Sunday, August 4, 2013

Was Jesus a NICE guy?

We like to believe that Jesus was a nice guy, God’s own “Mr. Congeniality.” But, of course, that’s not who he was at all. As he’s journeying toward Jerusalem and things are heating up, his words are marked with a sense of urgency. Headed toward a violent confrontation with death, he doesn’t say, “I’ve come to bring sweetness and light to this earth”, but “I’ve come to bring fire to this earth.”

Like the God Moses encountered in the burning bush, Jesus knows the fire intimately. And experiencing that kind of inner fire doesn’t make one nice. On the contrary, an encounter with a burning bush always precedes confrontation and conflict. After Moses meets God in the burning bush, he’s not led to peace and a resolution of his problems, but straight into a hornet’s nest with Pharoah himself. It seems that conflict and confrontation are necessary for the sake of freedom and life. This is true for Jesus, as well.

At his birth the angels may have announced “Peace on Earth” but that’s not the way Jesus describes his mission at all. “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?” he asks. “No, I tell you, but rather division!” And then he goes on to describe what he means by that. “From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

Now, this was no small thing in Jesus’ culture. In that time and place, it was your relationship to your kinship group that defined your life. This was the foundation of society. And Jesus wasn’t just talking about being divided from your kinship group in theory here. This was a reality for those who followed him.

So, what does it mean for us today? Somehow along the way, Jesus has become domesticated for us. We assume that if Jesus were alive in 2013 he’d be a college graduate, driving home to his house in the suburbs in his SUV, sipping on Starbucks, listening to country-western music. But the truth is, Jesus was anything but mainstream in his lifetime and he would be anything but mainstream today.

Many Christians in our culture stake their claim on family values as if they were invented by Jesus, when the truth is, he wasn't a very "good" son to Mary his mother. A "good son" would have stayed home and worked at the family's trade to care for his mother until her death; he wouldn't have gone off galavanting around the countryside. And Jesus wasn’t even a "good man" by the standards of the respectable people of his day. A "good man" would defend the family name and honor if challenged or attacked; he wouldn't be talking about loving enemies, and he wouldn't be disclaiming his family name by saying "those who hear the word of God and do it are my mother and my sister and my brothers."

And as if all of that isn't bad enough, Jesus actually encourages other people to leave their homes and families, to allow their family name and honor to be dismantled by others rather than upheld by retaliation. For that’s what it means to follow him his example.

Jesus challenges us to follow him in a radical way of life that turns the world as we know it completely upside down. There’s a hymn we sing in advent called “Canticle of the Turning.” It’s based on the song of Mary in Luke’s gospel. One of the verses goes like this:From the halls of pow’r to the fortress tow’r, not a stone will be left on stone.
Let the king beware for your justice tears ev’ry tyrant from his throne.
The hungry poor shall weep no more, for the food they can never earn;
there are tables spread, ev’ry mouth be fed, for the world is about to turn.
My heart shall sing of the day you bring. Let the fires of your justice burn.
Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near, and the world is about to turn.


It’s a song of victory and usually sung with gusto. But the thing that we don’t like to face is the fact that when God turns the world upside down, we’re a part of that world. If we’re people who benefit from the status quo, we’re being turned upside down, too…or if we’re a part of a system that oppresses others…or a part of a nation at war…or part of a culture that treats the poor with contempt. If we benefit at all from the status quo, God’s reign means a reversal for us. Ouch!

When you’re leaving one way of life and taking up another, it’s painful. It’s disruptive. But it’s also true that the way to find the freedom to live in a new way is to turn your back on the old way: old relationships, old patterns of life, old ways of seeing the world. Bottom line? If you want to follow Jesus and participate in the Reign of God, you’d better be able to stand on your head.


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