This morning I am going to speak to you from the heart about Jesus. Most Sundays I speak passionately with you about the love of God in Jesus Christ: I get excited and fervently encourage you to open your hearts and lives to the Lord in new and daring ways. I usually try to give you a lot of background and theological context, too so that there is both substance and gravitas to our conversation.
As most of you know, I have a hard time with the way our tradition has been passed on to us in the 21st century:
· Sometimes it has been shared with a hell fire and brimstone fear-mongering. Other times, it has been presented like an abstract, intellectual book report based upon “I’m ok, you’re ok” platitudes. And currently there is a fascination with sloppy agape generalities making the rounds that is all the rage.
· But from my perspective, when it comes to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus neither shame nor sentimentality cuts it: a religion built upon a degrading fear is just as destructive as a spirituality of disembodied thinking or a sappy, pastel piety.
Small wonder that today’s gospel from St. John takes pain to tell us:
This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. God didn't go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again. Anyone who trusts in him is acquitted.
Did you hear that – and I mean really hear that – in a deep way?
· God sent Christ into the world so that NO ONE need be destroyed: a word of hope.
· God did not go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point and accusing finger – telling us over and over again how bad we are – that’s a word of both compassionate judgment and grace.
· No, Christ came to offer healing and hope to humanity so that the world might be put right again: that’s word of transformation – social, spiritual, political and personal transformation.
The Statement of Faith in the United Church of Christ puts it like this: In Jesus Christ, the man of Nazareth, our crucified and risen Lord, God has come to us and shared our common lot, conquering sin and death and reconciling the whole world to himself.
So let me share some insights of the heart with you about Jesus because I don’t believe that people take up the Cross of discipleship because of the facts. Eugene Peterson put it like this – and because it corresponds so profoundly with my own experience – let me quote it to you:
One day… after constructing my teaching ministry as a kind of min-university in which I was the resident professor… I had a shock of recognition. I saw that church was really a worship center – and I wasn’t prepared for this. Nearly all of my preparation for being a pastor had taken place in a classroom, with chapels and sanctuaries ancillary to it. But the people I was now living with were coming – with centuries of validating precedence – not to get more facts on the Philistines and Pharisees but to pray. They were hungering to grow in Christ, not bone up for an examination in dogmatics. So I began to comprehend the obvious: that the central and shaping language of the church’s life has always been its prayer language.
So here’s what I have come to know and experience about Jesus – and let me use the outline of the Statement of Faith just to give my thoughts some shape and order, ok?
· First, Jesus is both the man of Nazareth and Christ.
· Second, he is our crucified and risen Lord.
· And third he has come to us from God to show us as much of God as we can comprehend – taking upon himself our sorrow and suffering – as well as offering us all a way through sin and death to intimacy with God.
It helps me trust God to know that Jesus lived in a time and a place called Nazareth. That means he was not a mythological character – or an angel – or one of the gods come down from the mountains to play with us. Jesus was real. His life was real and his death was real, too and that helps me trust that his resurrection was real.
In this I find myself making a connection with Christ as comforter because knowing that he was from Nazareth tells me a few other things, too. It tells me that he was born to a common working man and woman who lived a life of faith under Roman occupation. That is, he grew up in an ordinary family – not a palace – and struggled to make his love of God real in an oppressive context. So when I find myself having doubts – and fears – and trouble being faithful, I sense that I’m not alone: Jesus had a tough time making sense of faith, too. What’s more, his life was a whole lot harder than mine.
Let’s face it: Nazareth was NOT considered to be a great neighborhood, ok? One of the disciples who would later follow Jesus, Nathaniel, asked his brother Philip when Philip was trying to check Jesus out: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
· You see, Nazareth is in the northern most section of Israel – far from the spiritual center of Jerusalem – and was considered a poor country cousin to the capital.
· You might think of it the way folks down South in the Bible Belt think of the great Commonwealth of Massachusetts, ok?
Today it is also known as the Arab capital of Israel given its majority Muslim population. So to name our Lord as one who hails from 1st century Nazareth helps me connect my struggles of faith with his. Jesus knew the tension of being from the periphery rather than from the heartland. He lived through the problem of his patrimony, too – people called him “bastard” and smirked saying he was “Mary’s son” not the first born of Joseph – having to find peace in his shame. And that doesn’t even touch what it meant to grow-up under the boot heel of a hated occupation invasion army.
All of this strengthens my intimacy with Christ as Comforter: when he invites “all ye who are tired and heavy laden to come and follow so that I can give you rest,” I trust him: he’s been there before – with heavier burdens than mine.“Peace, peace I leave you,” he told his disciples. “Not the peace of the world by my peace – a deeper peace – a time-tested and intimate peace that is born of God.”
And I need that comfort, so here’s one more insight I hold close knowing Jesus is the man of Nazareth… Do you recall what Amy-Jill Levine told us about the stable when she visited with us back in December? How does the Christmas story go… the Holy Family had to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem and there was no room for them at the inn? Sometimes this story is taken in a direction to talk about the tough conditions the Lord was born into – the stable is often called a cave or a barn – and it is toughened up for shock value.
· But it is more likely that this stable was the first floor shelter for the animals of the inn-keeper – a place where they were kept warm and safe in the night – and the manger was likely a trough where the animals were fed.
· So placing Jesus – the baby of Nazareth into a feeding trough before he becomes the man of Nazareth – suggests that this child when he matures will become food for the world, yes? How did he put it in John’s gospel: I am the bread of life broken for the world?
And so we say seven little words – IN JESUS CHRIST, THE MAN OF NAZARETH – and draw comfort from Christ Jesus. (Let me pause and see if you have any questions or thoughts so far, ok?)
But comfort is only half of the equation of faith: Christ also calls us to the Cross. In Jesus Christ, the man of Nazareth, our crucified and risen Lord, God comes to us… and there are two thoughts I want to share with you about the Cross of Jesus Christ: first, it speaks to us about the way we engage injustice – with compassion, not hatred – in peace, not violence; and second, the Cross teaches us that the way to be filled with God’s grace is to emptied of ourselves.
· You know, of course, that the Cross was a Roman tool capital punishment, right? It was the electric chair – or lethal injection – of the day. (Can you imagine wearing a little electric chair or syringe around your neck as a sign of faith?)
· As a public form of execution, it was designed to bring shame and excruciating pain to the traitors and criminals who experience its death and fear and obedience to the people living under Roman occupation.
At our best, our faith tradition does not hide from the horror of the Cross, in the time of Jesus or in our own time. But we used to… look around you. Do you see anything that speaks of the horror of the Cross here?As much as I love the beauty of this Sanctuary – and I do – and as much as I cherish our Pilgrim tradition – and I do – we went through a period of time when we ran away from a theology of the cross. We wanted a religion of power – and beauty – and prestige – a religion the Protestant theologian, Martin Luther, called a theology of glory not a theology of the Cross. We wanted to be in charge – to make the rules – to be the winners.
So we turned our back on the Cross – made it pretty – put it on a pedestal rather than taught and lived that the Cross is how we best know about God. There isn’t time to unpack this fully – we’ll do that at another time – but let me be clear:
· A theology of glory emphasizes our ability to reason and learn and work things out. It posits that if we just study something long enough – help everyone become enlightened – we can solve most of our human problems.
· It is arrogant and naïve all at the same time, because, of course we can have all the education, wealth, resources and enlightenment you can own and we will still be sinful, yes?
Think of Rome: they were at the apex of civilization and they crucified Jesus. Think of pre-war Germany: they were the zenith of theological, educational and philosophical wisdom and they brought 6 million Jews and nearly as many trade unionists, mentally challenged children and gypsies to the Cross of the gas chambers. Think of the pastor who was at the heart of building this sweet Sanctuary: with all the wisdom and reason of his age, he still insisted that Black members sit in the balcony and his wife refused to share a common cup at Holy Communion with those who were inferior – especially people of color.
So let’s be clear: St. Paul was right when he taught us that “All have sinned and fallen short of the grace of God,” yes? All of us – the elites and the low life’s – the power-brokers of industry and the addicts – those who sleep in a king-sized bed and those who find shelter in cardboard on the street. All of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. And the Cross makes that clear…
In the Cross we can’t fake it: the Cross shows us Christ’s suffering in hunger and exploitation – in war and race hatred – in misogyny and racism. The Cross teaches us that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. And so we say: In Jesus Christ, the man Nazareth, our crucified and risen Lord… God has met us and shared our common lot.
And here’s the good news: not only does the Cross expose our sin and the sins of the world, but we can also take our sin and hang it on the Cross. If we own our arrogance – accept and embrace our naiveté – and complicity and all the rest, we can put it on the Cross with Christ. And as we empty ourselves by faith, Jesus takes our sins and transforms them. Heals them – fills them with God’s light – and redeems them.
The Apostle Paul put it like this: It wasn't so long ago that you were mired in that old stagnant life of sin. You let the world, which doesn't know the first thing about living, tell you how to live. You filled your lungs with polluted unbelief, and then exhaled disobedience. We all did it, all of us doing what we felt like doing, when we felt like doing it, all of us in the same boat. It's a wonder God didn't lose his temper and do away with the whole lot of us. Instead, immense in mercy and with an incredible love, he embraced us. He took our sin-dead lives and made us alive in Christ. He did all this on his own, with no help from us! Then he picked us up and set us down in highest heaven in company with Jesus, our Messiah.
And here’s how I know this is true: Jesus did this for me. It isn’t just something I’ve read about or been told, it is part of what lives inside me today. When I ran out of gas – used up all my tricks and wisdom and sophistication – I was exhausted with life. I hated myself – I detested the church – I wanted to run away from my wife and family and hide in all the shame and filth I felt inside.
· I won’t bore you with the details just to say that I got to a place where I couldn’t do anything anymore: I couldn’t love, I couldn’t preach, I couldn’t face myself or anyone that mattered.
· So after a few highly unsuccessful attempts to run away and distract myself in the unhealthiest ways possible, I thought: Alright, goddamn it let’s see if Jesus can save me.
· I pleaded with him on the Cross – I screamed at him in my fear and guilt – I argued with him through countless nights and hated his silence.
But he took it all – all my bile and venom – all my fear and shame. And when I had emptied myself and owned who I had become, he came to me very quietly and said: are you through now? Are you tired? Heavy laden? Come to me and I will give you rest – and he did. And he hasn’t quit – on me – or on you. And that, beloved, is the good news for today.