Years ago I attended a big, splashy wedding that was rumored to set the bride’s father back tens of thousands of dollars. Five years down the road the once inseparable, smiling couple sat twenty feet apart, stone-faced, in divorce court. The size and cost of a wedding, of course, doesn’t determine the happiness and longevity of a marriage. The music may be celestial. The wine flowing like rivers. The emotional high almost narcotic. But it won’t be the grandiose wedding day that counts; it’ll be the little, humdrum, unawesome days trailing behind it that matter.
This coming Sunday churches around the world will celebrate the big, splashy day of Pentecost. As well they should. There’s plenty to celebrate: the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, the multilingual preaching of the Gospel, the baptism of 3000 people in Jerusalem. If that’s not a reason to party, I don’t know what is.
If a bride strives to look perfect on her wedding day, God looked like the perfection of divinity on Pentecost. I mean, wow, he pulled out all the stops. Escorted in by a rushing, mighty wind. Clad in flaming tongues dancing atop the apostles’ heads. The Spirit jumping into the driver’s seat of the preachers’ mouths. God really outdid Himself. He looked big, mighty, impressive, glorious, awesome. He acted, well, like we imagine God should act.
And then the next day rolled around. And the next. And the ones following it. The rushing, mighty wind of Pentecost quieted to hardly a breeze. Tongues of fire became charcoals of remembrance. And, ugly things started happening. Two lying churchgoers were struck dead. Arguments erupted over food distribution, church leadership, and just how Jewish the Gentile converts needed to become.
The afterglow of Pentecost faded and normality set in. Little, humdrum, unawesome days followed. In fact, judging by outward appearance, the Lord of the church no longer seemed big and mighty but small and weak.
In other words, God acted normal again. Normal by biblical standards anyway. Pentecost was glorious, but it was the exception. The rule of divine behavior is this: rather than a mighty fortress, an impregnable castle, our God usually seems more like an unmighty shanty.
A castle God is easy to believe in. Sitting high and mighty atop the hill. Every weekend there’s a party inside, complete with fireworks, feasting, and emotional highs. Everything about the castle God seems powerful.
The shanty Christ is another story. He squats, low and weak, across the tracks. The people filing in and out of his front door aren’t exactly the cream of the crop. They have “issues.” Issues that range from shaky marriages to prostate cancer, from narcotic addiction to deep shame from years of emotional abuse. If they lift their shirt a little, you’ll see a thorn poking out of their sides. A look at their bios won’t necessarily reveal success after success, but often a string of failures and botched attempts to get at least a C+ in Life 101. They’re just a ragtag group of ordinary people with average problems encountering a shanty Christ Who welcomes them with hands that bear the stigmata of Roman execution.
This shanty Christ is where the post-Pentecost church meets. But appearances are deceptive. Because this place, too, is a kind of fortress, a castle, but the variety that draws no crowds of tourists. It draws only the broken, the downtrodden, the corrupt, those with footprints on their backs, those whom the Spirit of Pentecost has called to the God who hides in the smallness and weakness of the cross.
Yet here, in the shanty Christ, is where the God of heaven has sunk roots among us. In simplicity. In ordinariness. In the yawn of normality. But here, in Him, and nowhere else do we find the riches of the kingdom over which He reigns. There may be no rushing, mighty wind, but in the breath of His ministers is the Word of divine love that heals hearts and mends lives. There may be no tongues of fire, but on the tongues of the hungry and thirsty God places bread and wine full of divine body and blood.
To small and weak sinners God comes in small and weak ways to give us peace and hope as we stumble our way through life. He doesn’t solve all our problems. He doesn’t whip out His tweezers when we show Him our thorns. But He does bring us to the realization that within ourselves we have nothing, but in Him we have everything. He gives us the love and acceptance that we all desperately desire, but fail to obtain anywhere else but in Him.
A mighty fortress is our God, to be sure, but he’s only found in the shanty Christ. In that one man, born in weakness, crucified in shame, the Spirit reveals the one God Who is our one hope, one peace, one healing, all the days of our lives.