The Exact Imprint

By David Zahl

I received one of the most backhanded compliments I’ve ever receive this past week. My wife, actually, fielded it from another man my age, who told her that, for a guy who loves Jesus, Dave is so normal. Gosh, thank you so much. To be honest, I don’t know about the “normal” part. I think that was probably a misapprehension, but I’ll cop to the “loves Jesus” thing, gladly. It may be true of a lot of us, but I went through a phase when I would talk about being fine with God, but I didn’t know about this Jesus character. Jesus seemed too defined, too exclusive, too much of a lightning rod for judgment. Which Jesus are you talking about, anyway? It’s a lot easier to say, “I believe in God, in a Higher Power, but about Jesus, you know, I’m on the fence. No, thanks.”

When this is the case, at least when it was for me, my belief in God was deduced from a combination of things. It was deduced from nature, the beautiful sunsets and the mountaintops and the feeling you get when you see the night sky, which, you know, as long as you don’t live in a place where tsunamis hit, works out pretty well. But then it’s also deduced from my feelings, my reason, and my experiences. Of course, then when you have tragic experiences, your understanding of God is challenged.

When we talk about God independently of the lodestar that is Jesus Christ — and even when we do have Jesus in the mix — we project onto God the same feelings we have about every other authority figure in our lives, usually some kind of distant parent. God is out there, over there, up there, but I’m here, and I’ve got this mountain of limitation and sin that’s separating me from God, and it’s my duty, my obligation, to climb that mountain, to get to God, to achieve some sort of clarity in my spiritual life.

Oftentimes, maybe unconsciously, we long to please that authority figure, that God that we have in our minds. We want to make him smile because most of the time we feel like he’s frowning. So we start a relationship with God that’s usually dictated by our behavior, our effort, our sweat. And even if we don’t believe in God, we tend to do this in our approach to the world. We think, we are down here and there’s some kind of enoughness out there that, if I can just achieve — in whatever venue is important to me, whether that be career, parenting, politics, etc. — then I can sort of get to that vanguard of enoughness. But how am I ever going to get to God? How am I ever going to reach that enoughness, if it’s dependent on my performance?

When we have this sort of concept of God, he very quickly becomes a sky bully or the taskmaster in the clouds, waving his finger at bad boys and girls. This is the god that people very often reject, and you can understand why. I think partly for this reason, in his Eleven Addresses to the Lord, the poet John Berryman called God “Unknowable”: “Unknowable, as I am unknown to my guinea pig.” The attempt to deduce God from nature (which is pantheism) or from our emotional state or vacillating intellect — that is what it is like for a guinea pig to try to figure out its owner. It’s simply two different wavelengths, and it’s not going to work.

And this is where the letter to the Hebrews meets us. This is where the writer of the letter — and no one knows who it was — jumps in with both feet, out in the deep end, and outlines what one preacher calls “a nosebleed Christology.” It’s a vision of Jesus Christ himself that is so elevated, so high in the stadium, that it cannot get any higher. It’s in the nosebleed section.

What does the letter say? It says first that God spoke in various ways in the Old Testament. He revealed himself through visions and through dreams. He delivered messages through angels. He spoke in audible voices and whispered in the whirlwind. He wrote on walls. He put messages in the mouths of donkeys. But the writer of the letter tells us God’s final word is Jesus — not spoken by Jesus, but is Jesus Christ himself. He is the unknowable made knowable, the boiled-down essence of holiness. “God concentrate” is how one person put it. As the letter puts it, Jesus is “the exact imprint of God’s very being.” So if you want to learn about God, don’t look at the sunset. Don’t look at your beating heart. Look at Jesus. There you have a shot. He is the ultimate and unsurpassable expression of God’s character.

What is that character, then? I’m going to read to you a little bit from Francis Spufford, who I think has written about Jesus with freshest language and passion and sheer poetry of anyone that I’ve read in a while. He captures the Jesus that I know and love. I’m going to read to you a little about it. This is what he says about Jesus:

Lost people arouse his particular tenderness. … People whose bodies or minds don’t work properly. … People who live beyond the usual bounds of sympathy, because they are ugly, or frightening, or boring, or incomprehensible, or dangerous. People who … are not the right kind of people, whatever that is being defined as. …

He believes in good and evil all right, to a drastic degree. He has a vivid, horrified sense of [human sin], in all of its elaborate self-deceiving, semi-oblivious encrustedness, and he talks as if it overshadows huge swaths of human activity, including the human activities that humans tend to be proud of. Whenever anyone asks him about the law, … he amps the law up toward a perfectionist impossibility, in which anger is forbidden as well as murder, in which desire can be just as much of a betrayal as adultery … Sometimes he seems to be a kind of radical pessimist about human nature. … No one is good but God. He talks as if virtue is almost unachievable, yet still compulsory. …

He annoys people when he talks like this. Because the implication of his perfectionism is that everybody is guilty; and if everybody is guilty, nobody gets to congratulate themselves, and murderers and adulterers cannot be shunned.

… Even in situations where there seem to be no grounds for human hope, he will not agree that hope is gone beyond recall. Wreckage may be written into the logic of the world, but he will not agree that it is all there is. He says, more can be mended than you fear. Far more can be mended than you know.

That’s Jesus.

But back to the letter to the Hebrews. You see, the writer is at pains to tell us, not only was Jesus of a fundamentally singular and different character than what we would expect, but the kind of ministry that he had was of a fundamentally different kind. The other prophets that we talked about, that the letter mentions, they gave instructions about what you and I must do in order to be reconciled to God: who we must be, how we might please God, the best directions up that mountain toward him.

Jesus, on the other hand, does a work on our behalf. He did for you and me what we couldn’t do for ourselves, and the author spells it out. He says Jesus “made purification for our sins.” The enormous weight and consequence of what it means to live in this world, as a broken person living with other broken people, and all of the agendas, all of the toes getting walked upon. Jesus is God taking responsibility for all of that, for the sin of the world. Not giving us directions up the mountain but leveling the mountain, coming to our side. And it hurt to do this.

He suffered. Stafford says that Jesus “is all open door: to sorrow, suffering, guilt, despair, horror, everything that cannot be escaped, and he does not even try to escape it, he turns to meet it, and claims it all as his own. This is mine now, he is saying; and he embraces it with all that is left in him, each dark act, each dripping memory, as if it were something precious, as if it were itself the loved child tottering homeward on the road.”

And after Jesus does this, we are told, he sits down. You know, you sit down when there’s nothing left for you to do. He doesn’t get vocal again and say, “All right, your turn.” After he was crucified and raised, “he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” — that’s how the letter says it, as if to say, It is done. Jesus is not the man at the top of the stairs of performance and pressure. He’s the man at the bottom, the Friend of Sinners and the Savior of those in need of one.

Which is a long-winded way of saying that, if Jesus is the exact imprint of God’s very being, then God is a lot like Albuquerque police officer Ryan Holets and his wife, Rebecca. Last year, Officer Holets responded to a call about a convenience store theft in Albuquerque. When he was done with the call, he noticed out of the corner of his eye a couple sitting on the grass against the cement wall, and it appeared that they were shooting up heroin in broad daylight. As he approached them, he wasn’t prepared for what he saw. The woman was pregnant. Crystal Champ was her name, 35, and she told Officer Holets that she was almost eight months pregnant and fiercely addicted to opioids. Officer Holets had one of those body cams, so you can watch all the footage.

He tells her, “You’re going to kill your baby. Why do you have to be doing that stuff? It’s going to ruin your child.” And we watch as Crystal Champ breaks down in tears: “How dare you judge me. You have no idea how hard this is. I know what a horrible person I am and what a horrible situation I’m in.” And then you hear Crystal Champ tell Officer Holets that she desperately hopes someone would adopt this baby, and the minute she says the word “adopt,” it triggers something in Officer Holets’s demeanor and everything changes.

We watch as he takes out his wallet and he shows Crystal Champ a picture of his wife and four children, including a 10-month-old baby. And then, if you listen closely, you hear as he offers to adopt that unborn child. Crystal Champ is stunned. And as she looks him in the eye and realizes that he is serious, that he really means it, she realizes that her prayers have been answered.

Of course, there’s one big problem. Officer Holets made the offer without consulting his wife. The couple had discussed a future adoption but were waiting for their youngest child to get a little older. But he knows where she is. She’s at a going-away party for a friend. So he drives straight there. He finds her, and he takes her into a corner and explains the situation. When he finally gives her all of the facts, Rebecca doesn’t hesitate. She said later, “He already knew my heart, and he knew that I would be totally on board with it.” On October 12, 2017, Crystal Champ gave birth to a baby girl, and the Holetses named her Hope.

This is a fleeting imprint of the exact imprint of God’s very being. This glory, this love, which is hidden within the confines of Jesus Christ himself, there is nothing normal about it. But thank God for that because it means that there is hope, not just for that child but for you, even in the darkest of circumstances. Your sins have been purified by the Suffering Servant himself, who loves you and gave himself for you, that he might look at you right now and call you beloved child.

David Zahl is the director of Mockingbird Ministries and editor in chief of the Mockingbird webblog.

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