HEN RIDING in a boat there are several things that you do not want to hear. Things such as the person next to you saying, “I think I’m going to be sick,” or the captain informing you that “the motor just fell off.” These are simply not things conducive to the relaxation one would expect to have gliding across the water on a sunny afternoon. That’s why I was so “excited” when someone said something of this nature on a recent boat trip down the Ucayali River in Peru.
We were on our way to a small village to put in a new concrete floor for the church, traveling in our Peki Peks (a glorified canoe with a canopy and a lawnmower engine). We had packed our Peki Peks to maximum capacity and then loaded bags of unmixed concrete on board, followed by our food, gallons of water, and my friend Jeff’s guitar. We were excited as we shoved off and began our three-hour tour down the river and the jungle waterways to our destination.
The Ucayali River is muddy brown and gives no visibility to creatures lurking at the bottom, which include (but I’m sure are not limited to) friendly catfish with barbed fins, snuggly stingrays with corresponding stingers, and the cuddliest creature of them all—the lovable piranha. Because of these things my soul delighted when a pastor friend sitting behind me asked our guide, “Is there supposed to be water in here?”
We had been singing the song “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy, down in my heart.” Suddenly we felt something down in our stomachs. We looked at our guide, an elderly gentleman experienced in navigating the jungle, for reassurance. He didn’t seem concerned; but then my friend lifted up one of the floorboards and discovered six inches of water in the bottom of the boat. This inspired our guide to leave his navigator’s position, shove us out of his way, and begin bailing water with the latest in marine technology—a hollowed-out gourd.
I’m not sure what was more fun: the fact that our guide and navigator had left his post and no one was navigating, or the fact our boat was sinking into water containing flesh-eating fish. Whatever the case, we had known about the risks of this mission trip before we left home, and we chose to go anyway. Sort of like what Jesus did when He decided to put everything on the line to come save us from sin.
The Ultimate Risk on the Ultimate Mission Trip
Matthew 1:23* says: “They shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.” The first chapters of the Gospel usually remind us of Christmas. Christmas sermons, nativity scenes, decorating the church with trees and lights, throwing sheets and robes on little kids and making ’em sing for church—and that is what “God with us” is about. But the idea of Emmanuel needs to be pulled out of its Christmas context to give it the depth it deserves.
“God with us” is not simply about the birth narrative. It’s about the biggest risk in history. Use your imagination and go back nine months and one day before the manger scene and try to fathom where Jesus was and what He was thinking the day before He was a twinkle in God the Father’s eye. Try to fathom what the mood in heaven would have been like. God was going to do something that had never been done before. He was going to enter the womb of a teenage girl, emerge through the birth canal, wear flesh and blood, go to school, work in a carpenter’s shop with trees that He created, interact with people for three and a half years as a man, get betrayed, mocked, beaten, killed—and then raise Himself from the dead. The concept seems absurd. All of God into one little baby—and into a life filled with risk?
The plan is shocking. Imagine if the only way to save earth would be for you to die and then raise yourself back up from the dead! You don’t even get to practice it first! I’m not suggesting that heaven had any doubt in Jesus’ ability, and neither should we; but when you consider everything that went into Jesus’ coming to earth I hope you’re dumbfounded. What if He failed? What would be lost? The answer is simple and terrifying: everything.
Not just you or me and our little world, not just our planet or solar system, but reality itself would be lost. Can you even begin to comprehend what existence would be like with the devil in charge? It’s too scary to contemplate. Ellen White writes: “He took the infinite risk. The issues at stake are beyond the comprehension of men” (The Signs of the Times, January 5, 1915).
It’s one thing to take a risk in a supportive environment, but quite another to attempt something that has the potential to cost everyone everything—all in an environment where enemies find out about your birth and send contract killers instead of rattles and diapers.
Isaiah 53:3 says: “He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.” Hebrews 4:15 states: “For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.”
Jesus was burdened and harassed more than we could ever pretend to understand. Again Ellen White reminds us: “The temptations that assailed Christ were as much more intense and subtle than those which assail man. . . . Christ had to meet the whole confederacy of evil, the united forces of the adversary of God and man” (loc. cit.).
Let me try to put this in perspective. Have you ever known a neat freak? Their house is clean at all times; they have a Lysol Visa Card that earns them points for household items; they get Housecleaners Digest; and they can find stains not visible to the naked eye. What about perfectionists? Things have to be a certain way or . . . or they’re not perfect! Their lawn must have nice even rows in the grass. If someone moves something on their desk, their hand involuntarily lashes out like a viper to move it right back. They cannot handle it if something is out of place.
What about the people who have built a home? They designed it themselves, from the floor plan to the furnishings. When guests visit they think the home is beautiful and immaculate. And yet the homeowner notices the tile that’s crooked, the board that’s warped, the faucet that drips. And it makes them fume because it’s not the way it’s supposed to be.
These things are all little annoyances on a small scale—even the small things get to us. And try to grasp what it would have been like for Jesus to come here. While your thing may not be keeping up a perfect home, I’m sure there are items in your life that rub you the wrong way—small things when we examine what Christ’s life held.
The Bible says God is not the author of chaos; He’s perfect in every way. And He didn’t design a house; He designed a planet and all life as we know it. Then He came here and saw everything from the atmosphere to the atoms warped and tainted with sin. People grow old; people hurt each other; things stink; the daytime is too hot; nights are too cold; everything is out of whack; and all of creation harmonizes in its agony because sin has had 4,000 years to pervert what He created. His church has replaced Him with traditions. He experiences bleeding, stinging, mocking, bruising, choking, aching, and betrayal. He has to focus on His mission amid this.
Jesus not only took a risk that could cost everything; He carried it out in an obscenely wicked environment. And while this would be enough to warrant thinking about Jesus and praising His name every time we open our mouth to breathe, there’s more!
Jesus told His disciples that He wanted them to “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen” (Matt. 28:19, 20). I can image those first followers asking themselves: Has He lost His mind? Did He forget what happened last week? He wants to use the human race to help Him in His work?
We’re the same people who didn’t believe Him, mocked Him, and killed Him! We’re the same people who drop the ball at work, at church, and on the court. We are the same people who stub our toes, fall down the stairs, and give ourselves paper cuts. We lock our keys in the car, lose our car in the parking lot, and when we finally get moving we have accidents. We forget to pick up our kids at school; we forget to pray, we forget our loved ones’ names. We do the right thing for the wrong reasons; we break hearts, we break the law; and we are chock full of sin—human beings are the biggest liability in the universe. And yet, because of Jesus’ risk by faith, motivated by a love for us, He chose to turn us into the greatest asset for His kingdom. Whenever I am in a risky situation or see myself mess up (every day), I am thankful for that love. It amazes me that God’s risk-taking and the potent grace of our Savior don’t always bring us to our knees daily and cause us to risk more for Him.
Take the Risk!
When was the last time you gave up your comfort for God?
Do you claim to follow Jesus? Then let me ask you this: Where is He leading you? I’m not suggesting a generic answer like to “heaven” or “salvation.” Where is Jesus leading you right now on this planet? To what place is He taking you and only you? Where is Jesus calling you to go that might be a little risky and uncomfortable but will give Him great glory and you a powerful testimony?
As followers of Christ we are to follow wherever He goes. Somehow the devil has convinced us that it’s our prerogative to pick and choose what we do for God—staying in our comfort zone—but that isn’t true. Based on the Scriptures I’ve shared, our Savior likes to go to uncomfortable places and take risks for His loved ones. If we are not experiencing or anticipating any sort of risk in our spiritual life, there’s a chance we’re following someone other than Christ.
What good will it do to follow Jesus into a risky situation besides give us that additional stress we’ve been wanting and those headaches we know we’ve missed? Simple: it will bring us focus.
When you have a bill that comes unexpectedly and you’re not sure how you’re going to pay it, or when something breaks and you’re not sure how you’ll replace it, or when it looks like trouble is coming and you’re not sure how to get around it, it consumes your thoughts and your focus. But when you take a risk for God, when you give more than is comfortable, when you go places that are new, when you put things on the line that are costly—and you do it for God—it has the amazing effect of turning your eyes toward Jesus in holy expectancy. God, where are You taking me? God, what are You going to do? God, what will happen as a result?
Suddenly your faith is all you think about. Suddenly your focus shifts off you and onto Jesus. When someone asks what God is doing in your life, you have an answer. When someone asks about your walk with God, you have something to talk about. When you come through it and someone asks what God has done for you lately, you have a testimony. And when someone asks you “What on earth do you think you’re doing?” you can answer: “I’m following my Master’s example by taking a risk, in faith, motivated by love.”
*All scriptures quoted in this article are from the King James Version.
Seth Pierce is finishing up his master of divinity degree at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan.