Where do you see Jesus in this world?
If you pay attention, you’ll see him everywhere. His glory is displayed in the sunrise, his mercy exhibited in every food bank, his grace unfolding through acts of forgiveness around the world.
Hardly surprising, then, that we see him in the stories we tell.
Enter Jim White from the movie, McFarland, USA.
The movie is based on a true story. Jim White (his actual name) is a real person, whose extraordinary life we follow on screen. It’s a story which highlights the immense impact he had on a bunch of Latino teenagers in a poor town in California’s Central Valley. As I watched the movie and reflected on it, I couldn’t help seeing parallels with the life of Jesus. I need to make clear, however, that I’m not saying that Jim White is exactly like Jesus. He isn’t. Indeed, some of his frailty contrasts strongly with the example we see in the life of Christ.
Nevertheless . . .
Let’s begin with the word ‘incarnation’. Christ took on human flesh in order to share his life with us. He joined us bodily in order to be with us, listen to us, care for us, teach us, and ultimately die for us (Heb 2.14-17). When Jim White first arrived in McFarland, he came among a people very different to himself. He didn’t speak the language, he didn’t know the customs, and in fact, his initial attitude contrasts strongly with Jesus. He took the job in McFarland unwillingly, and expressed a desire to leave as soon as possible.
Yet he made the sacrifice. He moved to a small town in the middle of nowhere for one reason: to take care of his family.
He did it out of love.
The Incarnation—capital I—is far more remarkable than we have hearts and minds to imagine. Jim White was still in the USA, the nation of his birth. Although most used Spanish, they also spoke English. By contrast, Christ left a home completely unlike ours. Heaven is a place where the will of the Father is enacted perfectly. There is no suffering, no injustice, no evil, no blemish of any kind. Yet at Christmas—just a few weeks ago—we celebrate the day when our Lord entered our damaged, sinful, unjust, broken, violent world. Earth, though beautiful in so many ways, is not a place fit for a heavenly king. It is not pure and holy, but stained and bloodied by violence and sin.
This is the world that our perfect Lord entered—Roman violence, corrupt religious leaders, greedy tax collectors, to name just a few examples of human depravity. Just like today. How remarkable, then, that the Lord Jesus chose, of his own free will, to join us down here in the dirt.
He did it out of love.
UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL
What will you do to get to know your church community? Jim White could have stood aloof, teaching at school and running his practices before going home to his family. Service yes, but not sacrifice. Instead, he enters the homes of the boys he’s leading. He eats with them, surrounded by a language he doesn’t understand. Later, he spends a day in the fields picking cabbages. It’s back-breaking work, and he’s soon massaging his aching muscles. He buys the whole team shoes, rubs shoulders with all the local businessmen, and though it’s a struggle, he eventually manages to murmur a few words in Spanish. More than that, he embraces the customs of his community, holding a quinceanera* for his daughter. In short, he does everything he can—within the limits of his humanity—to enter a foreign land, a way of living with which he is not familiar. He does this, in part, because he needs the collaboration of the parents to run his practices. There is something in it for him. But he also does it because he cares deeply for the boys. They are not just students to him. They become like sons, and he will do whatever is necessary to inspire and lead them. Including eating more enchiladas than is healthy!
What about Jesus? He joined us at our table (Zacchaeus), he went to work with us (Simon Peter), he taught us (Matt 5-7), became weary and wept with us (John’s gospel). He drew near. In Jim White, we see a man prepared to enter a world he didn’t know or understand. In Jesus we see a far greater sacrifice—our God becoming man to rub shoulders with the dirty, the rebellious, the idol-worshipers.
And he did it for love.
It should be written into a minister’s job description. Will face frequent opposition. Must put up with people who argue, complain, and refuse to cooperate. We see it too in the life of Jim White. His ‘disciples’ drag their feet. They often complain. They lack belief in the goal. His most talented runner, Thomas Valles, walks out. The team almost falls apart. Jim also faces opposition from the boys’ parents. One father withdraws all three of his sons, saying that their practices are getting in the way of their work in the fields. At school, Jim faces criticism from a teacher, who scolds him for not being willing enough to help with after-school activities. He also gets into trouble with his family for forgetting his daughter’s birthday. At times, it seems like the whole world is against him.
And so to the Lord Jesus. It seems like the whole world is against him. Where to start? His parents chased out of the country, running for their lives. A confrontation with the devil before his ministry begins; his own family who disown him; followers who leave him when the going gets tough (John 6.66). And I haven’t even started with the Pharisees and the Romans.
The life of Jesus is one huge struggle. Because love is costly. It is painted in blood, sweat, and tears. For not only did Christ die on the cross, but he ‘died’ each day as he showed us what it looks like to ‘overcome the world’ (John 16.33b). For contrary to certain ways of thinking nowadays, the world isn’t one big happy family that just seems to have lost its way a bit. The world is in active rebellion against its creator. Jesus described us as ‘evil’, and for good reason.
Light vs. dark. Good vs. evil. God vs. the devil. A fight. Hence, opposition.
Which brings us to one of the most important dualities. Life and death.
LIFE AND DEATH
The Messiah came to die. He came to launch the kingdom of the heavens, and then he came to die to demonstrate his triumph over sin, death, and the devil. He came to save us. What do we see in the life of Jim White? We see a man who saves. Quite literally. In one scene, he finds one of his students sitting on a bridge over a busy road. Traffic roars along underneath. The young man is preparing to jump. Until his new teacher comes along and talks him down. But this isn’t the most important moment in the movie. That comes right at the end. Like Jesus, Jim White faces temptation. He is tempted to leave McFarland and take up the kind of job he has wanted his whole adult life—well-paid, with a comfortable home in a largely middle-class majority white town called Palo Alto. He is sorely tempted.
Until the very final scene. After winning the state championship, he breathes out his decision.
He decides to stay in the town which has become his home. Poor. Working class. Majority Latino. Jim White lives in McFarland to this day. He recently celebrated his 59th wedding anniversary there.
I see this as a demonstration of the ultimate sacrifice. Because many can give. But true sacrifice requires an entire life. To give up everything for the sake of love, one must pay with one’s life. For Christ was born with his death already laid out before him. He came to die for us, to offer up his life for us.
Let us give thanks for an act of love that has no rival.
Let us give thanks for the ultimate sacrifice . . . that gives us life.
*A quinceanera is a celebration in the Latino community in the USA when a young woman turns fifteen.