I often seek comfort. Whether putting on a warm coat on a cold day, upgrading the home furniture for something cozier, or simply removing myself from a stressful situation, my natural tendency is to find stability and grounding in a world that sometimes seems to spin too quickly. Sometimes I can find the world to be an unsettling place. Often, in fact. In my job, I am employed to step into chaos and redeem it – to bring it into a state of stability and calm – to rectify the situation. Many jobs, when you boil them down, are just that: mending broken situations. Settling the unsettled.
After all, that is what the Big Man upstairs wants for us all. Isn’t it? To feel comforted? Calmed? Settled?
I’ve been challenged to read through the Bible this year in what I have deemed to be a Christ-intensive study: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Psalm, Proverbs and repeat. I’ve only just begun, but it’s been an interesting journey already.
There’s this story in the Bible, and in this story, is the main character Yeshua – a first century Jewish woodworker turned rabbi who started…something? In fact, the very nature of who and what he had come to do was just as hard to pin down for his first century opponents and followers as it can be for us today. To some he was a Jewish rabbi, prophet, healer. To others he was something more maleficent in nature: rebel, heretic, perhaps even demon-possessed. Strong words. Still – still to others, to me – he was someone…is someone…
Who rescues. Who restores. Who renews.
And when necessary: who unsettles.
Like the moment following a starting pistol igniting into the air, the story of Yeshua hits the ground running. It begins with a move by a historical giant in ancient history – the very man to sire the Roman Empire into existence: Augustus. The Roman senator-turned-emperor, demands a census to be taken of the province of Judea. The Empire of Rome is a well-oiled machine, an unstoppable force of might, manpower and ingenuity unlike anything the world has ever seen. The Empire is so vast, the Romans require local tetrarchs to govern over the smaller and farther provinces – provinces like Judea. A province named after it’s demographic make-up, Judea is located on the eastern most coast of the Mediterranean, or Mare Nostrum – “Our Sea” – as the Romans arrogantly, though accurately, boast. Indeed, the Jewish population feel the oppressive ambience of their overlords, who are never shy to remind the populous of their position.
Due to this census, an insignificant carpenter and his painfully pregnant wife are forced to uproot themselves, and travel 145km back to the carpenter’s homeland as is specified in the command undoubtedly shouted out by Herodian soldiers as they ride from town to town.
Like ants, suddenly exposed to the light of day, the census results in a cataclysmic stimulus of geographic movement in all directions.
So how does the story of Yeshua begin?
More specifically it begins with a young Palestinian couple leaving the comfort of their home for the nomadic. The uprooted. The displaced.
The couple makes their way to the destination of their long journey: a rural town in modern West Bank, which itself has always been known for its chaos, violence and unrest.They are exhausted, isolated from their families, and desperate for shelter. But they are not the only ones uprooted. The carpenter knocks frantically at the door of a local inn. “My wife”, he pleads, “she is about to give birth! Please!” No room here. It’s a small town and filled with Jewish travelers looking for shelter as they have their own stories of desperation and displacement.
She finds a space in a carved-out cave used for animals and gives birth to Yeshua, her baby boy, surrounded by bellows, brays and snorts, with the smell of manure filling her nostrils and sense of the unknown enveloping her mind.
Yeshua grows to be a man. He comes out of relative obscurity, with little mention of his youth. But when he comes, he comes like thunder and lightning, born out of the dark clouds of turbulent, first century Palestine, bursting on to the scene, and cracking the religiously and politically held sky with sound and light. “Is it a political movement of another zealot”, the Jewish tetrarchs and their Roman handlers wonder. “Perhaps it is a heretical movement sent by the Devil”, some of the religious elite declare. It seems that in a time when the leaders of nearly any sphere are paranoid, power-hungry and eager to snuff out threats to their success, this “Gospel” or “good news” preached by this Yeshua of first century AD can be many things depending on through whose lens one was looking. But, despite the controversial and divisive nature of this Gospel, one thing is clear:
This is a movement.
It is not a subculture. It is not a gathering. Not a statement, nor a doctrine. It is something altogether different. Something breathing life into the lifeless. Something that moves as one body despite the diversity within. It is daring. It is offensive. Its raw and untamed.
But it moves. And it saves.
Yeshua selects his team in a most curious manner. He goes not to those studying in the sturdy temples of his day, where the sharpest theological minds in the region are gathered in the places of worship built with gold and alabaster stone. Instead, he goes to the people living life in the midst of this first century chaos, selecting some blue collared workers, some medical staff, some lawyers, some taxmen. He’s not afraid of a world darkened and chaotic.
He took his first breath in it.
And he says “come”. Come and join this Gospel Movement. Come and we will heal the sick, mend the wounded, comfort the children and widows, break the bonds of the broken, tear down the walls of the elite, save the demon-possessed, accept the rejected, and leave behind our own selves for transformed hearts.
As if it weren’t clear enough that this Gospel would be something to be followed to wherever it needed to go, affecting whomever it needed to affect - Yeshua tells his hand-selected team of disciples the following words:
Take nothing for the journey—no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra shirt. Whatever house you enter, stay there until you leave that town. If people do not welcome you, leave their town and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.
Yeshua doesn’t mince words. Doesn’t pretend the Gospel is something it is never going to be: safe. Comfortable. Stagnant. Stable. His words could be summed up as such:
The world is an unsettling place. So, you too, will be an unsettled people.
It is a mere few moments after giving these words, that a man comes barreling out of anonymity and onto the pages of the history as he cried out “Yeshua, I want to come! Please, let me come with you”. Yeshua’s answer is so frighteningly clear it sends shivers down the spine of anyone listening:
Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but I have no place I call home.
From those who arrest him, charge him, convict him, torture him, humiliate him, crucify him, bury him – there is no mistaking their motive:
Kill the man, and you kill the movement.
But the movement doesn’t end.
It grows. And grows. And grows.
Scholar’s still debate the reason why. Some chalk it up a bubbling discontent with a Roman government growing in corruption through the second to fifth centuries. Others site the draw that a message of equality would have had on the poorer classes and slaves in a Rome which was in a dangerous economic state. More learned historians tout impressive theories such as an effective iconoclastic campaign run by the early church officials to abolish Roman religious symbolism and replace it with their own artwork and architecture.
Still, others speak today of a resurrected Yeshua – a Yeshua who came back. And when he came back, he came like thunder and lightning, born out of the dark clouds of turbulent death, bursting on to the scene, and splitting the religiously held veil with sound and light.
At first it starts like a whisper – a rumour at best. But as more people see him, sit with him, eat with him – the whisper becomes story and story becomes experience, experience becomes transformation, and transformation gives birth to:
an unstoppable movement.
Out of turbulence, chaos, fear and confusion – out of nomadic, displaced, and unsettled origins – there is the story of Yeshua’s Gospel. And while we have for some time taken the Gospel and artificially injected into sterile, inoffensive and stagnant entities of faith, housed within doctrines and denominational mores, it is an inefficient and artificial habitat for a revolution of any kind. Is it any wonder that Yeshua spent most of his time unsettling the religious elite who had settled into positions of stale vapidity and uninspired innocuousness? That he was murdered by them? The writing was on the wall:
One of them must go.
For those of us within the Church struggling with mental illness, abuse, poverty, loss, loneliness and the like – Yeshua’s Gospel is perhaps the most alive for us in these moments. We are discomforted by these events. They’re messy and frightening. The rock us, shake us, unsettle us. But I can say in my own life, these moments of deep and painful grief have resulted in a joy far more profound and genuine than the monotone moments of comfort and safety.
Perhaps – perhaps we’ve been reading the story of Yeshua in a way that is palpable for our perspective, but detrimental to our efficacy and perhaps worst of all: not true to the nature of the Gospel itself.
Perhaps Yeshua’s Gospel was never meant to be settled. The settling into our surroundings is perhaps the Devil’s greatest antidote to the spreading of the Movement while conversely, the Gospel’s displacement of our preconceived notions of life and its meaning drive us to start fresh from new perspective.
I pray I never settle for less than the painfully transformative process of the Gospel in my life. I pray that we, as the Church, can learn to ride the untamed, uncontrolled, unsettled wave that is the Gospel. And best part of all:
No extra shirt needed for the journey.