will be there too.”

As he finished his dramatic wave, he turned around to discover the good looking stranger was gone.   He left.   Jesus didn’t see where or how he left, and there was not even a track.   For a second he was confused, but then his eye caught the city in the distance.     His smile returned, and he took his first few steps towards the crowd.

~*~

As I find my way back from that moment to this, I know there have been way too many times when I have been tempted by the promises that this world has to offer.   I have found myself wondering if it just wouldn’t be easier to go it a different way.   Sometimes, the aches in my chest are strong.

I want the things.   I want the easy and the cheap to be the answer. Sometimes, I find myself longing for what others have.   I find that there are times I want these things so intensely that it is almost all I focus on.   If, at the same time, I am going to be honest,   I know that these are the same longings that bounce around in your head too.  

Honestly, way too often we all find myself wishing it wasn’t so darn hard just to get through one day to the next.   We wish we had the money so we didn’t have to worry about car repairs or new furnaces.   We wish we had the nicest stuff, and could buy are kids the best that the world can offer.  

I wish that I didn’t have to worry about the 401k,the medical bills, or college tuitions.   I wish I could have the vacation home on the beach, and the mansion in Malibu. I wish I was the supermodel that could smile his way into whatever he wanted. I wish I was smart enough, young enough, pretty enough, and rich enough to force a do-over on my dreams.

Yet, somehow I need to shake the wants. If I spend too much time on this – If I spend too much time wanting – my head spins.   I become Jesus looking at his calluses, thinking about all the stuff I will never have, and feeling my heart break.  

It is precisely in that moment, that I too must listen to that voice in my head that says “trust me”.   I need to see these things not as stuff I am missing out on, but that which left me, so I could gain so much more. I need to embrace the promise of the desert.

I need to picture myself on that hill overlooking everything, and trusting God first and foremost.

I need to picture myself in the wilderness holding that bread, and knowing that there is so much more.

I need to picture myself scanning the horizon as far as the eye can see and know that I cannot be about worshipping the stuff or praying the things.  

When the temptations of this world cause me to stumble, and when they come to me looking shiny and inviting, I got to find myself in that wilderness, hungry and uncertain, but full of trust.

I need to be sure that the story is my own, and the good looking stranger is silence.I need to be sure that I see myself there in the desert, because then – and only then – will the promise of our faith be mine.

Only then will I know the peace of his promise.  

(CCL, Hamed Saber, Flicker.Com, 2006)

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1 Comment

  1. Just stumbled on your website reading about Telemachus…I love it!! Thanks for sharing your knowledge. Godspeed

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