Crows Nest Uniting Church
Epiphany 4 • 1 Feb 2015


Deuteronomy 18:15-20
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Mark 1:21-28


Rev. Chris Udy



Many people
who have no real connection with Church
and don’t consider themselves religious at all
are, nevertheless, genuinely searching
for meanings that go deeper
than money, sex, and food.
Many of them are suspicious of churches –
especially in these days of Royal Commissions -
but for some the life of Jesus
is still a source of hope
for some kind of truth and inspiration.
 
They’re on a quest
for something that works,
for something that lasts,
and for something that’s friendly –
and the Jesus that attracts them,
is not so much the Jesus of the Church:
Jesus in stained-glass windows
and 18th Century hymns -
their interest is in the man of Nazareth -
the real, historical person
behind all the layers
that the Bible, and the Church,
and western culture,
have added on.
 
This revived interest in Jesus
comes at a time
when Bible scholars and historians
are both confident
that they can see through all those added-on layers,
and also in strong agreement,
with the picture they’ve been developing
of Jesus and his world.
These researchers are part of a wave of study
that’s sometimes called
the third quest for the historical Jesus.
The first quest began
more than two centuries ago -
when historians and Bible teachers
started writing down their versions
of the life of Jesus -
books that tried to tell the story of his life
using information from the sources they had then:
primitive archaeology and early studies in psychology
as well as the Bible
and other ancient documents
and texts from the Near East.
That first quest
came to an end with Albert Schweitzer,
who read and summarised all these early attempts
before he went to Africa as a medical missionary -
and concluded
that the quest for the historical Jesus had failed.
He said that this first search
for the truth about Jesus
had been like someone peering down to the bottom
into a deep dark well -
and describing the face they discovered in the shadows,
only to discover that the face they’d found was their own.
 
The second quest for Jesus started then -
and it was essentially negative.
After the first quest had failed,
scholars despaired of saying anything
about who Jesus really was -
they said - the information is too confused,
too old and corrupted -
it can’t be trusted -
and it doesn’t matter anyway,
because the only images of Jesus that we need
are the ones we find in the Bible.
We cannot see the Jesus of history, they said,
all we have is the Christ of faith.
 
But then, nearly 30 years ago,
the third quest began.
New writings were found –
new gospels,
new historical documents
that give us a much clearer view
of what was happening around the time
when Jesus was living and teaching in Israel.
New skills were developed:
technologies that revealed
the ancient origins of these writings,
tools to analyse their language
and to show the connections
between them and the books of the Bible -
and as all this new and minutely analysed information
came together,
scholars and historians
grew more and more confident
that a clear and reliable image
was emerging from the shadows.
 
One of these scholars of the third quest
was a man who grew up in a Lutheran Church,
singing songs in a Sunday School
about Jesus as his friend,
to whom he had promised his love and loyalty.
But as he grew older
God grew more and more distant,
and when he was a teenager
his doubts filled him with guilt and fear.
He desperately wanted to believe.
Every night for several years
he would pray “Lord I believe, help my unbelief” -
but his doubts grew more and more substantial,
until finally he stopped feeling guilty or afraid,
because he no longer believed enough
to hope for heaven or be frightened of hell.
 
He went to university – to study maths and physics -
but at this university everyone in first year
had to do a course in religion.
Sunday school had prepared him well -
he knew the Bible backwards -
and the teacher of the course
was a brilliant young professor -
so he found the course exciting
and he achieved excellent results.
He did so well
that he continued to study the Bible and read theology;
he even went to theological college -
not because he believed it -
more because he was good at it -
and because he was now on a quest of his own.
 
Although he’d lost his belief in God
when he was still a teenager,
he’d always been interested in Jesus,
and his early research focussed on
the details of Jesus’ life and history.
Ultimately he joined other scholars and teachers
on their quest for the historical Jesus -
part of that third wave of scholarship and exploration -
and he became professor of religion and culture
at Oregon State university -
and as he looked more and more closely
at the information he was studying and teaching,
he began to experience moments
of what he described as “radical amazement” -
moments of transformation
in which he saw the earth
as “filled with the glory of God”,
and “shining with a radiant presence” -
those are his words - and he said -
“Gradually it became obvious ...
that God - the sacred, the holy ... - was ‘real’.
God was no longer a concept
or an article of belief,
but had become an element of experience”.
 
This professor’s name was Marcus Borg,
and over the years his writing and teaching
has given hope to many thousands of Christians
trying to find their way
from a fragile Sunday school faith
to something that makes sense
in a post-modern world
of brutal politics and hard science.
In 1994 he wrote a book
called “Meeting Jesus again for the first time” -
in which he describes his own quest
for the truth about Jesus,
and also the picture of Jesus
that’s emerging from the work
of historians and scholars in the 3rd quest.
He went on to write many books,
some of which we have on our bookshelf
or in our little library in the Tea Room:
The God we never knew”,
The Heart of Christianity:
Rediscovering a Life of Faith”
and some he wrote with John Dominic Crossan:
The Last Week” and “The First Christmas”.
 
In his books,
Marcus Borg described the Jesus he’d met.
He said - first -
the historical Jesus was a “spirit person -
one of those figures in human history
who has experienced the reality of God.”
Second, he was a “teacher of wisdom -
who used parables and stories
to teach a subversive and alternate wisdom.”
Third, he was a “social prophet” -
who criticised people of privilege
and came into conflict with the authorities,
and fourth, he was a “movement founder”:
he and the people who followed him
shattered the social boundaries of his day,
and began the movement
that eventually became the Church.
 
Marcus Borg said
Jesus was a highly gifted speaker,
who also used dramatic public action
to demonstrate his teaching.
He was an enormously courageous person,
someone who knew
he was putting himself in lethal danger,
but chose to continue,
and died while he was still young.
His life was short,
and his time of public activity
was very brief.
While the founders
of the world’s other major religious traditions
lived long lives
and were active for decades,
Jesus achieved his significance
in a very brief moment of time -
at most three years - possibly only one.
And Jesus was a healer:
more healing stories are told of Jesus
than anyone else in the Jewish tradition;
and his presence was compelling -
he drew people to him
with great warmth and power.
 
This morning we read
one of those healing stories,
about a man
whose spirit was dark and damaged -
but like many people who have been deeply hurt,
and whose lives are lived in shadows,
this man could see things very clearly,
and he recognised something
of the power and presence of Jesus.
He started to call out -
there in the worship of the synagogue -
“What have you to do with us,
Jesus of Nazareth?”
 
The Jesus of history - Jesus of Nazareth -
was obviously a unique and remarkable man,
about whom many things are claimed -
not all of them entirely helpful
to our friends and neighbours
on their quest for truth and meaning.
But one thing is very clear -
the significance and impact of his life
wasn’t contained by his own generation
or his own culture -
those short months of healing and teaching
lit a light that exploded,
beyond his death,
beyond the borders of Israel,
and into the lives of millions of other people.
His presence is still transforming -
he still brings moments of “radical amazement” -
and the people who meet him today
still find him both painfully confronting
and profoundly inspiring.
 
The man in the synagogue was no different.
He called out -
“What have you to do with us,
Jesus of Nazareth,
have you come to destroy us?
I know who you are - the Holy One of God.”
 
Meetings with Jesus
aren’t necessarily pleasant or comfortable.
Holiness, wherever we find it,
is both fascinating and fearful -
and for many people
the idea of a relationship
with anyone who might see through us –
who might expose our illness
or reveal our addictions and compulsions,
is more frightening
than the possibility of healing or freedom.
But when we accept the risk of exposure and revelation,
we discover something more powerful than our fear -
we find a human spirit
whose experience of God’s presence
is so intimate and real
that he releases power for healing in our spirits -
and a holy man
who knows and loves humanity so well
that he can teach us the way to freedom.
 
In the synagogue
Jesus called the soiled spirit out
of the man who’d called to him,
and everyone who saw what happened were amazed.
“What is this?”  they said -
“A new teaching - with authority!
He even commands the unclean spirits
and they obey him.”
 
The healing confirmed
what they had already experienced.
The wisdom Jesus taught
wasn’t simply tradition and history
distilled and re-hashed
in the manner they’d come to expect
from preachers and religious leaders -
they weren’t just looking down that deep dark well
and seeing themselves reflected at the bottom,
Jesus was offering something entirely new -
a revelation of truth that was unique to him -
and an experience of presence
that was compelling - radically amazing.
He taught with authority -
not just certainty or sincerity or conviction,
something more than that -
and when the man’s spirit was cleansed and healed
their experience was confirmed.
Mark says that at once his fame began to spread
throughout the surrounding region;
his significance and impact exploded
beyond the synagogue,
beyond the town,
and into the lives of people
who had never met him face to face,
but were drawn to find out something more
of what he’d said,
and what he’d done,
and who he was.
 
Marcus Borg insisted
that any sketch of Jesus
with a claim to historical credibility
must account for the people
who left everything behind -
career, possessions, positions,-
as well as illness, addictions and broken spirits,
to follow him,
not only in his short lifetime,
but constantly and consistently,
one generation after another,
one century after another,
across borders and cultures and languages
and all the other divisions we’re broken by,
on a quest for meaning and truth
that works, and lasts, and is friendly.
Marcus Borg himself
was one who was touched and transformed
by the Jesus he met and followed –
and when Marcus Borg died –
just over a week ago (21/1/2015)
those who prepared tributes
to his life and work
all described how thoroughly
Jesus had caught and held Borg’s heart and purpose -
and how attractive and compelling – and liberating –
his picture of Jesus had been
for those who had read his books
or heard him speak.
 
So now, the impact and significance
of the brief but amazing life of Jesus
has also touched us,
and we continue that quest for truth
about the man
who’s called millions of people just like us
to live lives of wisdom, and courage, and spirit.
We pray that, like Marcus Borg,
and many others like him,
we will also find wholeness
in the  loving spirit of grace
that Jesus reveals to us,
and whenever our spirits are troubled or dark,
we hope his light will lead us
to freedom and peace.