Jesus in a Tuxedo T-Shirt

In the place you least expect, Jesus finds you.

Will Ryan / 12.15.22

One of my all-time favorite movie scenes comes from the 2006 Will Ferrell movie “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.” You probably know the one. The scene is at a dinner table and Ricky Bobby, a successful if aloof NASCAR driver, says the prayer before everyone eats. A disagreement breaks out between Ricky and his wife because Ricky repeatedly prays to “Sweet Baby Jesus.” She doesn’t think he always has to pray to a baby; “it’s a bit odd and off-putting to pray to a baby” she tells him.

He responds, “Well look, I like the Christmas Jesus best and I’m saying grace. When you say grace, you can say it to grown-up Jesus or teenage Jesus or bearded Jesus or whoever you want.” Later, Ricky’s friend and teammate, Cal, chimes in, “I like to picture Jesus in a tuxedo t-shirt because it says like, I want to be formal, but I’m here to party too. Cause I like to party, so I like my Jesus to party, too.”

 

Now, as ridiculous as that might sound, Cal might not be far off. I mean, Jesus was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard by the powers that be who opposed him. But the wider discussion of how we picture Jesus, which Jesus we like to pray to, and who we think Jesus really is reveals something deeper at the heart of how our faith plays out — we have preferences when it comes to Jesus. We have expectations we lay at the Messiah’s feet.

Maybe we expect him to make sure our lives are hunky dory, doing his part while we do ours to be comfortable, fulfilled, satisfied. Maybe we expect him to come back to kick ass and take names, punishing those who oppose us. Maybe we expect him to sort of grease the wheels of our hopes and dreams, not making everything happen, but being a sort of helper when the going gets tough. Maybe we expect him to be this fair arbiter, dolling out good things to people who do good and bad things to people who do bad. Heck, maybe we’re like Cal and expect him to rubber-stamp all your preferences of how one is to live their life. We have expectations of Jesus.

John the Baptist was no different. John was sent with a mission and message — repent, change your hearts and lives because God’s kingdom is coming. Bear good fruit. Do good things. Be good people. The One coming will sift the wheat from the chaff. He’ll sort the good from the bad, burning up everything and everyone who does not belong. John spoke the truth even if we did not want to hear it, preparing the world for the Messiah’s Advent.

John, the beleaguered prophet, then up and got arrested for critiquing the marriage practices of the local ruler. He got into some hot water for telling Herod Antipas the ruler couldn’t marry his brother’s wife. It didn’t work out so well because John ended up in the slammer awaiting a death sentence. I guess that’s what happens when you tell truth to power. *Shrug*

Either way, being in prison has given John time to reflect, time to consider, and time to ponder. He’s heard some interesting stories about his cousin, Jesus. The stories build off what John already experienced first-hand — when John was ministering in the wilderness, Jesus approached him to participate. And when John baptized Jesus, a voice called down and said, “This is my Son whom I dearly love; I find happiness in him” (Mt 3:16). John knew Jesus was God’s Son, chosen for a task and blessed to do so.

The stories John hears of this chosen Son of God were from chapters 8 and 9 of Matthew. It was the story of unclean people being healed and returned to the community. It was the story of a gentile soldier’s servant being healed from afar and the soldier being commended for his faith. It was the story of Jesus compassionately relieving a violently possessed man by casting out the Enemy’s minions who’d taken up shop inside him. It was the story of Jesus completely accepting and welcoming the outcast and forgotten by eating with them. It was the story of Jesus accidentally healing a woman’s bloody suffering and then resurrecting a local elite’s daughter. The stories John hears are of a Messiah who heals, welcomes, relieves, and resurrects people at the margins, people who aren’t everyday good country folk, people others look down upon on — the least, last, lost, and little. Helping people who’ve done nothing to deserve it.

This isn’t what John had in mind when he spoke of the One coming into the world. John expects a firebrand, a vindictive leader to dole out God’s punishment on all of God’s enemies. He expects someone forceful, judgmental, and pushy — kinda like him only bigger and better. Instead, he gets Jesus. Maybe John’s disciples even shared with him Jesus’ summary of what he was doing — “Healthy people don’t need a doctor, but sick people do. Go and learn what this means: I want mercy not sacrifice. I didn’t come to call righteous people, but sinners” (Mt 9:12-13). Not quite a judge who casts those unworthy into a fiery fate, not quite what John expects.

John’s faith wavers because Jesus hasn’t lived into what people want out of a savior. He begins to question, is this all there is? Is Jesus really the One we’ve been looking for? I mean, we can’t blame John for such questions — he’s in prison, after all, a place of pain and suffering. He’s in the final stages looking toward death and wants his oppressors taken care of. Maybe he wants freedom for heaven’s sake. He’s impatient like we all are — sick of waiting in a world full of the effects of Sin and Death. Good things have happened to others, but not him. It was as if God forgot about him.

Doubt creeps in and faith wavers whenever life doesn’t go the way we think it will. It comes when we are forced to suffer the slings and arrows of the world. It comes when pain and violence and destruction and sickness and whatever other way Sin and Death force us to confront them. If Jesus really is the Messiah, if God really is real, wouldn’t these things just stop? And not just out there in the world, but in my life. John’s question becomes our question: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” (Mt 11:3).

The forefront of Jesus’ answer to John’s question and ours is how one notices and experiences God’s power in the world and their own life. What are our expectations of Jesus? How and where do you think God is going to show up? What will the wind be like when the Spirit blows its way into our worlds?

Are we Ricky Bobby, praying to Sweet Baby Jesus thanking him for all the races he’s won and the 21.2 million dollars he received as a result? Are glory moments the only times we feel Jesus’ presence? Is success the only revealing agent of God? Does the Spirit’s joy only come when life goes exactly how we want it to?

When Jesus responds to John’s disciples, Jesus points to his work with the forgotten, the mistreated, the abused, the ill — in him they’ve found wholeness, renewal, and life. He doesn’t say “Yep, I’m the one you’ve been looking for.” He doesn’t give a straightforward answer. Jesus points to the work that’s already going on in his ministry, a foretaste of the restoration and forgiveness of all Sinners, including you and me, in the Cross. That’s where God’s Kingdom is breaking into our world — in the places where the world is least likely to look.

It’s as true today as it was then — the signs of God’s presence are in the restoration and health and healing of those who know they can do nothing to help themselves. If we look for Jesus anywhere other than those places where we need help, we’ll miss him. Jesus leaves John’s disciples with a blessing instead of an answer: “[Blessed] are those who don’t stumble and fall because of me” (Mt 3:6). Blessed are those who don’t lose faith because Jesus doesn’t live up to their expectations.

When Hannah, my wife, and I were getting married, I made it a priority to pick out a lot of the music. Hannah played along, made me feel like I was in charge. We compromised on a lot, for sure, but there was one thing where I held my ground. I wanted to be a little playful when the wedding party walked into the reception. So, when the bridesmaids and groomsmen danced their way into the New Year’s Eve party that was our reception, they boogied down while Rihanna was in the background singing, “We found love in a hopeless place.” Hannah and I met in seminary.

The sentiment is true, though. The hopeless places of your life, the forgotten ones, the skeletons in your closet, the regrets you can’t get over, the weights that drag you down deep into the valley of the shadow of death, that’s where you’ll find love, the love of God given in Christ by the Spirit, at work. And in fact, the miracle of Jesus’ coming into the world, that thing we are watching and waiting for throughout Advent, is that God finds us. It’s not so much as we look and we search and we find as it is God looks, God searches, God finds you. It’s at that place you least expect, Jesus finds you.

Jesus is the Highway of God in the wilderness of our lives, redeeming and ransoming us. You are forgiven. You don’t have to do anything to deserve it — there are no expectations.

And hey, when Jesus finds you, he might even be wearing a tuxedo t-shirt.

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