My friend Juli used to be the chaplain at the county jail. With her "I still look 15 but really I'm in my 30's" beautiful face and her height, with heels, putting her in the low five foot range, she was an unsuspecting fireball and perfect for the job. She has a God-given ability to dismantle tough inmates and get them to share their struggles. She listens, truly listens, and offers Godly wisdom, humor and comfort. But don't be fooled. She can stare down the meanest and most intimidating person, cut through the garbage and speak the truth in love. I didn't realize just how much like Jesus she was until I started volunteering at our church's county jail campus. Nothing like traversing to the dark, interior depths of the jail and locking yourself in small room full of convicted murders, child molesters and drug abusers to get your heart racing and your palms sweating. The body odor alone was enough to make me want to turn and run!
Our "church" was a room not much larger than most people's closets. It was wide enough to contain one conference table with as many folding chairs inched around it as possible. A lone TV hung high on the wall and two doors, one on each side, served as armed guards. Max capacity with standing room may have been 12 people, shoulder to shoulder, except the inmates aren't allowed to touch each other, so I don't think we could actually fill it that full. Once we were officially locked into the room, the guard unlocked a door and the inmates shuffled in. While I rubbed my sweaty palms on my jeans and tried to breathe through my mouth without anyone noticing, I watched my friend be the hands and feet of Jesus to these woman. She loved each woman unconditionally, in their darkest time, whether they were repentant or not. She didn't judge them even though they were obviously guilty and had done horrific things. I left the jail that night, mind reeling, convicted to the core of my piousness and determined to find a way to start loving the unlovable in a more Christ-centered way.
I've been re-reading the Christmas story in my quiet times and asking God to see this story with fresh eyes. Isaiah the prophet, hundreds of years before Jesus came to earth via Mary's womb, predicted that Jesus would do just that. Isaiah 7:14 says, "Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel," meaning "God with us." Later, in chapter 9, he says, "The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned."
What an unfathomable idea. God, in His perfectness, intentionally chose to come to dark, sinful earth and live among us in our filth. I couldn't help but think of my friend who intentionally brings Jesus to the darkest place I could imagine. Day in and day out, living among those inmates with their body odor and extreme bagging, shedding Jesus' light in the land of the shadow of death. As I let the miracle of God's love wash over me, my iPod switched to a powerful song that captured exactly how I was feeling. I'll leave you with the lyrics, but you really should buy the disc!
Emmanuel - Hallowed Manger Ground
written by Chris Tomlin and Ed Cash
What hope we hold this starlight night
A King is born in Bethlehem.
Our journey long, we seek the light
That leads to the hallowed manger ground.
What fear we felt in the silent age
Four hundred years can He be found?
But broken by a baby's cry,
Rejoice in the hallowed manger ground.
God incarnate here to dwell.
Praise His name Emmanuel.
The Son of God, here, born to bleed,
A crown of thorns would pierce His brow.
And we beheld this offering,
Exalted now the King of Kings,
Praise God for the hallowed manger ground!