“I never thought Angels would have so many tattoos.” -Richard Beck
I want to start a series over the next few weeks reviewing a great new book by my friend Richard Beck. It’s his book Stranger God: Meeting Jesus in disguise, and I think it’s an incredibly important book for Christians to read.
For those of you who have read his earlier book Unclean, it’s some of the best of that material written for a more popular level audience. But it’s more than just that. Over the course of the past few years, many churches have asked Richard to come present on his material in Unclean. He talks a lot in those presentations about how to be hospitable and why it’s so important.
Several years ago, those same churches started asking Richard what stories he had of hospitality in his own life. And Richard realized that this was mostly theory for him at that point. He didn’t really have a lot of stories of what it looked like to welcome the strange and stranger in his own life.
Now he does.
Over the last 5 or 6 years, Richard and Jana have been a part of Freedom Fellowship, a kind of mission church/campus of Highland in a lower socio-economic part of town. Every week they share a meal, and life, with people who are on the margins of society.
One of the great joys of this book for me was that I knew a lot of the people that Richard was talking about, his candid descriptions of sometimes feeling uncomfortable around certain people because of hygiene issues or social awkwardness were both familiar and convicting.
Because one of the things Richard repeatedly points out, in lots of different ways and stories, is that God comes to us through the people we expect the least, the people we find strange.
I don’t know about you, but there’s a tendency in me to drift toward arrogance when it comes to God. I’ve got degrees in theology, I preach every Sunday and try to have a good idea about what the Bible is saying. And over time, if I’m not careful, I can forget the mystery of who God is, and how much I really don’t know.
I can start to see people as interruptions and God as an idea that must (and can be) figured out.
I can forget the strangeness/otherness of God.
There’s a well known passage in Hebrews, where the author tells Christians “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers. For by doing so, some have shown hospitality to Angels without knowing it.”
I love that verse. It’s so filled with imagination, and it immediately re-enchants the world for me.
Angels? Where? They could be anyone?
That makes us all want to open our eyes a little wider doesn’t it?
And notice Hebrews isn’t just saying this for you to pay attention to your future, but also your past. Because what if those times you were around people who made you uncomfortable (because of their disability, or their clothes, or their hygiene) what if those people were not actually who you thought they were.
What if they were actually emissaries from a Strange God coming to you through the Stranger.
Visited By God
One of the more interesting things that Richard does throughout the book is to take a familiar Bible story/passage and turn the lens enough that you can see it differently. For example, have you ever considered the story of Sodom and Gomorrah through this lens?
There are other places in the Bible, where prophets talk about the Sin of Sodom, like in Ezekiel 16:
“‘Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.”
But consider what those haughty and detestable things were. Remember the story right before Angels come to Sodom and Gomorrah? It’s the story of the Lord coming to visit Abraham with a couple of Angels. Abraham and Sarah don’t know that. They just know that strangers have shown up in the heat of the day, and they need shelter.
The very next story is Angels going to Sodom on a kind of survey trip to see if Sodom and Gomorrah is as wicked as they’ve heard rumored. And the way they test that is by going to the middle of the town square to see how people treat them as they sleep on their streets.
“Hospitality to strangers is God’s test of goodness or wickedness…We often think that the sin of Sodom is homosexuality. But when contrasted with Genesis 18, we se the real point of the story: Abraham welcomed the stranger and showed hospitality; the citizens of Sodom do the opposite. the sin of Sodom is the failure to show hospitality. Sodom failed to welcome the God who came to them as a stranger.”
This is Richard’s biggest take-away for Christians, and why I think everyone needs to read this book. Christians often get confused when it comes to being hospitable and welcoming. We think that we’re doing it for other people to see what God is like. And sure, there’s some of that too.
But the real reason that Christians must learn to welcome the stranger is not to show others what God is like, but because we are under the impression that by doing so we might just be welcoming God.
God is strange. And sometimes God comes through the stranger.