The Meaning of Jesus: Part 7–The Meaning of the Cross

Cross.1We come now to the climax of our series on the meaning of Jesus, and the climax of the whole biblical story of Jesus that we’ve been looking at over the past six weeks. I say it’s the “climax” and not the end of the series, because our Lenten series is going to take us to the next part of the story—the story of Jesus’ resurrection, the story of the church, and the story of God’s future and our future in God’s good creation. It seems a good time to do that, what with all the speculative talk about 2012 being the end of the world as we know it—but, to quote the band REM, we’re going to learn that that’s something to feel fine about. Indeed, it’s not the end of the world that we should be looking for, but rather the beginning of God’s new creation. Stay tuned during Lent for that story.

To get there, however, we have to first understand the massive importance of the cross in the biblical story. The cross is our central symbol, the one that dominates our view of worship and the life of discipleship. And yet, as important and central as the cross is to our faith, many Christians don’t really understand why.

For example, I had a conversation once with a college student when I was doing campus ministry in my first appointment. During a late night Bible study, the student, who was a very deep thinker, said to the group, “I often hear that whole ‘Jesus died for my sins’ thing, but how does that work? What does the death of a man in an obscure part of the world 2,000 years ago have to do with me and my situation right now?

That was a great question, and one that theologians have wrestled with themselves for a long time. Indeed, over the course of Christian history, many theories of the atonement, or the meaning of Jesus’ death, have emerged. The ransom theory, for example, says that Jesus died as a ransom to Satan (based on Matthew 20:28 and Mark 10:45, where Jesus says he came to give his life as a ransom for many). This theory says that God gave up Jesus to Satan in order to set us free from captivity to sin and death, but then God tricked Satan by raising Jesus from the dead and depriving the devil of his prize captive.

The Satisfaction Theory, on the other hand, says that Jesus appeased God’s angry wrath by being a ritual human sacrifice.

Closely allied with that theory is the Penal Substitution Theory, which says that God’s mercy replaced his wrath after the infinite self-sacrifice of Jesus. Because Jesus was righteous and sinless, God credits us with that righteousness because of Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins.

Then there’s the Moral Influence Theory, which says that Jesus’ death is simply an example for the rest of humanity to emulate. As Jesus gave himself for us, we should give ourselves for others.

Some of these sound familiar to you if you’ve been part of a church for at least part of your life. There are others, too. Different traditions use these theories as the standard answer to the question of why Jesus had to die.

But while these theories each have some truth to offer us, the problem with them is that they are incomplete in and of themselves. Like the edited versions of the gospel that we talked about at the beginning of this series, atonement theories tend to focus on pieces and parts of Scripture, and are truncated versions of the story the Gospel writers are telling us—a story that sees the cross as the climax of a much larger story—the story of the Bible, the story of Israel, the story of how God redeems his good creation. The meaning of the cross isn’t derived from a theory, it’s derived from the whole story.

 Remember how that story goes? It begins with God creating the world for the purpose of dwelling there. God creates humans in his image as the stewards of that creation, and walks with these humans in a face-to-face, loving relationship. The humans, however, seem to want more than that, so they listen to snake who, like the accuser Satan, reminds them that they can choose to be more than God created them to be.

 So they reject the image of God for their own image, and the result of their sin is the curse of death—the ultimate dehumanizing force. The whole creation suffers because the human stewards no longer see their vocation as caring for it. Instead, they begin to exploit the creation, and each other.

But God does not give up on the project. Indeed, God chooses another human, a man named Abram, and makes him a promise—through your family will come a great nation that will bless the whole world. This nation will be a light to other nations, showing them the way to be truly human, living out the purpose of stewardship and reflecting my image. Through Abraham’s family, God is going to carry out his project of redeeming and renewing his good creation, and will dwell with his people there.

 Abraham’s family grows into a nation, which soon finds itself enslaved to one of the powerful empires of the world, Egypt. The tyrant, Pharaoh, rules over Israel, but God sends a leader named Moses to deliver his people from slavery. The moment of liberation takes place at Passover, when the people are to place the blood of an unblemished lamb on the doorpost as a protection against the death that will pass over Egypt and it’s tyrant ruler. The Passover sacrifice signals the beginning of an exodus out of slavery and into a new future.

God preserves the nation of Israel, despite her grumbling in the desert and, through the law, gives them their vocation as a light to the nations. If they were faithful to this mission and to their covenant with God, God would give them the inheritance of a promised land, a holy land, from which they would be a city on a hill, a lamp on a stand, the salt of the earth, the ones through whom God’s redemptive plan for the whole world would be realized. Indeed, God dwells with Israel in the tabernacle, and then the temple—the place where heaven and earth came together. God had intended to dwell with his people from the beginning of creation, and the temple represented that reality.

But Israel could not carry out this mission. The creeping influence of sin and idolatry was always pulling them away from it and from God. Israel’s kings struggled to stay faithful, and as they went, so did their people. Instead of being a light to other nations, Israel chose to be like them. Instead of obedience to God, Israel chose to be the kind of power from which they had been liberated all those years before—the kind of power that oppresses the poor and gives into self-serving idolatry.

So God deals with Israel’s sin by withdrawing from the temple and removing Israel from the land. Israel goes into exile in Babylon because of sin, her failure to be the people God called her to be. After some years, some of the people return and rebuild, but things are not the same. The temple is rebuilt a couple of times, but God’s glory is no longer present in the way it was. They are overtaken by foreign powers—the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Syrians, the Romans. They are still, in a very real sense, enslaved and in need of liberation.

But again, God does not forget them. God promises Israel a savior—a messiah who will come and set things right. The messiah will restore the temple, cleansing it as the place for God to return and dwell once again. And the messiah will fight Israel’s battle against her enemies, forcing them out. The messiah will be Israel’s representative, indeed, he will be Israel, and do for Israel what she, in her sin, could not do for herself.

In the midst of all that hope and expectation, however, Israel seemed to miss an important vision of the Messiah. The prophet Isaiah had said that the messiah would, indeed, cleanse the temple and fight Israel’s battle, but he would do it not through triumph, but through suffering. The suffering servant, as Israel in person, would bear the pain of Israel’s sin. As Isaiah 53:5-6 puts it, “He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”

As we have been saying throughout this series, Jesus believed that it was his mission to embody the messiah’s mission, but in a way that nobody expected. Jesus would take on Israel’s commission to be a light to the nations and succeed where she failed, but at a high price. The blessing that was to come through Israel to the whole world would not come through the show of power and strength they had long hoped for but, ironically, through the suffering and death of her only true king.

This is the template that Jesus lays over his ministry. The story of the exodus, Israel’s foundational story, is the story that Jesus embodies in his own ministry. Look at it again:

Jesus understands that his people—who are all the people of the world—are enslaved by the tyrant, Satan, and his greatest weapons of sin and death. As we said last week, Jesus understands that part of his messianic vocation is to go out and do battle with this enemy, who is behind all the powers of this world.

Jesus believes he is the leader, the deliverer, the savior of his people. He is the new and even greater Moses, who has come to rescue people from slavery to sin and death and lead them toward a new future.

But that new future requires sacrifice. Jesus would be that sacrifice, the one who, like the Passover lamb, takes on the sin of his people, and causes death to pass over them. It’s not coincidence that Jesus’ death takes place just before the Passover feast, nor is it coincidence that the night before his crucifixion Jesus takes his disciples to an upper room and shares a meal with them that is a different kind of Passover meal—a meal that features his own broken body and shed blood. It is a meal that shows that he is the lamb, the blood, and the firstborn son all wrapped up in one—the one whose death will save his people from death. Jesus doesn’t leave his disciples with a theory about what his death will mean. Instead, he gives them a meal—not something to be debated, but a meal to be embodied.

Jesus thus lays out a new vocation for his followers. He chooses twelve disciples as a archetype of the 12 tribes of Israel—a new Israel. And he gives them a renewed vocation. It’s the vocation he lays out in his teaching, in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere—a vocation of going the second mile, turning the other cheek, loving one’s enemies, forgiving even those who would nail him to a cross. Jesus reveals the mission of the new Israel as one of peace, mercy, and love, not power and prestige.

Lastly, Jesus reveals the new Israel’s inheritance—the kingdom of God, the reality of heaven and earth coming together. The promise was not for a holy land, but the whole world filled with God’s glory. Not for a temple made of brick and stone, but a temple embodied in Jesus himself, the one in whom heaven and earth, humanity and divinity, come together, and the one in whom all sacrifices for the forgiveness of sins were done once and for all. Jesus embodies the temple in his life and in his death. He also embodies God’s return and the end of exile.

This is what Jesus, Israel’s true king, sees as his mission—a mission that will take him all the way to the cross. Jesus was speaking and acting in such a way as to imply that he was to go ahead of his people, to meet the powers of destruction in person, to take their full weight on himself, so as to make a way through, a way in which God’s people could be renewed, could rediscover their vocation to be a light to the nations, could be rescued from their continuing slavery and exile.

Indeed, this is what we see happening in the crucifixion narratives. In John’s Gospel, we see Jesus battling against the wind of those two great storms we talked about early in this series: the wind of Rome and the gale of Jewish expectation. Jesus stands against them both and reveals his true mission. Turn with me to John 18 and let’s walk through this briefly.

In verse 28, Jesus is brought from Caiphas’ (the high priest) house to Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor. They represent the two storms. Caiaphas wants Jesus dead, but Pilate can’t find anything wrong with him. Jesus befuddles them both.

In verse 33, Pilate asks the question: “Are you the king of the Jews?” This is the central question of the Gospels – who is Jesus? In verse 36, Jesus answers in a powerful way. Indeed, he is the king of the Jews, but not in the way that anyone, either Caiaphas and the Jews or Pontius Pilate and the Romans would have every conceived. “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But, as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Notice that Jesus doesn’t say, “My kingdom is not of this world.” That would imply that his kingdom is somewhere else, a heavenly kingdom perhaps, which is what many people expect it to be. No, it’s not from this world—it’s not, in other words, the kind of kingdom that the world typically holds up—kingdoms of power and prestige—the kind of kingdom that Rome was and that Israel aspired to be. It’s not the kind of kingdom that fights for its existence. It’s the kind of kingdom whose king comes not to fight, but to die.

John reminds us a few times that this was the day of preparation for the Passover—the festival celebrating the liberation of Israel. The irony was that Israel’s liberator, Israel’s true king had, indeed, come. But he had come not only as the leader, but as the lamb, quite literally bearing the weight of their sin in his own body and he carried the cross. Pilate, in the ultimate touch of irony to the story, has the title “King of the Jews” nailed on to the cross above Jesus’ head. He meant it as a mockery, a way of sticking it to the Jewish leaders who were incensed at his joke. But John tells us, as do the other Gospel writers, that this is, indeed, Israel’s true king—the king who has come to die, with the weight of his people’s sins and the weight of the worst human evil on his sagging shoulders. He died the death that they deserved for their power hungry and bloodthirsty reach for power. He died in place of the guilty one, Barabbas, but also in place of all those who held Barabbas’ own revolutionary ambitions—those who included his own disciples. He died at the hands of his enemies—he died at the hand of the ultimate enemy, evil, and succumbed to evil’s greatest weapon, death.

But the Gospel writers and Paul as well make it clear that this death was not a defeat, but a victory. In Colossians 2, for example, Paul says that on the cross Jesus “disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.” The two great storms converge over Jesus, and yet their force is exhausted. He dies, but he is not defeated. Indeed, his death takes on all the evil the world can muster and somehow starts to reverse evil’s curse.

Albert Schweitzer, the great 20th century physician and philosopher, once said that Jesus understood that his vocation was to go out and reverse the course of history. The great wheel of history was turning, powered by sin and death. Jesus hoped it would turn the other direction, but when it didn’t, Jesus threw himself upon that wheel and it crushed him. But then it started to turn in the other direction. The way of death is reversed, and the way of life begun—all because Jesus chose to die.

This is the larger story that we need to understand in order to grasp the meaning of Jesus’ death. We need more than theories, we need the story that puts the theories in perspective. Jesus’ death fulfilled the whole biblical story, the story of how God will redeem his whole creation from sin and death—a story of ultimate, sacrificial, life-giving love. It’s the story that finds its climax in Jesus’ last words from the cross: “It is finished.” You know, that’s the same thing that is said in Genesis about creation (Genesis 2:1-2). On the sixth day, God finished the work. On the sixth day of the week, Jesus says, “it is finished.” In Jesus, on the cross, the story, the work, the mission, is complete.

Too often we’ve taken the reality of the cross and made it a personal story of how Jesus died so that we can go to heaven. The Gospel writers tell the story quite differently, however. In fact, they’re telling us the story in exactly the opposite direction. The story of the cross is the story of how the creator God, in the person of his Son, died so that death could be defeated, and the life of God’s good creation restored. Jesus came that we might have life, and have it abundantly right now, because the anti-creation and anti-life force of death has been beaten and sin right along with it. We are forgiven, not just so that we can avoid the penalty for sin, but so that, free from sin’s slavery, we can begin to live into the full life of the kingdom, right here, right now. That’s the work that Jesus finishes—and a work that we as his disciples—ransomed, healed, restored, and forgiven ourselves—are to implement and share with the whole world.

Indeed, Jesus tells his disciples that their vocation is to bear a cross of their own—to offer his sacrificial love to the whole world, to die to ourselves and our own sin and shame, and to live into the new life of the kingdom. Jesus’ death changes us so that we, in turn, join the risen Jesus in challenging the powers of death with the good news of life.

None of this, of course, makes much sense if Jesus had simply died and that was the end of it. He would have been just another in a long line of would-be Messiahs that died a violent death at the hands of Rome. But what happened three days after Jesus died put all of this into perspective. We can’t fully understand the cross without the empty tomb. We shall turn to that next week.

But for now, what does the death of a man 2,000 years ago have to do with us? Everything. And not just for us, for the world. His cross-bearing vocation has become ours as well. We are a people of the cross.





The Meaning of Jesus: Part 6 – The Ultimate Battle

Note: For Parts 4 and 5 of the series, check out my associate, Joe Iovino's blog at, or download the audio on our website

StoryofjesustemptationMatthew 12:22-32

          Let’s begin with a quick review of where we’ve been in this series: We started the series by talking about the meaning of Jesus as emerging from the whole story of Scripture. We’ve often missed that full story because we’ve tended to think along a continuum that divides left and right, liberal and conservative, spiritual and material, and we tend to operate with a truncated or edited version of the gospel, depending on our position on the continuum. We began the series by saying that the story and meaning of Jesus doesn’t lie on this continuum, but is out here—a completely different kind of story with a meaning that lies outside our usual categories. But to get at that story, we have to be willing to embrace the whole story of Scripture.

            In the second sermon, we talked about the perfect storm that was gathering in Jesus’ day: the clash between the imperial occupation of Rome and the Jewish expectation of liberation. But at the intersection of these two opposing forces comes Jesus, with a message that overshadows both expectations: the message that God himself is becoming king. God will overshadow Caesar, but God will also come to his people Israel in a way that did not fit their categories. Using Israel’s formative story of the exodus, Jesus begins to describe and act out a new exodus that will lead people to freedom from slavery to sin and death, and toward a freedom to grow into the image of God they were created to be in the first place.

             Jesus leads that new exodus as God’s appointed leader, prophet, savior, and son. In the third sermon, we looked at Jesus’ mission – the mission of God – a mission to restore God’s good creation. Jesus came announcing a great Jubilee – that God becoming king was going to change everything. Those who were on the outside would be insiders, and those who held on to power would soon find that power pales in comparison to the power of God, who is coming to set the world right. Jesus announced that the kingdom of God was already arriving, and it wasn’t just for God’s chosen people—it was for the whole world, even the Gentiles like the Romans who occupied the land.

             Joe then talked about how Jesus describes and embodies the work of this kingdom. Jesus describes it in parables—stories that invite the hearers to see themselves in light of the coming of God’s kingdom, and stories that describe how that kingdom permeates all the aspects of life. Many of Jesus’ parables were about banquets and parties: the ultimate sign that everyone was invited. Jesus acts out those parables by eating with people who are outside the continuum of respectability, and thus declares that they are welcome in the kingdom. The kingdom of God is a banquet where no one goes hungry, and everyone has a place at the table if they will only respond to the invitation.

             Last week, then, Joe talked about how Jesus the Messiah began to carry out his mission as God becoming king. He talked about the expectation that the messiah would pave the way for God to come again and dwell with his people, with the temple being the ultimate sign of that dwelling place. The temple was where the people of Israel believed heaven and earth met, and they believed that when God returned that God would eliminate all of their enemies and make Israel a great nation once again. The messiah would cleanse the temple in preparation for God’s return. Jesus, indeed, cleanses the temple, but he also announces God’s judgment on it and on those who would use the temple as a symbol of national pride or as a place from which the rich and powerful exploit the poor. This temple would be destroyed, Jesus says, but a new one would rise in its place. The new temple would be Jesus himself: the one in whom heaven and earth come together, and one in whom both God and humanity fully dwelt.

That brings us to this week, and the second part of the expectation that the people of first century Israel had for a messiah. The messiah was to cleanse the temple and herald God’s return, but the messiah was also to be the one who would fight Israel’s final battle with her enemies. For first century Jews, there was no greater enemy than Rome, and plenty of would-be messiahs took on the role of trying to pull off an armed revolt against the occupying pagan oppressors. In fact, if you were going to be a messiah, you’d better be willing to fight.

In AD 4, for example—when Jesus would have been a young boy–a would-be messiah named Judas the Galilean led a revolt against the Romans over the issue of taxation. That revolt was quickly crushed, and the Romans destroyed the town of Sepphoris, just five miles or so from Nazareth. A lot of scholars believe that Joseph and Jesus were later employed to help rebuild the town, which would have been a constant reminder of the consequences of messing with Rome. Other military messiahs emerged after Jesus, like Simon Bar-Giora, who led a revolt in AD 66 that resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70, and Simon Bar-Kosiba, who led a revolt in 135 that resulted in all the Jews being expelled from Jerusalem, and the emperor Trajan renaming the city Aelia Capitolina and rebuilding it as a Roman city. The point is: would-be messiahs were expected to fight Israel’s enemies. The downside? They always lost. 

Jesus understood this as well as anyone. He knew that as God’s anointed king he was going to have to go out and do battle, but the battle in which he engages looks nothing like his contemporaries or even his disciples imagined. It wasn’t a battle involving fighting in the normal sense of swords and spears, nor was the enemy the kind that you could fight on a traditional battlefield. This was a different kind of battle with a different kind of enemy. For Jesus, the battle wasn’t with Rome or any other empire, but the power behind all empires, all oppression, and all of human evil. Jesus, the messiah, comes out to do battle with evil itself, personified by the figure the Bible calls “the satan.”

Who is this Satan? Well, most of us know him as a devilish figure who is all red, carries a pitchfork and has a forked tail. Some might think of him as the one who causes people to do evil things, much like Flip Wilson’s old character Geraldine who was famous for making the excuse, “The devil made me do it.” Others see Satan and his demonic minions as a constant spiritual force battling with angels for control of the world. There’s a lot of talk in some Christian circles about “spiritual warfare” going on around us all the time, and that Satan can be found under just about every rock. In some Christian circles, you’ll hear almost as much talk about Satan as you do about God—as though they are equal but opposite forces vying for control of human souls.

Well, a couple of caveats before we dive in here. First, I remember C.S. Lewis’ admonition in his wonderful book The Screwtape Letters. For those of you unfamiliar with that book, Lewis playfully writes it from the perspective of a junior demon receiving advice from his uncle Screwtape on how to bring his human charge down to hell. But I love how Lewis begins the book. He writes this:

“There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally please with both errors and hail and materialist and a magician with the same delight.” What we need is a biblical understanding of Satan and evil, and how Jesus goes out to do battle with him as the enemy of all humanity.

The word “Satan” in the Hebrew means “accuser,” and the Bible makes it clear from the very beginning that Satan’s main role is as the one whose accusations push people to believe that they can and should be more or less than the humans they were created to be.

Remember the snake in the garden for example, who told Adam and Eve that they could be more than human—they could be like God himself (Genesis 3:5). They bought the lie, and their sin, ironically, made them less than human, less than they were created to be. In the book of Job, Satan oppresses the righteous Job through disaster, but more insidiously through the accusations of Job’s friends and his wife, who keep speculating that Job must have done something wrong to deserve this. The accuser wants Job to believe that he is less than what he was created to be—less than valued by God.

That’s how Satan’s evil accusations work—they get us to believe that we are more or less than human. When we believe we’re more than human, better than others, we begin to “demonize” and dehumanize others as being only worthy of our contempt. We are right, they are wrong. We deserve the best, they deserve nothing. Evil and self-centered sin cause us to dehumanize others, and this happens all the time in our world. Lust dehumanizes people into objects of pleasure, greed dehumanizes people into commodities, war dehumanizes people into targets. The list goes on. We typecast people into the categories of “people like us” and “people like them,” never realizing that evil is a dark force that stands behind all human reality. We can wind up buying the lie that evil is something other people do, and that we’re the righteous, deserving ones. Satan’s work drives a wedge between humans and each other, and between humans and God.

But Satan can also get us to believe that we are less than human—that we deserve nothing and that we are nothing. Much of the pathology we see in people comes from a belief that they have no worth. The man caught in addiction, the girl who cuts herself, the woman who sells her body to be used by others, the executive who is working himself to death trying to prove his worth—all of them are caught in the lie.

 Jesus understood how Satan works. Indeed, one of the first acts of Jesus’ ministry is to go out into the desert and confront Satan directly. Satan tempts Jesus to act as though his status as Son of God gives him carte blanche to serve himself and impress others—to be the kind of messiah everyone expects. If you are the Son of God, turn these stones to bread and eat your fill. If you are the Son of God, jump off the Temple and land unscathed and everyone will know you’re more than human. If you are the Son of God, rule all the kingdoms of the world just like the emperor. I like the way Bono sings Satan’s line in the U2 song Vertigo: All of this can be yours. Just give me what I want, and no one gets hurt. Satan wants to drive a wedge between Jesus and his mission. Jesus, of course, refuses, but in Luke’s version, the writer makes it clear that the battle wasn’t over after those 40 days. In fact, Luke says, “Satan departed from him until an opportune time.”

Indeed, everywhere Jesus goes he sees the same Satanic forces at work. It’s at work in the Pharisees, who divide the world between insiders and outsiders. He sees it in the face of those possessed by demons and who are driven to act more like animals than humans. He sees it in those whom society considers worthless—the broken, the sick, the used. He sees it even in his own disciples, who believe that they deserve places at Jesus’ right and left hands and who can’t wait to pick up a sword and join the revolution against Rome. Notice it when Peter says, “You are the Christ,” but then rebukes Jesus for even thinking about dying. Jesus’ words to Peter are telling. “Get behind me, Satan. You have not in mind the things of God, but the things of men.” Jesus sees Satan as the one who snatches away the word of the kingdom, like birds eating up freshly sown seed (Matt. 13), in the face of a woman crippled by ailments (Luke 13:16), and in the accusing role of Judas, one of his own disciples. This is a more insidious enemy than Rome or any other empire could ever be.

Indeed, when Jesus refers to hell, most often he is referring to a present reality. The word “Gehenna” is the word used for the Hinnom Valley outside of Jerusalem—a place where the garbage dump was—a dump that smoldered and smoked all the time. Many of Jesus’ warnings to Israel were about checking their idea of revolution against Rome—otherwise the city would become the trash heap. The way of violent revolution, says Jesus in effect, is the way of Satan. The destruction of the temple would be hell for the people of Israel—the end of the world as they knew it. But Jesus is offering another way.

So Jesus comes to do battle. But notice how he does it. In the text we read earlier, the Pharisees ironically accuse Jesus (note the parallel) of being in league with Satan because he casts out demons. This makes no sense, of course, because, as Jesus clearly points out, Satan would be stupid to be casting himself out of people. That may be the unforgiveable sin Jesus is talking about—equating what he is doing with Satan’s own work. No, this is the sovereign power of God at work—the kingdom of God is on the doorstep.

In Matthew 12:29, Jesus gives a metaphor for what he is doing: he is “binding up the strong man” (Satan) and “plundering his house.” How does he do this?

He does it by restoring people’s humanity. Indeed, everything that Jesus is doing—from healing, to teaching, to casting out demons, to eating with known “sinners”—represents a victory, a reversal of the effects of Satan’s accusatory work. Jesus makes broken people whole. As Joe said last week, Jesus makes the unclean clean just by his presence and touch. He called people to love their enemies, even the hated Romans, by humanizing them—going the extra mile and turning the other cheek. You don’t fight evil by perpetrating more evil, says Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. Violence crushes the humanity of both parties involved. No, the only way you conquer evil for good is with the humanizing force of love, forgiveness, and peace.

Indeed, the Gospel writers tell us that Jesus’ ultimate weapon in the battle against evil was unleashed on the cross. It is on the cross that Jesus becomes an innocent victim of the worst human evil that we can imagine. And there is Satan at the foot of the cross once again—in the voices of those who shout derision at Jesus: If you are the Son of God, come down from that cross. If you are the Son of God, show us the power you have over your enemies. If you are the Son of God…

And yet, Jesus doesn’t fight…he forgives. He humanizes even his enemies. “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” The cross, the ultimate icon of defeat, somehow becomes the place of victory. We will talk about the meaning of the cross in more detail next week.

One of the questions that often gets asked at this point is this: If Jesus defeated evil, then why is there so much of it around? Why do we still see it at work every time we open a newspaper or turn on the TV? What can be done about that? It’s pretty overwhelming.

Big questions for which answers are hard to come by. It’s too easy, though, for us to see the magnitude of the problem, throw up our hands, and wait for Jesus to return to fix it all. The message of the kingdom is that Jesus will ultimately set everything right—God is becoming king. But as Joe said last Sunday, the kingdom isn’t just a future reality. It’s also a present one. If we really believe that, then it should change our approach from acquiescence to the presence of evil to active engagement in defeating it. As Jesus says in verse 30, whoever is not with him in this work is against him. Whoever doesn’t gather in those who are outside, scatters them. Therefore, I want to leave you with a few ideas to ponder in that vein. 

First, the Gospels make it clear that Satan and evil aren’t just spiritual concepts. Remember, in Jesus’ world, there is no separation between spiritual and material, sacred and secular. All this talk about spiritual warfare in many Christians circles, I think, distracts us from the real battle that is taking place around us every day. If Satan’s influence was merely spiritual, then it would be easy to ignore or defeat. Instead, evil infiltrates all human systems: economics, politics, even the church! Walter Wink wrote a great book a few years ago called Engaging the Powers, which looks at how human systems become hijacked by the dehumanizing forces of greed, power, and violence. The apostle Paul uses similar language when he talks about the “powers and principalities.” He’s not merely referring to the spiritual realm here, but to all those forces that drive injustice and break down our full humanity.

I would argue that one of the reasons that there seems to be no abatement in the powers of evil in the world is that the Church (capital C) has dabbled to long in the spiritual realm and not enough in engaging the powers.

Instead, we often wind up colluding with them. We mesh Christian faith with political ideologies that don’t match up with what Jesus taught—and both the left and right are guilty of that. I am often appalled at the things that people claiming to be Christ followers post on Facebook about government officials, or the other political party, or about immigrants or the poor, or you name it. We can’t fight the powers if we’re using their language and their tactics of demonizing others. The Church needs to return to the language and tactics of Jesus, who ate with sinners and humanized everyone he met—even his enemies.

Second, we need to become more and more aware of the places around us every day where the powers are at work, and then stand up to them with sacrificial love. I had a meeting this week with some other pastors, the executive director of Tri-Lakes Cares, and the Monument Police Department, and learned about a couple of places where there are gaps that people are falling into. We have a growing number of children in our area, for example, who receive free or reduced cost lunches in our schools. The forces of greed that contributed to the downturn in our economy cause a trickle down effect that impacts the most vulnerable among us as more people continue to be out of work. Yes, the economy might be improving, but not in a way that helps these kids. For many of them, a school lunch is the only real meal they’ll get in a day. Many of them don’t eat much, if at all, over the weekend. Tri-Lakes Cares has put together a snack pack for students in that situation at Palmer Lake Elementary School, but they have not been able to cover the other schools. We have hungry kids in our own community, and that’s a systemic evil. I think this is a battle we can fight. I am proposing that as a church we take on at least one school in our district, maybe more, and provide TLC with all the food they need to make sure these kids get to eat. I have a meeting about this tomorrow. That’s a gap we can fill, and one more way we push back the forces of poverty.

We are also facing some severe budget cuts in our school district that will likely force families to pay for their kids to be bussed to school. Now, we can throw up our hands , or we can look at ways that we, as a church, can help cover the gap for some poor families who may have to choose between eating and transportation. I don’t know where that’s going to go, but I want to work with our district to make sure that those who need help get it. That’s pushing back the powers, even if it’s just in a small way.

I learned about those two simple things at one meeting in an hour. You’re out there in the community every day in a wide variety of places—places where the powers that dehumanize people are constantly at work. Jesus calls us to go to battle—to muster up all the love and courage and peace we can and fill in the gaps that keep people from being fully human.

The meaning of Jesus is a call for his church to get back in the fight—not with weapons and angry rhetoric, but with love, forgiveness, peace, and sacrificial service. Many of the great movements in history that brought about positive change began with one person choosing to stand up to the powers and say, “No more.” Jesus did that, and calls us to do it, too.

Someone once asked a wise man, “If God is real, why doesn’t he do something about all the evil in the world.” The wise man answered, “He did. He created you.”

Actually, that same idea is right there in our membership vows. “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?” Jesus was empowered to fight Satan on his own turf. So are we.

Jesus defeated the power of Satan. It’s up to us to go out and implement the victory until he comes. 


The Meaning of Jesus: Part 3 – The Mission of God

1977 Jesus of Naz synagogue

Luke 4:16-30

You may have heard the old adage, “You can’t go home again.” That it’s hard to go back to where you came from and relive your childhood, that sort of thing.

Well, I looked that up the other day and found out that the phrase actually comes from a novel by Thomas Wolf with that as the title. Wolf’s novel tells the story of George Webber, a budding author, who writes a book with frequent references to his home town of Libya Hill. When the residents get their hands on it, they see those references as distortions of their idyllic life, and they begin sending Webber death threats and menacing letters, even though the book gets rave reviews around the rest of the country.

The moral of the story? Don’t mess with the hometown myth!

But take that to a grander scale. Imagine, for example, writing some scathing references about your country and having them published. People here in the USA don’t take kindly to that kind of talk. You either have to love it or leave it.

I was interested to read the other day during the Martin Luther King holiday that the day after he was shot, Dr. King was set to give a speech entitled, “Why America May Go to Hell.” Key line: “If America does not use her vast resources to end poverty, to make it possible for all of God’s children to have the basic necessities of life, she too will go to hell.” He was writing this sermon in that hotel room in Memphis on April 4, 1968.

I don’t imagine that would have gone over well. Such talk gets people killed because we generally don’t like critique—especially critique that challenges our view of history.

But critique is what prophets do. It’s not critique designed to insult. It’s critique that’s aimed at change. But people don’t generally like change, particularly those who have been steeped in the same paradigm for years, decades, even centuries.

When Jesus goes back home to Nazareth, he seems to have known, even before he opened the scroll in the synagogue, that the prophetic words he is about to read and speak will be incendiary. He is about to announce to his hometown people the good news that God was about to become king, but the bad news was that it wasn’t in the way they thought. They, as well as many in Israel, thought they had an inside track as God’s chosen people—that God viewed them as insiders and the Gentile Romans and other people as outsiders. This was a long-standing paradigm, and Jesus was about to challenge it.

As we continue in our series on The Meaning of Jesus, one of the things that we need to come to grips with at the outset is that Jesus envisions his mission as God’s mission. As we said last week, Jesus understood himself as God’s messiah, God’s representative, and believed and acted as though he was in charge. But Jesus envisioned the mission of God as being quite different than his people. Indeed, when Jesus talked about God and acted as God, he was in effect redefining who God was for a people who thought they had him all figured out.

And if you think talking about a country is inflammatory, wait til you see what happens when someone talks about God!

Remember that last week we talked about the perfect storm that was brewing in first century Israel–the Roman storm of the empire from the west, the Jewish storm of expectation and that third—the hurricane that heralds the news that God is becoming king. It’s this third storm we want to look at this morning and how Jesus interprets it. This passage in Luke certainly isn’t the only place it appears (Joe will dive into this a little more next week) but it does tell us several things about what God becoming king means and how Jesus embodies that reality.

First, Jesus talks about God’s Mission.

It was customary for a rabbi to stand to read the scroll in the synagogue, and then to sit down to teach. Jesus opens the scroll to Isaiah and reads from Isaiah 61:1 and 58:6 (keep in mind that verse and chapter weren’t added until centuries later). “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

In these few verses, borrowed from the prophetic mission of Isaiah, Jesus reveals that he is operating under the power of the Holy Spirit. Now, the Spirit is active in a lot of ways, but Luke wants us to connect that verse back to Jesus’ baptism in chapter 3, when the Spirit descended on Jesus as a dove and the Father spoke those words of commission for Jesus and his mission: “You are my Son, the beloved. In you I am well pleased.” While the people in the synagogue may have been thinking that Jesus was referring to himself as a prophet, Luke wants us to recognize that Jesus is speaking as the son of God.

Now, notice what that mission is and what it implies:

1) to bring good news to the poor. What would be good news to the poor? That you won the lottery? That there’s a high-paying job available? Perhaps—but the even greater news is that in God’s coming kingdom, the poor will finally see justice. Indeed, the Bible reveals over and over again that the poor are preferred by God. Mary sings about this in the Magnificat that we studied during Advent: You lift up the lowly, she sings to God, and you send the rich away empty. This good news isn’t just the spiritual news that, hey, sure, times are tough for you now, but when you die you’ll have a mansion in heaven. No, instead it is the good news that God, the king, is coming to set things right, to make all people of equal worth and value. The economy of the kingdom will be quite different than the one we have now. In Luke’s version of the Beatitudes in chapter 6, the poor are blessed. Jesus will spend most of his ministry among the poor, and he lifts them up  and gives them hope.

2. to proclaim release to the captives. Slavery was a major part of the story of Israel, but the prophets reveal that people can be enslaved in a lot of ways: economic slavery in the form of debt and poverty, physical slavery to illness and disability, political imprisonment (like John the Baptizer), or even demonic possession. Jesus announces that God was taking people who were enslaved in so many ways and proclaiming their release. He did it through his healings, his exorcisms, his miraculous feeding of the five thousand—all of which were signs that the proclamation was actually starting to become reality. Most of all, release to the captives meant the forgiveness of sins—releasing people from its power and from the curse of death. He will demonstrate that freedom when he rises from the dead, which we will discuss in due time.

3. recovery of sight to the blind. This doesn’t just mean those who are physically blind, though the Gospels make clear that Jesus healed many blind people. It’s also about healing spiritual blindess—blindness to the vision of what God was about to do for Israel and the whole world—a vision of being a light to the nations. Jesus heals that blindness through his work, but he also proclaims its presence in people like the Pharisees, who are “blind guides” that lead people off a cliff of despair instead of offering a vision of hope.

 4. to release the oppressed and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. In Leviticus 25, God orders the Israelites to proclaim a Jubilee year every fiftieth year (after seven cycles or weeks of seven years). At Jubilee, slaves were to be set free, debts were to be wiped clean, fields were to be left at rest. Imagine, for example, if every 50 years all mortgages were paid off, all debts erased, you wouldn’t owe anybody anything. It’s like a “reboot” year!

There’s no evidence that the Israelites actually did this, but the idea of Jubilee was still strong. Indeed, the people believed that the sign that their exile had ended would be the same as a jubilee year. Remember last year we said that the exiles who were taken off to Babylon were allowed to return after 70 years? Well, everyone knew that wasn’t really the end of exile. The prophet Daniel had written that the exile would actually be over after 70 weeks of years (490 years). Now, depending on how you calendar it, 490 years would have taken them to the time of the Maccabean revolt, when Israel did enjoy about a century free from foreign domination. Some would also have thought that it was a time that was arriving about now, in the first century. Regardless, Jesus is announcing that in his person this Jubilee, the year of the Lord’s favor, was at hand. 

In fact, it would not be a stretch to suggest that the texts that Jesus reads in the synagogue in Nazareth act as a kind of mission statement for what he is about to do over the next three or so years. The wind of God, the hurricane of the kingdom, would come and alter the landscape through his ministry. A new age was dawning.

But that leads us to the second point that Jesus will make. That is, that this kingdom won’t just be for the Jews.

Up until the point that Jesus finishes the scroll, rolls it up and sits down, the people in the synagogue are with him. They’re amazed that this is the same son of a contractor they’d known all these years. Such words of grace! Such excitement! They almost can’t wait to hear what’s next—how God was going to do it. Of course, Jesus had left out that next line that Isaiah wrote after he was talking about proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor, which was obviously aimed at them, the faithful. The next line was one they’d also want to hear—about the “day of vengeance of our God.” That vengeance had to be reserved for those wicked Gentiles who were occupying the land. The Roman scum who oppressed them. What was good news for them, they thought, would be bad news for the Gentiles.

But as quickly as Jesus caught their attention, he even more quickly managed to make them furious. First, Jesus speaks what many of them had probably been thinking. Well, if you’re the one appointed by God to make all this happen, do for us those miracles you’ve been doing in Capernaum. They are ready to share in the benefits that they might get from being this prophet’s hometown, and a little ticked that he’s been doing these things elsewhere. They believed they should get a hometown discount—a fulfillment of the blessings they should receive as God’s people.

But Jesus, having delivered them the good news, now tells them that the good news isn’t just for them. In fact, God was actually giving that good news to the people they hated! Jesus was announcing that God was about to do a new thing. Change was coming.

Jesus tells two stories: the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarapheth. In that story, Elijah, the Jewish prophet, travels to Sidon during a great famine. There he meets a local widown, a Gentile, and not only eats with her but raises her son from the dead. There were lots of widows in Israel who were suffering during that famine, says Jesus, but God didn’t send Elijah to any of them—only to this widow. This Gentile. She received the grace and care of God.

Oh, and remember Elisha? There were plenty of people in Israel who had leprosy during his days—a debilitating skin disease that made people ritually unclean. But to whom did God send Elisha? Yes, to a Gentile Syrian named Naaman. And not only was Naaman a Gentile, he was the commander of the army of one of Israel’s enemies! As a result, Naaman renounces his pagan god and accepts Israel’s God as his own.

The point? The kingdom that Jesus is announcing is wider than they thought. They thought they were insiders, but Jesus was announcing that the outsiders—the Gentiles, the poor, the lame, the blind, the broken, the sinners, even the Romans—could become insiders by following him. No historical or ethnic boundaries were going to limit what God was about to do. This king was the king of all, and his kingdom was good news for everyone who would hear it!

They didn’t. In fact, they became so enraged at the mere suggestion that they weren’t God’s exclusive people that they drove Jesus out of town to the top of a cliff. In October, we stood on the likely site where they took him. Nazareth is built on a steep hill with a deep drop into the Jezreel Valley. It’s a long way down.

But it wasn’t time yet. Jesus would face more angry crowds later, and eventually one would have him nailed to a cross. Like the people in the synagogue in Nazareth, they didn’t get it.

 If we’re going to understand the meaning of Jesus, we have to be willing to admit that very often we don’t get it either. We want a God that blesses us, a God that will save us, a God that fights our battles and who will take vengeance on all our enemies. We want to be set free, healed, forgiven, but we don’t want to free, heal, or forgive others who aren’t like us.

Jesus announces that when God becomes king, everything is going to be turned upside down. All the categories by which we define ourselves will be shattered and only one will matter—did you care for people—all people—the way God cares for people—as people made in the image of God? Did you follow my lead? Did you clothe and feed and encourage the least of people, or did you mock the poor as being lazy and stupid? Did you welcome the stranger and the immigrant who is seeking freedom, or did you build bigger fences and threaten them with deportation? Did you share your wealth with those in need, or did you hoard it up and use it all for yourself? Did you love and pray for your enemies or did you seek their downfall? Did you follow the first commandment and become a steward of God’s creation, or did you exploit it with waste and destruction? Did you speak the truth to power about injustice, or did you just turn the page of the newspaper? Did you deliver the good news that changes the world now, or did you just wait around for heaven?

Jesus gives us a vision of a God who isn’t interested in more religious devotion, but one who cares more about justice, and mercy and peace. It’s the kind of God that the prophet Micah wrote about when he said, “What does the Lord require of you? To do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with your God!” It’s the God that sends rain on the just and the unjust, the God who eats with sinners and blesses the tears of prostitutes. It’s the God that tells the hometown folks the truth—that they may think they’re in heaven, but they’re headed for hell.

My guess is that if we really listened to Jesus, really understood the meaning of what he said and did, we’d probably want to throw him off a cliff for naming our hypocrisy. As long as he is gentle Jesus, meek and mild, we can confine his teaching to the realm of utopian fantasy.

Jesus embodies a God who is remaking the world, and because he does so he is dangerous to the status quo. He can’t go home again. He is off to fulfill the Scriptures and bring the story of God to its royal climax. His disciples never went home again because they followed him.

 We may not be called to change addresses ourselves, but we are all called to change our image of home and church from that of a secure fortress to a launching pad—a home base for fulfilling the kingdom mission in our neighborhoods and workplaces, our schools and our hangouts.

 But, be careful. There are cliffs out there! 


The Meaning of Jesus: Part 2 – The Perfect Storm

The Meaning of Jesus: The Perfect Storm


  Perfect-Storm-in-Social-Network-acceptanceIn late October 1991, the sword fishing boat Andrea Gail out of Gloucester, Massachusetts was on a run about 500 miles out into the North Atlantic. Despite a forecast of some dangerous weather ahead, the experienced fishermen headed for home because their ice machine was malfunctioning, endangering their catch. What was forecast to be rough weather turned out to be really a gross understatement. The convergence of three powerful storms – a strong cold front from Canada, a warm nor’easter from the Atlantic, and the remnants of Hurricane Grace—came together right on top of the Andrea Gail, generating winds over 90 mph and waves that may have been close to 100 feet high. The captain, Billy Tyne, radioed in, saying “She’s comin’ on boys, and she’s comin’ on strong.” Those were the last words heard from the Andrea Gail. The Coast Guard would later only find a few pieces of floating debris, and no survivors.

Robert Case, a meterologist, said that the crashing together of the cold front from Canada and the warmer Atlantic storm would have been enough to produce a strong storm, “but then like throwing gasoline on a fire, a dying Hurricane Grace delivered immeasurable tropical energy to create the perfect storm.” Indeed, “The Perfect Storm” became the title of the movie about the Andrea Gail in the year 2000, starring George Clooney as Captain Tyne. Since then, the “perfect storm” has been a popular way of describing the convergence of several factors on a single point to create a powerful event.

Triumphal-entryIn Simply Jesus, the book we’re using for our Wednesday night study, N.T. Wright uses the metaphor of a perfect storm to describe three powerful movements that are coming together as Jesus rides down the Mount of Olives into Jerusalem. We often celebrate Palm Sunday as a joyful prelude to the dark days of holy week, but in all four of the Gospels this story acts as something much more. It’s a symbolic even that causes the crashing together of these three major movements, with Jerusalem at the center point of it all.

If we are going to understand Jesus’ cultural context, we have to first understand that Jerusalem was the center of the world, the navel of the earth for all Jews. It was the center because that’s where the temple stood—the place where God was to dwell, the place where heaven and earth came together, the place of sacrifice and forgiveness, the place where pilgrims came for the Passover feast. Three times a year the Jewish people from surrounding areas would come to Jerusalem for festivals. All the hopes and dreams of first century Israel were concentrated in Jerusalem, and it is there that the perfect storm begins to form

It was Sunday, the first day of the Jewish work week, when Jesus and his disciples finished the climb up the hills from the Jordan River valley to Bethany and the Mount of Olives overlooking Jerusalem. They would have certainly not been the only ones on the road as pilgrims from all over the region were making their way to the holy city for the Passover festival, which celebrated the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt during the time of Moses. Jerusalem would swell from its regular population of maybe 40,000 inhabitants to more than 200,000 people during the festival.

Passover was a time of celebration, but it was also a time of high tension in Jerusalem. While the festival celebrated liberation from the tyranny of Egypt generations before, first century Israel was still under foreign domination. The Romans had taken over Jerusalem in 63BC and their imperial policies of taxation and occupation chafed at many Jews. Riots and uprisings were fairly common during the Passover festival, so Rome made sure that there was a military presence during that week, garrisoning more troops at the Antonia Fortress which overlooked the Temple complex.

This was the storm that arrived from the west—the Roman storm. Pilate’s arrival with the legions would thus have caused quite a spectacle as they entered the city from the west: a parade of infantry marching to the beat of drums, cavalry mounted on horses (if you had horses in the ancient world, you had the equivalent of F-16s), weapons, armor, gold standards glistening in the sun. It would have been a spectacle of imperial power and might.

But as Marcus Borg and Jon Dominic Crossan point out in their book, The Last Week, such a parade would also have been a demonstration of Roman imperial theology. For years, Rome had been a republic with an intricate system of checks and balances to insure that nobody could hold absolute dictatorial power. All that changed with Julius Caesar. A great Roman general who won victories out on the frontier, Caesar took the audacious step of bringing his victorious army back to Rome and established himself as absolute ruler, even allowing some people to start thinking that he was divine. Traditional republican Romans, however, were furious and had him assassinated. This set off a bloody civil war which was won by Caesar’s adopted son Octavius after he defeated Marc Antony and Cleopatra at the battle of Actium in 37BC. The victorious Octavius changed his name to Augustus, and declared that his adoptive father, Julius, was indeed divine and that now he, Augustus Caesar, was to officially be known as the “son of god.” If you asked anybody in the Roman empire who the “son of god” was, they would have to say Augustus—after all, that’s what was printed on their coins.

The rise of Augustus was heralded as the dawn of a new age. The whole world was being renewed. A new phrase was born, “novus ordo seclorum,” a “new order of the ages” (a phrase that was, interestingly, borrowed by the founding fathers of the United States and put on both the Great Seal and the dollar bill). For Rome, the accession of Augustus signaled that history had turned a corner. Here was the one the world had been waiting for, and carved in stone everywhere around the empire were inscriptions like, “Good news! We have an emperor! Justice, peace, and security and prosperity are ours forever! The son of god has become the king of the world!” Augustus also declared himself “pontifex maximus” or the “chief priest” of the Roman imperial religion. Not only was he a god, he was the god’s chief priest as well! The same was said of Augustus’ successor Tiberias, whose coins depicted him in priestly garb. It was one of these coins that Jesus was shown in the temple when the Pharisees were asking him about paying taxes to Rome.

 Rome was represented by Pontius Pilate on that Sunday. The job of the Roman governor was to keep the peace, administer justice, collect taxes, and stop any unrest from happening. He was also bound to maintain the cult of the emperor—the imperial religion. A few years prior to this, Pilate had caused a riot when he set up Roman standards in the Jerusalem temple—putting the symbols of Roman religion in the midst of the holiest site in the world for Jews. The people launched a mass protest in the theater in Caesarea, and when Pilate threatened to kill them all, the historian Josephus says that they all flung themselves on the ground and bared their necks to the soldiers, saying that they preferred death over the violation of their laws.

Pilate relented in that case, but this incident reveals the convergence of the Roman storm from the west with an equally powerful storm from the east—the storm of Jewish hope contained in the story of Israel. While the Romans believed that their history had peaked with the arrival of Augustus, the Jews believed that their own long story was going to come to its climax at any moment now—the story of Abraham and Moses, of David and the other towering figures of their history. Where the Roman storm emerged from a story of power and glory, the Jewish story emerged from a story of slavery and exile. The Romans looked back to see where they came from. The Jews were looking forward to see where they were going and who would finally deliver them.

The Jewish story found its theme in the Exodus, where 1500 years before the time of Jesus Moses had led his people out of slavery in Egypt across the Red Sea and through the desert to the promised land. The Passover feast was the annual retelling of this story, and on that Sunday in Jerusalem it was about to be told again. God had led his people to the promised land, and they enjoyed prosperity and peace under King David, God’s anointed king.

 But Israel’s story, unlike the story of Rome, wasn’t marked by conquest, military might, and security. David’s own sin and the sin of a succession of kings from his line caused a deep downward spiral toward idolatry and apostasy. The result was that God’s glory left the temple, as Ezekiel describes in chapters 10 and 11. Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586BC, the temple leveled to the ground, and most of the people were dragged off into exile in foreign lands. Most of them would never return. It was like Egypt all over again. It was the end of the world as they knew it, and they were enslaved once again. “By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion” wrote the Psalmist… “How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”

After 70 years, however, the Persians conquered the Babylonians and many of the Jews were allowed to come back to Jerusalem to rebuild both the temple and the city, but things were not the same. New foreign powers rose up to dominate Israel—the Greeks, then the warring empires of Egypt and Syria that were left after Alexander the Great died unexpectantly.

There was a brief glimmer of hope when some Jewish rebels under the leadership of the Maccabees revolted against Syria in the 2nd century BC, which ushered in about a hundred years of self-rule. But then the Romans came and took over. Even though they were in the land, the people of first century Israel believed they were still in exile.

And yet in the midst of this state of constant exile, there arose a hope that a new Exodus, a new return from exile was not far off. There was hope that a new king would arise, a promised Messiah, who would lead the overthrow of the foreign powers and usher in a new age of prosperity, independence and peace. This messiah, it was thought, would be a human being appointed by God (some even thought it was two messiahs – a military one and a priestly one – one to destroy Israel’s enemies and another to re-start the temple). He would be David, Moses, and the Maccabean rebels all rolled into one, and he would change everything. He would cleanse the temple and make it possible for God to once again return in glory.

Indeed, that was the ultimate hope—that God would return, restore his people to power and glory, and establish his kingdom on earth as in heaven, with the contact point between the two being the Holy of Holies in the Temple. It had been empty for some time, but God was coming back as he promised through the prophets like Isaiah. “No king but God!” was the revolutionary slogan of those who were waiting to overthrow Rome.

The problem, however, was that like the two systems of theological expectation we talked about last week, the people of Israel in Jesus’ day had a similar problem with their understanding of what God was up to—it was an edited version. Remember last week we talked about the continuum and the fact that we generally expect people to fall somewhere along it, left or right? Well, the same was true in Jesus’ day when it came to the expectation of what God’s coming would happen and what it would mean. In fact there are several different groups mentioned in the Gospels that all had their own expectations of how God would return.

The Pharisees, for example, believed that God’s coming was dependent upon strict adherence to the law of Moses and prophets. If only everyone would keep the law to the letter, then God would return. That’s why they were so fussy about things like Sabbath and food laws. They wanted to make sure that everything was perfect, and if it was, God would bless and support the law and the people by coming back. God’s return would prove them to be the insiders and everyone else to be outsiders.

The Sadducees, on the other hand, were the political and social elites of Jerusalem. They maintained the temple and were closely allied with the priestly class that was appointed by Rome. The idea of God’s return was dangerous for these elites because such loose talk might lead to revolution and the end of their importance.

The Zealots thought that God’s return was going to support their cause of revolution against Rome. They anticipated a warrior God who through his anointed leader would expel the Gentiles from the land. God’s return would mean political independence for Israel and put them on the world stage.

The Essenes, on the other hand, thought that the whole project in Jerusalem had gone awry. The temple was useless and corrupt, they believed, so they went out into the desert to establish a spiritually and ritually pure community—a kind of ancient Jewish monastery, if you will. God’s return would mean that they, the “sons of light,” would be vindicated as the true worshippers of God and the others cast out as blasphemous sons of darkness. They copied the Scriptures, in their caves the Dead Sea Scrolls were found.

Each of these groups anticipated God’s return, but they envisioned that return as underwriting their group’s aspirations and expectations. They wanted a divine hurricane, in other words, that would simply reinforce their overheated high pressure system. Each understood God and God’s intentions differently. And none of them were right.

Plenty of prophets, including John the Baptizer, had warned that when God comes it will be entirely on his own terms and with his own purpose. This God won’t stay on the continuum—his purpose is out here. God is returning, but it will not be in the way that you expect, nor will it be the God that you expect—the one that’s made in your own image.

No, there was a different vision of God and God’s return—a third storm—that was coming. And it was coming in the form on a young prophet riding down a hill on the back of a donkey. The Gospel accounts of Jesus—his teaching, his healing, his actions—all point to the fact that Jesus believed that as he came to Jerusalem, he wasn’t just announcing that God was coming. In fact, he was embodying the return of Israel’s God to his people in power and glory.

Read the Gospels closely and you’ll notice that everywhere he goes Jesus acts as though he’s in charge in a way that only God could be in charge. He heals people, he demonstrates authority, and, most tellingly, he forgives sins. These were things that were only supposed to happen in the temple. These were things that only God could do. Joe will talk more about this in a couple of weeks.

For now, the critical thing for us to get our minds around if we’re really going to understand the meaning of Jesus is that he believes and lives and acts as if he is embodying God’s return to his people, but it will not be in the way that any of them thought or expected. Notice that as Jesus rides down the Mount of Olives, the people are shouting Hosanna, but notice what else Luke tells us—

“As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying: “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.” (Picture from Dominus Flevit)

When was God coming? They wondered. Well, here he comes, riding on a donkey, just like the prophet Zechariah said he would. Jesus weeps even while he enacts the words of the prophet (Zechariah 9:9-14):

 Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!

  Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!

Lo, your king comes to you;
   triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
   on a colt, the foal of a donkey. 
He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
   and the warhorse from Jerusalem;
and the battle-bow shall be cut off,
   and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
   and from the River to the ends of the earth…

Then the Lord will appear over them,
   and his arrow go forth like lightning;
the Lord God will sound the trumpet
   and march forth in the whirlwinds of the south.

Here’s that third storm—the whirlwind from the south, God coming as king. This is God’s moment, cries Jesus through his tears, and you’re looking the other way. The other storms will eventually roll over each other—the Jewish wind from the east rises up against the Roman wind from the west and Jerusalem is crushed, it’s temple destroyed. Hopes and expectations are dashed. Rome will eventually fall, too, and the center of power shifts to another empire and another. Those storms will continue to rage.

They rage in our time, too. The storms of nationalism, religion, politics, and greed are just of few of the weather systems that are constantly smashing into each other. Sometimes, in fact, they combine—when religious expectation combines with nationalism, for example, we wind up with a civil religion that isn’t that much different from the cult of the empire. That can be a destructive storm on its own.

But the king who rides a donkey, is also the king who stills the storm and tells the wind and waves to be quiet.

The central point that the Gospel writers want to get across to us is that in Jesus, God is becoming king. His kingdom, however, is not of the type that this world knows or expects, nor is it merely a heavenly kingdom. It’s a kingdom that envisions the world through the lens of God becoming king. To know the full breadth and depth of what that means, we need to first understand what Jesus meant when he talked about God. Sounds like a silly question, but it’s clear that people in Jesus’ own day had a lot of their own ideas about God, and that’s still true today. Jesus reveals to us the God who is becoming king, and next week we’ll dive into the Old Testament to get a clearer picture of God and God’s mission that is being fulfilled in Jesus. For now, if you remember nothing else from this look at Jesus and his first century world, just remember this: the story of Jesus is the story of how God becomes king. The implications of that fact are larger than we imagined. Stay tuned for more!

The Andrea Gail got caught in a perfect storm that the captain underestimated. Jesus rides into a perfect storm on purpose. In him God returning as king, and his kingdom is coming with him. You can almost hear him say it: “She’s comin’ on boys, she’s comin’ on.”

 Are you ready?















The Meaning of Jesus: Part I – A Crisis of Identity

Jesus_knocking_at_ur_door1Luke 9:18-27

When I was a kid, I used to spend a lot of weekends at my grandparents little farm-ette in the little hamlet of Tunnelton, PA. I loved going there for a lot of reasons—playing ball with my cousins, helping out with the garden, driving the tractor, eating bacon and toast with my grandpap every morning. But one of the other things that I loved about that place was that on Sunday mornings we went down to the little Presbyterian Church in Tunnelton (my grandparents lived in the Tunnelton suburbs) and went to Sunday School and worship. It was a tiny church with a one-room Sunday School for the kids, an outhouse out back, a choir of six wheezy voices, a funeral home organ, and some of the sweetest people in the world. What I remember most, however, is the picture of Jesus that hung on the wall in the middle of the chancel, kind of where our cross would be—this picture of Jesus knocking on the door. I didn’t much listen to sermons back then (my grandmother bribed me to be quiet with Beeman’s gum), but I did look long and hard at that picture. For the longest time if you asked me what I thought of when I thought of Jesus, it was that picture. I remember being paranoid that Jesus would come to my house and I wouldn’t be able to open the door or I wouldn’t be home!

My guess is that every one of you has a similar story—a picture of Jesus in your mind. Indeed, people have been coming up with images of Jesus for a long time, and like that picture on the wall in Tunnelton they have a tendency to shape our understanding of Jesus.

Rembrandt-portrait-of-christs-head-1650-1Take these pictures, for example (Check out other pics here: Download Jesus Pics). Here we have the iconic Jesus—the classic icon of prayer and worship, but we also have Rembrandt’s portrait of Jesus as one who is more human, more thoughtful. Over here is a popular image—Jesus as a buddy Christ, a personal Savior who’s all about me, or the mysterious image of Jesus in the Shroud of Turin. There are some who get excited when they see the image of Jesus on a piece of toast or a fish stick (this one is from a toaster that’s actually designed to burn the image of Jesus on your breakfast), and others who want to make Jesus so big as to be unavoidable, like this picture of a 106 foot Jesus being constructed in a small town in Poland. Almost nobody likes it because they believe a strong wind could topple it over and crush the local supermarket—Jesus coming down from heaven with a vengeance! There are many pictures of Jesus out there, and many ways that people perceive him, and that was true even in Jesus’ own day.

Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do the crowds say that I am,” and they started to post similar pictures. Some say you’re the spitting image of John the Baptist come back from the dead, others are painting a picture of the prophet Elijah who’s come back in the same whirlwind he left in all those years ago. Others aren’t quite sure, but they’d put you in a gallery with a lot of the old prophets. It’s pretty clear that the crowd pictured Jesus as someone amazing, given the fact that he had just fed five thousand plus people with only five loaves of bread and two fish. Some might have even pictured him as a meal ticket as a result.

But while the crowd was posting a gallery, Jesus turns and asks his disciples for their snapshot. “Who do you say that I am?” What’s your picture?

Peter takes a stab at it. You are “the Messiah of God,” he says. Good answer, we think. Peter named his picture of Jesus, but it soon becomes clear that Peter’s image of Jesus is distorted by his own expectations and desires, and those of many others—a Messiah who will be a spiritual and political superman, driving out Israel’s enemies and restoring truth, justice and the, um, Israelite way, with him and the other disciples as his sidekicks and cabinet members. When Jesus speaks of quite the opposite – a Messiah who suffers and dies at the hands of their enemies, they can’t imagine it. They’re looking for the way to power and glory, Jesus is showing them the way to a cross.

While we understand that the disciples and the crowds were blinded by their expectations then, we don’t often get the fact that often our own expectations and images of Jesus continue to keep us as much in the dark as they were. We construct images and expectations that are based more on our traditions, our culture, our political persuasions, and our assumptions about who God is, what the Bible says or doesn’t say, and what the future holds, and we miss the real picture that Jesus painted of himself, his God, his mission, his life, and his death—a picture that is fleshed out not only in a few verses of Scripture, but in the whole story of Israel and God’s creation. We debate and defend pictures of Jesus that are caricatures of the real Gospel. In terms of 21st century Christianity in the US, there are two of these opposing pictures:

The first picture is the one that images through the lens of skepticism. It’s a picture that you’ll find on the cover of mainstream magazines every Christmas and Easter, one that you’ll hear trumpeted by non-Christians, and even one that you’ll hear in some mainline churches. It’s a picture of Jesus that looks something like this: Jesus was just an ordinary man, a good first century Jew, who was born in the typical way (not with all that miraculous virginal conception stuff – that’s a fairy tale added by the church much later). This Jesus was a remarkable preacher and teacher with a good moral sense about him, and was clearly popular, but only in the way that all charismatic leaders are popular. He certainly didn’t perform miracles, and he absolutely did not believe that he would die for the sins of the world. He was simply trying to get people to be kind to one another, especially the marginalized.

He definitely wasn’t divine. All that divinity stuff he said was referring to God and not himself. In fact, he’d have been horrified to think that people were calling him that, and he would not have wanted a “church” founded in his memory. Of course he didn’t rise from the dead (we all know that dead people stay dead, after all). Sure, his followers felt like his good teaching should continue, so that started using language that seemed to imply that he had been risen from the dead, but they meant it only in a spiritual sense. All that talk snowballed out of control until some literalists started to believe those legends as facts. The “gospels” were the result of that inventive process—written much later and, by the way, excluding some other gospels that were much more realistic and spiritual about Jesus and should have been considered as well.

To sum up that view, Jesus was a sage teacher of wisdom, who had a spiritual sense about him, but all that stuff about the cross and rising from the dead shouldn’t be taken seriously. All that matters is that Jesus is alive in our hearts, and if we follow his example we’ll just continue to make the world better and better on our own, and while we do it we’ll adopt some of that Buddhist and Hindu and other spirituality because, after all, we wouldn’t want to leave anyone out. All religions are simply paths to finding God, whatever that is. Jesus is just one teacher on the way to our personal enlightenment.

This is what we most often call the “liberal” paradigm. Some of its forefathers are people like Thomas Jefferson, who actually took a pair of scissors to the Bible and cut out all the parts about Jesus divinity, the cross, resurrection, miracles, etc. The Jesus Seminar would do the same thing a couple of hundred years later. The picture of Jesus we’re left with is one that’s not good news, just some good advice.

Now some of you are saying, “See, those nasty, godless liberals are at it again!” But before you go there, let’s look at the other view, which I believe is equally disturbing.

That’s the view of the “conservative.” The conservative (some would say “evangelical” as a synonym) picture of Jesus looks something like this. God creates the world and humanity, humanity screws up the world irreparably because of their sin, which brings down the death penalty on them and on the world. As a last ditch effort to save some of his people from the corrupt earth, God sends his supernatural son out of his natural habitat in heaven to come down and take the death penalty for those few who believe in him. While he’s on his way to die, he preaches a few moral lessons and he does a few extraordinary miracles, the biggest of which is rising from the dead, where after he returns to heaven, his true home, and waits there to welcome his faithful believers (those who pray a prayer of confession and belief in Jesus) after their deaths. The now useless earth, after all, will be destroyed in a cataclysm, thus heaven is everyone’s true home, unless of course you’re an unbeliever. In that case, you go straight to hell…do not pass Go…do not collect anything at all but a pitchfork. In the Roman Catholic version of this picture, Jesus instructs Peter to found the church and anyone who wants to be with Jesus will be part of that church. In the Protestant version, Jesus instructs his followers to write the New Testament, which tells them how to be good people, but mostly tells them how to get to heaven when they die.

Now some of you are saying, “Hold on a minute! That’s the gospel you’re messing with there. I’ve believed that my whole life. You’re dangerous mister…maybe even one of those liberals!”

Well, here’s the thing. Both of these pictures of Jesus, while they have some variations and maybe even a little bit of truth, have the same distortions. First, they are both edited versions of Jesus. The liberal view cuts out all the stuff in the New Testament about Jesus’ divinity, the cross, and the resurrection. The conservative view, on the other hand, tends to practically cut out most of what Jesus taught and did prior to his death. One cuts out the cross, the other cuts out Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom.

Look, for example, at the Apostle’s Creed, which we recited a while ago. Now I believe the creed—always have—and without qualification. I believe that Jesus rose bodily from the dead—that it wasn’t a metaphor or an illusion. But notice what the creed does:

“I believe in God the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary…suffered under Pontius Pilate…

Wait, what happened? You can almost hear the Gospel writers going, “Hold on! What about all that stuff we wrote about that Jesus said and did in the middle?! All that stuff about the kingdom, the healings, casting out demons, etc.? That was no sideshow!”

No, it wasn’t. See, we miss the fact that the creeds were developed for the specific purpose of dealing with controversies over Jesus’ relationship to God—his humanity and divinity. They were never meant to be the sum total of the gospel of Christ, but we’ve made them that way and, in doing so, we’ve cut out or at the very least downplayed some of the most vital pieces of the picture of Jesus and his mission and self-understanding.

Both liberals and conservatives suffer from a truncated gospel. Liberals might quote a few verses about the kingdom and some quotes from Ghandi, conservatives quote John 3:16 and a few verses from Romans. Neither is enough to give a complete vision of Jesus. As one of my seminary professors put it, “If the Bible is simply about the four happy hops that get you into heaven, then why is it so thick?”

In Luke 24, there’s the famous story of the two disciples walking on the road to Emmaus after the rumors of Jesus’ resurrection. Notice how this story goes. The two disciples are walking along when a stranger joins them. They don’t recognize the stranger as the risen Jesus (he doesn’t fit their picture), and he says to them, “What are you discussing with each other as you walk along?” And one of them named Cleopas says, “Where have been, living in a cave?” (that’s the Greek translation, sort of). “Don’t you know what happened?” And they tell him about the crucifixion and the empty tomb and the story told by the women. And then Jesus says this to them:

“Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then, it says, beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the Scriptures.

Did you catch that? Jesus paints his own picture for these disciples—a picture that is not truncated or edited, but a picture constructed from the full witness of Scripture – the Old Testament, the law, the prophets, all of it. If we want to have a full picture of Jesus, we need to listen to it with the whole Bible as our palate. The Gospel isn’t just a few verses, it’s the whole story of God, the story of creation, the story of humanity, the story we all find ourselves within. It’s not about literalism versus metaphor, it’s about reading the Bible for all its worth. Jesus knew it and structured his mission around it, we must be willing to do so as well if we want to know who he truly is and what he aims to do.

The second related issue that characterizes both distorted pictures of Jesus is that both suffer from a dualistic worldview that separates the world into the spiritual and the material—a worldview that’s also known a gnosticism. Liberals, for example, can’t imagine why God, the ultimate spiritual force, would engage in the limiting exercise of investing in a human body and all of its problems. As professor Tom Long puts it, “The gnostic impulse finds it hard to swallow the gospel claim that the Word became flesh and lived among us. Rather, for the gnostic, the Word is always becoming the spirit and floating above us. The gnostic impulse is ‘spiritual but not religious.’” This is why liberals have a hard time with the resurrection. In the Platonist Greek world where this Gnosticism was born, the body was considered to be a bag of dung, and to be truly free meant to be free from the body. Immortality of the soul is preferable to resurrection of the body. According to Bart Ehrmann, a leading liberal scholar, most Gnostics believe that this material world is not their home. “We are trapped here, in these bodies of flesh, and we have to learn how to escape…Since the point of the soul is to leave this world behind and to enter that ‘great and holy generation’—that is the divine realm that transcends this world—a resurrection of the body is the very last thing that Jesus, or any of his true followers, would want” (qtd in Long 74).

Interestingly, many conservatives actually believe the same thing! While they believe in the Word become flesh, their ultimate hope is to live in a disembodied heaven, which is their true home. The earth and all of its trappings are decaying and corruptible, hardly worth taking care of. Jesus will come and take us away from all that (kind of like Calgon), and we can live with him in bliss way beyond the blue. This body, this world doesn’t matter. Only heaven ultimately does.

But here again, we miss the picture of Jesus himself—the one who was raised bodily. The one who shows the nail prints in his hands and feet, the one who eats fish and bread with his disciples on the seashore, the one who—over and over again the New Testament says—came to dwell on earth with his people, just as the divine glory of God dwelt with the people of Israel in the tabernacle and the temple—which were the places where the Israelites believed that heaven and earth met. Neither Jesus nor the Israelites were Gnostics. They believed in a unified whole as their ultimate hope—body and spirit together, heaven and earth together.

See, we have this divide between liberal and conservative, mainline and evangelical, each touting their picture of Jesus. What both don’t realize is that they each have the same distortions, couched in different language. The time has come, I believe, for a different vision.

Brian McClaren, in his work, talks about the fact that we tend to view things in our 21st culture in terms of a continuum between right and left, conservative and liberal. Our politics are divided up that way, and so is our theology. When you meet someone, they will immediately try to determine where you are on the continuum, because you have to be somewhere. Oh, sure, there are those who try to stay in the middle, to be a moderate, but nobody in this culture likes a moderate. They never get elected. You’ve got to choose one way or the other. Churches are either liberal or conservative. Our conference asks that on its church profile form. You kind of have to declare.

Or do you? McClaren suggests that the continuum isn’t binding on Jesus. That perhaps what Jesus was saying and doing doesn’t really lie anywhere along this continuum. Instead, it’s out here—it’s a whole new thing, a whole different vision. It’s a vision that emerges out of the story of Israel and the story of God—not just parts of that story, but the whole story. It’s a vision that touches some agreement with pieces of the two sides of the continuum, and yet blows them both up. It’s a picture of Jesus that is fully formed with the colors of Jesus’ own culture, place, and time. It’s a vision that can’t be simply appropriated into our existing categories. It’s a vision of Jesus that can change everything.

I got captured by this picture of Jesus while sitting in a seminary class years ago. There was no painting on the wall, but rather we looked at a picture of Jesus using the canvas of the whole Bible. Before that, I had always read the Scripture in a truncated way—a few Old Testament stories in VBS, memorizing a few verses in Romans, John 3:16 of course. But when I was exposed to this picture of Jesus, which, like his self-portrait on the Emmaus Road, covered everything from Moses to the prophets—the whole story—I could not turn away. I could not go back to the continuum. I’ve been preaching this vision for years—you’ve been hearing bits and pieces of it— and when I came here I discovered that my colleague, Joe, had been seeing that picture as well.

So we want to share with you this portrait of Jesus over the next several weeks. I wish I could say I was a complete expert on Jesus, but that would imply that I had it all figured out, and that would put me right back on the continuum. This portrait of Jesus is like a great piece of art–you don’t get it all at once. It takes time, it takes study, and every time you look at it you see something new.

We want to show you this picture in a couple of ways. We’ll be preaching this series on Sunday mornings, where we’ll look at aspects of the portrait in a systematic way. Next week we’ll look at the kaleidoscope of Jesus’ first century world and the setting of the story. As he rides in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, two great waves come crashing together—the power of Rome and the hope of Israel, and yet Jesus transcends them both. We’ll talk about the relationship between Jesus and God, Jesus as the King, Jesus’ mission, the Temple, his battle with evil, and what the cross really means. Then, during Lent, we’ll open a fresh canvas on the future as we look at heaven, the second coming of Jesus, and the promise of resurrection.

This sermon series is an important one because if we can begin to embrace this fully biblical and vision of Jesus, I believe we will begin to transcend the gridlock that characterizes so many of our churches and culture and engage in a fresh and renewed energy to join Jesus in his kingdom mission. Jesus changes everything—and that change starts with us.

I also want to invite you to go deeper in this study. There are two classes starting this week that will help you as you study this portrait of Jesus. Our Bible survey class, which begins tonight at 6:30PM, will give you the grand sweep of the story of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. You don’t have to be a Bible student or scholar (in fact, preferably not!). Understanding how the story fits together is foundational to understanding Jesus. And then Wednesdays at 6:30, also beginning this week, Joe and I will be teaching the course “Simply Jesus,” where we’ll expand on the themes we’re preaching in the series and have a chance to wrestle together with questions. Books and signups are available in the Great Room.

I love my old memories of that little church in Tunnelton, and that painting of Jesus knocking. Now I know that when you let him in, nothing will ever be the same. I hope you’ll get that picture, too. 


Long, Thomas. Preaching from Memory to Hope. Westminster John Knox, 2009.

McClaren, Brian. A Generous Orthodoxy. Zondervan, 2006.

Wright, N.T. Simply Jesus. HarperOne, 2011.