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September 25, 2005 (Sunday 26 · Time after Pentecost)
Intern Pastor Joshua Graber
Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32
Grace and Peace to you from God Our Loving Creator and Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!
We don't often think of the Christ event happening within our own cultural context, but as I allowed the texts for today to come alive for me, I couldn't help seeing some interesting connections between what Jesus was experiencing and our own modern pop-culture. This story of Christ actually translates very well into our modern language of media.
One thing we know about Jesus is that he quickly became a real "cult of personality," someone that had immediate popular appeal, a cultural phenomenon that we are very familiar with today. People were drawn to Jesus. They wanted to know what he was about. For his whole ministry people follow him around from place to place--all sorts of people--rich people, commoners, sinners, and curiosity seekers. Because of this popular following, the religious leaders show up too--the scribes, the Pharisees, the priests to name only a few. These questioners and critics show up wherever Jesus does, almost like a messianic paparazzo, seemingly never giving him a moment of peace.
But what does this paparazzo want? Even though there were no photographers with extreme zoom lenses at the time of Jesus, people were watching his every move just like the paparazzi watches the stars and other "important" people today. And for almost his entire public ministry, people seem to be harassing Jesus the same way the paparazzo harasses famous people in our culture. And just like the paparazzi today, that are given contracts by tabloids to get certain information on certain celebrities--$50,000 for proof that someone is in rehab, $100,000 for proof of an affair--there seem to be contracts out for information on Jesus. One contract seems to be to find out where he gets his authority from, while another seems to be to catch him saying or doing something that will take his authority away.
Much the same as during Jesus' previous ministry, his antagonists in the Temple try to get this information out him. They want him to give them juicy material for the tabloids of their time. Something they can sell to the High Priest or the Romans, because inquiring minds want to know. In the past Jesus hasn't been afraid to deliver either, giving them a tasty tidbit here and there, showing he's not afraid to push the envelope about his identity and authority, reaching a wider and wider audience with each of these episodes, but he always seems to be holding out, and when it comes down to it, he can be quite reclusive, wandering atop mountains by himself even during times of peak ratings, and being whisked away from one event to another with his entourage of disciples. But when Jesus comes to Jerusalem he seems to be telling his audience, "Okay this is it. I'm ready to say what I need to say, do what I need to do. Your curiosities will be satisfied, and I will pour out my soul in an exclusive interview to Oprah Winfrey or Matt Lauer. I will finally sit in the hot seat. You guys in Jerusalem have been trying to nail me down all this time, well get ready because I'm coming to you."
It's in this context that Jesus shows up in Jerusalem for all to see; he is greeted by the crowds as he enters triumphantly, as a Son of David, as the long awaited messiah, not sitting on the hotseat yet but atop a humble donkey. He enters the temple and reclaims it with authority, and when he is approached by the religious leaders there, the Mary Hart and Barbara Walters of their day, they ask him the question that is on everybody's mind, perhaps hoping to win both tabloid contracts at once, "By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?"
Jesus knew that he had nothing to gain from responding to their question. If he said that his authority was from God, they would deny it or call it blasphemy. If he did not claim that authority, he would be condemned as a false prophet with false authority.
But Jesus does have the authority of God because he is God in the flesh.
He responds with that authority, trapping them in the same trap they set for him. Asking, "Did the baptism of John the Baptist come from heaven, or was it from human origin?" They can't answer him and must respond lamely, "We do not know." This is not a response of authority. With this response, Jesus shows them and the interested audience that their time and their authority is ending. With their response, Jesus exposes their non-commitment to either side of an issue in the face of worldly threats and politics...and when they face Jesus, they are so focused on trapping Jesus that they embarrass themselves. They know they want to remain in power but are afraid to commit. But after the damage is done, it will be almost impossible to remain for the people as examples of faith, when they don't know what they themselves believe in.
Jesus takes down the current example of faith in front of the people, and the people know that their old model of how to live faithful lives is on the way out. And it all happens on primetime TV. Everyone sees what happened, and if they didn't, it will be the subject of watercooler conversations at work the next day and the word will spread. "Jesus is the new model." But it will bring new questions too, like "what is that new model" and "how can a person replace a whole system, and a whole Temple?" They won't find out until the cross, and even then it will remain a stumbling block and folly to many. When people expected Jesus to reveal his authority, his plan, his messiahship, they expected a big show. A victory parade. Banners. Music. Free food. Jesus Christ Superstar T-shirts. A raffle to see who gets to sit at the Messiah's right and left hand and share his power and his glory.
They were following their culture in thinking this is the way it would happen, the same way we tend to follow our culture. Jesus was confronted by the dominant religious culture of his day in the Temple in Jerusalem. The Temple was the place where the culture defined itself, where the religious leaders and priests felt God accumulated sacrifices, day after day, year after year. More sin offerings needed to be continually brought forward as a way for individuals and the community of God among the Jews to be brought back into a good relationship with God. The Temple was the center of the Jewish Faith, and it was a place of accumulation, collection. When Jesus shows himself to be the new symbol of faith, he is being counter-cultural even for us today.
The way we think about life is also a series of accumulations. We collect money, collect stories, collect furniture, collect friends, collect magazines, and we collect favorite TV Shows. We accumulate power and collect authority, These are commodities in the commerce of life.
In faith we follow the same cultural pattern. We accumulate good works, we accumulate religious experiences, we accumulate new theological ideas and understandings to impress parishioners with, we accumulate spiritual gifts that are signs of being closer to God, closer to Christ. And while Jesus is trying to tell us how to live as a servant, we are often too busy walking down the red carpet hoping Joan and Melissa River will admire us for our stylish accumulations.
Most watching Jesus' ministry think that it will play out according to these cultural expectations, but then there's a plot twist no one expected. The people needed a new model, and God gave it to them in Jesus dying on a cross. This seems to be about giving up power and authority not accumulating more of it! Many followed the show all year and never saw this coming. This was not what they expected in the season finale. More water cooler discussions ensue--How can death on a cross be an example of faith? How can this be powerful? It goes against everything we thought we knew? What authority is shown in this act? Did they nail Jesus, or did Jesus have the last laugh here too, somehow? In our confusion we would probably read the reviews. Maybe a reviewer or a critic caught something we didn't. Paul wrote some very good reviews of the Christ event.
Paul in his letter to the Philippians, says that what happened on the cross is not only the most important thing that ever happened to us, it is an example for us. Jesus emptied himself for us. When he emptied himself, he emptied himself of not only of all these earthly things we struggle with, but he emptied himself of his power over all things, over creation, he emptied himself of the power of his divinity, to the point of actually dying a mortal death for us. That is our example. He didn't accumulate he gave. He emptied. He let go. And it was a power that you couldn't take away, a power that needs to be given. He gave everything that he had and everything that he was. And he did all these things out of love for you. He was the ultimate servant. His emptiness is his authority and our authority. His self-sacrificing love is where we find the power to serve, the power to love, the power to forgive. When Christ is our example, we willingly become transparent and let Christ's love Christ's will shine through us.
To have Christ as an example, we remember that as Christ emptied everything that held him back from us, we empty ourselves of all that holds us back from Christ. We are emptied so that God can fill us with a new reality. We hope that is what happens when our tongues confess Jesus Christ as Lord and we bow down our wills to his. I think that's what Paul means when he tells us we "united with Christ" and the reason why Jesus is the name above all other names, whether that name is in bright neon lights or pinned to a cross.
Paul may not have met Jesus in the flesh like the messianic paparazzi did. He didn't have easy answers. Paul is like us; he is learning about Jesus through a spiritual but very real relationship. For him it started with a conversion experience and a vision of the Lord. For us Jesus entered our lives in various ways: through baptism, a parent, a sibling, a friend, through a miracle, or a revelation, through a conversion experience, through a book, a piece of art, a conversation, a worship service, maybe even a sermon. The authority of Jesus is not something we have proof of the way our culture desires to have truth delivered. The authority is in us: In our flesh and blood living as servants, Christ's body on earth. Jesus is at work in our lives and began a relationship with each of us in many different ways. But the same Jesus is present in each of us and all of us. And the same Jesus that is present in us now, is the same Jesus that Paul knew, and that Paul was helping the people of Philippi to know better. I don't need to prove Jesus to you. You know Jesus, because he lives in you, and through the cross he knows you better than anyone. That is our authority and the power of our faith born in servanthood-A faith that calls us to care for others more than ourselves.
We all wish we could have TIVOed the scene on Calvary. We all wish that the truth of what happened on the cross could have been captured in a photograph in Life Magazine or broadcast on CSPAN. But the truth that was revealed on the cross is a truth and an authority that no paparazzo can capture in a photograph or an interview. Our authority is from a relationship with a savior that gave all so we might live. On the cross a truth is revealed not in black and white, but flesh and blood. It is a truth that is living in you and me as Christ lives in you and me. And it's as true today as it ever was, and though in our culture, it may not seem to be the show everyone's watching, in our lives it will always breaking news.
May the peace that passes all understanding keep your heart and your mind in Christ Jesus and Christ Jesus in your heart and mind. Amen.
Copyright © 2005 Joshua Graber
Comments welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org