The world is teeming with anonymous saints who labor unnoticed on their little plot of God’s kingdom. There’s nothing splashy about them. No one uploads a YouTube video about their cutting-edge ministry. Their churches aren’t towers of awesomeness. The ministers aren’t famous. But here, in the shadows, in the simple rhythm of song and response, prayer and praise, preaching and baptizing, the unimpressive church does Christ’s work.
And to see it, all we have to do is open our ears.
If you want to see what God is doing in his church, pluck out your eyeballs and stick them in your ears. One of my sainted professors told me that. And he was spot on. “Godsight” is different from eyesight. None of us, for instance, having walked by the scab-covered, dog-licked Lazarus, would’ve seen him as better off than the rich, well-fed guy. Obviously, our eyes say, that bum on the street didn’t make God’s friend list. But he did. Our eyes don’t tell us that; our ears do—ears tuned to the frequency of God’s Word.
So if we want to see the Lord at work, we need to put our eyeballs in our ears.
My ears saw the work of God in the basement of a Russian apartment building in the frozen heart of Siberia. A small group of babushkas, bearded old men, university students, and this American huddled together. Up front was a table covered with a simple white cloth. On top sat an open Bible, a silver cup, a plate. On the wall hung a wooden cross. Our pews were folding chairs. During the reading of the Gospel, a meowing cat sauntered in and had to be shooed away by one of the worshipers.
Here, in the half-lit, mold-smelling bowels of the earth, surrounded by people the world doesn’t give a rip about, I stumbled on the splendor of the kingdom. This was none other than the house of God; this was the gate of heaven. In this unpromising place, colored with gray simplicity, Jesus radiated jaw-dropping glory. He descended among us not to be served, but to serve, and to pour his life and salvation and forgiveness into us. In this ugly-duckling church, the Lamb of God showed up to robe us with the beauty of holiness.
I saw it all through my ears.
God Makes His Home in Our Mess
Throughout the centuries—from Jacob’s Bethel to Moses’s tabernacle to St. Whoever Church—God’s workplaces have always shared one thing in common: they’re messy. Jacob himself was the mess at Bethel. A lying, thieving, heel-grabbing runaway whom God nevertheless loved. The tabernacle, which must have looked and smelled like a butcher shop, was a bloody mess. And churches today? I don’t need to tell you what a mess they can be. Just read the news.
God says to us, “Mi casa es su casa.” My home is your home. And we proceed to drag our messes inside. There is blood on the floor from those of us who crawl here after a week of battling addiction, grief, shame, failure. There are stains on the carpet from when we lost our lunch because we’re sick of abuse, sick of anger, or just sick of life. In God’s house are tiny fragments of broken hearts and tear-drenched pews. Here, echoing from deep within tortured souls, is the “roar on the other side of silence” (George Eliot).
In this mess of sinners, with jacked-up lives and crumbling dreams, Christ shows up week after week to do his thing: he gives us himself. Over and over, more and more. He rides into our midst Palm Sunday style: on the back of simplicity, astride normality. His home is our home. And he makes our messes his messes. Into the void of hopeless hearts he speaks words pulsating with life. He strips off the filthy rags of prodigals, washes us with pure water, puts sandals on our feet, rings on our fingers, and robes bleached white in the blood of the Lamb.
In this mess of sinners, with jacked-up lives and crumbling dreams, Christ shows up week after week to do his thing: he gives us himself.
All this he does camouflaged in the ordinary stuff of church. Hymns. Homilies. Baptisms. Prayers. Suppers. Nothing to write home about. Nothing really worthy of Instagram. But this is the way of the God of the cross. The Son who hung naked on that ugly tree, with nothing to attract our attention, and much to repel us, still walks into our assemblies in unassuming, even offensive, ways. He dares call us to repentance. He dares tell us we’re not enough. And, more surprising still, he dares to love us when we’re supremely unlovable.
What kind of God does that?
I’ll tell you: the God who is, and always will be, a bore in the eyes of the world. The God who isn’t big into bells and whistles, but loves full crosses and empty tombs. The God who labors among us far from the limelight. The God who works below the radar, where only ears that have been opened by the divine Word see what he’s up to.
God Is Doing Little, Beautiful Things
When we’re always on the lookout for the mind-blowing, new big thing God is doing in his church, we miss the old little things he’s been doing all along. And what he’s been doing all along is washing our feet when we’ve dirtied them in the pigpens of immorality. He kisses away our tears when we’ve been used up and thrown away. When, like baby birds, we open our mouth around the nest of the altar, he comes by and puts the food and drink of heaven into them. When we’re duped by the lie of greener pastures on the other side of the law’s fence, he leaves the 99, locates us, heaves us on his shoulders, and carries us home with a smile on his face. When we don’t know what to say, when words fail us, he prays in us and for us, and teaches us how to cry, “Abba, Father.”
All this he does in churches large and small, cathedrals and basements. He’s good at it. He’s been doing it for millennia. And he’s been doing it all for us. We see it through our ears. They peek behind the veil of the visible to see the invisible Lord at work among us.
The church doesn’t need to sexy herself up.
The church doesn’t need to sexy herself up. She doesn’t need a membership at Gold’s Gym. She doesn’t need Botox. She might initially look unattractive. But our ears see the unseen. Our ears see the Lord of dance take her in his arms. Our ears see her as resplendent, without spot or wrinkle or any other blemish. And on the dance floor of grace and mercy, she glides along in the arms of the God who loves her. We’re in that dance, we who are the body of Christ, the bride of Jesus, the church where there’s always more than meets the eye.
O Lord, give our ears 20/20 vision to see the glorious work you’re doing in the humdrum realities of our life together as your people.