I may be older than Jesus. Scholars debate about the precise dates of his birth and death, but they generally agree that he was somewhere between the ages of 32 and 38 when he died. Being myself firmly ensconced in my thirties, that gives me a decent chance of having passed him in the critical “number of birthdays” scoring category. It’s critical because the winner gets to give the loser noogies.
Of course, all of that discounts the fact that he was resurrected and thus got to recommence with the accumulation of birthdays; he actually has me beat by more than 2000. Pesky theology is going to keep me from giving my Lord and savior noogies. (Apparently theology can accomplish what my flimsy sense of propriety cannot.) My point remains though: once upon a time, Jesus was a fellow in his thirties.
Why is that important? Don’t most people–LORD willing–get to go through their thirties? Isn’t that fact rather shockingly humdrum? Yes it is, but only for human beings. (And turtles, I suppose, and anything else that conventionally can live forty years.)
The shockingly humdrum reminds us that Jesus was (is) a human being. (The whole resurrection business is going to muddle my verb tenses. I apologize for that. Both tenses are important.) Yes he is also the Eternal Son, but if he were only that though, he wouldn’t have birthdays at all, because birthdays are a celebration of beginnings. The Eternal Son doesn’t have a beginning, he’s always been. Thus, when I joke about the age of my Lord and Savior, I’m alluding to something special: at a certain time in history, at a certain place in the world, in a certain family from a certain group of people, the Eternal Son was made a human being and started accumulating birthdays, just like I do.
Of course, that’s the sort of thing that Christians tend to acknowledge all of the time, especially at Christmas. It’s one of the foundational doctrines of the religion. Ironically, at least in my own experience, it’s also one of the easiest to forget.
Let me explain to you what I mean. Jesus is special because he was more than just a man. Lots of men have said insightful and wise things; lots of men have taught about God; lots of men have been killed because of it. Jesus is different because, unlike all the rest, he is a man and also God. (And he was raised from the dead–another unique feature–which is crucial but not necessarily relevant here.) His divinity is so critical that I find it easy to focus on it entirely.
When I’m reading along in my Bible and come to a passage where Jesus speaks, I’m inclined to read it as the very words of God. (Which it is.) However, perhaps because I’ve seen too many cartoons, I tend to imagine “the very words of God” as accompanied by trumpets and choirs of angels, and generally as spoken by a shiny figure on a throne in the clouds. With that kind of gravitas, it’s easy to forget that I’m also reading the words of a man, probably a man in his humdrum thirties.
To be fair to myself though, Jesus seemed to say a lot more “shiny figure” style stuff than “humdrum man” stuff. I’m in my thirties; I say things like “Honey, have you seen my other shoe…” and “I could really enjoy a hamburger right now.” Jesus said things like “I am the way, the truth, and the life…” and “the Kingdom of Heaven is like a man who went out to sow seed.”
Sometimes though, I think I do a disservice to a passage when I don’t remember that the one speaking was a man like I am. As a case in point, I want to look at one of my favorite verses in the New Testament: Mark 5:36.
The story is fairly straightforward; an important local has come to Jesus to request healing for his daughter. Before Jesus can reach the girl though, messengers come to tell the unfortunate father that his daughter has passed away already. Verse 36 is Jesus’ response: he turns to the man and says, “Do not fear; only believe.”
Frankly, that seems like shiny figure talk if ever there was any. It’s the same sort of thing that angels always say when they appear to someone, and I always picture them being shiny too. (Maybe it’s a liturgical greeting in Heaven.) The command is so vague too: “only believe.” Jesus talks about faith a lot, and so often it can seem like an abstract concept or a matter of willpower; isn’t this a perfect example of that? Maybe shiny figure Jesus was saying, “Be comforted by a broad and general determination to believe that the God of Israel exists.”
Now imagine the poor local father. I have a bit of experience with having a daughter in peril, so I feel confident that I can infer his perspective in that moment. As soon as the messengers come, his world stops. He’s shocked and confused for a moment because his mind just doesn’t know what to think. His heart rushes to anger though, anger at himself for having not done something sooner, anger at Jesus for not having rushed more, anger at the world in general because anger is how his heart deals with pain. And through it all he’s picturing his daughter’s laugh, and how she would run through the flowers in the springtime and shout, “Daddy, daddy, look at me!” And he’s suddenly stricken by the reality that he will never see those things again, and that he wasn’t even there to comfort her and say goodbye. He feels helpless and lost.
I can guarantee you one thing: at that moment he could not have had the shiny figure’s sort of faith if he tried.
But Jesus was a man. I love the way both Mark and Luke narrate this story. Jesus is talking to someone when the messengers arrive with their bad news, they describe it almost as though he hears them off to the side, the way it’s possible to hear snippets of a conversation across the room. He doesn’t wait then, doesn’t let the father come to him. Instead he intervenes.
I imagine him rushing over to the local father, maybe even catching him because the father’s legs have gotten wobbly. He looks him in the eyes and knows he has to act fast; he doesn’t dawdle at all–he eschews preamble entirely–and dives right in to cut off the horrible thought train of remorse and pain that the father is boarding: “Do not fear!”
It’s less a general statement about providence–and certainly not some variety of angelic greeting–and more of an interruption, a wake up call, a way to get the aching father’s attention, to bring awareness back into the welling eyes.
Then, in the second he has before grief takes over again, he gives a command that’s entirely specific: “Only believe.” He doesn’t need to provide context, because the man knows it. He doesn’t make the command complicated because the man couldn’t do it then. It’s as though he says, “Just do this one thing: hold on a little bit longer. Don’t worry about the how’s or the why’s–in fact it’s okay if you can’t think much of anything for a while–just hold on.” I actually like the way the Message renders this passage: “Just trust me.”
But that’s the sort of reading that only makes sense if Jesus is a man, a physical person with eyes and arms and breath. He’s right there to be touched and trusted. As much as what he says can be abstracted afterward, it was said as one man to another in the midst of trouble.
Sure, Jesus was ultimately trustworthy because he was also God. But I think the story is more powerful when I remember that he was also a man who was present for that father. He was on the street to intercede before heartbreak ran away with him.
And frankly, God’s willingness to become a man to be able to do that is a powerful part of the gospel.