This is a question I’ve asked myself more and more the older I’ve gotten. It grows more haunting as the years go by, perhaps because each passing year is a big step closer to actually meeting Him. Not that haunted is the only thing I feel when I anticipate meeting Jesus. But you get the point.
Would I like Jesus if I met Him, here, today? I don’t know. I know that I’d love to meet my ultra-nice conception of Jesus with His perfect smile and soothing words and non-judgmental tone. I know I’d like to be the child on His lap, the adulteress being forgiven, the Mary being affirmed for sitting at His feet. But I wouldn’t want to be a compromised political ruler or an argumentative Jewish intellectual or an out-of-line disciple. And I wouldn’t want to be me.
Sure, it’s not just His kindness that’s attractive. I’d like to meet Him in His perfect righteousness, too, but I’d prefer that it be a long line of other people being compared to Him. Otherwise it would be beyond awkward (for me). It would be devastating.
Yes, I’m convinced that He’s a heroic radical for flipping tables in the temple, and I love His denunciations of the religious hypocrites. But I’d be foolish to think that He wouldn’t flip over some of my tables if He showed up today. And that would be embarrassing. And I don’t like to be embarrassed. Don’t you know that I’m respected, that I’m weighty and influential? Everyone knows I’m not hypocritical. In need of a tune-up and some tweaking, always, but never an overhaul. Sure, dust the table, reorganize a few things, and send a tainted coin or two flying, but no need to overturn the whole set-up. Yeah, there are obviously some tables on my right and left that need to be flipped, but this one just needs a couple adjustments. Flip someone else’s tables, thank you.
What about His compassion? Well yes, like you, I’m moved by His radical love for the poor, the handicapped, the outcast, and the marginalized. But just because I feel comfortable reading about His 18-hour days of ministry to the dirtiest members of society doesn’t mean I’d feel comfortable if He got up in my grill about my own missionless heart and merciless priorities. And I can’t pretend that I’m not voluntarily enslaved to man-made traditions and falsely religious principles that protect me from having to exercise mercy and compassion. So He’d have plenty of targets to fire at, and even though I love His compassion, I wouldn’t be fond of Him pointing out my lack of it.
Of course I enjoy the stories about His run-ins with the Pharisees and Sadducees — His masterful set-ups, His clever theological arguments, His pervasive knowledge of the Old Testament. He didn’t fear anyone, and He was never defeated. Like you, I marvel at that. But I don’t know how I’d like my own precious theological notions eviscerated and left lying on the ground quivering and exposed. I’m pretty sure I would be offended to hear Him telling me that I don’t understand much about Him, that there’s so much more to learn, that I need to repent and radically change some of my views, and that that I’m really just like the disciples in my half-baked understanding. I like to learn new things, but I don’t like being wrong, and especially publically, sharply, humiliatingly wrong. And just because I grew up in a pastor’s home and attended a sound Christian college and seminary doesn’t mean I wouldn’t have a good amount of my theology and even more of my opinions sliced and diced by the one who is the very embodiment of the truth.
The whole boy-discussing-theology-in-the-temple is a gripping story, but I’m not sure I would want a Hebrew junior higher joining my staff meeting discussions, especially if “all who heard Him were amazed at His understanding and His answers” (Luke 2:47). I like the idea of child prodigies as much as the next guy, but not when they’re competition. And in that vein, I most certainly wouldn’t want the local carpenter’s son returning to town making bold Messianic statements about Himself, no matter how good of a boy He’d been growing up. If we’re honest with ourselves, what He said in Nazareth was just over the top, and we all know it. But somehow we act like we would’ve been the only ones seeing things clearly, the only ones truly on His side, the only ones who would “get it” — like we would’ve been the only ones who would’ve opened our minds, exercised sincere faith, put our pride aside, and embraced God’s Son.
Really? I’m not so sure.
Watching Him intellectually undress the religious elite with simple and sharp arguments is great spiritual entertainment, but fast-forward 2,000 years and cast me as the religious hypocrite and the show’s not so fun. I cheer Him on in the gospels, but what if He showed up on my doorstep challenging my traditions and condemning my lukewarmness and outloving and outobeying anyone I’d ever seen before? What if, unavoidably, His light began exposing my darkness? It’s hard to say that my own Sunday “Hosanna!” wouldn’t turn into a Friday “Crucify!”
I’m not saying that I don’t love Jesus. I just want to love the right one. And yes, that statement presumes that there’s more than one Jesus, at least in our imaginations and our conceptions and our preferences.
I remember sitting on the shore of the Sea of Galilee four years ago, watching the sun setting over the Arbel Cliffs on the other side of the lake and hearing the water lap up against the shoreline. I thought about how wonderful it was to be there, and how what I was seeing and learning was radically altering my perspective. But I wasn’t convinced that my tour of Israel would radically alter my life. In fact, I was convinced that in and of itself, it wouldn’t. As my eyes moved around the north shore of the lake, something struck me, something I’ve never forgotten. If most of the people who knew of Jesus, saw His life, observed His miracles, and heard Him teach hardened their hearts and rejected Him, how in the world did it make any sense for me to presume that simply touring the land (and sea) that He walked on would change me? So many who knew of Him hated Him. Why was I so convinced that I would’ve loved Him had I been alive back then, or that I would love Him now if He showed up in person?
Don’t get me wrong. By the electing, redeeming, forgiving, sanctifying grace of God, I do love Jesus. Not like I ought, not like I could, and not like I will, but honestly and sincerely, I do love Him. And I know that He loves me, deeply and eternally. The veil has been torn from top to bottom and the way to God has been opened. Because of Christ I can now enter the presence of God boldly and with confidence.
But I don’t want to be blind. I don’t want to be foolish. I don’t want to be ignorant and arrogant. The fact is, Jesus Christ is “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of His nature.” He came to save us, but that doesn’t mean He came to make us comfortable in our sinfulness, or that He came to affirm our personal renderings of Him.
I’m not asking you to question Christ’s love for you or even your general love for Christ. I’m just asking you to join me in considering who Jesus really is, in all His fullness, from all the angles we see in the gospels, and then to ask if we truly love Him for who He really is, in all His fullness, from all the angles we see in the gospels. He has some jagged edges, in case you haven’t noticed, and we don’t tend to like jagged edges, especially when they cut us up.
There was a man whom Jesus loved deeply, and who loved Jesus deeply in return. He was quite possibly Jesus’ best human friend. In his later years, after his friend Jesus had ascended into heaven, they had a brief reunion. “When I saw Him, I fell at His feet as though dead” (Revelation 1:17).
Would I like Jesus if I met Him? No — I would love Him, because of who He is and because of what He’s done for me, and in me. But in my sinfulness, there are a lot of things about Him that I wouldn’t like at all — not because of Him, but because of me. And the sooner I acknowledge and confess that, the better. Better to acknowledge that I don’t like aspects of who Jesus is and to seek forgiveness and transformation than to blindly and ignorantly declare my love for a Jesus tailored to my own preferences and personality.
Yes, I want to love Jesus — just not one of my own making.