No one looked on you with pity or had compassion ... Rather, you were thrown out into the open field, for on the day you were born you were despised. Then I passed by and saw you kicking about in your blood, and as you lay there in your blood I said to you, "Live!" (Ezekiel 16:5-6)
You might know his name. It's more likely that you know his nickname. John Merrick was a 19th-century oddity, a freak-show headliner who was made famous by a book and a movie about his life. Merrick was horribly deformed from birth, treated cruelly as a freak by those few who didn't turn away from him in disgust and fear. "The Elephant Man," they called him.
In one of the film's most wrenching scenes, Merrick is cornered in a train station restroom by a mob, surrounded by pointing, gaping, laughing people who shout insults and obscenities. Exhausted, shamed, he sinks to the dirty floor. "I am not an animal," he insists. "I am a human being." True, yes. But sadly, treated more like an animal in his lifetime.
The exception to that rule is Doctor Frederick Treves. Treves, who is initially interested in him as a medical case, helps to uncover and grows to love the sensitive, compassionate, kind, intelligent, articulate human being under the animal exterior. Through Treves, Merrick gets to live the last part of his life in relative comfort among London's wealthy elite. At one point, the beautiful actress, Mrs. Kendall, visits Merrick. They exchange some lines from "Romeo and Juliet," she reading Juliet and Merrick reading Romeo. As the lines conclude, Mrs. Kendall smiles gently and maybe a little sadly. "Oh, Mr. Merrick," she whispers breathlessly. "You're not an Elephant Man at all!" "Oh, no?" he responds, afraid to agree, afraid not to. "You're Romeo!" she says, sincerely and sweetly. Then she leans close and kisses his ugly cheek.
Shortly before his untimely death, Merrick has an opportunity to thank his friend Dr. Treves. "Do not worry about me, my friend. I am happy every hour of the day. My life is full because I know I am loved. I have gained myself." Then he smiles, as much as he can smile. "I could not have said that if it were not for you." "My life is full because I know I am loved. I have gained myself." Amazing words, coming from the grotesque mouth of a man who was treated like a freak, like an animal, most of his short life. Amazing words, and they give us a glimpse of the power of the gospel.
So very, very many of the people you will talk to today, work with, sit next to, and brush past could not honestly say what John Merrick said to his friend. So very many — maybe even you — do not know what it means to be loved. You've been admired for your success, or wanted for your looks, or liked because of your personality, or valued for your talent, but you've never been loved. You've never let anyone see your flaws, your sin, your hidden secrets because you've never known anyone who would love you in spite of them. You've never had anyone lean in close to your ugliness and plant a kiss on your cheek.
We are all Elephant Men and Women, friends. We hide it, to varying degrees. Interestingly, the people we're least comfortable around are those who hide their ugliness badly, or not at all. But, we are all ugly and we all fear from time to time the mocking, pointing, taunting mobs of other freaks. We all fear that they just might be right, that there's something fundamentally wrong with us that makes us less than human.
And that, fellow freaks, is where the gospel speaks.
Jesus, amazingly, came in all his beauty to our world. He was not put off by our ugliness or fooled by our attempts to cover it up. He came and gave his life, his blood, his body for us. He came to make us believe that we aren't twisted, broken wretches. He came to make us believe that there is beauty and value inside us, that the image of God in us is not lost under our deformities. He came to give us full life, a kiss of God's grace on our ugly cheeks.
That's the way the gospel transforms us. Through the love of God given to us through the crucified Christ and the indwelling Holy Spirit, we rise above our sin, our pettiness, our ugliness. We become who we were meant to be. We gain ourselves. We are not defined by our past ugliness. We are not animals. We are human beings; created in God's image and loved deeply by him.
Maybe you didn't know that. Or maybe you just need to believe it. Listen to another freak who discovered himself in God's love: Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:7-8)
I know. It's hard to believe. We're so familiar with the world's watered-down brand of love that we have trouble accepting God's brand. We have trouble believing that anyone could love us through our ugliness. But if you can believe it, if you can accept God's love the way John Merrick accepted Mrs. Kendall's kiss and Dr. Treves' friendship, you will discover the same thing that the "Elephant Man" discovered — yourself. You are not a sideshow freak. You are not too broken to be loved. You are not an accident. You are not an animal. You are a human being.
You are a child of God.