Monday, October 16, 2006

Preaching with you, not at you...

Hello all once again. As I promised to several of you, here is the text of the sermon that I preached on 15 October 2006. Just a note, while it is written in essay style, please remember that this piece was mostly a guidline for me to speak from and as such doesn't necessarily reflect everything that I said. Other than that, feel free to comment, rip to shreds, etc.

The Mystery of Jesus

Who is Jesus? I don’t doubt that many people around the world have asked this deceptively simple question at sometime in their lives. Often the question is posed in a somewhat flippant manner, “Who’s this Jesus guy, anyway?” or, “What’s with the white dude with the long hair?” No matter how it is asked, the answers one gets to asking “Who is Jesus?” depend greatly on the context of the question. Ask the question in a Sunday school class, and you’ll likely hear such things as “Saviour, Messiah, Friend, Brother,” and so one. Ask the question on the University campus and you may hear such diverse answers as “A great teacher,” “the first feminist,” or “the extra Rabbi of those crazy 1st century Jews.” At a biblical seminary, answers will probably be along the lines of “the begotten son of God,” “the absolute expression of God’s love,” or “the propitiating sacrifice of atonement for sin.” All of these answers are given with varying degrees of thought.

For me, I think I often take the answer to the question of “Who is Jesus?” for granted, without giving much thought to the reasoning behind these answers. I also think I’m not alone in this, to the detriment of our churches. With so many varying ideas about the nature of Jesus, it is of critical importance that we, as Christians, spend time exploring, examining, and explaining the mystery of Jesus. Jesus is a mystery, not only in the religious sense of, “something inexplicable or beyond human comprehension,” but also in the more common sense of a story or drama dealing with a puzzling crime.

As we seek to unravel the mystery of Jesus, we are fortunate to have many of the clues already set out before us in the New Testament. We also have the advantage of roughly 2000 years of tradition and scholarship. Finally, we also have the author of the mystery on our side, gently prompting us and leading us in the right direction, if only we will listen to his still, small voice.

Turning now to our text, let’s begin to ask some questions, in the hope that we might see, as in a glass darkly, something of the mystery of Jesus. Beginning at John 6:22 we read, “[…] Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven, for the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’ They said to him, ‘Sir, Give us this bread always.’ Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”[1] On the surface, these few verses seem to have a relatively straightforward interpretation. That is, Jesus is the spiritual food sent by God so that we might find spiritual satisfaction in him. I certainly agree but I also think that a fuller meaning is apparent when we dig a little bit further.

In this passage Jesus refers to himself as “the bread of God […] which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world,” undoubtedly a reference to the Jew’s collective memory of being fed manna in the desert. Not only does this provide a point of reference for Jesus to present himself as the Messiah to the Jews, but I think Jesus is also anticipating the Jews’ reaction to him. As we read in Exodus 16, “When the Israelites saw it, the said to one another, ‘What is it?’ For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, ‘It is the bread that the LORD has given you to eat.”[2] Just as the Israelites didn’t know the nature of the food they received from God in the desert, so to will they not understand the nature of the divine food provided by God in the desert of their sin.

Fortunately though, Jesus doesn’t leave his audience hanging, saying shortly after that, “I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. […] This is the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.” Jesus lays bare the meaning of his words for his audience to accept, and yet the still wonder about his teachings, saying “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven?” Here, the real mystery of Jesus isn’t his nature; rather, it is why he seems to be so incomprehensible to those around him, even when he tells them in plain language what they must do.

I suspect that the reason Jesus is so mysterious to his audience isn’t because his teachings are too complex for them to understand. As Jews, those in his audience were, in all likelihood, thoroughly versed in the stories of the Exodus; they certainly were able to understand the nuances of the claims that Jesus made about himself. No, the obstacle to the peoples’ understanding isn’t the supernatural claims of Jesus about himself; it is their concern with the mundane details about his life that prevent them from understanding and accepting Jesus as the son of God. They saw him eat, they saw him sleep, they saw him do all the things ordinary people do; the ordinariness of Jesus was conceptual barrier to the people’s apprehension of the extraordinary.

Often, I think that the ordinariness of Jesus is an obstacle for us, as modern Christians, as we try to understand who Jesus is. In our case, though, we have the opposite problem to Jesus’ contemporaries. We have been so conditioned to think of Jesus in purely abstract, religious terms, that we are unable to apprehend the humanity of Jesus. This mystery of Jesus, his extraordinariness masquerading as the ordinary is one of the big questions of the Christian faith which, I think, presents a huge challenge to us as believers: understanding the humanity of Jesus, while at the same time never losing sight of his ultimate divinity.

Although it may not seem that important to appreciate the humanity of Jesus, if we focus purely on spiritual aspects of Jesus, I think we risk losing an important point of contact with our Saviour. Drawing nearer to the divine humanity embodied in Jesus Christ allows us to become more fully human ourselves. As we draw nearer to him through which all things were made that have been made, we become a clearer reflection of the image of God.

John 7 also highlights another mystery of Jesus for us; how it is that God’s grace is sufficient for us; how his power is made perfect in our weakness.[3] As we read in John, “the people of Jerusalem were saying, “Is not this the man whom they are trying to kill? And here he is, speaking openly, but they say nothing to him! Can it be that the authorities really know that this is the Messiah? Yet we know where this man comes from; but when the Messiah comes, no one will know where he is from.’ Then Jesus cried out as he was teaching in the temple, ‘You know me, and you know where I am from. I have not come on my own. But the one who sent me is true, and you do not know him. I know him, because I am from him, and he sent me.”

With their own confused words, “When the Messiah comes, no one will know where he is from,” the Jews confirm the truth about which they think they know nothing. I admit, we do have the benefit of 2000 years of hindsight on our side which allows us to appreciate the dramatic irony in the text. At the same time, though, I wonder if God doesn’t give us the grace of ignorance in order that we may learn from him. That is, the questions we ask of God are the very truths he wants us to know. For example, when we experience troubles and tribulations and ask questions like, “Where is God in all of this? Doesn’t he want me what is best for me?” perhaps the fact that we ask the question is God speaking to us through our questions. The mystery of Jesus prods us to ask the questions through which God reveals that which he wants us to know.

We now come to the climax of our mystery story. “After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), ‘I am thirsty.’ A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.”[4] How ironic it is that the fountain of living water, from all who wish can drink and yet never thirst, is himself thirsty at the end of his days. We ought to wonder how it is that an innocent man can come to death, a terribly painful death on a cross.

The mystery of Jesus’ death encompasses all the other mysteries we have so far seen. In our horror at Jesus’ death on the cross, we question how a loving God could abandon his son to torment and despair. As I have mentioned, our question here points us to the answer that we hear so often, but ought to remember more; that it is precisely because of God’s all surpassing love that he sent his son to die. Or, to respond to one mystery with another; How could an infinitely loving God do anything but send his only son to die that others may live?

When we appreciate the mysterious horror of Jesus’ death on the cross, we identify with the suffering of Jesus the man, the human being. Not only do we empathize, at least in some small way, with the physical pain Jesus must have felt, but we also empathize with the pain of separation from his father as he cries out in death. The mystery of Jesus’ humanity allows us to more fully understand the divine sacrifice.

As we seek to understand more fully the mystery of Jesus Christ, let me suggest that that we not be in a rush to get an easy answer, to hear the ending of the story before we’ve had a chance to meet and get to know the characters. While we may not be comfortable with the uncertainty it causes, let us continually ask ourselves this question: Who is Jesus? If we ask in the expectation of an answer, I am sure that we will find all that we need, and more.


[1] John 6:22 - 35

[2] Exodus 16:15

[3] 2 Corinthians 12:9 - 10

[4] John 19:28-30


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