LTJA: The One and Only By Dr. James Merritt

“Spending one year with Jesus can transform your life”

I fell in love with Jesus in a most unlikely place: a movie theater. Most people who call themselves Christians say their magic moment came in a church service or a spiritual conversation with a friend or perhaps at a tent revival with their feet crunching on sawdust. Not me. I was smitten with Jesus in a small movie theater in rural Georgia, and I’ve never been the same. I didn’t see many films growing up because Dad didn’t care for the cinema. A frugal man, he thought movie tickets were a waste of money, especially when you could just stay home and watch television. But Mom was unlike Dad in one major way: she liked to spend money and looked for excuses to do it.

I had just arrived home from school that Friday afternoon when Mom informed my brother and me that we were “going to the show.” I didn’t bother to ask what we were going to see. Whether the film featured cowboys or cartoons mattered little to me because I knew Mom would buy us a buttery bucket of popcorn bigger than my head. Besides, growing up in the country, “going to town” and seeing the big city of Gainesville, Georgia, was always a treat.

The Royal Theater was the only one in town, and it showed a single film, usually for two or three weeks. As we approached the building that warm August day, the marquee shouted down at us: “King of Kings.” Was this a medieval action flick with galloping horses and jousting knights? I hoped so.

After picking up the obligatory popcorn and soda, we searched for seats in a large room that could just as easily have been used as a warehouse for antiques. We walked halfway down the aisle over threadbare carpet before sinking into three worn-out velvet seats. Then the movie began.

After the opening credits, Jesus showed up on screen, and my eyes widened. I’d heard stories about Him since I was in diapers—from His stable birth to His mind-bending miracles to a whole list of sayings in a funny language. I figured He loved me “for the Bible tells me so,” but I had never seen any of these stories.

Most of the film was interesting enough. Nothing new, earth shattering, or extraordinary. But then the crucifixion scene began, and my attention level shot up like a cork on New Year’s Eve. The ring of the spikes being hammered into the hands of a man who didn’t deserve death stirred anger inside of me. Even my nine-year-old mind recognized the disconnect.

Sitting in that darkened theater, my mom unaware, I opened a conversation with God in my heart. Why are these Roman soldiers crucifying Jesus? He hasn’t done anything wrong. He gave sight to blind people, helped paralyzed people walk again, fed hungry bellies, stood up for the underdog, loved the unlovable, and didn’t commit any crimes. Why are they crucifying Him?

A response pierced the darkness and penetrated my heart: “They are not crucifying Him. You are!” Breath was sucked out of my lungs and my stomach turned. What was I to make of such an accusation? I rode to my own defense. “Me? I wasn’t there when they crucified Jesus.”

The scene progressed, and I assumed the conversation had ended. I declared myself winner by TKO. But then the voice returned again: “Remember, He died for your sins.” The voice was right. The Roman soldiers and spikes weren’t the only ones that nailed Jesus to the cross. My sins affixed Him there. In some way, I had scourged Him, brutalized Him, defaced Him, humiliated Him, spat on Him, mocked Him, and condemned Him. He died for me, because of me, and instead of me. And that is the moment I realized it:

There’s nobody like Jesus.

I prayed:

“Jesus, I believe you died for my sins. I believe you came back from the dead. There is no one else like you. Please forgive me and save me. Amen.”

I sat still for a moment, not sure if I had done anything at all. I didn’t feel different. A choir of angels didn’t serenade me, no bright lights shone down on my seat, and a deep bass voice didn’t shout, “I am God. Welcome into my family.” Still, I knew that the boy who was going to walk out of the Royal Theater was not the one who had walked in. I elbowed my mom, and before she could shush me, I whispered, “Momma, I think I just got saved. I just asked Jesus into my heart.”
Looking back on this moment, I now realize that I had begun a love affair with a carpenter that day. I fell head over heels for a manger-laid infant. I became obsessed with a water-walking, storm-calming, miracleworking Nazarene. And you know what? I’ve never gotten over it.

There’s nobody like Jesus. Whether you are a historian, scientist, philosopher, or just an average Joe or Jane, you have to agree that Jesus Christ is one of the most influential humans to ever walk the earth. The secular Encyclopedia Britannica devotes more than twenty-one thousand words to Jesus. Major works of art, music, and literature throughout human history have been devoted to telling His story. Even time is divided by His life (BC denotes “before Christ” and AD means “in the year of our Lord”). Though He died in His young thirties, today more than two billion people claim to follow His teachings.

Yale historian Jaroslav Pelikan once wrote, “Regardless of what anyone may personally think or believe about Him, Jesus of Nazareth has been the dominant figure in the history of Western Culture for almost twenty centuries.”
Yet Jesus’s prominence is both a positive and a negative influence among those who follow Him. We’ve heard and seen renderings of Him so much of our lives that we think we know Him better than we actually do. The life and teachings of Jesus are so rich and deep that those who’ve devoted their lives to studying the New Testament constantly discover new elements of who He is as they plumb the depths of the biblical record.

As Tim Stafford writes, Jesus has become “deceptively familiar. People think they know all about Him, so they never look at Him. When they finally do, they are surprised at what they find. Jesus may seem to be a stranger, even though they have grown up in His company.”

A few years ago, I began wondering what difference it would make in someone’s life if they devoted just one year—a mere fifty-two weeks— to meeting, knowing, and falling in love with Jesus. I decided to test it out. I dived into the Gospels every week for a year. I read books on Jesus. I listened to other messages about Jesus. Every sermon I preached for a year was taken from a Gospel account of Jesus.

As that year progressed, I noticed I was being changed. My passion for Jesus grew, my love for Him was stoked, and my eyes were open to new facets of His wonder and beauty and majesty. And all those who had joined me in the endeavor were experiencing the same. I believe spending one year with Jesus can transform your life.

I fell in love with Jesus sitting in a movie theater nearly a lifetime ago. My prayer is that you will do the same over the next fifty-two weeks.