My Grandmother commissioned a widowed neighbor, Joyce Montgomery, to paint their farm house. The folk-art painting stirs up feelings for “down home” where my mother and all her sibling were born. It’s lovely, but not an accurate portrait. The background should include a smokehouse, repair shop, root cellar, chicken coop, brooder house, and a large barn. She neglected the daffodils, roses, irises, and black eyed Suzie’s, tiger lilies and other flowers that filled the yard. My grandfather picked flowers most Sunday for my grandmother’s hats. It lacks dogs, cats, cows, chickens, and pigs.
A lot of us hold sentimental and comforting images of Jesus patched together from our politics, pleasures and imperfection. Often our mental images of Jesus’ bears little resemblance to the Jesus found in the Bible.
“What religion would Jesus belong to?” (NYTimes) The headline offended me and I resisted reading. However, a few nights later I succumbed. It spoke of a cultural Christianity gone to seed and drifting away from Jesus’ founding moral vision. We are a nation of religious illiterates. Thirteen percent of Americans think Joan of Arc was married to Noah. Half of us who claim to be Christians can’t name the four Gospels and 80% believe the Bible somewhere says “God helps those who help themselves.”
Our Biblical illiteracy allows us to customize Jesus to fit our image, our ideas, and our politics. Our Biblical illiteracy allows the culture to shape us. When a candidate responds “Why do I need to repent?” we should know the Gospels summarize Jesus’ preaching as “repent” (Matthew 4:17). We are so muddled, we miss the idolatry when a commercial superimposes football imagery with a soundtrack singing “Glory Hallelujah.” Has anyone got spun up about that idolatry? In truth, we often display more passion and devotion to our teams, travels, politics, music, leisure, and exercise than to our Lord.
Jesus is an iconoclast- who shatters settled ideas. An authentic encounter with Jesus unsettles our souls and shatters our treasured cultural idols. To be our Lord, Jesus must rule over our everyday plans, patterns, politics, pleasures, and practices.
A culturally malleable Jesus may comfort us now, but one day we will face the real Jesus. Our playdough faith shaped by our cultural flavors and personal favorites offers us little more than ourselves when life’s winds blow and the flood waters come high. (Matthew 7:24-28)
Over the next seven days, I challenge you to read a chapter a day in Luke and spend 10 minutes in prayer and reflection. You have the time! The average college football game lasts 3hours and 26 minutes. Let us encounter Jesus- Iconoclast, Savior, Lord, and Eternal Judge.
Luke 4:14-30 introduces Jesus’ preaching as Jesus comes back to his old hometown of Nazareth. Just like very Sabbath, Jesus went to the synagogue. It was his custom. The local synagogue leaders honor Jesus inviting him to read and share some thoughts. Jesus called for the Isaiah scroll and everyone stood. Jesus used a little pointer so as to not touch the expensive leather scroll and found his place, not so easy to do without numbers or even punctuation. We might note that Jesus as a second generation skilled craftsman is better educated than the majority of people who could not read. That way when some preacher speaks of Jesus was a pheasant; we will know if Jesus was poor he choose to empty himself of worldly goods. Jesus selected the passage from Isaiah 61:1-2:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because
the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Jesus slowly turned the little handles, rolling up the scroll, and gives the scroll back to the cantor. He makes the people wait. The passage was a familiar text to Jesus’s listeners. Isaiah 61 speaks of a coming Messiah, for the day of the Lord when God will fix the world in justice and love. It was a provocative text and Luke records “Every eye in the place was fixed on Jesus”. Jesus sat down as did the rabbis when they taught. Luke summarizes Jesus sermon as “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Jesus work begins today. The Kingdom of God does not wait for haven- today it begins.
Right now make a mental list of two or three characteristics or values you attribute to Jesus. What might we list under the phrase “Jesus came to…?”
Bring good news to the poor.
Proclaim release to the captives
Recovery of sight
Let the oppressed go free,
Proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Do we think of these things when we think of a Christian lifestyle? Are these the things we think of when we say church work? Do we welcome Jesus’ message or toss it to the side or pitch Jesus off our mental cliff?
- Are we “bringing good news to the poor”? We all welcome Good News and maybe put it on our personal “top five things I love about Jesus”- but Jesus speaks of specific good news for the poor. Would you welcome a sermon on poverty? Do you know the song Mary composed after the Angel Gabriel declared “Greetings Favored One, the Lord is with you” Do you know Mary’s Song? I usually shy away from it. Mary’s lullaby doesn’t go well with chestnuts roasting over an open fire or Santa coming to town. Mary sang “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; The Lord fills the hungry with good things, and sends the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52) Is Jesus the Lord of your wallet? As our candidates speak about economic policy will Jesus be Lord over your economic principles? Do we hold an image of Jesus that shapes our relationship with money? Do we know Matthew mentions “money” 20 times and Luke uses “rich” 18 times?
- Are we “proclaiming release to the captives”? Do we welcome a sermon on criminal justice reform? Do you want to hear Jesus preach about amnesty? Is it acceptable that Coffee County releases our incarcerated neighbors from the jail at 12:01am? Is it acceptable that 35% of the US prison population is African American, when African Americans make up 12% of our neighbors? Do we care that we lead the free world in incarceration? Does our list of the things Jesus cares about include releasing prisoners?
- Are we “helping the blind recover sight”? If you read 7 chapters in Luke this week you will encounter Jesus healing people. Do we realize Jesus cares deeply about healthcare? Are you a source of healing for those around you? Would we welcome Jesus who preached to church-goers like us “because you say “we see” your sin remains” John 9:41 Do we invite Jesus- the word made flesh to shine the big bright physician’s light onto us or skip a daily time with Jesus or perhaps worse dig around looking for verses to prop up our own pleasures, politics, and preconceived notions?
- Do we consider how to best “let the oppressed go free”? I grew up never hearing preaching about our duty to end oppression. Did you? Indeed, we say “the preacher should stay out of politics”- which is strange if you listen to Jesus’ sermon or the read of Jeremiah, Moses, Elijah or the other prophets. I admit I was at first taken aback by the wording of our Methodist Baptismal Covenant that I now love. I never heard sermons on injustice or oppression growing up!“Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin? Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves? Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in His grace, and promise to serve Him as your Lord, in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races? According to the grace given to you, will you remain faithful members of Christ’s holy Church and serve as Christ’s representatives in the world? How will you represent Jesus in the world? Will you stand with the oppressed calling for freedom?
- When do we “proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor?” Now Jesus’ Nazareth listeners knew Jesus stopped in the middle of a verse in Isaiah 61:2 Jesus reads “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” but stops his stylist before he reads aloud “and the day of vengeance of our God.” I love that Jesus speaks of grace not judgement as the key to following God. The Year Of The Lord’s Favor likely references the Year Of Jubilee, found in Leviticus 25, when property was returned, slaves freed, and debts were forgiven.
Will we allow Jesus of the Gospel to shatter our cultural Jesus? Is Jesus shaking you up? Is Jesus shaping your politics? Does Fox News or MSNBC hold a greater pull than our Lord and Savior? Is Jesus shaping your Sunday plans? Is Jesus: Lord of your wallet?
Now Jesus’ hometown crowd welcomed the message, most were poor, the Romans ran the jails, Romans occupy the region, and most welcomed debt forgiveness. However, they grow angry when Jesus does not do anything for specifically for them- instead he speaks of blessing Syria! Jesus does not provide a synagogue wide pot-luck with a boy’s lunch, heal a lot of people, walk on the water for them, or turn stones to bread. His words give offense and they try to throw Jesus off a cliff.
I fear that we have lost contact with that Jesus- the one people wanted to throw off a cliff. We prefer a nice comforting Jesus made in our own image. We need to reconnect with a Jesus who shakes us up. We need to meet that Jesus that people want to throw off a cliff.
The American church culture is sick. We come seeking comfort from Christ, not confessing our sins or seeking cleansing. If our needs are not met, we seek another church that makes us feel better. If the pastor offends us or the donuts are a day old, we stop coming and feel a certain pseudo-smugness and moral superiority as we break the Sabbath commandment to worship together. And in response to waning influence, churches seek marketing and management solutions. Worse than ignoring Jesus, we shape Jesus to fit our pleasures, ideas and schedules. We make a playdough Jesus and resist the Jesus who speaks a truth so hard that we want to toss him off a cliff! We have so trivialized and compromised Jesus, it is little wonder that a third of millennials identify as “nones.” Are they seeing no “Jesus” in us?
Is Jesus shaking you up? Is Jesus your Lord? Are Christ’s Teachings the foundation of your life?
I am concerned for our souls. We have cast Jesus with playdough of our own flavor and style. Faith made in our own image will not withstand when Life’s strong unsteady winds blow and flood waters rise around us. Beyond the flimsy self-centered icons, one day we will face Jesus and give an account. The Apostle says it will be “face to face” (1 Corinthians 13:12) I picture Jesus in the image of my wonderful mother, who would have died for me, except I know Jesus will judge with perfect grace, perfect love and perfect justice. Mother stands looking over my life work- my eternal report card, she draws near looking over the top of her glasses focusing her eyes back on me asking: “Paul Purdue, is this your best work?” I do not want to walk through eternity knowing I could have done a lot better. I long to know and follow Jesus now, so that Jesus might shatter any pseudo-religion within, and one day looking Christ dead in the eye, Jesus might say to me “Well done, good and faithful servant enter into the eternal joy- the grand party that God has prepared for us” Amen!