Hebrews 13:2

Would You Recognize Him?

By Dr. Philip W. McLarty

Here’s an age-old question: If Jesus were to show up for church this morning, would you recognize him – other than by a process of elimination?

Probably not. There are several reasons why. The most obvious is we don’t know what Jesus looked like, so how would you recognize him if you saw him?

We like to picture Jesus as an attractive thirty-something-year-old man with flowing brown hair, soft brown eyes and a neatly trimmed beard – something on the order of Salmon’s painting, Head of Christ, found in just about every church in the country. But is that really what Jesus looked like?

The story is told of a little girl in Sunday school drawing a picture. The teacher looked over her shoulder and asked, “What are you drawing, Mary?” “A picture of Jesus,” she said, without looking up. The teacher thought for a moment and said, “Well, Mary, it’s like this: We didn’t have cameras back then and, as far as we know, no one ever painted Jesus’ picture, so we really don’t know what he looked like.” Mary said, “You will when I finish.”

No, we don’t know what Jesus looked like, but, if we take seriously what he told his disciples, we have a pretty good idea of what to look for. He said,

“‘Come, blessed of my Father,
inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;
for I was hungry, and you gave me food to eat.
I was thirsty, and you gave me drink.
I was a stranger, and you took me in.
I was naked, and you clothed me.
I was sick, and you visited me.
I was in prison, and you came to me”
(Matthew 25:34-36).

If you stop there, it makes perfectly good sense: The righteous are rewarded for their good works. They saw that Jesus was hungry, thirsty, etc., and they came to his aid. But no! The whole point is they didn’t know it was Jesus! They asked:

“‘Lord, when did we see you hungry, and feed you;
or thirsty, and give you a drink?
When did we see you as a stranger, and take you in;
or naked, and clothe you?
When did we see you sick, or in prison, and come to you?’
“The King will answer them, ‘Most certainly I tell you,
because you did it to one of the least of these my brothers,
you did it to me'”
(Matthew 25:37-40)

Jesus comes to us in the guise of those we least expect, often in surprising ways.

I was working at Faith Mission in Wichita Falls when a couple of transients knocked at the door and said they were hungry. Turns out, they were starving. They’d been on the road for days with little to eat or drink. We brought them into the dining hall and got out some sandwich fixings from the kitchen. After their third sandwich and second pitcher of iced water, they told us where they had come from and where they were going.

As we talked, one noticed a picture hanging on the wall. It was a print of the Eric Enstrom photograph called, Grace. You’ve all send it – an old man sitting at a table with his head bowed and hands folded. On the table is a loaf of bread, a cup of soup, a large book – presumably, the Bible – with a pair of eye glasses on top. It’s a classic.

The young man said, “My grandfather in Mexico had a copy of that painting in his home. When I was a kid, he told me that this old man was praying to God, asking him to join him at his table, when he heard a knock at the door. It was a homeless man begging for food. The old man scolded him for interrupting his prayer and sent him on his way. He went back to the table to pray, but again, someone knocked at the door. This time, it was an old widow woman asking for a handout. He told her to go away and not bother him. Again, he went back to pray and, again, there came a knock at the door. This time it was two little children asking for something to eat. He shut the door in their faces. He went back to the table and said, “Lord, when will you answer me and join me in this meal?” The Lord said, “Three times you have asked, and three times I have come to your door, but you sent me away empty-handed. In as much as you did it unto the least of these, my friend, you did it unto me.”

The men finished their sandwiches, thanked us profusely, and went on their way. We never saw them again. Later, I wondered to myself: Could it be? This young man … was that he?

The Lord comes to us in the guise of those we least expect. That’s why the writer of Hebrews admonished his readers to show hospitality to strangers: They might be angels in disguise; if so, you could be in for a blessing.

That’s what happened to Abraham long ago. He was sitting outside his tent in the heat of the day when three strangers passed by. He rushed out to greet them, bowed to the ground and insisted they allow him to give them water to wash their feet, while he prepared them something to eat and drink. Sure enough, they were messengers of God. As they were eating, one of them said,

“I will certainly return to you at about this time next year;
and behold, Sarah your wife will have a son.”
(Genesis 18:10)

It was the answer to their prayers. Sarah would have a son, and Abraham would be the father of a great nation, as God had promised. Never mind the fact that Abraham was ninety-nine years old at the time, and Sarah was ninety. With God, all things are possible.

The problem we have with showing hospitality to strangers is that we often find strangers to be … well, strange … at least to our senses. They often look different, and talk different, and, let’s be honest, smell different, and that can be off-putting, even offensive.

Just ask the men who came to the Men’s Breakfast last Saturday. We had a visitor from off the street come in during the program. He got a plate of food and sat down at an empty seat. No one objected, as far as I know, but he clearly stood out. Strangers make us feel uncomfortable.

This was brought home to our elementary church camp one summer. The director told the kids at the beginning of the week that a mystery guest was going to pay us a visit, and he wanted them to be sure and make him feel welcomed.

He repeated this announcement several times during the week: “Our mystery guest is coming, so be nice to him when he comes.” The kids could hardly wait to see who it was. They figured it must be some very important person – perhaps one of the Dallas Cowboys or some celebrity.

Early Friday morning, as the kids were coming down the hill, bleary-eyed, for breakfast, they encountered what appeared to be a homeless man sitting outside the entrance of the dining hall. They made a wide circle around him. Some were frightened. Others giggled and whispered and poked fun of him behind his back. They all gave him a wide berth.

As they finished eating, the director got their attention and said, “Guess what? Our mystery guest has arrived!” The children looked to see who it was. Sure enough, it was this homeless man. Only he was really wasn’t a homeless man, after all; he was one of the children’s father and a minister of a prominent church nearby.

The kids could’ve dropped their teeth. They were busted, and they knew it.

We’ve all been taught, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Yet, we’re all guilty. We fawn over those who are rich and famous, while we shun those who are not.

The Washington Post tested this out in 2007. They got Joshua Bell to play his violin at the entrance of a subway stop. In case you didn’t know, Joshua Bell is one of the most gifted and sought-after concert violinists in the world today. He dressed in tattered blue jeans, a T-shirt, sneakers and a baseball cap and went to a subway entrance in Washington, D. C. Without a saying a word to anyone, he set his violin case on the floor, took out his instrument – a million-dollar Stradivarius – and proceeded to play the most beautiful music ever written for the violin. He played for forty-five minutes. During that time, about 1,100 people passed by. Of those, 27 stopped to listen, and they, only for a minute or less.

Ironically, when he’s on stage dressed in a tuxedo, Joshua Bell performs for sold-out audiences all over the world. People pay big bucks to hear him play. Yet, dressed like a bum standing in a subway entrance, the same people walked right on by as if he wasn’t there.

When it comes to people, we judge the book by its cover, assuming those who are beautiful and handsome and well-dressed are deserving of our praise, while feeling free to patronize or ignore those who are, well, less attractive. Scripture would have us think otherwise.

For example, First Samuel tells us how it was that David was chosen king of Israel. God told the prophet Samuel to go to Bethlehem where he would find the one he had chosen. So, Samuel went to Bethlehem to the home of Jesse, who had seven sons, all of whom were big and handsome, witty and wise. Any one of them would have made an excellent king of Israel.

Jesse introduced them to Samuel, one by one. As each came before Samuel, he thought to himself, “Surely, this is the one,” but, each time, the Lord said, “No, not this one.”

After Samuel had turned down the last of the seven sons, he asked, “Do you have any other sons?” Jesse said, “Well, yeah … there’s my youngest son, David. He’s out in the field tending the sheep … but I don’t think you’d be interested in him. He’s just a boy, ruddy in complexion, who likes to write poetry and play the harp and sing.” Samuel said, “Bring him to me.”

David was brought before Samuel, and Samuel took one look at him and said, “Arise! Anoint him, for this is he.” (1 Samuel 16:12)

“How can this be?” they wondered. “Why, David is just a kid. Compared to his brothers, he’s a runt.” Then Samuel told them what the Lord had said to him:

“Don’t look on his face or on the height of his stature …
for I don’t see as man sees.
For man looks at the outward appearance,
but Yahweh looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7)

We not only judge others by their outward appearance, we go to great lengths to give preferential treatment to those who measure up to our expectations. The Letter of James makes no bones about it – this is a reflection of our sinful nature. He writes,

“For if a man with a gold ring, in fine clothing, comes into your synagogue,
and a poor man in filthy clothing also comes in;
and you pay special attention to him who wears the fine clothing …
haven’t you shown partiality among yourselves,
and become judges with evil thoughts?…
Didn’t God choose those who are poor in this world to be rich in faith,
and heirs of the Kingdom …?
… if you fulfill the royal law, according to the Scripture,
‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you do well.
But if you show partiality, you commit sin,
being convicted by the law as transgressors. (James 2:2-9)

If there’s a word of consolation for those who are overlooked and under-appreciated, it’s this: The same thing happened to Jesus. Listen to what John says:

He was in the world, and the world was made through him,
and the world didn’t recognize him.
He came to his own, and those who were his own didn’t receive him.
(John 1:10-11)

The Good News is what comes next:

But as many as received him,
to them he gave the right to become God’s children,
to those who believe in his name: who were born not of blood,
nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.
(John 1:12-13)

And the best news of all is this: You don’t have to recognize Jesus when he comes your way; all he asks is that you accept him on faith, look for signs of his coming, and treat everyone you meet as if it were he. If you’re willing to do this, he’ll give you the gift of his peace, joy and love; plus, he’ll bless you in countless ways through the people you meet along the way.

That’s what Albert Schweitzer learned in his own experience. He put it this way:

“He comes to us as One unknown,
without a name, as of old, by the lake side,
He came to those men who knew Him not.
He speaks to us the same word: “Follow thou me!”
and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time.
He commands. And to those who obey Him,
whether they be wise or simple,
He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts,
the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship,
and, as an ineffable mystery,
they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.”
(The Quest of the Historical Jesus, p. 403)

Let us pray: Gracious God, forgive our blindness. Open our hearts, that we may be hospitable to those who come our way; and open our eyes, that we may see in them a reflection of your grace and love. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible.

Copyright 2013 Philip McLarty. Used by permission.