Where Are The Clowns?

This post was inspired by a portion of Dr. Bill Leonard’s book “Word of God Across the Ages.”  I borrow from it extensively so I want to give him credit up-front, in case I miss something in the content.

I missed Jerry Lewis this past LABOR DAY.  As far back as i am able to remember, Jerry and I have spent the holiday (also my birthday) together.

Oh, sure, they offered a nice tribute – but it was not the same thing.

Each “Labor Day” Jerry Lewis hosted a telethon to raise money to support the victims and seek a cure for Muscular Dystrophy.  As the telethon comes to an end, Lewis takes the stage and, quoting Judy Garland, says,    “When those times come when everything seems to be falling apart—that’s the time sing.”  And then Jerry sings:  “Where are the clowns?  There ought to be clowns!”

Maybe that’s would be a good theme song for the role of the church in society. We live in a world where it sometimes feels like everything is falling apart.  You know the litany:  wars and rumors of war, crime, terrorism, senseless violence, political upheaval, unemployment on the rise, the stock market on the slide.   So what are we to do in the wake of all this mess?  Jerry Lewis are right.  Perhaps this is the time to sing.  Maybe this is the time to call in the clowns.

Read the Bible and you might become convinced that this whole enterprise we call “the kingdom of God” is actually a project being held together by a bunch of clowns.  Throughout the Bible – and throughout the church for that matter—everything seems to be held together by the most surprising, unexpected, and foolish characters that God could possibly find.

Noah—a silly old man who built a floating zoo in preparation for a worldwide flood.

Abraham!  Here’s a man who left his home and headed into the wilderness with no idea where he was going simply because he heard a mysterious voice calling him to a land of promise.

Moses—a murderer with a speech impediment who goes to the Pharaoh to speak on God’s behalf, saying: “Let my people go.”

David—a little boy with five smooth stones who does battle with a giant!

Hosea—a foolish preacher who brought scandal into the parsonage by marrying a prostitute because God said to do so!

In the New Testament you meet a man named Simon Peter—perhaps the biggest clown of them all.  His commitment was like hot and cold running water—present one moment and gone the next.  When hot he declares:  “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” But in the coldness of night as Jesus has been taken prisoner and is being set up for crucifixion, Peter curses and says. “I never knew the man.”

“Nevertheless,” says Jesus, “it is upon persons like you, Peter that I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.”

Jesus called many other misfits – clowns, if you will.  They were traitorous tax collectors, revolutionary zealots, public sinners, smelly drunks, and women of ill repute.  They were his disciples – his closest followers.  And, who were those whom Jesus identifies as citizens of His kingdom?  People like the pure in heart, the meek, the merciful, the poor, the peacemakers, the lame, the blind, and the deaf.

Surely these clowns are not the stuff from which God will build His Kingdom.

When we lived in Charlotte, North Carolina, an area ministry engaged in what they called a “gospel promotion.” For weeks and weeks they purchases print, radio, and television spot where they featured muscular athletes, beauty queens, and successful celebrities who spoke about their faith in Jesus Christ.  I wondered where everyday Joe and Jane were in these “promotions.”  The people featured in the media were the successful, secure, wealthy, and beautiful people that a corporate CEO might choose to market in order to build a successful and triumphant church.  I wondered there the clowns were to be found – the weak, the poor, and the foolish.  The producers of these religious commercials seemed as those they could validate the gospel by showing how its message had appealed to the powerful elite.   The Bible paints a completely different picture.   The Bible reveals that God validates the gospel by showing how it makes a different in and through those that society considers weak and foolish.

In the Epistle passage for today, the Apostle Paul turns the world upside-down.  God doesn’t choose his servants based on their looks, success, education, wealth, or social status.  In fact, throughout history God has chosen the foolish things and people of this world in order to confuse the wise; he has chosen the weak of this world to humble the strong: he has chosen the powerless to proclaim the glory of the kingdom.

Listen, that person down the street or around the corner—that person who doesn’t seem to be worth a darn—that person with little or no redeeming value.  Those are the exact kinds of people whom God is actively seeking for the sake of the Kingdom.

Well, you can stop looking down the corner and trying to envision who those people are who seem pretty worthless.  Just think about the person you saw when you looked in the mirror this morning.  In the eyes of God, none of us are that talented, strong, or attractive.  Intrinsically we have little if any redeeming qualities.   We’re not worth much at all until the grace of God enters the picture.  God’s grace makes all the difference in the world.  God’s grace in us gives us value and makes us acceptable.  It is by the Spirit of God in us that we have ability to do deeds that make a difference.  And that Spirit of God, that grace of God, is given through Jesus to all who will accept it by faith.

God chooses those who humbly realize there great need of God.

God uses those who depend on God as the source and power of their lives.

God chose St. Francis of Assisi—a strange little man who gave up a life of power, prestige, and possessions in order to minister to the poor as one of the poor.

God chose Martin Luther—a manic-depressive, given to fits of rage and despair, who challenged the very power structures of the established church:  “My conscious is captive to the Word of God,” he said.  “Here I stand.  I can do no other.”

God chose Mother Theresa—a simple, feeble, frail, and unimposing little nun who has spent he life ministering to the poor in Calcutta, India.

God chose women like Lottie Moon, Annie Armstrong, and Alma Hunt—simple women of faith who gave their lives to make a difference among those who were struggling, and they did it all in the name of Jesus.

What a bunch of clowns?  Yet it was through women and men like that that God built the very foundations of the Kingdom.

Why are people like this?  Two reasons, I believe.  First, these folks seem to understand more than most that they need God.  Second, when God does something wonderful through them they don’t take credit for it but instead give glory to God.

There is a rather unusual story in the New Testament, told by Jesus, about two young men and their father.  The father goes to the first boy and says, “Go work in the vineyard today!”  The boy replies:  “Sure!  I’ll go.  I’ll go wherever you want me to go!”  He said he would go, but he didn’t.   He made a commitment, but he didn’t follow through.  The father goes to the second son.  “Go work in the vineyard today,” he says.   This son says:  “No!  I won’t do it!  I’ll do what I want!”  But along the way he thought better of it.  He changed his mind and did as his father had instructed.  “Who was obedient?” Jesus asked his listeners.  “The second son,” they replied.  Then came the word of God.  Speaking to the so-called religious elite of his day, Jesus said:  “Tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the kingdom ahead of you.  They said ‘No!’ and went they own way, but repented and believed.  You said ‘Yes!’ but you never believed.”

How about that!  It was the unexpected ones—the unlikely clowns—who repented, believed, and did what God had instructed them to do.

The church is filled with so many people like that first son.  Multitudes of people who shout from pulpits, Sunday School classrooms, revival services, and baptisteries, “Lord, I’ll go…” But then their glib response wears thin, the superficial joy turns sour, and they never follow through.  Maybe they attend worship services, serve on a few committees, and put money in the offering plate, but they never actually go out and engage the world with the gospel.  They never seem to doubt—but neither do they seem to really believe.

Many people in the church are like that first son.  Now let’s not spend too much time with them.  After all there are some wonderful folks in the church like that second son.  At first they say, “Heck no, I won’t go!”  There is, after all, something of a rebellious streak in all of us.  They say:  “No!  We are not going to follow.  We are not going to trust and obey.  It seems too foolish, too impossible!”  But then they think better of it.   They allow themselves to be open to the Holy Spirit.  Their thoughts begin to change.  They decide to venture forth in faith.  They decide to take a chance and in the process discover the real adventure of the gospel. They are the clowns.  The church desperately needs these clowns.

What’s the real difference between the clowns and the other type of folk?  Well, the clowns are willing to look a little foolish.  That’s a clown’s job, after all!  The wise folks want to look smart.  The powerful are concerned about their image.  They want to look respectable.  They want to be seen as people who are in control.

The clowns are not concerned about such matters.  The clowns have come to understand that their life is no longer their own.  The clowns understand that all they have really belongs to God.  They understand that their jobs, their families, their home, and their bank accounts belong to God.  They understand that the issues of control, power, and respectability in this world just don’t matter anymore.  By casting their lives into the life of Christ they have found the freedom to radically love others and whole-heartedly trust God.  They have been set free to give—not just a respectable tithe—but a generous offering of live that defies any common sense.  They have been set free to serve—not out of some sense of duty or obligation—but because the love of God compels them.  They might look like foolish clowns to the rest of the world, but they don’t care because they have been set free from the burden of worrying about what anyone thinks about them.  They have this freedom because they have come to understand the joy of knowing that in Christ they are completely forgiven and fully accepted by God.

Have you found the freedom to be one of God’s clowns?  That’s the kind of life God wants you to live.  Oh, I know that sounds rather unusual.   I understand your objections.  We spend so much of our time trying to be dignified.  We want a secure faith.  We want comfortable ethics.  We want orthodox doctrines.  We want every action to make sense.  But life usually doesn’t work that way.  No matter how orthodox and secure our faith, there comes a time when we are all tempted to say, “I will never go. It will never work.   It’s seems too foolish.”

When those days come, here’s what we need to remember: it is by the foolishness of the cross that God has chosen to communicate his good news.  When we look at the cross, what do we see?  We see foolishness.  We see the greatest folly and the most unusual clown of all.  We almost want to join in with the crowd that mocked him, saying: “He said he could save others but he can’t even save himself.”  What a clown!  The one we call Savior and Lord was a scandal, treated like a common criminal.  In a real sense the cross has remained a scandal throughout the church’s history.

How did our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ have the freedom and courage to live like such a clown?  He did what seemed foolish to the world.  Rather than worry about his reputation or fretting with the desire to gather possession and garner power, Jesus gave up everything and simply trusted his heavenly Father.  The consistent prayer of his heart was “not my will, Father, but your will be done.”

I once had a conversation with a group of friends from my college days.  We spoke about sports, philosophy, politics, economics, and (of course) women.  We also talked about religion.  I shared a few words about Jesus.  “You really don’t believe all that stuff, do you?” one of my friends replied. “It just seems so foolish!”

He was right.  What I say and do in Jesus name often seems to be useless, futile, and tragically funny.

Jerry, a friend from seminary, accepted a call to pastor a tiny old church in rural Kentucky.  Now you need to know that Jerry had a reputation as an excellent preacher, a gifted scholar, a wonderful teacher, and an exceptional leader.  Right out of seminary he was being sought after as pastor by several large and prestigious congregations.  But he turned them down to accept a bi-vocational pulpit of a small church in a small town where a crowd of about fifty was considered a great multitude.

Why reject so many large and prestigious opportunities for such a small parish? “This small church needed care, it needed love, and it needed the Word, and I heard that call of God!”

What a wonderful clown?  He was free to say YES to what the prevailing wisdom of the world consider foolish.  The church needs more clowns like that—both in the pulpits and in the pew.  The church needs people who will look at the utter foolishness of it all and then do it anyway!

In his book Word of God Across the Ages, Bill Leonard writes:

There is…something foolishly exciting about proclaiming hope where there is not hope; about calling for peace in a world of …war; about demanding self-denial in a society obsessed with materialism and success.  For suppose that Paul is right and God really has chosen the weak things of this world to confound the wise.  Suppose that what seems to be God’s greatest weakness really is God’s greatest strength.
Have you ever seen a rodeo?  When I was a young boy my family went to a rodeo.  My favorite rodeo event was always bull riding because with the bulls came the rodeo clowns in painted faces, baggy pants, and colorful suspenders.  They were always very entertaining.  They jump around, fell down, and hid in open-ended barrels.  They look incapable of doing anything but stupid useless antics—until a rider was thrown from the bull.  Then the clowns became deadly serious about their efforts to save a defenseless and often injured rider.

I saw a rodeo again recently on television and it dawned on me that those clowns were not just there to be funny or entertaining.  The cowboys and the audience desperately needed those clowns.  What they did was a matter of life and death.

You need to know something.  Somehow, in the mystery of God, our world needs us!   Let me be more specific.  Somehow, in the mysteries of God, our community needs the Patterson Avenue Baptist Church.  Oh, certainly we may look silly in the baggy pants of our theology, in the painted faces of our rituals, and in the opened-barrels of our ethics.  But we care called to be at center stage when people need to be saved.  We are called to step to the front when people are hurting and need to comforted or when they have fallen that need the grace of mercy, forgiveness, and acceptance.

I know it may sound foolish to you, but God is offering us a vision of a “Brand New Day on the Horizon.”

God is telling us that as we depend on Him He will use us to make a difference in this community.   He will use us to advance the Kingdom, proclaim the gospel, comfort the hurting, and befriend the lonely.

So here is the challenge:  Are you willing to take a chance on God?  Are you willing to listen and respond to His call?  Are you willing to see God’s vision, dream God’s dream, and pattern your life after the Jesus Christ?  Are you willing to depend on God completely?   Are you will to become a clown for Christ and His kingdom?

“Where are the clowns?  There ought to be clowns.”

I’ll be one!  Will you?

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