When your airplane clears the runway and rises, banking on its way out of the restricted airspace of the airport, you can look out your window and see the buildings and cars and streets shrink in size. Homes become dollhouses, skyscrapers become little towers, highways become ribbons of gray, and cars become dots crawling on the gray ribbon.
As you continue to ascend, even cars and buildings become invisible until there is nothing but the vast landscape beneath you, curving against the horizon where it meets the sky. Soon there is nothing clearly discernible beneath you except a passing cloud or two far below.
You are traveling much faster than you ever move on the ground, and yet the sense of speed is gone, replaced by a stillness of movement out the window. There is only the steady hum of the engines and the dimly lit interior of the plane.
Time seems to slow. If you are traveling overseas, the sky gradually deepens into a dark gray and then an inky blackness. The ocean beneath you is invisible in the darkness, and there is a sensory deprivation as you look out into the emptiness.
And then you begin to descend. Your ears reveal it to you first. There is a shifting of pressure, and then the sound of a change in the engines. People begin to stir, the lights begin to rise, and time returns to its normal speed as you descend.
By the time you look out the window, blur is giving way to landscape, landscape is giving way to features, and soon the universe becomes the particular: This is London! This is Jerusalem! This is Delhi! This is Dakkar! This is Beijing!
The closer you get to the airport, the clearer it is that you are in a unique place… far different than anywhere you have experienced before. The landscape is unlike your own. The buildings have different shapes and colors and architectural styles, and sometimes the traffic is flowing “wrong” — driving on the wrong side of all the highways.
When the plane “comes to a complete stop” and the door is opened, the smells of a new land rush in and the sounds of unfamiliar languages come with them.
Almost everyone is familiar with the feeling of that first airplane journey you ever took; the sense that we humans are really so tiny and the world is so big. But from the perspective of someone whose role requires almost non-stop travel, I can tell you that layered on top of “we humans are so tiny” comes the ever-deepening realization that “we humans are so many!”
The world is a teeming anthill of busyness, a frenetic tumult of drama and restlessness. Everywhere babies are emerging from mothers’ wombs and families are gathering around gravesides of the fallen. A billion times a billion stories are being played out across our planet every day, every one of them different and culturally unique; and every one of them alike and distinctive only in their humanness.
When Jesus came to earth, He didn’t come to a place of wide-open spaces and the stately march of eternity. Instead He plunged into the claustrophobic spasming of human life and the chaotic interplay of adrenaline and tedium, love and hatred, victory and treachery on this swarming ball of dirt.
Arriving on the outskirts of the Roman Empire, He was swallowed into the multiplied millions of humans who never knew or cared about His arrival.
But something beautiful happened. From His divine presence flowed an antidote to anonymity: a still place in the center of the convulsing mass of humanity. Jesus radiated quiet purpose and a peaceful self-awareness that took in the entirety of the human race at a glance and then began to deliberately notice every single individual. He focused on each person to the level of their souls, and His actions toward people indicated that each one was uniquely created and enormously valuable to Him.
The universal response of every person to Jesus (as recorded in the Gospels) is a startled realization at being the object of His intense focus.
- The leper experienced a Man who noticed him as a human, and not an unclean thing.
- The Pharisee was startled to see the intense evaluation of his own actions and motivations by a Man who was not blinded by the status of Pharisees or the reputation they had so carefully constructed.
- The wealthy young ruler received a personalized prescription for his emptiness… and an invitation to join Jesus in His travels.
- The woman who considered herself “used merchandise” was taken aback to look into eyes that saw her as a person worth knowing, a soul worth saving.
You couldn’t pass unnoticed through a crowd that contained Jesus, because His kind awareness took in everyone at once. There was no such thing as a crowd to Jesus, no matter the size, because a crowd is a shapeless thing, and what He saw instead was every individual. And because He noticed you, you mattered.
- People who had always longed to be noticed came down out of their sycamore trees and took Him home to dinner.
- People who had no longer considered themselves worthy of being noticed rushed back to their friends and said, “I met someone you have got to meet!”
- And people who dreaded having their hearts and motives exposed, shrank back from Him and backed away into their own darkness outside of His presence, where they could conspire to be rid of Him.
Every one of us — certainly this is true of me, but you as well — have experienced the dread of being an unnoticed speck in a seething ocean of humanity. To live and die and never to be remembered, never to have made a difference in this world; this is what shudders the soul. I am talking about the feeling you have when you enter a room with nervous hopefulness and no one notices your presence, or the way you feel when you leave a party and the party is unaffected by your departure.
A place in us dies when we come to believe that we are locked out of the happenings that matter in this world and that our lives will never matter. Those who believe that their lives have no meaning and their passing will be unnoticed fall into the black hole of despair. And it is that black hole of despair that causes evil to erupt all over the world. “They’ll notice me if I shoot up this school!” “They will remember me if I fly this plane into that tower!” “They’ll be sorry for ignoring me when I throw this child off the balcony!”
Only the startling arrival of Jesus into a life can save anyone from the despair of anonymity and meaninglessness. When HE arrives, we are pulled back from the brink. When HE looks deeply into our eyes, we are floored by the realization that He KNOWS us, that He NOTICES us, and that we MATTER to Him.
Hagar was a pregnant, runaway slave, fleeing back to the Egyptian homeland where she had been raised among countless gods, when she encountered the Lord. He called her by name, knew her situation, told her the gender of her unborn baby and what his name would be; and before He left, she said, “I am going to call you the God who sees me. I have laid eyes on the one who has been watching me!”
The woman at the well in Samaria raced back from a conversation with Jesus telling everyone that He had told her everything she had ever done. She took that to mean that He was a prophet (maybe even the Messiah!), but she didn’t yet understand that God hadn’t told all her secrets to Jesus. Jesus WAS the God who had watched her as her life unfolded!
Philip was bringing Nathanael to meet Jesus; but before that could happen, Jesus told Nathanael what his inner heart was like. Nathanael asked him the obvious question: “Where do you know me from?” (Our NIV translates this incorrectly as “HOW do you know me?” The answer to HOW would be that Jesus is able to know everyone because He made them. But Nathanael asked a location question. “Where do you know me from?” This would be like asking, “Have we met somewhere?”) Jesus answered a where question with a location answer. “I saw you under the fig tree, before Philip found you.”
In all three of these examples (Hagar, the woman at the well, and Nathanael), our Lord revealed Himself as the One who knows and notices and watches us individually.
When a pastor preaches that Jesus came to save the world, he is correct. But when the pastor looks into the mirror and realizes, “He came to save ME; this person in the mirror!” a sense of destiny seizes his soul, and his preaching is never the same. His preaching becomes, “Jesus knows YOU! He notices YOU! And He loves YOU enough to die to save YOU.”
Pastor, this Sunday, please do not preach to your congregation.
- Preach instead to Chad in the third row who wonders if he will ever be able to afford to move out of his parents’ home.
- And preach to Melody across the aisle who has given in to the attentions of her persistent co-worker and dreads that her husband may find out.
- Preach to Juan who is looking around like he is not paying attention but is secretly trying to find someone who looks like him in the room so he can know he is welcome here.
- Preach to Elaine who has quietly begun drinking to cope with her depression.
- And preach to Rick who would take the next step in his Christian life if someone would just tell him what that might be.
To live like Jesus is to gradually grow in your awareness of everyone around you, to realize that each one matters to our Lord as much as the entire universe, and to perceive how desperately each one needs to hear and believe that.
To live like Jesus is to no longer glance off the people around you in passing (as if they are obstacles to negotiate), but instead to stop under every sycamore tree, to sit for a moment at the side of every well you pass, and to pause on your way through every throng of people… to see (with spiritual eyes) who is dying for a touch from God.
Will you join me in a one-minute prayer? Read it first before you agree to pray it to make sure that you agree with it.
Father, please nudge me to notice the overlooked people around me, and please highlight someone for me to intentionally love for Your sake in every room that I enter. By your Spirit expand my heart to care deeply for every person you made, and help me to love the person in front of me, whoever that may be at each moment, for the rest of my life. I pray this in the mighty name of Jesus because I am confident that He is willing and desirous that this specific prayer be answered “Yes” to His own glory. Amen.
If you have read that prayer and agree to it, please go back and pray it aloud to the Father right now. Thank you!
If you joined me in praying that prayer, I would love to be encouraged by that. Shoot me a note or tell me as time goes by how the Lord is changing you in this area of noticing and loving individuals. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.