If any news should make our jaws drop, it’s not that people do terrible, horrible, no good, very bad things. Nickname any World History class, “Humans Hurting Humans” and you’d be spot-on.
Are mass shootings surprising? No. Billionaire sex traffickers? Nope. Abortion, slavery, racism, anti-Semitism? Not really. We rightly lament and cry out against such evils. But are we shocked by them? I’m not. I doubt most of us are.
What leaves my head spinning is this: some people, some of the time, somehow manage not to kill, steal, abuse, cheat, or destroy those around them. That’s some really awesome, newsworthy stuff.
You might think I’m a misanthrope or Debby Downer. Not really. I’m just a realist who’s drunk enough vodka with Solzhenitsyn, beer with Luther, and wine with St. Paul to know the Torah is serving the hard stuff straight when it says, “every intention of the thoughts of [humanity’s] heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5). Now that’s gonna burn when it goes down, but drink up. It’s 100% truth.
So contrary to what pop-psychology, social media memes, and your sweet grandmother told you, you are not fine just the way you are. None of us are. And we all know it.
We don't live in a make-believe world where we’re all basically good boys and girls who occasionally tiptoe outside the lines.
Crouching in the darkened corner of every human heart is a slobbering monster with a ravenous appetite for evil. Call it your “shadow self.” Call it your “sinful nature.” Call it what the rabbis dubbed yetzer hara, “a congenital tendency to do evil.” Hell, call it “Bubba” if you like. Pick a name, any name. But, whatever we christen it, let it serve as a reminder that we don’t live in a make-believe world where we’re all basically good boys and girls who occasionally tiptoe outside the lines. We are anything but fine just the way we are.
Crayons and Mona Lisa
We humans are oddball creatures—half of earth and half of heaven. Our primal dad was constructed from dirt, our primal mom built from a bone. Yet when the Creator finished this human handiwork, he stepped back, grinned, and said, “Behold, the image of me.”
So, my dear nature lovers, ooh and aah all you like over the grandeur of the Rockies and the splendor of the sparkling Pacific. But when you want a sneak peak of the Lord’s most awe-inspiring work, watch your neighbor mow the lawn; observe a Little League game; or look into the unwashed face of the homeless man on the corner. There they are—the earthly images of the heavenly God, each one a mysterious bag of skin and bones and blood that marches forth into the world as the likeness of the ineffable God.
“A procession of angels pass before a human being wherever he or she goes, proclaiming, ‘Make way for the image of God.”
Rabbi Joshua ben Levi once said, “A procession of angels pass before a human being wherever he or she goes, proclaiming, ‘Make way for the image of God.’” Make way, indeed.
And yet, here we are, looking as much like the image of God as a kindergartner’s crayon stick figure resembles the Mona Lisa. We aren’t fine just the way we are, just the way we pretend to be, or just the way we could be if only we’d knuckle down and give it all we got.
Isaiah's Twilight Zone
What we need is what the Lord once gave our prophet friend, Isaiah, many moons ago. He was hanging out at the temple, maybe worshiping, maybe praying, who knows what, when all of a sudden his world went full Twilight Zone on him. He saw God with the naked eye. He was sitting there, dressed to the priestly nines, multi-winged angels swooshing through the air and singing about how holy he is. Smoke billowed. The temple trembled. And Isaiah probably needed a change of underwear.
But what really sent Isaiah into a tailspin were his lips. “Woe is me, for I am ruined,” he said, “for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts,” (Isaiah 6:5). But God had Isaiah covered. He whistled for one of the singing angels, had him grab a pair of tongs and a hot coal from the altar, and touch Isaiah’s lips with it. Then, presto!, our friend was good to go. His iniquity? Gone. His sin? Forgiven.
The lifeless idol thereby became what one scholar calls a “theophany transubstantiated.”
But something else was going on, too. Many scholars think this story, grand as it is, is also bit of Saturday Night Live, biblical style. It’s poking fun at something idol worshipers did—poking fun and preaching truth simultaneously. In the ancient Near East, there was a common ceremony called by the rather unoriginal name, “The Opening of the Mouth.” Basically, when it was time to dedicate a new image for some god or goddess, the mouth of the image would be touched and opened, to make room for sensory life. The lifeless idol thereby became what one scholar calls a “theophany transubstantiated,” (G. K. Beale, We Become What We Worship, 65). That’s a fancy way of saying the piece of clay, wood, or stone became inhabited by the spirit of the deity. After the opening of the mouth, the idol became alive; it truly represented the deity; it was now the image of the god.
By touching the mouth of Isaiah by means of his coal-bearing angel, the LORD is not only making a parody of this idolatrous bologna, but also proclaiming a truth: "This man, Isaiah, who has been touched by me, stands there as my image. A living man. A truth-filled man. A man who has been forgiven, purified, and called to be servant of the God of heaven and earth." Isaiah becomes the iconic embodiment of the God of Israel.
What Isaiah received is what we all need. And, in a weird sort of way, God has his way of getting us exactly that.
Make Way for the Image of God
We may not be fine just the way we are, but we are fine just the way the true Image of God is. Paul called the Son of God “the image of God” (2 Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15). When the Son flew down from heaven, wove a human nature for himself inside Mary’s womb, and made his grand Bethlehem entrance as a naked baby boy, humans laid eyes once more on Yahweh. Only now Yahweh had eyes, ears, and a belly button. God had done it once again: he’d shown that nothing was too much for him to do if it could accomplish our reunification with himself—even if that meant becoming one of us.
So the image-maker became the image-made.
He’s the King of kings and Lord of lords and Human of humanity.
In this one man, we see someone who is truly fine just the way he is. Better than fine, actually. He’s the cream of the crop, the best of the best. You might even say he’s the King of kings and Lord of lords and Human of humanity.
What God was winking about when he made Isaiah his image, he actually did in Jesus. This Son is the embodiment of God, the flesh-and-blood icon of divinity.
And—paying attention?—baptized into his body, suffused into his flesh, bone of bone with him, we are finally made just the way God wants us to be. Not in ourselves. Not in some kind of theological fantasy land. But really and truly and everlastingly right in him.
So, the next time you’re going through a crowd, smile a knowing smile, and know that a procession of angels goes before you, proclaiming, “Make way for the image of God, for this one is baptized into Christ Jesus.”