Matthew 5:1-16; 6:5-13; 7:24-27; Mark 10:35-45; Luke 1:1-4; 4:16-21; John 1:1-18
The challenge of many of these core stories—one of the challenges of many of these core stories is simply the massive amount of information included. The Davidic dynasty last week? 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, a healthy chunk of the psalms and all the prophets—if you’re going to include all relevant Scripture. Some of you have asked why we reference so much Scripture (and we didn’t reference all that I just mentioned last week)—some of you have asked why we reference so much Scripture and then just read selections. Well, because we want you to have the references to the larger story. We want you to have a sense of the scope of the story—a sense of where it falls through Scripture, but we don’t have the time or the attention span to read it all. So we have to sum it up—we make selections.
Today, our theme—our core story is the life of Jesus. Well! Is that all?! It does raise an interesting question. We’ve got four gospels worth of primary source material—stories and teachings. So what of all that would you pick to tell the story of the life of Jesus? Out of all that material, what would you include and what would you exclude? I’m guessing if we were to compare what all we would pick, there would be some overlap, and then there would be some differences—different verses, different stories, different teachings. Ever given it any thought? What to your mind, sums up the life of Jesus? Can’t include all that’s in the gospels. Don’t have the time or the attention span. Got to sum it up. This—this is the life of Jesus.
Now I didn’t actually do that—didn’t make my own selections (though again, as a spiritual exercise, I do commend that to you). I took what the curriculum I’ve been looking at suggested. And what did that curriculum suggest? Well, the references are all listed in your bulletin (you really should read them later—they sum up the life of Jesus!). We heard excerpts read earlier. The suggested list includes the beatitudes, some of the sermon on the mount, the Lord’s prayer, the wise and the foolish, James and John asking for privilege, the reading of the scroll of Isaiah, and the prologues to the gospels of Luke and John.
So here’s what struck me—three things, actually (no lie!). First, I was struck reading through these references offered: no miracles. You notice that? This is the teaching and the living of the teaching. You may or may not remember, we had a worship series last year called the living word that punctuates the spoken word. We explored the consistency of one who never had to say, “Do as I say not as I do.”
So we have Jesus’ teaching and his living out that teaching, but no virgin birth, no angels, no sick healed, no one touching Jesus’ cloak to be made well, no blind made to see, no lame made to walk, no mute given voice, no paralytics forgiven their sins and told to rise, no demons cast out—no demons, no fish and chips multiplied, no water turned to wine, no transfiguration, no walking on water, no calming the storm, no raising of the dead. We have a goodly number of miracle stories throughout the four gospels. None—not one—included. That’s noteworthy, don’t you think? Would you include a miracle or two on your list of selections from the gospels to sum up the life of Jesus?
Interesting that the gospels themselves have somewhat of an ambivalent perspective on miracles. Clearly Jesus’ acts of power were meant to indicate—to point to—to signify the power of God at work in and through him. Several times though, Jesus himself seems to downplay the miraculous—maybe to even express frustration at peoples’ fascination with acts of power (Mark 8:12; Matthew 16:1-4; Luke 11:29; Luke 17:20-21). The transfiguration accounts explicitly undermine Peter’s stated desire to focus on the impressive (Matthew 17:4; Mark 9:4; Luke 9:33), and we look to other times when Jesus is unable to perform the extraordinary—the miraculous—yes, unable (Mark 6:5), or the disciples are able (Matthew 5:48; 10:1; 17:14-21; Mark 9:14-29; Luke 10:9)!
People do get so interested in extraordinary manifestations of divine power that they miss the more important point of divine power, and we, too, can get overly fascinated with the extraordinary—the miraculous—with what we name supernatural power—that which we attribute to divine authority—what only God can do, and all the while God seems most interested in love and grace and justice and compassion—that which we can all do. So it’s a fascinating affirmation to make: “If I’m summing up Jesus’ life, I leave out the miracles. They just get in the way.” Look to Jesus, in other words, not as someone who does all these things you can’t do, but as someone who lives as you could.
The second thing that struck me reading through these selections: they’re divisive texts. They’re apparently very much about assessing people and dividing them into those who are blessed and those who aren’t, into those who are salt and light and those who are flavorless and without light, into hypocrites and people of integrity, into the wise and the foolish, into those who drink of Jesus’ cup and are baptized into Jesus’ baptism and those who aren’t, into servants—those who serve and masters—those who lord it over others, into those proclaiming good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed and those who aren’t.
And yet, when we consider all this assessing and dividing, these texts are truly not about Jesus as judge, and here’s the third thing that struck me: these gospel excerpts are about the kinds of lives people lead. That’s it. The one text is not about choosing wisdom over foolishness—not really. It’s really more about living wisdom or living foolishness. Does that distinction make any sense to you? This is not about some authoritative judge figure assessing lives and rendering judgment, but about lives that reveal themselves to have been lived in wisdom or in foolishness. The beatitudes are not about strategically figuring out what to do to be blessed, but about the choices you make in living that indicate priorities that either bless or don’t. That one passage isn’t about setting your life goal—your personal mission statement—to be salt or light, but rather about whether in your living you flavor the flavorless and shine in the darkness. We don’t read a text about being judged a hypocrite or a person of integrity, but again, one about a living that is itself judgment of the one living it. And so, the emphasis is not on whether or not you drink of the cup at liturgical celebrations of the Lord’s supper, nor on whether or not you were baptized in the context of communal worship, but on the details of your living and how that living follows in the way of Jesus … or doesn’t.
I hope that makes sense. It’s a clear distinction in my head—which I’ve learned doesn’t always mean that much! But every time I try and put words to it, when I read those words back, that clear distinction gets a little fuzzy! So one more try: the living of Jesus draws attention to our own living as its own judge.
In our faith tradition, I would say we’ve gotten too fascinated with God as judge. We’ve gotten too interested in the criteria of judgement as if it’s something we have to say—some specific words—some formula, or as if it’s some profession of belief or some liturgical action—as if it’s something for us to use against others. Our lives are not to be wasted in vain attempts to claim the authority to judge people in the name of God when God simply looks to how lives judge themselves.
This past week, for some reason I can’t now remember (and don’t really want to), that Kansas baptist church was in the news again—or in something I read. You know the one? The one that hates people. And there was an article circulating on Facebook about a Fruitland Tennessee pastor who sent deacons of his congregation out into the parking lot to beat up a gay couple visiting—looking for a place to worship—looking for God. One of the young men was his son. The name of the church, Grace Fellowship. (In later developing news, and I know I shouldn’t take as much pleasure in this as I do, the estranged wife of that pastor led police to arrest him for theft!)
To sum up Jesus’ life, who’s going to go with hate? Anyone? Hate? No? How about violence? Anyone want to go with violence? Stealing? With the ideology that might makes right? How about with imposing an ideology, a theology, an ethic—a way of life on others? A my way or the highway attitude? Anyone see in Jesus a need to be in control—in charge? Anyone want to go with greed—summing up Jesus? Exclusiveness? Rejection? Manipulation? Disrespect? Anger? Small-minded dogmatism? A strict adherence to the rules and rule makers of institutionalized religion? Anyone?
There is too much identified with people who claim Jesus that is completely inconsistent with Jesus. Too much of religion—too much of our religion (I’m not talking about anyone else’s religion)—too much of our religion stands in stark contradiction to God. And it’s not just the extremists. It’s not just them. That’s too easy. It’s us, too, isn’t it? Seduced by the norms, presuppositions and priorities of our culture. All this I confess as a minister, as a baptist, as a Christian.
And now here’s the advantage of coming at this the way we have—of considering this core story as part of a whole—of considering even the life of Jesus in light of the other core stories—and the primal narrative to which they all contribute. For we have in the story of Jesus, I believe, nothing new. Something different, yes. But not anything new. In fact, doesn’t the life of Jesus sound so very familiar to those of us who have been seeking to track the primal narrative of God and God’s people through the core stories of Scripture?
Don’t we hear and see in and through the life of Jesus the truth of God still calling … God still calling people to follow in God’s way … God still intending to bless all people (as in the story of Abram and Sarai)? Don’t we hear and see God still saying be like me … God still saying and here’s who I am—God still calling and leading people out of what enslaves them (like in the story of Moses and the Exodus and the Sinai covenant)? Don’t we still have God absolutely committed to the voice of the people—what we want and what we don’t—what we affirm and what we don’t? Don’t we have God still absolutely respectful of how we respond to the word of God—even the word of God made flesh? Don’t we still have God absolutely committed to working with what is—God always taking the story that goes off track (our stories)—the life that goes off track (our lives)—and working within all circumstance for good (as in throughout the Davidic dynasty)? Don’t we always have God respecting our living enough to always let us break hope and possibility and love and faith and relationships? And then always there to help us pick up the pieces and wonder with us, “Now what can we make of this?”
Nothing new. Nothing we haven’t heard before. No surprise. In the life of Jesus, we believe the story is more full than it’s ever been before, but it’s not new. It’s not different. More clearly told than ever before (or ever since) and more fully told than ever before (or ever since), but no different.
So how do we get so far astray? Well, we always have. It seems so clear—always has: “Do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly with God.” Only makes sense, doesn’t it? That if Jesus is the fullness of God, then the story of Jesus should be consistent with all the other core stories of God—the unchanging truth of God-with-us (Immanuel). The consistency of the truth of God addressing the truth of our consistence with all those who have gone before—grumbling and doubting and rejecting and going astray and falling down and getting back up—and hopefully—hopefully—reorienting ourselves toward God before we grumble again, doubt and reject, go astray, fall down, and get back up—and hopefully—hopefully—reorient ourselves toward God.
And so in the living of one who prioritized living, as in all the stories, the question raised—the question we face is: how do you live your life? What’s the story you live? What are the priorities you live? And if you were to sit down with Jesus, would your living pronounce you blessed? Salt? Light? Would your living name you a person of integrity? Wise? Someone who shares Jesus’ cup and baptism? A servant? One who shares good news with the poor? One who proclaims release to the captives? Sight to the blind? Freedom to the oppressed? And God’s favor? If you were to sum up your living, would it parallel Jesus’?
And the affirmation we face within the confession that as much as we do any of these things, we too often don’t, is God, consistently, persistently calling. God, waiting—ready to guide us ever more into God’s presence and being. God, ready to work with us for good whatever the circumstances—whenever we turn God’s way.
There’s still time—always still time.