An article in the New York Times says that “People-watching is to New York City what vista-gazing is to the Grand Canyon.” It suggests riding a subway from one end to the other to… “Watch the ethnicities change, and the reading material – from Bibles to library studies textbooks to ethnic newspapers. Are the smilers really happy or did they just hear a great joke? Are the sad and drained-looking faces permanently sad and drained, or just having a bad day?”
My guess is that some of us are fascinated with watching people. And some of us would rather go bird watching.
But what if, just once, we went out and tried to imagine whether the people we see in passing are followers of Christ. What are the odds of telling by observing their expressions, the way they are dressed, or even by having a brief conversation with them?
Or, more importantly, let your mind go back to the night that a man named Peter was asked directly whether he was a follower of Christ. What would you think if you overheard the conversation that is being portrayed by this scene portrayed in the Jerusalem courtyard of St. Peter’s Church in Gallicantu. It marks a traditional place where Jesus is thought to have been examined by the high priest Caiaphas, prior to being sent to Pilate. It recalls the moment when a young girl accused Peter of looking like a one of the men who had been with Jesus, as Peter, curses and repeatedly denies it.
Peter’s actions that night are an example of why Jesus Himself taught that, even if we have a chance to ask people direct questions about their faith, it may be impossible to distinguish those who know Him from those who don’t (Matthew 13:24-30). Given the ever changing circumstances, seasons, and attitudes of our heart, the Scriptures themselves show how inclined we all are to blend in with the crowd.
So seems to me that it’s important to periodically review some of the factors that can make those who belong to Jesus as hard to identify as just-hatched baby birds. Along the way, I’ll throw in a few pictures to see if I can challenge your people watching skills. But see if you agree that the following factors are real complications in identifying followers of Christ.
Disappointment with God-After the God of the Bible rescued His chosen people from the slave yards of Egypt, the Jewish nation danced to the music of celebration. But when the same children of Israel found themselves in a barren wilderness marked by too little water and too many scorpions, their songs turned into growls of complaint and unrest.
Some of us have found ourselves in similar circumstances. When our disillusionment cools into bitterness and hopelessness, any family resemblance to Jesus is difficult to see (Hebrews 12:15).
Distraction-When the chosen people finally made it to the Promised Land, they encountered another problem. Before long, they found that distraction in good times is as dangerous as disillusionment in times of pain. In a land flowing with milk and honey, the children of Israel did not have to decide consciously to turn away from their God. All they needed to do was to be absorbed and preoccupied with all they had been given. Before long, they were like wandering sheep who didn’t know how dependent they were on their shepherd (Isaiah 53:6). (The picture was taken on Ben Yehuda St. in Jerusalem on Purim– a festive holiday of dress-up and games– that remembers the story of Esther in the Bible).
Dangerous Relationships-Herd instinct can be dangerous, especially when the lead animal is lost. Sheep have been known to follow one another off a cliff. So have people. Many years after Israel’s wilderness wanderings, the apostle Paul would write, “Do not be misled: ‘Bad company corrupts good character.’ Come back to your senses as you ought, and stop sinning” (1 Corinthians 15:33-34 niv).
Unchanged Tendencies-If the Bible urges us to do something, it is because we are inclined to do just the opposite. Our capacity to be self-centered remains unchanged (Romans 7:14-25). The downward pull of desire remains as predictable as the law of gravity. Whenever we stop living under the influence of the Spirit and the Word of God (Galatians 5:16-26), it becomes as natural for us to revert to self-interest as for a kite to drift slowly to earth when the wind stops blowing. (Picture is another Purim shot).
Self-Reliance-On the night of Jesus’ arrest, one of His closest followers, a tough-minded fisherman named Peter, announced that he was ready to follow his teacher to prison or to death (Luke 22:33). Within a few hours, Peter denied repeatedly that he even knew the man from Galilee. His failure reminds us that even the original disciples of Christ learned about the danger of self-reliance the hard way.
Prayerlessness-One reason Peter was blindsided by self-reliance was that, at a critical moment, he did not enter into a prayerful dependence on God. Together with his friends, Peter did not respond when Jesus urged, “Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41). Instead, the disciples slept. Years later, a New Testament writer penned a letter that linked prayerlessness to some of the most destructive kinds of spiritual failure (James 4:1-6). (This pic is of our Israeli guide catnapping :-).
Carelessness-King David was a man after God’s own heart (Acts 13:22). His record of spiritual accomplishments, however, did not keep him from becoming an adulterer and murderer. One night, as others fought his battles, and as he stood in apparent security on his own palace rooftop, David used the power of his office to pursue another man’s wife. In an unguarded moment, David discovered the meaning of the statement, “Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12).
An Unexamined Heart-In the moment of temptation, the human heart can be a master of excuses. In the rush of desire, our minds are adept at coming up with ways of making wrong look right. That’s probably why the prophet Jeremiah wrote, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9).
Unseen Enemies-If we belong to Christ, we have a spiritual enemy who knows how to stir up and exploit our desires. Over the centuries, he has claimed many victims. While he can’t make us sin, Satan and his demons are constantly looking for weaknesses that give them an inroad into our lives (Ephesians 4:27; 6:10-20). Like predatory animals, they look for vulnerable prey (1 Peter 5:8). They would like us to forget that we are at war and that we have every reason to be watching for their next attempt to neutralize us.
A Lack of Interdependence-The apostle Paul likened followers of Christ to a human body where all members are dependent on one another (1 Corinthians 12). While we may have reasons for not wanting to be dependent on others, such an attitude does not reflect the spirit of Christ. He made it clear that He calls us not only to Himself, but to one another as well (Hebrews 10:24-25). On our own, we lack the variety of strengths and abilities that are necessary to keep us from being reabsorbed into a materialistic, self-centered existence.
These ten factors give us some reasons why people-watching is not an exact science. They may also help us understand why the apostle Paul wrote, ” ‘The Lord knows those who are His,’ and, ‘Let everyone who names the name of Christ depart from [unrighteousness]’ ” (2 Timothy 2:19).