Now that I’m two weeks into it, I suppose that I should admit that in many ways this particular sermon series pretty much comes down to one question: “What was Jesus really like?”
And I suppose that I should also confess that I realize that probably most of us here probably feel as though we already know the answer to that question! After all, this is Jesus Christ we’re talking about here; not only the person who is at the very center of our Christian faith and everything we believe, but also one of the most – if not the most – prominent and familiar figures in all of human history! So in that sense, it would be hard not to recognize who Jesus is and what he represents. And yet… we also need to understand that though we all might see Jesus, that doesn’t mean we all see him in the same way!
For instance, if you grew up going to Sunday School your image of Jesus is apt to be as familiar as the paintings that always hung on just about every classroom wall: a man with long, flowing hair, a face that was thin and handsome with skin milky white and beard perfectly shaped and groomed; this vision of a kind and gentle man with a reassuring presence who is almost always surrounded by attentive disciples, obedient sheep and children climbing all over him.
Or maybe you ascribe to a more, shall we say, earthy image of Jesus: the man with strong, calloused carpenter’s hands; unkempt, wind-blown hair; dusty, sandaled feet and distinct middle eastern features, with eyes that are at once kind and yet pierce into your very soul; a man of true passion who could teach and pray, laugh and weep with equal intensity.
Or perhaps you’re one who prefers to see Jesus in more of a cosmic sense: with hands outstretched across the world and a sea of humanity, he who author Philip Yancey has described as “the One in whom all things inhere, [the One who is] the still point of the turning world.”
And there are others I could mention here, but if I were to take a poll here this morning, I’m guessing that there’s one image of Jesus that’s not as commonly held, and that’s the one of Jesus as Revolutionary. This is Jesus who was the man those in authority regarded as a troublemaker and disturber of the peace; the man who scorned fame, family, property and other traditional measures of success; the man who, quoting Philip Yancey again, proclaimed a message “that was jarringly anti-materialistic, anti-hypocritical, pro-peace, and pro-love.” This was the man who spoke, acted and lived as a true revolutionary!
Now, I know this is not an aspect of Jesus’ persona that we “New England Congregationals” tend to think a whole lot about, but understand that this is a predominant image of Christ in many third world nations all over the world, and one held by a great many Christians who espouse the idea of radical social change! I’m reminded of a poster I first saw a few years ago which actually was part of a very controversial church advertising campaign in the United Kingdom, in which Jesus was visually portrayed as a “spiritual revolutionary” after the manner of a Latin American freedom fighter. It was a truly radical approach (and it was for Easter, no less!); even the caption set people on edge (“Meek? Mild? As if.”), but it all pointed to this image of Jesus, who in proclaiming the Kingdom of God, openly, actively and passionately challenged authority in his time… and, as it turns out, in ours.
The fact is, if you look throughout the gospels you will find several occasions when Jesus did, in fact, offer some very sharp denunciations of what was happening socially, culturally and yes, even politically in first century Palestine. But here’s what’s interesting, and why it’s good we look at this: because what you find is that Jesus reserved his most scathing words not so much for their Roman oppressors (although that’s definitely there), but rather it’s for the religious establishment of his time; specifically for its leaders, “the scribes and the Pharisees!”
What we read this morning from 23rd chapter of Matthew is actually a very small part of what is sometimes referred to as “the seven woes,” in which Jesus literally rants on just how far that leadership had fallen; painting this vivid picture of a people whose profession of faith had become totally disconnected from the lives they were leading and warning against “a barren religious life [that featured] all of the outward signs but none of the inward reality.” It is, to say the least, a bold and passionate “calling out” of these people who were supposed to represent the gold standard of the faithful life, and whose authority ought to have been paramount; but there’s certainly nothing “meek and mild” about Jesus saying again and again, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!”
Of course, the irony of this is that actually, Jesus believed in what the Pharisees were supposed to be doing! We tend to cast the Pharisees in wholly a negative light, but that’s a misconception: historically speaking, we know that the Pharisees were those who sought to live out their faith in God with the highest standards of spiritual purity and strict adherence to Jewish law; and in fact, were considered to be good, solid, religious leaders of their time. And even Jesus says that the Pharisees “sit on Moses’ seat” – that is, they are qualified to teach the law – and because of this you should “do whatever they teach.” But don’t do what they do, Jesus goes on to say, “for they do not practice what they teach!”
The problem, you see, is that over time, many of these Pharisees had become corrupt and apathetic to their faith, violating the very law that they espoused by their actions and their attitudes. They tended to set themselves above the good of the temple; they sought power for its own sake, and did everything they could to curry the favor of an audience, even in how they dressed!
This is what Jesus was talking about when he said that the Pharisees made “their phylacteries broad and their fringes long.” Phylacteries were small leather boxes containing verses of scripture that were actually worn as an article of clothing, and were meant to remind them of God’s word and to keep it near to their hearts, but which for these Pharisees served as merely another way they could show off to everyone just how incredibly good and faithful they were! Likewise, there were fringes on the edges of the Pharisees’ prayer shawls, also meant to be a sign of devotion; but more often than not was used as a means to impress; this would be like if I decided to wear this robe of mine while shopping at the supermarket! Friends, short of my offering up a blessing upon the vegetables in the produce aisle at Market Basket, there would be no earthly reason for me to wear my robe down there except the desire to be seen by others!
This was exactly the kind of thing that what was happening amongst the temple leadership, and Jesus challenged that authority. But don’t misunderstand; Jesus did not do this for the sake of being a rabble rouser. Jesus’ heart was such that he knew that faith was more than merely following the rules; he knew that leadership is a gift and faithful leadership is not about self-promotion or glorification, but about being a servant to God. Jesus understood that true servants do not seek the glories of this world, but seek to help others see the glory of God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven! Jesus knew in his heart that God’s righteousness is only to be found in a life solely lived in God’s love. Or to put it another way, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
And honestly, friends? That’s about as “revolutionary” and as radical a stance as any one of us can ever take.
I know that we’re sorely tempted to apply a text like the one we’ve shared today to the Pharisees of our own time and place; you know, the smarmy TV preachers, the firebrand Church leaders whose characters don’t match up to their lofty words, the denominational rule keepers and so on. It’s so much easier to assume that Jesus is challenging them but certainly not us! But if we’re truly to see the heart of Jesus here, then we can’t avoid the conclusion that Jesus is in fact challenging the authority of any one of us who would seek to walk the walk of faith for all the wrong reasons. And that’s difficult, because the truth is that many of us are far more “Pharisaic” than often we’re willing to admit!
The wonderful Ann Weems – the Presbyterian worship leader, poet and author – has written that as Christians and particularly as church people we do have the tendency sometimes to “play Pharisee,” “more interested in the Sunday morning count than in the feeding of [the] sheep, more interested in stars for our crowns than in the cup of cold water, more interested in tradition and appearance than in the following of our Lord.” She goes on to say that we often guilty of “playing at church” while “making excuses about the real thing,” putting God off and finding countless reasons for not following Jesus. In short, writes Weems, we have too often forgotten that our Lord is “the Lord of Life.”
Now, years ago in a different sermon and another context, I quoted from that particular piece from the pulpit; and I remember this because the very next day I was confronted by a woman from my congregation who very angrily suggested to me that I should not have done so! I do not think of myself as a Pharisee, she said; and I don’t appreciate the intimation that I am some sort of vain sinner. Furthermore, she went on, I don’t come to church so you can tell me what I’m doing wrong in my life; I want to know that I’m doing everything right! I want to leave church on Sunday feeling warm and fuzzy and feeling as though in the midst of everything in this life I might just be a little bit better than everybody else!
Well… I thanked her for her feedback; told her I appreciated her honesty and was sorry she was upset; offered to give her a printed copy of the message so perhaps she could reflect on it all a bit longer, and then I urged her to return next Sunday when perhaps the message would be… well, warmer, and fuzzier.
Honest; that’s what I actually said to her; but I think that now, all these years later, I can confess to you that what I wanted to say to her – gently, of course, and with all Christian love – was this: Do you even know Jesus?
Because however we see Jesus, what we have to know is that Jesus is the Lord of Life… he is the Lord of our life! And as Weems wrote in that same piece, “Jesus was into life in such a way that either had to follow him or resent his attempt to bring you change. That’s still who he is,” she concludes, “someone who’s going to make you see yourself if you have ears to hear.” Jesus will always challenge false and misguided authority; most especially when you and I succumb to the notion that this authority belongs to us.
This is the heart of Jesus, beloved; and may we truly have ears to hear and eyes to see within that heart the radical, revolutionary nature of his power and love. And may our faith, and indeed, our very lives become a vibrant expression of what it means to follow such a living, loving Lord!
And as we do, may our thanks be unto God!
AMEN and AMEN.
c. 2014 Rev. Michael W. Lowry