Fall 2017 is here. Students are back in school, college football is back, the weather is making the slow turn toward Autumn and the trees are swapping their traditional green for an unpredictable mash of yellow, orange, brown, and firey red — an offset array magnified by the intense angle of the sun against a slate grey backdrop, where the clouds appear threatening but offer no more than an offsetting contrast. Our eyes hurt as nature turns up the color knob to 11, a last hurrah before our section of earth succumbs to another ubiquitous white winter.
This is the time of year when people make the call to get back into a new rhythm that they once knew before June hit, back when the kids got up early and the evenings were jammed with homework and brushed teeth before 8pm and those classic Tuesday morning panics when you can’t find matching shoes — one shoe red with white stripes, the other black with grey shoelaces, both right foot. Then it all slowed to a smooth wave when school switched to off. We had our three months of reprieve, and now school’s back in session and undeniably better than ever. We’re all one year older and one year wiser, yet it still takes time to adjust as we recall exactly how all this works and who goes where and when. It can be overwhelming and a bit disorienting. Thankfully the trees try to cheer us up with wild variety. Some days are cloudy and warm, others are well lit and freezing. It looks warm but smells cold outside, and hoodies are the norm at even formal events. Apple Cider — not apple juice — is the drink of the month, and pumpkin spice is the flavor of the season.
We get really feisty about flavors, don’t we? You can tell quite a bit about a person by asking their opinion about black licorice. They usually love it or hate it. I’ve never met a person who puts themselves on the fence. It’s the same with ice cream flavors. Can you remember ever asking someone what flavor of ice cream they want and hearing them say “whatever”? Me neither. I’m not sure if Neapolitan brings us together or tears us apart. I’m the guy who only eats the vanilla third, leaving the chocolate and strawberry for those who might appreciate it. And yes, they do have pumpkin spice ice cream. I have a friend who doesn’t like mint flavored toothpaste, or any other kind of grownup flavor toothpaste, so he uses kids toothpaste. His toothpaste has Elmo on it and comes out of the tube all sparkly and enchanted. I’m no dentist but I think he’s got good teeth, better than mine, so I’m not one to judge. I only bring this up because I wonder if he’d like Pumpkin Spice toothpaste.
If you started a new semester, welcome back. If you were on vacation for the summer and you’re home now, welcome back. If you’re jumping back into church, into rehearsals, into games, welcome back. I welcome you back. Pumpkin spice welcomes you back.
It feels good to be welcomed. When someone offers a welcome, they ease all the tensions of the new. When we hear the welcome, we know its okay for us to be there, for us to intrude on a turf we haven’t seen in a while… or maybe ever. It’s an invitation to engage, to enter without reserve, to be at ease. It clarifies that our presence is not a hassle but a delight. Nobody likes to feel like an inconvenience, or, worse, to be unacknowledged. We are wired for hospitality, both to give it and receive it.
God made us for hospitality. According to dictionary.com, hospitality is “the friendly reception and treatment of guests and strangers… of treating guests and strangers in a warm, friendly, generous way.” God is like this: friendly, warm, generous. We are made in His image, which explains why we respond positively to hospitality and negatively to unfriendliness. If you want to snub someone, you aren’t ‘hospitable toward them; you’re inconsiderate and dismissive, and hopefully they get the point. I know you’re not like this, and neither am I, but I’m sure someone in history has used that tactic. We were made in God’s image, but that image is tarnished by sin. So now, instead of hospitality, we have a world that is mixed on the reception of fellow humans. People can be trusted, but not always. People are generally safe, but not everyone is a good guy. I might let you into my house, but only after you pass a background check. Our guard is up in our culture. Too many bridges have been burned. People are robbed, taken advantage of, killed. Hospitality is usually kept under a thin shield that only lets the perceived non-threat into our world, and we into theirs. It is a broken world where we, generally speaking, don’t trust each other all that much. We teach our kids not to talk to strangers. We keep our windows rolled up. When someone knocks on the door, we peer out the window or peek through the peephole and make a judgement call as to whether we’ll open the door or not. Hospitality is conditional; the welcome is offered under certain circumstance. A few bad eggs have ruined it for everyone, and now we have to take our shoes off at the airport. It shouldn’t be this way.
Just as we don’t fully trust people and they don’t fully trust us, at least when we’re strangers, we sometimes treat God with the same distance. We’re not sure what He wants from us, so we keep the shields up. Whether or not we’ll be welcome in His presence is unknown, and the risk is simply too great. It’s easier to ignore the hospitality of God than it is to take the risk and enter in, just as it’s easier to not offer hospitality to Him.
Isaiah 40 describes a God of comfort, justice, forgiveness, and protection. When God speaks to us, He speaks words of hospitality: generous, welcoming, warm. He knows that we’re made fragile by the brokenness around us and in us. He takes the gentle approach, giving us a moment to realize Him as Holy yet approachable. He simply says “come here, if you want, and find what you need” and “why not give your life to something bigger than yourself” and “I can give you a purpose, an eternity, and I can take care of the biggest problem you’ve got, which is sin.”
That’s no fun to talk about: our problem — biggest of them all — is sin. Yet God says “your sins are paid for.” What a strange thought. Why start there? Seems like a soft yet confrontational opening. Perhaps it needs to be. God grabs our attention by speaking to our souls without sugarcoating it, somehow balancing grace and truth like a level scale. In our brokenness we need the gentle touch, but we also need a frank diagnosis that got us into this mess.
Jesus Christ comes as the lamb of God to take away the sins of the world, as far as the east is from the west. But He doesn’t do this without our being involved and owning up to the fact that we’ve sinned. Rather, in His gentle, shepherd-like way. He calms us and corrects us both, making sure we don’t topple over a cliff edge or find ourselves in the jaws of the wolf. It’s like He cares enough to protect us and push us. Just like a good shepherd does.
It’s because of the hospitality of Jesus that we are welcomed into His presence. At the same time, He looks for our hospitality as an open door to His presence. He stands at the door, but He knocks and waits for us to say “come in!” with the same warmth and generosity He shows us. Why would Jesus be so bold yet polite? Grace & truth… comfort & conviction… health through holiness. Freedom to choose, to love, to surrender. If He forces His way in, we don’t have much choice but to surrender, do we? He’s far more loving than that, and He respects His Imago Dei in us, the image which gives us the freedom He intended while also giving us the identity we lost in the fall.
God is hospitable. Jesus welcomes us into His presence with open arms. The Spirit moves in our hearts to say in return “come in…” and we find ourselves as sinners in the warm, gentle presence of the King.
This is amazing grace.
Will we welcome Him? Will we welcome not only His presence but His Lordship? Will we surrender to His hospitality?
Will we welcome the stranger? Will we display the hospitality of God to the world, saying “He is here, He is here, and He is good, not wanting anyone to perish…”
That sounds both gentle and blunt, doesn’t it? Just like Jesus.