We love rags-to-riches stories.
Andrew Carnegie went to sleep as a child just to forget his hunger, but grew up to be the richest man in the world.
J. K. Rowling spent seven years scraping by before the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone skyrocketed her into fame and fortune.
The lesson is simple: keep looking up, keep moving up until you reach the top. That’s the only way you’re going to make something of yourself. Our icons are the famous, the beautiful, the intelligent, the wealthy. "Everyone strives after that which is above him, after honor, power, wealth, knowledge, a life of ease, and whatever is lofty and great,” as Luther once wrote.*
Everybody wants to look up. Nobody wants to look down.
Nobody, that is, except God.
The Lord only looks down. That’s the single direction his eyes point. And what is unique about him is that the farther away from him someone is—the deeper they have sunk into oppression or grief or despair or rebellion—the more clearly he sees them.
AN EIGHT-MONTH-OLD TEACHER
As God is prone to do, He sometimes shows us who He is through people whom we would never think of as teachers, much less imitators of God. One such teacher is the eight-month-old son of one of my friends, Michael Dennis. Michael shared this story on his Facebook wall the other day.
Today, my son was my teacher. I visited a church this morning, because my wife was hired to play violin for a Christmas service. I was holding Peter somewhat towards the back of the church, amidst a crowd. A lady walked in, apparently homeless, her face disfigured with sores. I found myself hoping she wouldn’t ask me for money or come too close. She sat down alone. The next thing I knew, Peter was staring at her, then smiling and reaching his arms out to her, as if to hug her. His attention didn’t leave her until she looked up and smiled. It suddenly hit me that his response to this woman was a picture of Advent, of Christ coming as a baby with arms open wide to the poor, the sick, the broken, and the lonely, and to change the cold hearts of the self-righteous Pharisees like me.
Peter has not yet learned what his father and all of us grownups know: that if you look down, if you stretch out your hands toward those who are disfigured and poor and hurting and lonely and have nothing to offer you, you’re doing it all wrong. Look to the pretty woman a few pews over who’s wearing the diamond ring and the fur coat. Stretch out your tiny arms toward the CEO in the Armani suit. Reach for people who are above you, who can repay you, give you upward mobility in life, share with you in their success. Peter has not yet learned that if you’re going to do well for yourself in this life, there are certain kinds of people you have to cross to the other side of the street to avoid. Peter has not yet learned these things, and I pray that he never will.
When I grow young, I want to be just like Peter, whose outstretched arms and grace-filled gaze speak more eloquently of God than any learned theologian ever could. He is an imitator of our Lord Jesus, who is the image of our Father above, who has eyes only for those who are below. As Michael realized, his son’s response to this woman was a picture of Christ coming as a baby with arms open wide to the poor, the sick, the broken, and the lonely. As the mother of Jesus sang, “God has looked on the humble estate of His servant,” (Luke 1:48). Or as one of the psalms says, “He looks far down on the heavens and the earth…He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap,” (113:6-7).
Our Lord has His ways of moving us farther below through trials and tribulations so He can see us better. “In fact,” Luther reminds us, “sometimes He even lets us fall into sin, in order that He may look into the depths even more, bring help to many, perform manifold works, show Himself a true Creator, and thereby make Himself known and worthy of love and praise,” (AE 21:301). When we pray, “Out of the depths have I cried unto You, O Lord,” we are right where He wants us to be (Ps 130:1).
Why? Because in those depths we hear a voice above us, beneath us, to our left and to our right, that says, “Lo, I am with you always and everywhere, but especially here. I was born in the darkness of the night that you might know that I am with you in the blackest days, in the midnight of your suffering. I was pursued by a murderous king that you might know that I am with you when your enemies hound you. I was hated and despised and rejected that you might know that I am with you when all turn their backs on you. I touched the leper so that you might know that no matter how polluted you think you are, I will embrace and hold and kiss you. I died that you might know that, even in your last hour, as you take your final breath, I am with you, will take you from this life to a better life, and will raise you up on the last day.”
God looks down, only looks down, always looks down. This is not only good news; it is the best news imaginable. Jesus left His riches to wear our rags, in order to clothe us with the riches of His grace, His forgiveness, His life, yes, even Himself. Like young Peter, the Babe of Bethlehem stretches out His arms, all the way to the cross, to embrace us with His love.
*Commentary on the Magnificat (AE: 21:300)