We called him “Vic.” It wasn’t his real name, it was just our junior high version of his church title “Vicar,” or as we refer to them today, “Pastoral Intern.” He wasn’t a big man; some of the confirmation students in my class more than rivaled him in stature. He sported hair that almost touched his shoulders, a pair of big sideburns, and round wire rimmed glasses. None of this would be a big deal in our current day of identity statements, but in the late 1960’s, in a small farming town, in an age of anti-war protests and hippies, it was almost scandalous! “He looks like a hippie,” was what I heard whispered in the pews as Vic made his debut during his first Sunday worship.
All this changed when Vic made the rounds in the fellowship hall after church. He sat down at a table with some Lutheran church grandmas and conversed with them in German – God’s language you know! After this, and a few other visits in homes and the hospital, he became popular with the older folks. He may have looked like a hippie, but there was more to Vic than met the eye.
It was no revelation to us kids, for Vic had already won our hearts. He would remove the plastic tab from his clerical shirt and play with us during break-time at Saturday morning confirmation class. And during Sunday afternoon rec time at the school gym, he would play dodgeball, wiffle ball, and any other game we could dream up. When we picked sides, we always had Vic’s team, and then the other team.
But we soon learned that if we wanted to win, we needed to stay off Vic’s team – he never picked the bigger, stronger, athletic kids first. Instead, he always chose his team from the bottom-up. He might end up with a few strong kids, but he would pick them only after he had selected all the weaklings. We thought that he did this, well, because looking at him, it wasn’t hard to imagine him at one time being one of the wimpy kids.
And then it happened, during a wiffle ball game one Sunday afternoon, Vic’s losers somehow won, and their after-game celebration looked like something out of a state high school championship. Frustrated at the loss, one of the older kids from the losing team, challenged Vic to a wrestling match. “The Beast,” as I will call him, was a thick, tough, and muscle-bound high school junior who had more than twenty pounds on the small clergyman. And yes, the Beast was a wrestler. Vic agreed to wrestle him, but not in front of the whole group – the match would only happen after youth group was over.
The wrestling mats were in a room next to the gym. I felt very uneasy; what was my beloved Vicar thinking? There were only five of us left in the group when Vic and the Beast removed their shoes and walked to the center of the mat. The Beast had a hungry look on his face. Vic, having taken his glasses off, squinted back at him, held out his hand for a gentlemanly shake, and said, “Whenever you’re ready.”
The Beast made a confident and angry lunge at the Vicar. My heart sank as I imagined Vic wiggling helplessly under the weight of the Beast being squeezed into submission. But that thought disappeared quickly as Vic stepped to the side, dropped to one knee, grabbed the front of the Beast’s ankle lifting it up past his waist causing him to go face-first into the mat. Following him down, Vic landed on top of him, flipped him onto his back on the first bounce, and then quickly pinned him after a “One, two, three” count. Oh baby! There was more to Vic than met the eye! And after several weeks of pestering questions, someone on the church board finally revealed to us that our meek and mild, “hippie Vicar” had placed third in the national collegiate wrestling championship at 135 lbs. Indeed, there was more to Vic than met the eye.
This Epiphany Season, as we continue to look into Bethlehem’s manger, we must remember that there is more to this baby than meets the eye. This “Holy Infant, so tender and mild,” as the hymn says, came in his humble way to choose us – from the bottom up. Yes, there is much more to the Babe of Bethlehem as Psalm 113 states:
The Lord is high above all nations, and his glory above the heavens!
Who is like the Lord our God, who is seated on high,
who looks far down on the heavens and the earth?
He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap, (Ps. 113:4-7 ESV)
We live in a culture that celebrates strength, power, winning, and self-accomplishment. This can easily bleed-over into our spiritual thinking as we find ourselves feeling like we must have it all together, living some less-than-real version of the “victorious Christian life.” Without knowing it, we end up faking it with ourselves and others, even acting as though we were the ones who chose a victorious God. But the late Gerhard Forde reminds us that we losers are not choosers. In fact, our only claim to fame is that we have been claimed by a God who is consistently drawn to losers!
As Augustine knew, insistence on freedom of choice is, in the final analysis, the mark of the disintegration of the will – a will unable to “make up its mind,” torn this way and that by conflicting desires. When at last one is “gotten at,” when one is claimed, one speaks a different language. One says, “My Lord and my God! The way is plain. I have no choice.” God has claimed me. One doesn't preach merely to give people a choice. One preaches until people at last might say, “I have no choice. I am completely taken”...As Col. 3:3 has it, “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” There is new life from death (Gerhard O. Forde, Justification by Faith, 77).
So today, if you’re feeling less a spiritual winner, and more of a loser, take heart, for your one-and-only unique Savior took off the vesture of his heavenly glory and came down to our broken world, down to us in the dust and dirt of our sin, pointed his God-Man finger at us and said, “I have chosen you” (John 15:16). He then went on to the cross and emerged from his tomb to win the victory for us, lifting all us losers from the ash heap of our personal disappointment and destruction, claiming us as his own beloved children. What an epiphany, what joy! To God be the glory!