The Ultimate Hero

A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing.” — Mark 1:40-41

“Long before I reached her place, a putrid smell burned my nostrils. It was a smell you could almost lean on. Soon I could see an immense garbage dump by the sea, the accumulated refuse of a large city that had been stagnating and rotting for many months. The air was humming with flies. At last I could make out human figures – people covered with sores – crawling over the mounds of garbage. They had leprosy, and more than a hundred of them, banished from Karachi, had set up home in this dump. Sheets of corrugated iron marked off shelters, and a single dripping tap in the center of the dump provided their only source of water. But there, beside this awful place … I found Dr. Pfau.” — from Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.Mark 1:4-5

Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented. — Matthew 3:13-15

John may have been the first, but he was certainly not the last to raise the question. Why was Jesus baptized? We can understand John’s reluctance. He was baptizing for repentance and forgiveness of sins (Matthew 3:11; Mark 1:4). For what sin did Jesus need forgiveness? What correction was required in his life?

For centuries the classic answers have proved helpful. Jesus wanted to identify with sinners. He wanted to set an example of obedience. But still, John’s question nags.

Jesus knew the aim of John’s mission. He knew the purpose of John’s baptism. He knew what kind of people came to the river. They swarmed the banks of the Jordan like lepers on the Karachi garbage dump. Wounded by greed. Diseased with lust. Infected by selfishness. Covered with the sores of human failure. All of them … except Jesus.

I have often imagined how that day at the Jordan could have gone. As the only one free of sin, the human plague, Jesus could have remained above the whole sinful scene. Imagine him, standing high in the hills surrounding the Jordan valley, separate and distinct from the human failure below. He could even have made an announcement: “You are gathered down there because you are infected with failure. I stand up here because I am free of failure. You should be like me.” Nothing would have been truer or less helpful to those infected by the human plague.

In fact, such an announcement could more easily have been made from heaven. Why stand at the edge of the lowest point on the face of the earth when you can stand at the highest place in existence? Why be born into a peasant family when your Father owns the universe? Why shield your true identity in order to grow up in obscurity? Why? Because the ultimate human plague requires the ultimate hero.

Today’s heroes commit themselves to the victims of misery. They risk their own health, but take necessary precautions. They seek a solution, but pray for personal protection. And no one expects the search for a solution to require more of them than an understandable risk.

Not so with the ultimate human plague. Jesus knew that his commitment was more than risky. He knew that the only precaution he could take was to refuse the mission. He knew that the only solution for the human plague was for him to take upon himself the sin disease of others … intentionally.

So he climbed down from his high point. He joined the mass of failure-infected people in the Jordan valley. He submitted to a rite of cleansing reserved for the terminally infected. And it shook John. It was so unusual, so unheard of, for even the greatest of heroes, that John “tried to deter him.”

John was the forerunner. He had announced Jesus’ coming. He knew of his power and his mission. But he never expected this. In fact, no one had really counted the cost of the human plague. No one had looked that far ahead … except Jesus.

Driven by love and compassion, Jesus went to the root of our disease. He aimed at the source of all misery. His baptism was a personal and public commitment, not to research and treat the human plague, but to contract it and thereby heal it.

It was a difficult and courageous choice. This is why the Father immediately affirmed Jesus’ decision: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). And this is also why Satan immediately attacked his decision. “If you are the Son…” (Matthew 4:1-11).

So, why was Jesus baptized? So that John could identify the Christ? Yes. So that Jesus could identify with the human race? Absolutely. To set an example of obedience? Of course. But, more than this, in a very real sense, Jesus was baptized for the forgiveness of sins … but not his own. His baptism was his decision to go to the Cross, the only permanent solution for human failure.

He began his ministry with an unavoidable baptism. He ended it with an undeserved crucifixion. It was his deliberate choice. He was moving into the heart of the human plague as the ultimate hero.

“If you are willing, you can make me clean.” Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing.”

My Closest Neighbor

I can usually remember where I am when something is said that greatly influences me because I will stop and write it down. 

I was in St. Louis, in a class on a Sunday morning.  There was nothing new or outstanding about the class.  The teacher had just read Mark 12:28-31.

“Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

I had read these verses many times and had thought about the meaning of loving God and loving people.  And, in my pride (isn’t this often the case), I wasn’t expecting to learn anything new that day. 

But then, the teacher asked a question that was so simple and clear that I wrote it down. “Who is your closest neighbor?”  He waited a few calculated seconds, just long enough for me to wonder where he was going with the question, and then he provided his own answer.  “My closest neighbor sleeps right beside me.  And my next closest neighbors sleep just down the hall from me.”  I continued to write as my mind was filled with new thoughts and implications.

Suddenly, loving and serving my “neighbor” was no longer an interesting theological discussion or even a complicated global missionary strategy.  No, it suddenly became highly personal, intensely practical and crystal clear. I knew exactly were to begin. 

Our closest neighbors are those living under our roof, or those who brought us into the world and gave us a home.  And guess what?  These “closest neighbors” can be the most difficult ones to love and serve.  We know their faults all too well, and they know our faults.  How sad, that the ones we know the best are the ones we are most likely to take for granted.

And so I would like to suggest an idea. Determine to put your closest neighbors at the top of your list of people to love and serve.  In one sense, they can be the easiest to serve because you know them so well.  You know their hurts, their needs, their fears, their temptations and their weaknesses.  In fact, no other person is better suited to offer them the kind of help and service that you can offer. And, they are right there, all the time, close enough to touch.  Here are a few places to start your thinking:

  • Each day, as you arrive back home, determine that you are not “off” but “on” duty for your family.
  • Give them daily affirmation, hugs and praise.
  • Ask questions about the day and listen without offering advice.
  • Call your parents and ask them what they did today.
  • Take your turn with the household duties.
  • Take a walk through the neighborhood with your spouse to talk and reconnect.
  • Sit in silence with that “closest neighbor” who may be hurting.  Let your presence communicate your love.
  • Pray with your family on a daily basis.

One day, when our children were small, as I was reading the story of Jesus’ baptism and temptation, I noticed once again that between the two events there is this message from God.  Mark makes it a highly personal family message, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” (1:11).  It occurred to me that Jesus had just made a decision to go to the cross (baptism) and Satan had just made a decision to stop him (temptation), and so God plants this wonderful message of love, confidence and affirmation right in the middle of it all.

I determined right then that if Jesus needed this message, then my closest neighbors, my wife and children, needed it as well.  From that point on, each time I tucked David into bed I gave him some form of: “David, you are my son, I love you very much and I’m so very proud of you.”  And then, I entered Jessica’s room, knelt beside her bed and gave her the same message.  I did this every day until “tucking in” matured into a phone call of encouragement or a text or email of confidence. My son is now married and my daughter is thinking about it, but they will always be my closest neighbors.  Along with Pam I will always feel a deep sense of “you are my wife/son/daughter, I love you very much and I’m so very proud of what you are becoming.” 

Jesus was only asked one question, “What is the greatest commandment,” but he in essence said, “I can’t give you only one answer.  I have to give you two answers because loving God always involves loving your neighbors.”

So, how do we love and serve our neighbors?  Let’s begin with our closest neighbors and what God teaches us there will help us move out through the circles of relatives, friends, work associates and strangers.