Nationwide Insurance ran a pretty creative series of commercials a few years ago based on the slogan “life comes at you fast.” In one of my favorites there is a pastoral scene of a father swinging his little boy in an old fashioned swing made of a heavy rope and a board, tied to a sturdy oak branch. The dad pushes the little boy a couple of times, and then about the third time the boy swings back into the picture, he weighs about 250 pounds and knocks his poor father flat.
The sketchy details provided in the Gospels about the early life of Jesus remind me of that boy growing up very fast. If we combine all four Gospels, which makes what a friend of mine calls “Gospel stew,” we still only get one brief vignette of Jesus between infancy and adulthood, that being Luke’s account of Jesus in the temple with the elders when he is 12 years old. The next time we see Jesus in the Gospels is when he’s about 30 years old and being baptized by his cousin in the Jordan River.
There are lots of questions and speculation about where Jesus was during that 18 year gap because the Gospels are theology and not biography. The only true answer is that we don’t know where Jesus spent those 18 years. He may have been working in Joseph’s carpenter shop. More likely he was in some kind of religious community learning the traditions of his faith and preparing for his role as Messiah, God’s anointed one.
When he makes his first public appearance in ministry in his home town of Nazareth in Luke 4, we see immediately how challenging and dangerous being a Messiah can be.
In his first public proclamation Jesus reads from the prophet Isaiah and then asserts his claim that God’s spirit is upon him. Ok so far, we’re all God’s kids, created in God’s image. That’s the good news – God’s spirit is upon all of us. But immediately, Jesus makes a wrong turn and starts explaining what it means to have the spirit of God upon him or upon us. He says he is “anointed to bring good news to the poor, release captives, restore sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free.” Ok, we could maybe go for those last two – if we don’t’ think about it too much – like realizing that we are the blind that need our eyes restored or that the oppressed are going to want their share of the pie if we take our foot off their necks and let them up. But good news for the poor – what about us Lord? And release to the captives? You mean freeing the criminal element? Those potential terrorists at Guantanamo? Or folks on death row? Not so fast, Jesus.
Luke says the people still were cheering Jesus on at this point. They were “amazed at the gracious words from his mouth.” They haven’t quite figured out the catch yet. And then someone says, “Hey, wait a minute, this is Joe’s kid. We know him. He’s just a carpenter. What would he know about anything but nails and saw dust? How could the spirit of God be upon the likes of him?”
They start asking for proof. “We heard what you did in Capernaum. Show us your bag of tricks here too, Jesus!” And then Jesus goes over the edge – he pushes them too far, too fast. He starts spouting examples from the Bible, of all places, about how God has favored the Gentiles over the chosen Jews – in Sidon and Syria – and there goes the neighborhood. They are immediately filled with rage and try to throw him over a cliff. Oops. Stepped on the wrong toes there Jesus. But then, Luke’s punch line – “he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.” Almost a throwaway line, but it is Luke’s way of saying, “see, he really is the Messiah and you can’t stop him, no one can.” This is a preview of things to come when they really do kill him, or thought they did; and he passes through them again and goes on his way – because Jesus’ way is God’s way, not the way of people.
So, we know very early in Jesus’ story that it’s dangerous to claim a special relationship with God. Prophets get shot and stoned and run out of town all the time. That’s the bad news. The spirit of God is upon all of us, and there’s good reason to avoid claiming our own Messiahship. We feel unworthy, the responsibility is too heavy, and besides, the Greek word for “witness” also means “martyr.” No cowards need apply.
There was a story in the Ohio news a few years ago about the power of oneness with Christ. Thomas and Cynthia Murray appealed to Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland to spare the life of Gregory McKnight, a convicted murderer on death row. That’s not so unusual. Many people believe capital punishment is not a Christian response to violence. What is remarkable about the Murrays is that Mr. McKnight was convicted of kidnapping and killing their daughter, Emily, 7 years earlier. Emily was a 20 yr. old philosophy major at Kenyon College at the time of her abduction and murder. She was planning to become an Episcopal priest and was “passionately opposed to the death penalty.” Out of love and respect for their daughter and her beliefs, her parents asked for McKnight’s sentence to be commuted to life in prison. Can you imagine doing that if you were those parents? I’m not sure I could, even though I’d like to think I would have that courage and faith. The Murrays showed us the power of Christ to overcome hate and revenge with forgiveness and compassion.
Let’s back up. This story about Jesus in Nazareth comes right after his baptism. Remember Jesus was never ordained – no bishop’s hands ever weighed heavy on his head. In fact, no one had invented bishops yet. Jesus was baptized – just like you and me. So that means that the spirit of the Lord is also upon all of us, not just Jesus, and that our mission, should we choose to accept it, is also to proclaim release to the captives, good news to the poor, and sight for the blind!
Clergy sometimes tease each other about having a Messiah complex when we get a little too big for our britches and think we have to save the world in a single bound. That super pastor attitude might be reflected in this quote from one of my favorite authors, Nikos Kazantzakis. In his book, Saviors of God, Kazantzakis says, “My prayer is not the whimpering of a beggar or a confession of love. Nor is it the petty reckoning of a small tradesman: give me and I shall give you. My prayer is the report of a soldier to his general: this is what I did today, this is how I fought to save the entire battle in my own sector, these are the obstacles I encountered, and this is how I plan to fight tomorrow.“
There certainly might be an ego problem with that kind attitude (and I’m not crazy about the militaristic metaphor); but it may not be all bad, in fact may be very good, to take our faith and personal mission that seriously. One way to do that is for all of us to realize that the first two letters of Messiah are “me”.
That may sound crazy, but there’s a lot of biblical evidence for that idea. In John 14 Jesus says it plain and clear, “I am in God, and God is in me…. “The one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to God.” John 14: 12 says, “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do.” Wow! How is that possible? Because, Jesus goes on …. “You know him (the spirit) because he abides with you and he will be in you.” (John 14: 17) And then in John 14: 20 Jesus caps it off by saying, “On that day you will know that I am in God and you in me, and I in you.”
That’s a good thing right – power. We can get Jesus and God to do whatever we want! Well, not quite – it says “whatever you ask – in my name, this I will do.” We can all think of some things that we might ask for that just might not qualify as “in Jesus’ name” right?
But there is something even more serious than that. If we are all one, i.e. “in” God and Jesus and vice versa, what does that mean for God’s expectations of us? If we are all God’s sons and daughters, as Jesus is – then are we not all Messiahs too? Messiah means “the anointed one.” Jesus was baptized by water in the Jordan. And we as Christian disciples have been baptized too – so far, all the same. The anointed part is a little trickier, or do we just make it so? Jesus says, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me.” Don’t you suppose that’s true of all of us too?
After a United Methodist pastor baptizes someone with water, he or she says, “the Holy Spirit work within you, that being born through water and the spirit, you may be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ. “
Whoa, that sounds a lot like pride or hubris, and we all know that pride goes before a fall; and having God’s spirit upon or within us sounds like really big pride. That’s what the angry crowd at Nazareth thought when Jesus said it. What keeps us from claiming our special relationship with God, from believing that we can do even greater things than Jesus did? Is it true humility or false humility – what a friend of mine calls the “humble bit?” That’s when we just pretend to be humble because it serves our purposes and gets us out of living up to our potential. Is it fear of what other people will think or do, or fear of what is being asked of us? When Jesus claims his Messiahship in his home town, they immediately try to kill him. That’s not a great recruiting strategy, Jesus. Is it just easier to stay in the comfort of the status quo and not make any waves? Freeing captives and such stirs up trouble. Those who are in positions of comfort now won’t be very happy if they have to share their wealth with the down and outers. Oh, yes, a little charity at Christmas time is ok, but that’s not the same as changing the socio-economic rules we live by – the ones that have the system rigged in our favor.
But, even though the costs of claiming our Messiahship are obvious – the hidden cost of not doing so is even worse.
“Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee” is a famous quote from St. Augustine. What does that mean? It means there is no peace, genuine peace, until we claim our true identity. To be at war within ourselves, denying our true worth and mission and purpose may keep us “safe,” but it also prevents true peace of mind and spirit from ever being possible.
Have you ever tried to keep a secret that was eating at you and hard to keep? Or told a lie and then had to work at covering it up and remembering what you had told whom, so as not to blow your cover? Pretending to be something we aren’t is very hard work,. It takes a lot of emotional energy.
Many years ago I had the privilege of playing the role of Bert Cates in a production of “Inherit the Wind.” The play was demanding and required rehearsals late every night, and each night my part required that I fall in love on stage with a lovely young woman. And then, to preserve my marriage, I had to fall back out of love again before I got home to my wife. When the play was over I was exhausted – not just from the long hours, but emotionally exhausted from pretending to be something that I wasn’t.
And that’s also what happens all the time when we are at war with our very essence; we are tired and on edge, not close to being at peace. We all want peace in our world, but peace has to start in our own souls and hearts. That means knowing and being true to who we really are. In “Hamlet,” Shakespeare describes that important truth this way:
“This above all, to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.”
The internal conflict, the denial of our true selves as blessed children of God, me-ssiahs, happens at a deep level when we are convinced by a theology that overemphasizes the negative aspects of human nature. Too often we hear only half the Bible, that we are horrible sinners, unworthy folks who need to “bewail our manifold sins and wickedness” (as the old Methodist communion ritual said). But deep inside we know the truth, that we are created in the very image of God. You see what an internal civil war that creates.
But Jesus comes to proclaim that truth, the very good news to the poor and the poor in spirit. And that’s all of us. When we measure our value and worth by economic standards, we inevitably feel like failures. No matter how much we have in the bank, it is never enough – it could be gone tomorrow. One good hospitalization can wipe out the largest nest egg. And the same fear and negativity is true if we buy into the notion that our basic human nature awful and terrible at our core.
We are all sinners, yes, because we are fallible human beings who live in a world full of sin. But that is not who we really are. At the heart of our nature we are God’s children, created in God’s image. We are one with our Lord and God – as we are told by the creation story in Genesis and by Jesus, our fellow Messiah. He is the anointed one who proclaims at Nazareth and here today the good news that heals our spiritual blindness, sets us free from captivity to sin and fear, and empowers us to say yes to his call and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.