I grew up listening to country music. Not the poppy rap mash-ups they play on the radio (don’t get me wrong, I like hip-hop too, just not mixed with country), but real country music that tells good stories, stories about people wrestling with the difficulties of life. Some argue that it was Garth Brooks who ruined country music with his 90s crossover success. Regardless of whether this is true, I do appreciate many of Brooks’ songs. One of my favorites is his iconic “Friends in Low Places.” Friends in Low Places may not at first sound like a song that would be the topic of a theological article, but when the law has done its proper work in you, it frees you to see yourself in places you wouldn’t otherwise. Places like Brooks’ low places where actual real-life sinners live.
If Jesus were walking the earth today, his friends would include pornstars, IRS agents, Antifa members, as well as alt-right rebels who might incite a Capitol riot.
While many preachers and churches do their best to sell “seekers” on the promise of a victorious life lived above the fray, the gospel tells a very different story, a story that includes God stepping into the mess to rescue and redeem his lost creation. While we would expect the Creator of the Universe to sit atop his “ivory tower” like the antagonist in Brooks’ song, our God slipped on his boots and walked in the mud and dung with the very people he’s supposed to avoid. Jesus apparently wasn’t “big on social graces” as he surrounded himself with people from every dark corner of first-century Jewish culture. The Gospel accounts tell us that Jesus has friends in low places, too; friends that included prostitutes, tax collectors, and insurrectionists. To put it into modern parlance, if Jesus were walking the earth today, his friends would include pornstars, IRS agents, Antifa members, as well as alt-right rebels who might incite a Capitol riot. Depending on your point of view, Jesus’ friends can easily be seen as the people you’re supposed to be against. Not because you’re on the wrong side, but because Jesus doesn’t have a side, his friends come crawling out of all kinds of hiding places. If Jesus had 12 friends today, one would certainly be a highly educated liberal who doesn’t eat meat and only shops fair-trade, while another would be a MAGA hat-wearing conservative who shops at Wal-Mart and drives a big truck. While they both look down their noses at each other, Jesus invites them to come and dine together and is never embarrassed by their presence. While we are looking for reasons to cancel one another, our God comes running down the road to greet us.
In a society that demands that we pick sides and fight for justice, Jesus understands what’s going on - he recognizes that our real enemy is not the person on the other side of the aisle or tracks but the Chief Adversary whose primary objective is for us to find righteousness in ourselves. One surefire way to achieve this goal is to get sinners to find all of their problems outside themselves and then get them to seek solutions by looking within. The common creed of this self-made religion is, “I would never do that.”
You are the friend in low places. It’s only from this place that you are free to look outside yourself for the remedy to the issues that plague you and humanity.
Jesus has a very different approach. He speaks a law so demanding and heavy that when understood, it stops you in your tracks and leaves you with no room to look outside yourself to identify the problem because you are the problem. You are the friend in low places. It’s only from this place that you are free to look outside yourself for the remedy to the issues that plague you and humanity. Here, Jesus gathers his friends and proclaims, “I have a word for you.” A word of forgiveness that you won’t hear anywhere else. A word that you can’t fully receive if you’re convinced that you’re right and everyone else is wrong. Jesus’ word of forgiveness finds a receptive ear amongst those who realize that they too, were found in the low places of life.
Jesus has friends in low places. While Brooks was describing a beer-drinking dive bar filled with down-to-earth good ol’ boys, Jesus calls his friends together in what he calls the Church. A gathering place for sinners who worship a down-to-earth God who reveals himself in ways we would least expect. This is what makes the Church such a beautifully messy place. When done right, the Church looks a lot like that dive bar, except instead of drowning the pain of life with beer and cocktails, this place of the lowly is washed in the baptismal promise of Christ. A promise that doesn’t ensure you will get it all right and certainly doesn’t take your feet off the earth and place them in the clouds. No, just like the Savior we worship, our feet are planted firmly here on the very earth that God created for us to enjoy. An earth that our King will one day bring heaven to rest upon, an earth filled with sinners. Sinners, who just like you, Jesus now calls friends. If this lowly place is good enough for him, it’s good enough for you. So pull up a chair because despite what you may have been told, this is your home, and it’s filled with the kind of people Jesus loves: the broken, the needy, and the lowly.
“Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matt. 11:29).