The Friend of Sinners

January 13, 2013


When I was in middle school one of the most popular movie stars was Chuck Norris, the martial arts champion turned actor.  He starred in a string of action movies with horrendous scripts but amazing fight sequences.  As a typical angst-ridden adolescent I enjoyed watching those movies, imagining myself defeating the bullies in my life with the same skill and power as the mighty Chuck Norris.

He went on to star in many movies and on TV as well, always playing an invincible hero who always defeated the bad guys.  In recent years many legendary “facts” about Chuck Norris have emerged, one-liners that hilariously describe the invincibility of the mighty Chuck Norris.  Here are some of my favorites:

Chuck Norris never calls the wrong number, you answer the wrong phone.

Chuck Norris once made a Happy Meal cry.

Chuck Norris is the reason why Waldo is hiding.

And my personal favorite:

Chuck Norris does not need Twitter, he is already following you.

Today is the first Sunday after the Epiphany, and each year on this Sunday the appointed gospel lesson is an account of the baptism of Jesus.  And at his baptism Jesus was anointed as the Messiah to be the Savior of the world, as Peter preached to the first Gentile converts: “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah with the Holy Spirit and with power” (Acts 10:38).

But at his baptism something else was going on as well… Jesus was identifying himself as the Friend of Sinners.

Although as the Son of God Jesus was truly invincible, infinitely more than the mighty Chuck Norris, he emptied himself of that invincibility and identified himself as the Friend of Sinners.

John the Baptist had been preaching in the wilderness about everyone’s favorite topic, repentance, and many people from Jerusalem and the surrounding region of Judea had been led by the Holy Spirit to the wilderness to listen to John preach—and they responded by actually repenting of their sins and being baptized by John in the Jordan River.

And sometimes the Holy Spirit moves in our lives to do the same thing, to repent.  Sometimes we too find ourselves with a desire to go to the river, to be cleansed on the outside… and on the inside, to know that we have been forgiven.

This idea of going to the river to be cleansed even recurs in rock songs.  In 1978 the Talking Heads released a cover of the song “Take me to the River,” and David Byrne sang, “Take me to the river, drop me in the water;” and in the same year Bruce Springsteen released his classic album, Darkness on the Edge of Town, and sang “Tonight my baby and me we’re gonna ride to the sea and wash these sins off our hands” (from the song “Racing in the Street”).

Sinners were lining up on the shore of the Jordan River to be baptized by John, who was administering a baptism of repentance.

And standing at the end of the line of sinners… was Jesus.

John had already spoken to the crowds about Jesus, “I baptize you with water,” he had said, “but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals” (3:16).  When John saw Jesus coming to be baptized, he said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).

Jesus had nothing to repent of, nothing at all, and yet there he was, at the end of the line of sinners, identifying with them.

And Jesus did not just watch the sinners be baptized and nod his head approvingly, saying things like, “Good thing you’re getting baptized.  You need it.  I mean, really, your lives are a mess.  It’s about time you repented.”

In fact, scripture doesn’t record Jesus as saying anything at all.  Instead, Jesus simply wades into the Jordan River and is baptized by John.

Why?  Because Jesus, the invincible Son of God, was identifying himself as the Friend of Sinners.

The brilliant later scholar Leon Morris describes this:

“Since Luke depicts Jesus as without sin, it is not obvious why he should have undergone this baptism.  But Jesus saw sinners flocking to John’s baptism.  Clearly he decided to take his place with them.  At the outset of his ministry he publicly identified himself with the sinners he came to save” (Luke, p.118).

And Luke tells us that after Jesus had been baptized and was praying, that the Holy Spirit descended like a dove, and that God the Father spoke out of heaven, declaring “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

God the Father loved and was well-pleased with his Son, the Friend of Sinners.

I’ve been reading through a volume of collected letters by J. R. R. Tolkien, the famous author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.  Tolkien had four children—John, Michael, Christopher and Priscilla.  Tolkien deeply loved and was well-pleased with his children, and the volume includes many letters he wrote them, letters that express his love and concern.

In 1945 Tolkien wrote the following in a letter to his twenty-one year old son Christopher: “I read eagerly all details of your life, and the things you see and do—and suffer” (The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, p. 111).

Nearly twenty years later Tolkien wrote a letter to his second son, Michael, a professor in his early forties who was suffering from depression.  Tolkien was attuned to Michael’s suffering as he had also been with Christopher’s, and he vulnerably shared his concern for him, as well as his shortcomings as a father:

“I am very sorry that you feel depressed … of course, I live in anxiety concerning my children… most of all because I failed as a father.  Now I pray for you all, unceasingly, that the Healer shall heal my defects, and that none of you shall ever cease to cry, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’” (pp. 336, 339-340).

God the Father loved and was well-pleased with his Son, the Friend of Sinners, and like Tolkien, though infinitely more so, he was attuned to every detail in his life.

As the Friend of Sinners Jesus identifies himself with and understands our entire human experience.  The Bible tells us that just like you and me Jesus experienced hunger and thirst, joy and sorrow, rejection and suffering, temptation, heartbreak, death, all of it.  He knows the details of the things we do and see and suffer.

Over the holidays I saw the film Les Miserables.  I sat next to my daughter Cate, who had already seen it.  She was wearing a scarf and she laughed as she warned me, “Dad, this movie will definitely make you cry, so when you do, just use my scarf to wipe your eyes.”

And she was right.  I cried more in that movie than any movie I’ve ever seen in my life, except maybe Happy Gilmore (not really J).  It absolutely wiped me out.

Anne Hathaway brilliantly plays Fantine, a single mom who is utterly destitute, reduced to literally selling her body to provide for her daughter Cossette.  In her heartbreaking rendition of the song “I Dreamed a Dream” she sings:

There are dreams that cannot be
There are storms we cannot weather
I had a dream my life would be
So different from this hell I’m living
So different now from what it seemed
Now life has killed the dream I dreamed

Maybe some of you today may be experiencing the pain that comes from dreams that you’ve had that cannot be, or maybe some of you are in the midst of storms, external or internal, that you cannot weather.

The Friend of Sinners understands, and cares for you more than you know.

In 1971 singer-songwriter Carole King released her landmark album Tapestry.  The seventh track on the album is the beautiful song “You’ve Got a Friend.”  In an interview she described the experience of writing it: “It was as close to pure inspiration as I’ve ever experienced.  The song wrote itself.  It was written by something outside of myself, through me.”  You probably know the chorus:

You just call out my name
And you know wherever I am
I’ll come running to see you again
Winter, spring, summer or fall
All you have to do is call
And I’ll be there
You’ve got a friend

Who knows?  Maybe it was the Friend of Sinners who inspired Carole King.

When Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River, he was immersed, completely submerged in the water and then lifted up again.

I remember being immersed when I was baptized as a ten-year old.  My family had begun attending church the previous spring.  I really enjoyed the sermons, even though I wasn’t always able to follow them, and I remember liking the music, and I remember people being really friendly to me and my family at coffee hour after the service.  I could tell they really cared about us.

I couldn’t articulate much, but there were two things that I felt every time I went to church: God was real and God loved me.

I was baptized on a crisp fall morning, Saturday, November 19, 1979.  Since the church I was attending was meeting in an elementary school cafeteria, the baptism took place at a Baptist church that had a small immersion pool (or “dunking tank”).  Several of us sat in the front pew, waiting to be baptized.  After the priest waded into the pool he asked who wanted to go first.  I volunteered because I was nervous and I wanted to get it over with.

I descended the steps into the cold water.  The priest gently immersed me completely under the water three times as I was baptized in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

It’s hard to explain, but when I ascended the steps out of the water I felt ridiculously happy and really clean on the inside.  And the same two things that I had been experiencing over the previous several months rang home more loudly than ever: God was real, and God loved me.

I’ve never forgotten how that felt.

Since then I have found myself many times immersed in something other than cold water in an immersion pool.  I’ve found myself immersed in the mire of sin.

Perhaps you too have been immersed in that mire.

Back to Les Miserables for a moment… toward the end of the film the main character, Jean Valjean (played by Hugh Jackman), who after Fantine’s death had adopted her daughter Cossette, found himself embroiled in the 1832 June Rebellion in Paris.  During the fighting a young man named Marius, who was madly in love with Cossette (and her with him) was severely wounded.

All the streets were blocked and there was no way out, so he pulled the unconscious Marius into the underground sewers and literally carried him through the filthy mire of Paris to save him.  At one point Jean Valjean is completely immersed in the mire as he holds Marius above it.  And Jean Valjean saved Marius, who soon married Cossette.

Marius did nothing. Jean Valjean did everything.

When Jesus, the Friend of Sinners, was immersed in the water of the Jordan River, it not only demonstrated his identification with sinners like you and me, it also foreshadowed his suffering and death.

For about three years later Jesus found himself on the cross, immersed in the filthy mire of the sin of the world, in the filthy mire of your sin and my sin.

On the cross Jesus was again at the end of the line.

There was no scarf to dry his eyes.

The storm could not be weathered; there was no way out.

On the cross the invincible Son of God revealed himself as the ultimate Friend of Sinners, who died in your place to show you that yes, God is real and yes, God loves you.

And in the same way Jesus did not stay under the water at his baptism but was lifted back up, he did not stay in the tomb but was raised again.

And someday Jesus Christ, the Friend of Sinners, will return to lift everything out of the mire of sin and to heal every defect.

The good news of the gospel is that in Jesus you’ve got a friend.


Bible References

  • Luke 3:21 - 22