My friend Gary Moon tells a story of going to a country baseball game in Georgia one Saturday afternoon and watching a high school J-V matchup between cross-county rivals. Now, you may have a favorite pro team, but there is never anything quite so colorful as a local baseball game.
Gary tells about the batter fouling off into the hog pen behind the left field foul line (not the bull pen, literally the hog pen) and the squeals of protest that come not only from the pigs, but also from the left fielder dispatched to retrieve the ball. He tells about the misfiring pitcher who let go of the ball too early only to see it fly straight into the visiting team’s dugout. He tells about the 40 mph “fast” ball that barely made it across the plate at the batter’s ankles, and about the umpire who called it “strike three!”
When the cacophony of jeers died down in the stands, the little girl sitting next to Gary asked her grandpa two seats over, “Grandpa, why do they let vampires on the field?” Everyone in the stands got quiet and looked at her with puzzled faces.
“Honey, what do you mean, there aren’t any vampires on the field.”
“Yes, there are. You said so. You said the vampire was as blind as a bat and that they should throw him off the field. I don’t like vampires. They are mean.”
Everyone sitting nearby chuckled as they listened to her grandpa reply, “Not a vampire, honey, the umpire. That man standing behind the catcher is called an umpire.”
“Oh,” she said, still looking worried. “Is he a mean one? Will he bite Johnny when he’s not looking?” (Gary W. Moon, Apprenticeship with Jesus, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009, 38).
Umpires don’t bite, at least not usually. They just call balls and strikes. They are the impartial arbiters who call runners safe or out. We often treat God as a cosmic umpire, calling our sins as strikes against us and ultimately judging whether we will be “safe” or “out.” But God is interested in more than who gets called “safe” at “home.” God cares about how we are on the field and how we play the game. He sent Jesus to be our coach, to train us and show us how to play the game in a way that helps everyone contribute and have a position to play.
Vampires, on the other hand, are a wholly different subject. Or are they? Dallas Willard characterizes many churchgoers these days as “vampire Christians,” people who want just a little blood from Jesus, enough to cover their sins, but not enough for a whole transfusion. It’s rare, he says, for anyone to want so badly to be transformed into the likeness of Christ that he or she is willing to pay the price for it to happen (Moon, 38). We want to be forgiven our sin, but we don’t really want to be free from it. We want just enough blood to be forgiven, but not enough for a transfusion of life.
When John the Baptist saw Jesus walking down the street, he nudged his disciples and said to them, “Looky there: there goes the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” Now, we all think we know just enough Jewish theology to know exactly what that means. At the first Passover, the Jews sacrificed a lamb and smeared its blood on the doorposts of their homes so that the angel of death would “pass over” them. So it is that Jesus’ blood, applied to the outside of our lives, becomes a sign to the powers of death and hell that, in the words of M.C. Hammer: “Can’t touch this.”
Perhaps that is what John the Baptist meant. Take your life, add a little blood and boom, you are forgiven. But look again. That’s not what John said. He said that this “lamb of God” actually takes away the sins of the world. What does that mean? Surely it just means we’re forgiven right? After all, “Christians aren’t perfect,” the bumper sticker says, “just forgiven.” But in saying that, are we underestimating the power of Jesus to make all things new? Does he want more for us than just an endless list of sins he can then forgive? Do we want Jesus to be our umpire calling every strike, or our coach, who shows us how to get home safely?
When John’s disciples heard about this “lamb of God,” they wondered what it all meant. So they started stalking Jesus, watching him, trying to figure out how this lamb was going to take away the sins of the world. When Jesus saw them, he asked them straight out, “What are you looking for?” What a great question, eh? What are you looking for? When someone caught W.C. Fields reading the Bible one day, he asked, “why are you reading the Bible?” to which W. C. Fields replied, “I’m looking for loopholes.”
What are you looking for? Do you just want to be forgiven for the things you did yesterday? Are you looking for a way to escape the wrath of God? Are you looking for a way to cheat death? Are you looking for loopholes? Are you looking for a better way to keep the law and do good things? Or are you looking for a new way of life, a new way of living?
A little flummoxed by Jesus’ question, the disciples stammered out, “Lord, where are you staying?” Perhaps they meant, Where do you live? Where do you lay your head? Where do you abide? What’s your address? Jesus took their question beyond the obvious and invited them to “Come and see.”
“Come and see and I will show you not only where I live but how I live. I will help you learn to hear God’s voice and to have confidence in his authority. I will teach you where to meet God, how to speak and how to listen. I will encourage you not only to do the right things on the outside, but to allow your insides to be reworked until they match God’s abundant vision for you. I will show you how to abide in me, to find the source and sustenance of your being in me.
“And because you are connected to me, your life will have a greater significance than you could ever imagine. You will be a sign of what God can do to transform a life from the inside out, a sign of healing and forgiveness, a promise of hope and new life. Come and see and I will show you a kingdom that is not of this world but that is stirring all around, a kingdom that is waiting to become real, waiting for a willing soul to say yes, waiting for you to rethink your thinking and live your life right way ’round. Come and see, I will not only forgive you of yesterday’s sin, but if you will trust me with your temptations, I will take away even your desire to sin.”
If all we ever ask Jesus to do is forgive us of our sins, our Jesus is too small. He came into the world not only to forgive us of our sins, but to save us from our sins. He did not give us a little blood to be our passport into heaven, he offers us a full life transfusion until we come to share in an eternal way of living now.
Sin is like any other addiction. We are addicted to sin. We like it. We know what it does to us, how it mess us up, but it still feels so good. We know we sometimes step across a line because of our addiction so we always come back and apologize. “I’m so sorry,” we say. “I’ll do better next time,” we vow. But we cannot control our addiction to sin. We cannot master it, try as we might. We can clean up the outside so no one will know, but we are still mired in our sinful disposition.
Now most of us live our Christian lives this way thinking that Jesus is always there to say, “It’s ok,” and “I forgive you,” every time we mess up. But Jesus doesn’t want us to continue a life in sin, he wants us to be transformed from the inside out until we learn a new way of being with him. He doesn’t want to be our umpire, he wants to be our coach.
So how do we get this kind of life? It begins with trusting our lives to Jesus. It begins by confessing, “I can’t do this by myself.” It begins by hearing Jesus say to us that we are accepted for who we are, sins, griefs, brokenness, addictions and all, but that he doesn’t accept that this is all God has for us. He sees through our bravado to our vulnerable core, calls us beloved, and invites us to live our life a new way, not trusting in our selves and our ability to manipulate and bend reality to our will, but trusting in him, who is able to bend our souls toward God.
The kingdom of God is real, and it is all around us. I believe that because I have seen it. It is more real than tangible things like a pew pad or an offering envelope one may find in church. It is available not just because someone attends church, but because he or she decides to attend to Jesus’ voice inviting them to, “come and see.” It is available to all who offer their lives trusting that their well being is not secured by what they hold back, but by the One to whom they give it over.
The disciples asked Jesus where he was staying; what is his address. Jesus gives us several places where he promises to meet us if we will seek him there. Jesus invites us to come and see him in solitude and silence, setting aside the noise and bustle of our daily lives to simply “be” with him. Jesus invites us to come and see him in scripture, finding our story wrapped up in his and his in ours. Jesus invites us to come and see him in worship, at the table of the Eucharist and the font of baptism, in our songs of praise and our hymns of love. Jesus invites us to come and see him in prayer, not just rolling out our long laundry list of things that are wrong that we really wish he’d fix, but listening to him through prayer, until our words become his words, and our heart his heart. Jesus invites us to come and see him in fasting until we learn that our lives can be truly sustained by him and him alone. Jesus invites us to come and see him in community, in and with others who are seeking ways of living this life more freely and more fully. Jesus invites us to come and see him in the stranger, in the overlooked, the lost, the forgotten ones, because only when our hearts are stirred by compassion can they be overtaken by his love.
What are you looking for? Are you looking for loopholes? Are you looking for forgiveness so you can go back to your old ways? Are you looking for a way to cheat death? Are you looking for the great by and by, but are not willing to give up control of your lives in the here and now? Or are you dissatisfied with this life and the way you are living it now? Do you think to yourself, “there must be something more.” There is. Jesus is inviting you today to “come and see.”