Sunday, December 13, 2009

Sermon: Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?

based on Luke 3:7-17, Philippians 4:4-7

Remember the old movie, “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”? That was one of my favorites, partly because Sean Connery was in it, and partly because Harrison Ford’s birthday is close to mine. (It’s my own weird logic—it doesn’t have to make sense.) There’s a scene in the movie where Indy’s father is dying of a gunshot wound, and can be healed by drinking from the Holy Grail, which in the movie was the cup from which Jesus drank at the last supper. Indy has to choose from dozens of cups from plain to ornate, from wood to gold to alabaster and ivory, and he only has one chance to get it right: “Choose wisely,” he is told by the Grail Knight, “for as the true Grail will bring you life, a false Grail will take it from you.”
Of course, Indy’s life is never so uncomplicated that there’s not an enemy waiting in the wings. Walter Donovan is a Nazi collaborator who wants the Grail’s gift of immortality for himself, and for Hitler. Donovan chooses an ornate gold chalice, saying, “It’s more beautiful than I ever imagined. This certainly is the cup of the King of Kings. To eternal life!” Unfortunately, Donovan has chosen poorly, and instead of eternal life in his cup, finds death.
Indiana Jones then chooses “the cup of a carpenter,” simply made of natural materials and almost invisible among the shining pieces of art around it. He takes the clay cup, fills it, and drinks…and finds he has chosen wisely. He takes the cup to his father, helps him to drink, and his wound is healed.
There are two Jesuses in this story: one whom others think of as the King of Kings, and the humble Carpenter whose cup gives life. Which one is the right one? Isaiah named the Messiah “King of Kings and Lord of Lords,” yet the infant Jesus was born in a lowly manger because there was no room at the inn. How many Jesuses have you heard about? Some people worship a kind of “on-demand” Jesus, who will give them whatever they ask for, as long as they believe. One of my college friends used to talk about the 911 Jesus—the one we only talk to when there’s trouble and we need help. There’s “gentle Jesus, meek and mild,” and the angry Jesus who chased the moneylenders out of the temple. So which one is the right one? Will the real Jesus please stand up? Is it the baby in the manger, or the man who died on the cross?
Our texts today do not help us much. Luke gives us this story of John the Baptist’s preaching fire and brimstone: he tells us of the wrath to come, calling the Jewish people to whom he preached a “brood of vipers,” and calling them into repentance. This is good old-fashioned, Old Testament type prophet language here…John would have fit in with any of those guys. But then Luke tells us that John takes a gentler turn, encouraging people to share what they have, do right by others, and be satisfied with their places in life. What’s up with that? Could this John have been the Messiah?
And right about the time this kinder, gentler John begins to suck us in, he goes back to the scary stuff: John baptized with water, but the Messiah would baptize with fire. That doesn’t sound like nearly as much fun. The Messiah is more powerful than John, he said…no wonder Herod was intrigued by him and Salome wanted his head. How is this powerful, fire-baptizing Messiah good news? Is this the Jesus we’ve come to know and worship?
Our other text today is a familiar favorite of mine. Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi is mostly warm and affirming, although he does warn of the judgment to come. Today’s section is so lovely and inviting: rejoice in the Lord always. The Lord is near. Be gentle, pray, and Christ will bring you peace. This sounds so different from John’s end-times Messiah. Which one is the right one? Will the real Jesus please stand up?
We’ve all got a different picture of Jesus in our minds at one time or another. Advent is a time to think about Jesus’ coming, and so we tend to think of that baby in the manger. We look at the symbols on our Chrismon tree and can envision other pictures of Jesus: the cross and orb speak of Jesus’ love for all people; the star reminds us that Jesus is the light of the world; the crown reminds that Jesus is the King of Kings; the cross looks forward to Jesus’ sacrifice; the Greek letters alpha and omega echo Jesus’ words, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.”
We have images of Jesus that are colored by the different stories we’ve read: a benevolent Jesus, offering salvation to a woman married 5 times and living with a 6th man. An almost testy Jesus, demanding of a foreign woman why she deserved the same gifts as the people of Israel, and hearing her almost desperate response: but even the dogs eat the crumbs from the children’s table. A heart-broken Jesus, weeping in the garden at Gethsemane with his closest friends asleep nearby. A gentle Jesus, holding children on his knee while talking to others. A powerful Jesus, turning to confront the woman who, unbidden, has touched the hem of his garment and been healed. And yes, an angry Jesus, one who taunted the Pharisees with the same words John used: you brood of vipers! You blind guides!...who turned over the money-lenders tables in the temple. Which Jesus is the “right” Jesus? Will the real Jesus please stand up?
It is a complicated Jesus we are talking about here, a complicated matter we face in Advent. Who comes, and which coming are we waiting for? Are we fixated only on the child Jesus? Are nativity scenes what come to mind when we think of the coming of Christ? Or is it judgment we fear at Christ’s return? Are we secretly more afraid of him than in love with this Jesus? This tension colors our faith, it colors our festivities, and it points to an underlying confusion we have with trying to figure out who Jesus really is.
From Paul’s account in Philippians, we learn some powerful lessons. First, we have to remember the context: Paul wrote this letter while imprisoned for preaching the good news of a God whose authority exceeded that of the Roman Emperor—not a politically smart position to take. And yet, despite his imprisonment, Paul writes these comforting words: Rejoice, because the Lord is here. Be gentle, and pray in faith and confidence. Above all, know that you have peace, a peace that is unexplainable, that comes from God. Paul’s image of Jesus offers presence, protection, and peace…and there are no mentions here of fire burning off chaff or a hard and harsh judgment.
When we go back to Luke’s account of John’s preaching, we can see some conflict in how Luke records John’s feeling about his cousin. We hear the fire and brimstone, and we also here the fruits of repentance: share what you have. Treat others with justice. Be content with who and where you are. While John’s teaching tends to be fiery, he does have a point to make: God desires righteousness from his children. Jesus is coming to teach a new way to understand righteousness that is freed from legalism by grace. Repent, change your thinking, and be transformed by God. Let Christ come into your lives, follow him, and you will find new strength to face adversity, new joy in treating others with kindness and dignity, and new hope to face the future. Judgment comes, but grace comes first.
I suspect it is important for Luke to tell John’s story this way because Luke’s gospel is written from a Gentile perspective. Luke doesn’t use Semitic terms to tell who Jesus is, and from the way Luke tells Jesus’ story and the things he chooses to emphasize, like Jesus’ concern for the poor and weak, his care for women and those outside the Jewish faith, we can see that Luke is trying to make sense of how the Jewish Messiah turns out to be the Lord of all people. Although after John’s death, some of his followers then joined Jesus’ disciples, others didn’t, perhaps because the only image of the Messiah they understood was one who called the unrighteous to judgment and burned away the community’s impurities with cleansing fire. The picture of a fisherman, trolling for human followers, made no sense to some. The only transformation they were able to understand was big, shocking, terrible. The only kingdom of God they understood was one that was delivered to the by an outside force, and so they waited for their warrior Messiah.
But Luke couldn’t resist including some ethical teaching by John the Baptist that point to a different kind of Messiah. Share what you have. Be kind to those around you. Do your work with justice. Be content with your lot in life. God will love you, and you will come to know God, and will model your life and your actions after the example of Jesus Christ. These don’t sound like the teachings of a Warrior Messiah, come to turn the earthly kingdoms on their ear and restore primacy to Israel. So will the real Jesus please stand up?
That great theologian Irving Berlin once said, “Life is 10% what you make of it and 90% how you take it. We have been given by God this tremendous gift of life, salvation, and the ability to decide for ourselves whether we will accept life and rejoice in it, or live in fear of condemnation. John the Baptist’s preaching pointed to the kind of Messiah he felt like he needed, that we needed: he will purify the earth with fire and his judgment will be terrible. But John saw little hope, I think.
But what if? What if repentance is not a single event but an ongoing discipline in the lives of Christians? What if the judgment to come is a call to accountability—to taking responsibility here and now for what we do. What if Jesus’ saying that the Kingdom of God is at hand in his presence is the piece we’re meant to hold on to, and not the fire and brimstone and fear? What if we bring to the table the grace, mercy, and hope we have received, and we share them—what might the Kingdom of God look like then?
I think this may be the Jesus we’ve been looking for. A Jesus who calls us to be accountable, worthy of having our lives and actions evaluated, a Jesus who looks forward to saying, “well done, faithful one. Enter the kingdom with joy!” A Jesus who is not reserving that statement for a time when our work here is done, but who says it every time we allow Christ to take primacy in our hearts and bring just a little of that far-off kingdom of God into our world and our time. We don’t have to wait for a far-off distant “pie in the sky in the sweet by and by” kind of heaven; when the people of God gather and do the will and work of God, the Kingdom of God is right there.
It is right there when the LOGOS students make cards to share with those who aren’t able to get out much anymore. It is right there when our Sunday School classes raise funds for the Heifer Project, or we give to Loaves and Fishes or to support a ministry. It is right there when you volunteer to work with children or join the choir. The kingdom of heaven is at hand when we worship, when we pray, in our fellowship. We are not waiting for Jesus to return because Jesus is already right here with us.
The future is a moving target. If we keep our eyes focused on the future we find that we may not reach it. You remember when you were a child and Christmas seemed so far away…but even worse are the promises we make. We’ll retire when we have enough. When is that? We are frequently saying and thinking, when x happens, I’ll do why. And more often than not, it seems like x seems farther and farther away. Things happen, and sometimes we don’t get to do those things we had planned to do. So let me propose a radical thought. It’s not mine, so blame the wise and learned Abraham Heschel for this one: “Eternity is not perpetual future but perpetual presence.”
Let that soak in for a minute.
In the season of Advent, as we think of Jesus’ coming as a child and then coming back again to wage war and break boundaries, let’s do ourselves a favor. Let’s listen carefully to all that Jesus said, and all that is said about him. And perhaps, just perhaps, the real Jesus will stand up and reveal himself in us, as we do the work of the Kingdom of God in all the wonderful large and small ways available to us. Maybe, just maybe, there’s a little heaven happening right here on earth in our time together. Could it be that Jesus is here with us now, that Jesus has never left us, that the child called Emmanuel, God with us, has always been with us.
Will the real Jesus please stand up?

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