It’s settled. “Would you be willing to play Jesus?” is the most intimidating phrase in the English language. This past holiday season I was on the receiving end of that question. My first inclination was to say that I wasn’t available.
The Hillcrest Seventh-day Adventist Church in Bakersfield, California, has put on a living Nativity for the community called Walk Through Bethlehem (WTB) for the past 15 years. Actually, calling it a living Nativity doesn’t quite do it justice. Each September volunteers begin building the city of Bethlehem. It takes 88 actors per shift (plus a few live animals) to pull off the live-action journey through “the first Christmas.” There are 15 shifts totaling more than 50 hours spread across the three weekends in December preceding Christmas. It’s well worth the investment. Last year the event drew nearly 7,000 community members.
As I started my script, the boy interrupted: “Do you know my brother, Tyler?”
Attendees are led through “Bethlehem” by their tour guide, clothed in full costume. On the way to the manger, groups encounter all walks of life: Roman soldiers, tax collectors, the town’s blacksmith, and women selling everything tax-paying tourists would need. My favorite part of WTB is that it goes beyond Jesus’ birth. After the manger scene groups are led to the cross, the empty tomb, and finally to the risen Jesus clothed in white. This is the role I was asked (and finally agreed) to play this year.
My favorite part was looking each person in the eye, pointing dramatically, and saying, “Now, I am going to My Father’s house to prepare a place for you, and you, and you.” It was an awesome experience, the power of which can be summed up in one very special testimony.
On the last Friday night a 6-year-old boy stood right in front of me. I always try to put special effort into connecting with kids. As I started my script, he interrupted: “Do you know my brother, Tyler?”
Time seemed to slow down as my mind churned over the possible reasons he was asking that question. Regardless of the details, I realized that I had one job: to be Jesus for this little boy in that moment. Without missing a beat (thanks to the Holy Spirit), I leaned in and said, “Of course I do,” and continued with my lines.
The next day I learned the child’s backstory. As he left that night, the boy greeted our associate pastor, who happened to be playing a Roman guard. The pastor asked if he had enjoyed himself. The boy said, “Yes! Jesus knows my brother, Tyler!” This little boy had a little brother, Tyler, who had died. But here he was, believing that he would see his brother again because Jesus hadn’t forgotten him.
For me, this was a divine appointment. I was supposed to be there that night to give hope to a heartbroken little boy. I almost missed out on the opportunity for a variety of terrible reasons, such as a jam-packed holiday calendar and the slight intimidation that I wouldn’t be able to do the role justice.
You may not get asked to play Jesus anytime soon. But today, tomorrow, or the next, someone might need you to be Jesus. Will you be available?
Jimmy Phillips is regional marketing director for Adventist Health Southern California.