My friend Joel put this picture up in his Instagram story a while back, and he was kind enough to share it with me at the time. The first thing that came to mind when I saw it was how much truth is bound up in it. I felt it deserved some words, so I kicked out some ideas in the moment, but I’m hoping this is a more well-rounded version of those initial thoughts.
Joel is an artist, and part of the beauty of his art (especially his photography) is that it has a way of capturing the mundane, or seemingly forgotten, things around our city of Stockton, CA and getting them in their context. His pictures don’t lie to us; they tell it like it is. Sometimes it’s some trash in the middle of the road; sometimes it’s someone walking down the street; sometimes it’s just a seemingly plain building; sometimes it’s a tagged street sign in a neglected part of town. Whatever it is, when you take the time to look at it, you will often find yourself caught up in the beauty of the ordinary. He seems to call us to remember and dwell upon the things that we might be conditioned to look past. This call is wonderful, and it’s a discipline we should all practice more often.
His photo here is no different. It’s honest, and its honesty has layers of meaning. It’s honest because, in reality, it’s just a snapshot of a regular thing. The trash cans have to be stored somewhere. Who knows why these bins are stored where they are, but regardless of the why, this is where they made it. However, as I mentioned, this picture has some layers.
There’s some particular depth of honesty for Christians in this photo. If you’re in Christ, this picture is a depiction of your lifelong—eternity long—truth. If you’re in Christ, then you had some trash. You may have been looking for places to put it. Your first thought was probably to store it around back where no one could see it. If that didn’t work, maybe you just tried to cover it up and at least make it look nice if you were going to acknowledge it at all. However, despite all your efforts to hide or forget it, the trash was still there, and you didn’t know how to deal with it. Then, while you were still at a loss, and at a providential moment of grace, God himself beckoned you to come and leave it at the cross.
God said, “dump it here; I’ll take it.” You see, the stink, the ugly, the mistakes you wish you never had, all of it. Christ took it, became it, and gave you what was his. Your trash for his treasure. He gave you what you made all of that trash trying to find. He gave you himself.
If that’s you, then you also know that it’s that truth that brings comfort to the redeemed. Even in Christ, we keep finding more junk, but he tells us to come and drop it on the pile and remember what we’ve been called in him, not what we once were in ourselves.
One of my favorite parts about this picture, though, is that the cross is empty. Jesus hung on that cross to pay the penalty we deserved for creating all that junk in the first place. He stayed up there until the task was complete, then he was taken down and buried, but on that glorious third day, he rose from the grave. He walked out of that tomb, and right now, he is seated on his heavenly throne. The empty cross stands as a testament to the finished work. He’s not up there anymore. He doesn’t have to continue paying for our trash; the cross stands as a receipt that our past, present, and future junk has been paid for in full. So we don’t have to try to find a place out back to store the trash where no one will find it. Instead, we can bring it confidently to the foot of the cross, knowing that our great high priest is interceding for us even now. He reminds us by his Spirit that it’s been paid for, so we should come on over and drop it on the pile. Even when we still stumble, even when we still fall, the empty cross is a statement over us and our trash that it is finished.
Jesus paid for all the trash once and for all, so keep bringing it when you find it. However, bring it in faith that if you’re in him, then you’re not identified by what you bring, but by where you sit (Ephesians 2:6). When you find it, bring it quickly and linger at the cross because if you’re in him, then you’re with him, right now, in heavenly places. Confidently carry your junk and lay it down at the foot of the cross knowing that it’s been paid for by our risen king that hung there for it.