I’m not endorsing Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, but if you’ve seen the movie you have to admit there are some funny scenes in it. The scene I remember best is the one where the family is seated around the dinner table and Ricky Bobby, played by Will Ferrell, begins saying grace to baby Jesus. At some point in the prayer, a debate arises as to why Ricky is praying to baby Jesus and not some other Jesus such as grown-up-Jesus, teenage-Jesus, bearded-Jesus, Jesus-in-his-golden-fleece-diapers, tuxedo-T-shirt-Jesus, ninja-Jesus, the-lead-singer-of-Lynyrd-Skynyrd-Jesus, as well as some other options.
I was a bit uneasy when I first saw that scene because it seemed like they were being blasphemous, and maybe they were. But I think they made an important point that has much larger ramifications than whether a Hollywood produced movie treated Christ inappropriately, and that is the issue of how we view Jesus, and ultimately, how we view God.
Some of the most enduring images of Jesus in my life have been the baby-Jesus-in-a-manger Jesus and the white-European-Jesus-with-a-beard Jesus, neither of which are probably accurate representations. And when I add into this mix the incessant singing of “Jesus Loves Me,” “Deep and Wide, and the many non-stop flannel-graph stories I endured in my youth you might see how I could have arrived at a very soft picture of Jesus in my mind, which I believe is somewhat inaccurate.
I don’t want to come across as though I’m denying God’s steadfast love, but I think we sometimes hold to the nice side of God and can easily miss a much bigger picture of God’s fuller nature. For instance, when people discuss “the fear of the Lord” I usually hear an apologetic of some sort where they softening “fear” to a mere “healthy respect,” or some sort of “loving worship.” But I think that is wrong. What I mean is in Exodus 20:1-20 we find that following God giving the ten commandments to the Israelites they responded with fear and trembling, crying out asking for Moses to be an intermediary for them because merely hearing God’s voice caused them to fear for their life. If this response came from only hearing the voice of God, can you imagine what actually being in his presence would be like? Do you think in that moment we would equate “the fear of the Lord” to a mere “healthy respect?” Do you think we would stand there secure in our vision of “eight pound six ounce newborn baby Jesus,” or do you think we would soil our pants and fall to the ground shaking in the hopes that he would not unleash his full nature on us, pulling us apart atom by atom because we are sinful beings in the presence of the most holy God?
At this point, you might be wondering why I am talking about all of this when Psalm 95 doesn’t once mention the fear of the Lord. In fact, if you quickly read the psalm it seems to be primarily a worship song acknowledging God’s great power and urging us to make a joyful noise to him. But if you slow down and read it carefully you should notice an odd change that occurs between verse 8 and 9. From verse 1 to verse 8 the psalmist speaks in his own voice but in verse 9 the psalmist stops speaking and God begins.
God reminds the psalmist that the Israelites tested him sorely at the waters of Meribah (see Exodus 17). This is where, if you remember, they complained about how they thought God had no plan for them and that he had not provided even though they had just seen many miracles including their release from bondage to the Egyptian army and some bread falling from heaven. God also reminds the psalmist that in the face of these events God loathed them to the point that he swore they would never find rest. I don’t think this is the baby Jesus in golden fleece diapers that so many of us are used to imagining, rather this is a God of wrath and vengeance.
But that view of God, some might say, is outdated since Jesus came and brought peace between us and the Father. Yes, it is true that Jesus satisfied God’s just wrath and righteous vengeance once and for all. It is true that Jesus is the prince of peace. It is true that Jesus took the little children into his arms and held them. It is true that he touched the untouchables and healed them. And it is true that he is the one who reaches into time and space to redeem his children. But let us not forget that it is also true that he sits on the throne of God as the only one in the universe worthy to open the scrolls of God’s coming judgment. It is also true that when his presence is unveiled mountains smoke and the land shudders. It is also true that he brought the universe into existence with a word, and it is also true that with a word he will remake it. This is not the dear sweet baby Jesus Ricky Bobby wants to remember, and that so many of us think about during this time of the year, but this is the real Jesus. This is the loving God who is worthy of our praise, but he is also the mighty one whose very presence demands our fear.
I wonder if Ricky Bobby could ever pray to that Jesus.
I wonder if we could.