Last Sunday, I was telling you about the kid who, when asked “Who’s your ideal leader?”, said “Hitler.” And about how that always threw me.
But I was thinking about these leaders, these people that we lift up. And I remember it was about 9 years ago when President Bush was just a candidate and I remember in an interview, he was asked “Who is your hero?” And he said “Jesus Christ.” And he took a little flak for that, but I think that’s a fine answer.
But I want to ask you, “Who’s Jesus to you?”
It’s interesting that for most churchgoers, and many Christians, the identity of Jesus – who is Jesus? – is the one that we trip over.
We can get our mind around the Almighty. We look at our world and we get some idea of the awesome-ness of creation. And we can kind of kind of deduce that there’s some kind of creative mind behind all this. And even though the Holy Spirit blows where it will and is a little bit mysterious, still there is this sense that we’ve felt spiritual things. Many of us call ourselves spiritual, if not religious, and we’re aware of power and the Spirit that hovers around.
But who’s Jesus? Mysterious.
Last Sunday evening a new small group began its work here at Forest Hill Church. We call ourselves the Evangelism small group. The task over the next 12 weeks is to practice talking about God, talking about our faith, talking about Jesus. We are to claim for the first time or reclaim or re-interpret or re-imagine what is unique and distinctive about our faith, about this Jesus, and why would we want to tell anyone about him with the presumption that they might want to follow him too. It seems pushy to many of us.
But that’s what we presume to do here at church, is it not? Learn to follow Jesus! Equip you, the saints for ministry – and we are to incarnate – and that means to embody, to make flesh – the love and presence of Jesus in our lives and let people know in our work and in our words that love is greater than hate, and community is greater than isolation, and life is, despite what we might see and experience sometime, life is very much worth living.
Now, certainly people do all those things without Jesus. And I say more power to them. Why would we condemn them or judge them or judge anybody? But as Christians, Jesus is the model for our actions and our life, and his life is the basis for how we live. In Christ, we live and move and have our being. That’s what we profess. We don’t need to be embarrassed about that. We don’t need to be silent about that. Although I admit that I too, sometimes, am embarrassed to name the name and embarrassed to walk in the claim of what it means to be a Christian – primarily because of other Christians.
All I know, and all I can say, is that when I look at the world – it is awesome, but it is not necessarily self-evident – that there is a God of love and purpose. And as I consider how I am going to live and move and have my being, I have come to realize that I just have to offer my heart to some larger purpose. It’s part of my DNA to do that, and I think it’s part of yours too, to offer yourself, to fall in love with a big idea. And I think all of us have to choose, at some point or another, how we’re going to live, what kind of spectacles we’re going to put on, that are going to clarify our vision, and help us see, or at least give hints, to that something larger that we’re going to orient toward.
And I know that among you, right here, I have felt things profound – about community and love and fun and hope and justice and mercy. And i think those are Jesus things. And I find it compelling that for 2,000 years in many and in various ways, all these different, strange, people have pointed to Jesus as the reason they do what they do. Now we know that people have done all sorts of crazy and evil things too in the name of Jesus as well – but I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water.
And I read the Bible as a story of our faith, a narrative that has authority for us as we read it and it is full of interesting, compelling, agitative, off-putting stuff that is at least compelling – it makes me want to wrestle with it – I want to wrestle with the big questions: Who is God, Who am I, and How do I live?
The themes that keep coming up in this Scripture all seem to be about creation, and restoration, and forgiveness, and coming to know that you are a beloved child of God – and that sounds good to me. It sounds good to me.
And I have come to not need definitive, provable answers because I don’t know if there are any. I like the mystery of it all, the wonder and the romance. And at some level it just makes sense for me to offer my heart to a God who, as I have read about and heard about and experienced, has given her heart to me. That’s powerful stuff.
I look at Jesus and I see this man and I can’t quite get my mind around him – in fact, I can’t get my mind around him at all really – but I am intrigued that our tradition says that, by looking at him, at Jesus, I am looking at God. By reading about what Jesus did, I am reading about who I am called to be, indeed who I am, and who God is, and who God wants us to be together as we grow.
In our lives, we gotta put our bags down somewhere and say “this is home.” Now, I’m sorry if these came as some kind of crazy testimonial to you, but you might as well know what your pastor thinks…and what gets him up in the morning and why every week I climb these steps and preach a sermon. And I want to know what you think. I may have bits and pieces all wrong.
I started this way because I am intrigued, almost speechless, about our passage today. The way Jesus is portrayed, the way the crowd reacts to him. I mean, that man is one slippery character.
Just about a year ago, some of us from Forest Hill Church were in Nazareth and we went to the said “synagogue” (although almost certainly it wasn’t the synagogue, even if there was a synagogue.) But we were in Nazareth. We even saw the cliff – and it is a big one. You get thrown off that face and you are not coming back.
And within a very brief time, the way that Luke portrays it, Jesus both amazes everybody and then within seconds, they are enraged and ready to to pitch him off the cliff. In verse 28 reads: “When they heard this, all the synagogue was filled with rage.” I mean, not mild discomfort. Not like “I don’t think that was a very good sermon, let’s go watch the Browns.” I mean, this was rage! Really?
He just told them he has good news to tell. And the words he used were all about Release, Recovery and Favor. Who doesn’t want to hear that. It is exactly what the crowd has longed for someone to say. Jesus is proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor and they must have thought, just as I sometimes think, that this is all about their particular needs. Remember Palestine is under Roman occupation and so they see themselves as the poor and the captives and the metaphorical blind and the oppressed (they are all of the above.)
So no wonder the congregation was pleased, at first, to hear that at long last God is going to act for them. It is about time that the Romans will get their comeuppance, it’s about time that the land will be restored to the Jews and it’s about time that God was going to do something, finally.
And then Jesus spoils it all by bringing up the widow at Zarephath in Sidon and Naaman the Syrian – outsiders – non-Jews, not of the chosen. They were the “other.” Elijah and Elisha, early prophets did miracles for the other person. And I am sure, that this agitation seemed horribly unfair to those who were worshiping and studying Torah and being good Jews… isn’t that what faith is about, people? Getting the inside scoop, the first cut of the beef, the best seat in the house, entry into heaven, answers to the key questions? What good is faith if you don’t know, if you are not sure, if you don’t get a payback, if it isn’t about YOU?
I can see why those in the crowd felt cheated, as if Jesus was a charlatan. He spoke well but he didn’t deliver anything. He was charismatic but he wasn’t going to bring the goods to the inside group. He had that “certain something” but he seemed more interested in reaching out to the enemy then in taking care of his own.
It must have been a shock to the system, first to hear the sting of the words, but it must have been an even greater shock to have their hands on this guy, ready to get rid of him and somehow he slips through. An amazing detail.
And I have to admit, Jesus is always slipping through my hands too. I can’t ever quite get my mind around him, figure him out – He always elusive, just out in front. All makes me think – what is your faith built upon? What is mine? I want God to do things, to makes thing plain and simple. I want God to defeat the enemy, (my enemy) and give me what I deserve. I want to know that I am living a life that is important and that I will be rewarded and that my long suffering will not go to waste. I want to be part of the in crowd and know with certainty who the out-crowd is. I want to God to make things simpler, not confuse things more. Don’t you? My faith is really all about me.
But then a 23-year-old boy dies. We hosted David’s funeral last Tuesday. David’s father was sharing with me that David had done some things that were not very healthy in his years but that he really seemed to be turning it around, he was making it now. David’s father said “I was looking forward to the future with him. The worst was over.” Now what do you say? Now what do you do? Come on God, do us all a favor and bring a little cure to me, or to mine, or to someone I know. I hear about these miracles. Why does it always seem to be the other?
Or last Monday night at the Presbytery meeting when once again we were debating whether or not to include Christian men and women who are gay, lesbian and transgendered into ordained positions of leadership within the church. And each side thinks the other side is wrong, misguided, not doing what Jesus would do. Just so you know the Presbytery of the Western Reserve voted overwhelmingly in favor of the more inclusive position – but we are just one voice among many presbyteries and the denomination continues to mandate the less inclusive position much to my chagrin but to other good people’s thanksgiving. Jesus, would you please just do something to clear it up… and let me win.
And I read the newspapers and I watch the variety of television shows on the left and on the right, and it just seems all a nasty, partisan muddle. Come on, God, I thought faith gave me certainty, gave us common ground. And I guess it does but my certainty is not necessarily yours.
But maybe right there is reason to pause and think faith is not about me and mine and what I want and what I can understand, but rather Jesus’ words will always be both comforting and challenging, clarifying and mystifying.
Really, when you think about it, if we could get our mind around faith and religion and God – then it would seem to me that faith and religion and God really would be just our human constructs. We really could just figure it out for ourselves. But this lesson I think points to the first truth of Truth, a truth that is also revealed in the Book of Job and in the first chapter of Genesis and in the last chapter of Revelation and every where in between – that any certainty must be held loosely. And that’s not contradictory.
And that doesn’t mean that we lack all conviction, not at all. Rather it means that our deepest conviction is held with humility and graciousness because God is even bigger than that. And Jesus pulls us away from our simple comfort into the awe of the larger – the awe of the larger.
And sometimes I think I understand, and sometimes I feel secure, but at other times I don’t know what I am doing, and sometimes I am angry and want to throw Jesus away, and do away with religion and God and prayer and all of it.
But I always come back…. always. Because where else would I go? Who else would I be?
I keep being reminded of the words of Thomas Merton – his prayer that I paraphrase. He prayed:
I do not know where I am going, I am not certain of the way.
But I want to please you God and I trust that my desire to please you
really does please you… and that is enough.
Now that is a prayer of a deeply spiritual man! A man who had given his heart to Jesus and was following him. And if he has questions, well that makes me feel heck of a lot better.
Faith in Jesus is not about simple answers or getting what you want. As St. Paul writes: you look through a mirror dimly.
As the Psalmist writes (139:17-18) “How weighty are your thoughts O God! How vast is the sum of them! I try to count them – they are more than the sand; I come to the end – I am still with you.”
Faith in Jesus is not about a warm, fuzzy feeling. Faith in Jesus is not about certainty and even knowing things. Faith in Jesus means you are engaged with the big questions. You are willing to follow and give your heart to a big idea, to fall in love and be vulnerable to that which is beyond you and yours. Faith in Jesus may even mean that you want to throw him off the cliff some times, because he is not delivering what you wanted, expected, yearned for, or even deserved. I’m with you!
And yet, he slips away. He passes through right in the midst – to come another day, to come knocking at your door.