Pentecost 7 • 8 Jul 2018

2 Samuel 5:1-5,9-10
Psalm 48
2 Corinthians 12:2-10
Mark 6:1-13

Warwick van Ede

Who, for us, is Jesus?

Today we are dealing with a situation from Mark’s Gospel,
which brings us back to some of the questions
which Michael was posing for us last week
- especially, who, for us, is this Jesus?
Also, what does it mean for us to potentially
meet Jesus the prophet,
and most importantly, if we do encounter this Jesus, are we offended,
like the townsfolk in this reading from Mark,
offended that Jesus does not conform to our expectations of who He is?
In 2013, American Fox News Anchor, Megan Kelly was part of a discussion
which was, in typical Fox News Style, aimed at shooting down the suggestion by some,
that Santa Claus should be portrayed in various different ethnic backgrounds.
Fox, and Megan Kelly were outraged, and having none of it!
She said:
“I mean, Jesus was a white man too, he was a historical figure,
that’s a verifiable fact, as is Santa – I just want the kids watching to know that!”
Now, if a man from what we call today the Middle East qualifies as being “white”,
then it’s a puzzle to me what all the Trump administration border security laws are about
– the ones which seek to ban anyone from those particular parts of the world –
perhaps it’s just as well that Jesus isn’t flying through the US Immigration system at the moment!
Who knows what Megan Kelly would do if she met a dark haired, dark skinned Jesus.
Megan Kelly’s creation of Jesus was of someone just like her, only male
- of her own ethnic background, probably middle class.
She wouldn’t be alone in thinking like that
…so many of the traditional illustrations for bible story books have pictured a Jesus
who looks like he comes from Scandinavia more than Palestine,
with virtually blonde long hair, and blue eyes!
The desire to envision a Jesus with whom we can identify is common
– go to Asia and you will see depictions of Jesus that portray Him as Asian
– go to Africa and you will see depictions of Him looking African.
On a more light-hearted note, there have even been attempts to envision
what an Australian Jesus might be like
– have a look at this depiction, by artist Reg Mombassa, of the Australian Jesus
– see if you can hear any familiarities in this story…..

Whilst it is all very well to try to appropriate Jesus in a cultural way,
what happens when the Jesus we see, the Jesus we meet,
does not conform to what we expect in terms of the message that he brings,
or the manner in which he delivers it?
It is precisely that issue which Jesus encounters in today’s reading from Mark, as he travels to his home town.
It is apparently an event worth noting,
because it is picked up in each of the synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke,
though it is treated slightly differently in each.

In Mark’s Gospel, this is how it plays out – simply and succinctly:
Jesus left there and went to his home town, accompanied by his disciples. 
When the Sabbath came, he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were amazed.
“Where did this man get these things?” they asked.
“What’s this wisdom that has been given him?
What are these remarkable miracles he is performing? 
Isn’t this the carpenter?
Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph,
[a] Judas and Simon? 
Aren’t his sisters here with us?”
And they took offence at him.
So, the people in his home town have obviously heard about him performing miracles,
remarkable miracles,
and they have with their own ears heard him teaching with wisdom in the synagogue,
and yet they are offended….what is happening here?
It seems to me that the words which the townsfolk use give away something of what is going on….
Isn’t this the carpenter?
Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? 
Aren’t his sisters here with us?
Jesus, is no longer who they expect him to be.
They knew him in certain ways – as a son, as a brother, as a carpenter –
now, having left town unexpectedly at about the age of 30 years,
he comes back to them - as a teacher, as a miracle worker,
as a prophet speaking about a new Kingdom of God –
and it is all too much for them.
He is not the Jesus that they knew – he is not the Jesus that they understand,
the Jesus which they had fashioned in their minds –
and they reject him.
How dare He come to them as a Prophet, when he was just a local lad.
Very wisely I think, Michael cautioned us last week
against being too dogmatic about attempting to capture God –
that God is, of God’s very nature, undefinable, except in part.
But let us at least ask ourselves about how
we would react if we encountered Jesus,
not as we might have fashioned Him ourselves, but as this Prophet.
Firstly I guess what we have to ask is,
what do we mean when we talk about encountering Jesus as a prophet?
John Deer, an American former Jesuit Priest and peace activist,
has helpfully given some guidelines to help understand how it was that prophets,
as the people of Jesus time understood them, operated.
I would like to look at those aspects,
think about the biblical Jesus we know against those guidelines,
and then think briefly about how the different version of Jesus
that get hawked around today stack up against some of these.
John Deer, in his book, the Beatitudes of Peace, provides a dozen or so indicia of a prophet,
as we find them in the Jewish Scriptures.

First, a prophet is someone who listens attentively to the word of God,
a contemplative, a mystic who hears God and takes God at God’s word,
and then goes into the world to tell the world God’s message.
So a prophet speaks God’s message fearlessly, publicly, without compromise,
despite the times, whether fair or foul.
I think we can agree that the biblical Jesus gives this criteria a tick.
But how about some of the versions of Jesus that we have had put before us over history
– versions of Jesus who have sided with institutional power in the form of the State,
allowed oppression and atrocity to continue and flourish, favoured Power over vulnerability?
The versions of Jesus put forward by those who were supposedly his followers,
which have stood by as Apartheid reigned in South Africa,
as Spain and Portugal tore the world apart under the banner of the church?
Are we offended by the Jesus who speaks his message fearlessly?

Second, morning, noon, and night, the prophet is centered on God.
The prophet does not do his or her own will or speak his or her own message.
The prophet does God’s will and speaks God’s message. . . .
In the process, the prophet tells us who God is and what God wants,
and thus who we are and how we can become fully human.
Is that a message that we are willing to hear, without taking offence,
like the people in Jesus’s home town?
Sometimes, I think that people prefer to have a Jesus
who says absolutely nothing about what it is that God wants,
a Jesus that can just be encountered each week in a quiet, reverential way, traditionally on a Sunday morning.

Third, a prophet interprets the signs of the times.
The prophet is concerned with the world, here and now,
in the daily events of the whole human race, not just our little backyard or some ineffable hereafter.
The prophet sees the big picture—war, starvation, poverty, corporate greed, nationalism, systemic violence,
nuclear weapons, and environmental destruction.
The prophet interprets these current realities through God’s eyes,
not through the eyes of analysts or pundits or Pentagon press spokespeople.
The prophet tells us God’s take on what’s happening.

Here, I think, is where the “rubber hits the road” for many contemporary Christians –
I can’t tell you how many times I have words to the effect of
“Christians and religion should stay out of politics”
…absolute nonsense of course, but if Christians take such a view, life is a lot easier – less demanding.
When we meet this Jesus, who speaks of the evils which must be confronted,
we are inevitably challenged, but how do we respond?
Do we follow him, or, like the people in his home town, do we take offence?

Fourth, a prophet takes sides.
A prophet stands in solidarity with the poor, the powerless, and the marginalized. . . .
A prophet becomes a voice for the voiceless.
Indeed, a prophet is the voice of God.
Again, I suspect that for many religious people, such an approach is difficult to swallow,
particularly for people such as ourselves who are part of and benefit
from systems of power and wealth which are entrenched in our western lifestyles.
Far easier to listen to the type of Jesus which is proclaimed in churches
which espouse a “prosperity theology”,
to the effect that actually Jesus wants us to be more powerful, more wealthy.
Can we bear to hear the Jesus who stands in solidarity with the poor and marginalised,
or do we too, take offence?

Fifth, all the prophets of the Hebrew Bible are concerned with one main question: justice and peace.
They call people to act justly and create a new world of social and economic justice,
which will be the basis for a new world of peace.
Justice and peace, they learned, are at the heart of God;
God wants justice and peace here on earth now.
And the prophet won’t shy away from telling us that if we want a spiritual life,
we must work for justice and peace.

What?! For many Christians, a “spiritual life” has been just a matter for them, for us, a personal matter -
and they didn’t need any pesky prophets telling them how to relate to God, and to God’s world –
can we hear this prophet Jesus, do we listen to his words, and weight the demands on our lives - or do we take offence?

Sixth, prophets simultaneously announce and denounce.
They announce God’s reign of justice and peace
and publicly denounce the world’s regimes of injustice and war.
Like Martin Luther King, Jr., they hold high the alternatives of nonviolence and disarmament
and lay low the obsolete ways of violence and weapons.

I well remember when I was a teenager,
and President Ronald Reagan was apparently doing his best to bring the world to the brink of nuclear war,
that many churches in America celebrated the possibility of taking on the then USSR in war,
suggesting that Jesus would be on their side!
We still live in a world where so-called followers of Jesus champion war and violence
because it suits their ends.
How would
you react to the prophet who comes in such denunciation of injustice and war?
Would you take offence? Do you take offence ?

Seventh, a prophet confronts the status quo.
With the prophet, there is no sitting back.
The powerful are challenged, empires resisted, systemic injustices exposed.
Prophets vigorously rock the leaky ship of the state
and shake our somnolent complacency. . . .how would you react?

Eighth, for the prophet, the secure life is usually denied.
More often than not the prophet is in trouble.
Prophets call for love of our nation’s enemies.
They topple the nation’s idols, upset the rich and powerful,
and break the laws that would legalize mass murder.
The warlike culture takes offence and dismisses the prophet,
not merely as an agitator but as obsessed and unbalanced.
Consequently, the prophet ends up outcast, rejected, harassed, and marginalized—
and, eventually, punished, threatened, targeted, bugged, followed, jailed, and sometimes killed.

Would we go along with the prophet who comes and asks us to follow at the risk of
being outcast, rejected, harassed, and marginalized, punished, threatened, targeted, bugged,
followed, jailed, and sometimes killed?
Why is it that those Christians who do stand up in such a way are so rare
that they are celebrated almost as saints and martyrs,
such as Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador?
Where are the Christian voices, the followers of Jesus putting themselves in peril today
for issues of justice and right?
It is no wonder that the people of Jesus home town took offence – we do exactly the same!

Ninth, prophets bring the incandescent word to the very heart of grudging religious institutions.
There the prophet confronts the blindness and complacency of the religious leader—
the bishops and priests who keep silent amid national crimes;
the ministers who trace a cross over industries of death and rake blood money into churchly coffers.
A bitter irony and an ancient story—and all but inevitable.
The institution that goes by the name of God often turns away the prophet of God.

Where do you stand in this?
Have you thought about how it is that we might better listen for the voice of Jesus
in our own situation, in our own church, our own community and nation? Or do we simply take offence….?

Tenth, true prophets take no delight in calling down heavenly bolts.
Rather, they bear an aura of compassion and gentleness.
They are good and decent, kind and generous.
They’ve learned to cultivate joy and now exude joy. . . .

In a sense we can deal with someone who comes to denounce,
and does so sort of in a prophetic way, but who is also rough, mean and judgmental.
That is the kind of person our world teaches us to expect, and in many cases,
However, can we deal with Jesus, and those of his followers who are not only prophetic,
but also godly and gracious? Or do we merely take offence….

Eleventh, prophets are visionaries.
In a culture of blindness, they offer insight.
In a time of darkness, they light our path.
When no one else can see, the prophet can.
And what they see is a world imbued with God’s purposes:
a world of justice and peace and security for all,
a world where all of creation is safe and at rest.
The prophet holds aloft the vision—it’s ours for the asking.
The prophet makes it seem possible, saying
“Let’s make it come true and we shall be blessed.”

Visions for transformation involve one thing with great certainty – change.
How difficult has the church found it to change over time,
and how often have the so-called followers of Jesus taken offence
because we have been called to change,
and yet how necessary is it to bring true understanding and life?
Just by way of example – our views and theology about gender,
about our relationship as a species with the created world and the environment,
are matters to which we have been called to significant change and transformation over recent times,
and yet so many have heard, and just taken offence.

Finally, the prophet offers hope.
Now and then, they might sound despairing,
but only because they have a heightened awareness of the world’s darkest realities.
These things overwhelm us; we would rather
not hear.
But hearing is our only hope.
For behind the prophet’s unvarnished vision lies a hope we seldom understand—
the knowledge that God is with us,
that the kingdom of God is at hand.
To realize that hope, we must trust ourselves to plumb the depths
and trust God to see us through.

And all of that only makes sense when we are following Jesus
who comes to bring a message of love –
that God loves us, and that our only hope is that we have love for each other
and for the world in which we live….
that self-interest and selfishness will bring us only grief and despair in the long run –
it makes
sense when we are following the Jesus who came to the world,
not so that he would change God’s mind about us,
but so that, in following him,
we would change our minds about God,
and about our fellow travellers in life, and our world.

The message of hope is there, for those who listen to Jesus, prophet and saviour –
do we follow, or do we simply take offence?