Which Jesus?

Below is the text from a sermon I delivered (if that’s the correct verb) on July 25, 2010 at Bethel Christian Reformed Church in Newmarket entitled “Which Jesus?”.  Let me know what you think.

Before we listen to our text for this morning, let’s participate in a quick exercise.

Close your eyes.

We are going to take a moment to paint a picture of Jesus in your imagination.

First, we will start with what he looks like.  Picture his hair – what color is it?  How long is it?  What does his beard look like?  What color are his eyes?  How big is his nose?  What do his ears look like?  What about his mouth and teeth?  How tall is Jesus – is he very tall, average height, or short?  How much does he weigh?  What is his build – muscular, average, skinny?  What do his hands and feet look like – soft and slender or hard and calloused?  What does his voice sound like – deep and booming, baritone, or soft and gentle?

What about his personality?  Is he serious?  Does he laugh?  Does he get angry?  Is he ever sad or upset?  Is he stern or gentle?  Is he quiet most of the time or is he talkative?  Is he shy or outgoing?  Is he mysterious or is he an open book?  Does he have the personality of someone that you would want to hang out with or is he someone that you would probably stay away from?

Now before you open your eyes freeze this image of Jesus in your mind.  Take a moment to look it over from head to foot.  Keep this picture in your mind and open your eyes.

Today we are going to spend some time getting reacquainted with Jesus.  However, this will not be easy because it will paint a drastically different picture of Jesus than the one you have in our mind.  We often  paint a picture of Jesus who is appealing to us and based on who we want and expect Jesus to be.

DOGMA CLIP – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fyYCxz_Ao5g&feature=related

RICKY BOBBY CLIP – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-7pco3TTV5k&feature=related

We all have a picture of Jesus that we like best.  However, too often we think of Jesus as a soft, sentimental figure, someone who was meek and mild.   A Jesus who is harmless as a baby in a manger, someone who doesn’t disrupt our comfortable lives.   In other words, many of us think of Jesus as a complete push-over, a kind of Santa-Claus figure who always gives and expects nothing in return.  A “Buddy Christ”, my own personal Jesus, someone I can call up whenever I need a favour, someone who has my personality and shares my likes and dislikes.  As Jesus who hates all the same people I hate, who shares my political agenda and my views on religion.  A Jesus created in my image.

Our picture of Jesus is also heavily influenced by two very popular paintings.

The first is the painting “The Light of the World” by William Holman Hunt. Take a moment to look at it.

The second is a painting by Werner Sallman called “the Head of Christ”.  Again, take a moment to look at it.  (Thanks to Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost and their book “ReJesus” for their discussion of these paintings and their influence on how we in the West picture Jesus).

For many of us, the picture of Jesus in our mind probably bears a close resemblance to these two terribly inaccurate paintings.  In both paintings we are offered a picture of Jesus with light skin, blond hair, high cheekbones, gentle eyes, with very feminine features.  We are given a picture of a well-dressed, well-groomed, very European-looking, handsome and dashing Jesus (who happens to have thick and luxurious hair).  We don’t want an ugly, dishevelled Saviour.  We want a good-looking, neat-and-tidy Saviour, someone who looks like us, someone we could take to church on Sunday, a Messiah who could also be a model.  We want a Jesus who can meet our needs, who demands nothing from us.  A predictable Jesus who maintains the status quo.

However, is this the Jesus that we meet in the Bible?  Is this a Jesus who is worth following?

In re-picturing Jesus, let’s listen to two stories about Jesus from John 2.  (At this point, the congregation listened to John 2 as performed by “The Bible Experience”)

It is so important to have an accurate picture of Jesus because our picture of Jesus directly affects the shape of our faith.  In order to understand how the stories of John 2 challenge our picture of Jesus, let’s spend some time investigating these stories.

Weddings are a big deal, even more so in Jesus’ day.  Weddings were one of the most important celebrations among Jewish people, with week-long parties.  They were such important and joyful occasions that when describing what it would be like when the Messiah arrived, Rabbis often used wedding celebrations as a metaphor.  So, it is very important that Jesus’ first miracle happens at a wedding.  John is making a very clear allusion here – that Jesus is the bridegroom, the Messiah we’ve been waiting for.

Running out of wine at a wedding party was the worst possible situation a host could face.  The party would be a disaster and the married couple would be humiliated.  Although Jesus is reluctant to get involved, he eventually intervenes.  If we are not sensitive to the text, we will miss what John is trying to tell us.  John is letting us know that Jesus is doing something that is ahead of its time.  In other words, John is saying although the final messianic banquet has not yet occurred, Jesus is already at work now making preparations.  God’s future is breaking into the present.

We cannot overlook the symbolism of how Jesus performs this miracle.  John specifically mentions the water containers.  These were no ordinary jars – they were special ceremonial stone containers used in Jewish purification rituals.  Ceremonial cleansings are one of the most important traditions of the Jewish faith.  These jars were huge – 20-30 gallons each.  Once they were full of water, they would have been too heavy to move.  That’s over 120-180 gallons of water just for ceremonial washing, far more water than was necessary.

In turning the water in these jars into wine Jesus is making a very clear statement.  Jesus is saying, the ritual purity provided by the Law is meaningless.  It is merely water.  The Law stands between you and God, it kills your relationship.  I am here to abolish the law because I am the fulfillment of the law.  I am the one who gives righteousness.  The law and its rituals are completely overwhelmed by me.  I am bringing new wine, wine that is filled to the brim and overflowing.    Your traditions are dead – I am the life of the party!  You dip your hands in water and think you are pure – now is the time to drink your fill of the wine that I bring, the best wine you have ever tasted, more wine than you could possibly drink!  You don’t need ceremonial washing to be clean – you are forgiven!  That’s all there is to it!  There is no longer water for your rituals; I am replacing them with something better – myself!  You have been blindly following your rituals and traditions for so long that you cannot recognize when something better has arrived or when God is doing something new.

In this miracle, Jesus is not simply helping out some friends at a party; he is directly challenging and transforming thousands of years of religious tradition.

Can you imagine what would have happened at the party – people enter the home and go to the jars to wash their hands only to fine them filled with wine.  This would have made the more religiously devout guests extremely angry – this is blasphemy!  How dare this young couple take these sacred objects and fill them with wine!  Have they no respect for tradition?

John tells this story not only to underline Jesus’ identity as the Messianic bridegroom, but also to set the stage for why the religious elite began to plot against Jesus.  He was seen as a threat to their control, the power over the way things have always been done.  To them, Jesus was a dangerous.  He was a liberal, a blasphemer who disrespects tradition and authority.  This is why John immediately follows the story of the miracle at Cana with the story of Jesus clearing out the temple, to establish Jesus’ identity as a radical.

All four Gospels retell the story of Jesus clearing the temple.  Matthew, Mark, and Luke all put this story toward the end their gospels.  John puts it right at the beginning.  The “when” of the story is not important to John; he is not worried about putting the story in its correct historical order.  John places this story at the beginning of his account immediately after the wedding at Cana for symbolic reasons.  John sets the story once again in a very important Jewish celebration, in fact, the most important Jewish celebration – the Passover.  Jesus heads to Jerusalem and goes to the temple only to find people selling animals and changing money.  Jesus is infuriated – he is so angry that he makes a whip and drives out all the merchants and money changers.

In order to understand what John is getting at, we need to have a clear picture of what is going on.  In order to enter the temple, a person had to pass through the Court of the Gentiles.  This outer court was for non-Jews to come and worship at the temple.  However, Gentiles were not allowed into the main part of the temple – that was for Jews only.  The part of the temple that Jesus cleared out was the Gentile Court.

Rather than keep the space clear for Gentiles to come and worship, the temple leaders have allowed merchants to set up shop in the Gentile sanctuary.  Jesus is not angry that a holy place has been desecrated.  Far from it – as we’ve seen, Jesus has little respect for religious artefacts.  Jesus is angry that the Gentiles are being prevented from accessing the temple.  There was no room for the Gentiles to worship at the temple.  The money changers and merchants were occupying space that was designated for the Gentiles.  Instead of a place where Gentiles could worship, the Gentile Court become a place for people to make money.

Of course, Jesus’ actions caused the ire of the temple leaders because Jesus has just cost them a lot of money.  The temple leaders received kick-backs from the merchants and money changers for allowing them to set up shop in the Gentile Court.  Now, with all their customers gone, they’ve lost their profits.  Moreover, in clearing out the temple, Jesus directly undermined the authority of the temple leaders.  They were the ones who allowed the merchants into the Gentile Court.  They were the ones who had the money and power so they were the ones who made the decisions – Who do you think you are?  Who are you to do this?  The temple leaders are more concerned about losing money and protecting their authority than in ensuring that the temple is a place where all people can worship God.

Jesus’ response to their questioning is startling – he claims that he will destroy and rebuild the temple.  Jesus is saying the temple, the place of worship, no longer serves its purpose.  In fact, it is actually preventing people from worshipping because it is not being used according to God’s design.  So God is creating a new place of worship, a new temple where all people are welcome, a space where everyone is invited and able to worship.  Jesus is saying to the temple leaders – you and your meaningless rituals and buildings are standing in the way between people and God!

Moreover, in setting the story during the Passover, John is underlining Jesus’ identity as the Passover Lamb.  With Jesus’ sacrifice, passover is no longer a Jewish feast celebrated at the temple – it is for everyone and can be celebrated anywhere.  This is what Jesus means when he says “where two or three people are gathered in my name, I am there”.  Jesus’ sacrifice brings an end to the temple system – the need for a building to worship God.  It also ends the cleansing rituals – the requirement of following religious rules.  Jesus is claiming that anyone can have access to God, anywhere, and at any time because he is the bridegroom, the Passover lamb, the Messiah.

Bring to mind the picture of Jesus that you created earlier.  How do the stories we learned about today challenge that picture?

In our stories for today and throughout the Gospels , it is clear that Jesus was an irreverent, un-pious, anti-authoritarian, anti-religious, unsentimental radical.  He was a blasphemer.   He said that he was God.  He said that religious traditions were pointless.  He did not tolerate false worship.   He confronted religious folks and told them that they had it all wrong.  He told them that they were standing in the way between others and God.  He started riots wherever he went.  He claimed that the temple, the site of religious authority and the place of worship was meaningless.   He claimed that his body would be the new temple (and that the church, as his people, is his body).  He claimed that God is for everyone, not just for the Jews, but for the Gentiles and sinners.  Jesus was scandalous, he was a religious rebel who hung out with the wrong crowd, publically spoke with women (and not only women, but those with a loose reputation) and invited them to be his followers (something unheard of at the time for a Rabbi to do).  To hang around with Jesus was to invite trouble into your life.

Jesus challenged the authority of the religious elite, those who claimed to know and serve God.  This raises some very serious questions for us today.  What would Jesus say to us if he came to Bethel?  What traditions would he mock as meaningless?  Who would he drive out?  What would he over turn?  Who would he say we are preventing from worshipping God?

Most churches in North America are in decline.  They are looking for the best and most innovative ways to attract people to their services.  Some short term success usually happens, but rarely anything long term.  And yet, is it any wonder why churches can’t seem to get it right when they represent a bland and easy-going Jesus?  We like the accessible Jesus who we can manipulate and mould into our likeness.  This is the Jesus we present to the world.  This is the Jesus who our churches represent.  And yet, this is a Jesus who we cannot find anywhere in the Bible.

Jesus never had a problem drawing a crowd.  Two things always followed Jesus – crowds and controversy.  What would our church look like if we followed Jesus the wild radical who partied with sinners and threw out the religious rule book?  I suspect, that if we start to look like the Jesus of the Gospels, the response of our community would be no less different now than in Jesus’ day.  People were drawn to Jesus.  If we start to look like Jesus, people will be drawn to us – when we embody and reflect the radical agenda and values of Jesus, people will see Jesus in us and will want to be part of our Jesus movement.

But, we don’t want to do this because we would be attracting the wrong crowd, people we would never want our kids to hang out with – drug addicts, prostitutes, welfare moms, homosexuals, homeless people, and the list goes on.  Yet these are precisely the types of people who Jesus intentionally hung out with and invited to follow him.

Today, we want a Jesus who is easy to swallow and therefore easy to follow.  But this is hardly what Jesus meant when he said “my yoke is easy”.  His yoke was easy compared to the yoke of the Pharisees who demanded all kinds of rules and strict forms of piety.  However, Jesus’ yoke is also very difficult – it is a yoke that requires us to love our enemies, to give away our possessions, to care for the poor, to hang out with losers and sinners.  It is a life that requires that we cling to him.  A life that requires that we become “little Christs” for the world.  A life that requires we join Jesus in becoming radicals.

And yet, this is offensive to most Christians.

But as we’ve seen, the Jesus of the Bible is offensive.  Jesus should offend us.  If Jesus doesn’t offend us, we really haven’t understood what he is all about.  We fall into the trap of making Jesus into a nice guy who really doesn’t demand much from us.  When we are offended by Jesus, we see him as the radical he is, the one sent by God to reveal God, to strip away meaningless religion and ritual, to reveal himself as the way, the truth and the life.  Only then will we be able to respond to Jesus they way that the prostitutes, tax-collectors, and sinners did, desperately clinging to him as their our chance for a better, fuller, meaningful life.

Which Jesus are we showing the world – the Jesus of tradition, the predictable Jesus of old wineskins or are the Radical Jesus who is daring, strange, subversive, wonderful, inexplicable, unstoppable, unsettling, disturbing, the one who came to set us free?  This is the Jesus that the world needs, but is it the Jesus that we are showing the world?

It is so important to understand who Jesus is because our picture of Jesus directly affects the shape of our faith.  If Jesus is the passive, polite, tame and moral nice guy, then our faith will look that way.  If Jesus is the wild radical, then our faith will look that way.

If you claim to follow Jesus, you are following the most radical person who ever walked the face of the earth.  If your discipleship does not mirror the radicality of Jesus, then your claim is nothing but a lie.

As Christians, those who claim to follow in the way of Jesus, we have two options:

1)   Be offended and create your own personal Jesus, one who is easy to swallow and easy to follow.

2)   Be offended and desperately cling to him, dedicating your entire life to following him no matter what the cost.

Which Jesus does your life reflect?  Which Jesus do you follow?

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