I wrote this sermon years ago, when I’d first given up theologies which required a subscription to the notion that humans fell from grace and need a Messiah to save them. It’s funny how we cling to ideas about what it means to be human as if centuries of human evolution have no bearing on who and what we are. The illustrations in this story come from an old shoebox of clippings; they do not cite the source, but the name Ed Riegert is scribbled in the margins. Ed was my homiletics professor. He used to encourage us to keep a file of stories that we might tell. That old shoebox has long since been replaced by a hard-drive. But the shoebox still draws me back from time to time. This sermon was a first attempt to move beyond notions of atonement that paint a picture of humanity I no longer cling to. Perhaps it will be helpful to those who are beginning open themselves to a new understanding of who Jesus is.
There was once a man who suffered from various illnesses for a very long time. This man had seen countless doctors who over the years had performed countless tests on him and had prescribed lots of medicine. But, the man’s condition did not improve. This man even tried home remedies to make himself feel better. He drank herbal teas, and took mega-doses of vitamins along with his prescriptions. But still he did not feel any better. Then one day the man heard about a doctor who was said to be an outstanding diagnostician. So the man called the doctor to make an appointment and even though the doctor was booked for months in advance the man was delighted when the receptionist managed to fit him in. As the date of his appointment drew near the man was excited by the prospect of finally getting to the bottom of his problem. At last, he would find out just what was wrong with him and in no time he was sure that this brilliant doctor whose praises were sung by one and all, this doctor would be able to cure him. The day of the appointment arrived. After the doctor had thoroughly examined the man and had reviewed his tests, she sat down with him and she said, “My friend, you are not a healthy man. But you can be well again if you will only follow my advice. What you need to do is lose about sixty pounds, get involved in a regular program of exercise, and eat more grain, fruit, and vegetables. You don’t need to take any more of the medicine that has been prescribed for you and you don’t need all those vitamin pills.” When the man heard this, he was indignant. He demanded that the doctor prescribe some new medicine for him, possibly some experimental drug not yet on the market, which would cure his illness. The doctor smiled patiently and repeated her advice. “You don’t need medicine,” she said. “You need to change your lifestyle.” The man simply cursed the doctor and stomped out of the office. For the rest of his sickly life, he told everyone that she was a quack who didn’t deserve to be called a doctor.
Once there was a woman who was in serious trouble with the law. This woman had run up all sorts of debts, and in desperation she had embezzled some money from the company where she worked. The company found out and was now pressing charges against her. The woman was beside herself with worry. She didn’t know where to turn until a friend of hers told her of an outstanding defense attorney who seldom lost a case. The woman called the lawyer immediately, and he agreed to see her. She was delighted and relieved. “At last,” she said to herself, “I have a lawyer who will get all these charges dropped. Then I’ll be able to get on with my life.” But when she saw the attorney and explained her situation to him, he shook his head and said, “What you did was wrong, and you may have to spend some time in prison. After you’re released, you’ll need to get into an ongoing program to pay off your debts. You’ll need to get a steady job and repay the company the money that you stole. If you do all this, you may be able to get your life back together again. The woman was outraged at the attorney. She expressed her dismay in no uncertain terms, “I don’t need you to give me a lecture, I need you to defend me against these charges and get them dropped and with that she dismissed the lawyer, bad mouthed him all over town and resumed her search for an attorney who would do for her just exactly what she wanted.
Once there was a small nation that was deeply troubled. For centuries foreign armies that controlled and dominated the entire nation had oppressed the people. Many of the citizens of this nation had become cynical about life, and as a result they cheated even their own friends and neighbors in the marketplace. It was a dog-eat-dog society. There was no peace, prosperity was only for the wealthy, and there was no integrity in the land. Reform movements arose from time to time, but they soon failed for lack of support. But then there appeared a tiny ray of hope in the midst of the darkness. Little by little, people began to speak of the need for a messiah who would fix everything for them—a messiah who would overthrow the foreign army, establish a strong, independent government, and bring peace and prosperity to the whole nation. Suddenly word came that there was a man from Nazareth, a carpenter’s son, who was able to heal people, cast out daemons, and even change water into wine. He drew large crowds of people when he spoke and he could hold his own when the authorities confronted him. “At last,” the people said among themselves. “Here is the messiah who will lead an army against Rome and reestablish Israel as a strong and prosperous nation. Here is the messiah who will fix everything for us-economically, politically, and religiously.” One day this man from Nazareth rode a donkey into the capital city of Jerusalem. The people poured into the streets and cheered his arrival. They waved palm branches and spread garments on the road and shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of God Most High! Hosanna in the highest heaven. That was on Sunday. By Monday things were going downhill. This man had not even begun to recruit an army. He hadn’t announced an economic recovery plan. He was unable to unite the people. Everyone waited. Nothing happened. People were disappointed. Several days later they grew angry. On the Friday when they learned that this man was facing death at the hands of the Romans for treason, its is said that the people filled the streets and shouted, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”
The people got their wish. This man from Nazareth in whom all the hopes of the people had been invested, this man from Nazareth whom everyone expected to be the one who would fix everything for them, this man from Nazareth who was supposed to be the Messiah, the savior – this man was forcefully and decisively executed. When he died, all hope for a magical, mystical, presto-chango, quick-fix messiah died as well.
The world has a history of denouncing and killing messiahs who don’t deliver what the world wants. The world does not want a God who is anything other than what the world wants. The world wants a lapdog god it can domesticate and control a sweet god who indulges and blesses the sickness, and the selfishness of the world.
Like the people of Jerusalem we too long for a Saviour. Like the people of Jerusalem, we too are disappointed with Jesus. The people of Jerusalem longed for a Saviour who would drive out or destroy the Romans by any means possible. The wanted a conqueror who would lead them to victory, hand them the power, so that they could live in peace. What they got was a messiah who insisted that victory was not the way to establish peace. What they got was a messiah who insisted that they love their enemies, forgo the sword and seek justice rather than military victory. Jesus was not the sort of Messiah they were looking for and so the people turned on Jesus.
Looking back it is so easy for us to point the finger of blame upon the people who where complicit in his death. It’s easy to shake our heads and wonder how Judas could have betrayed him. We’ve grown accustomed to pointing our fingers at the religious authorities and say see they too were in cahoots with the Romans. Historians try to untangle the historical mess created by the writers of the gospel account. Theologians create theories of a sacrifice that was necessary to pay for the sins of people, including you and me and sin the execution into some sort of cosmic bargain struck to placate a vengeful god and so we join our Hosannas to the Hosannas of generations who have heralded the Messiah’s arrival, trusting that somehow Jesus will save us from whatever it is that afflicts us; sin, fear of judgment, even death. Still after nearly 2,000 years Jesus is still up there on that ass making a mockery of our hopes for a Messiah, a Saviour, who will get us off the hook. So, we’ll have no choice really, but to join in the chorus of all those who have gone before us, some of us may not even wait until Friday to shout, “Crucify him! Crucify him. Crucify him.”
For this Jesus of Nazareth is an inconvenient Messiah, because even though the crowds had their way, even though his insistence that violence is not the answer, was met with violence, even though the powers that be, through the worst violence they could at him, and caused him to cry out in anguish as he hung their dying, believing that even God had abandoned him, even then, he continued to love his torturers. “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” Not even a horrible, lonely, death like his could kill this inconvenient Messiah’s belief that violence is not the answer.
Jesus life and death point to a way of life that meets violence with love, that seeks justice in order to find peace, that values the least and the lost, that puts people before treasure, and teaches any one who will listen that life is to be lived with a spirit of generosity that echo’s the grace of our Creator.
But Jesus way is not our way. Jesus teachings are idealistic, demanding and life changing. And so, if our ways are to have their day, we have no choice but to demand his crucifixion over and over again, year after year, Holy Week after un-holy week. We like our lives. We like our stuff. As long as we are on top, all we need to do is learn to work the system and all will be well. So, we continue to consume all that we can, including and especially, the myths that hold our world in place. Some of us have learned that we can have our cake and eat it too. We can have Jesus for our Messiah just as long as we continue twist his teaching into that old bargain that the theologians of old dreamed up.
If we deny everything we have learned about creation, and cling to the notion that we humans were once created perfect and because evil somehow came into creation, we fell from grace, and made our creator so angry that we were banished from the perfect garden and they only way back is if someone pays the price for our disobedience, and Jesus, that beautiful, perfect, if somewhat naive rabbi of old, is the perfect sacrifice for our sin; if we can just suspend our intellect long enough to buy into that cosmic bargain, then we can go on ignoring Jesus’ inconvenient teachings, and Jesus will not have died in vain, because God will surely forgive us for Christ’s sake.
So, crucify him, go on crucify him, and don’t worry because we all know how the bargain ends, and we will be singing our Alleluias by next Sunday and all will be right with the world and we can go about our business as usual, and go on pretending that we long to follow Jesus.
Or. Or we can talk a long hard look at Jesus riding into town on that donkey and we can ask ourselves, how it is that after all these generations, we haven’t learned how utterly damning Jesus’ mockery of our ways is. For against the greatest military might that the first century world had ever known, this would be messiah, this Jesus of Nazareth, had the audacity to ride smack dab into the middle of his enemy’s camp, mounted upon the foul of an ass.
The people cried out Hosanna, and yes we’re still crying out for Jesus to save us and all these generations later, Jesus teachings will not die. Jesus is still teaching us to save ourselves, for we were not born perfect creatures who fell from grace. We were born imperfect creatures still evolving into our full humanity. Our evolution lies before us, we can continue down the pathway of destruction or we can follow Jesus down a more difficult pathway. We can become leaner, meaner fighting machines who hold onto our power at all costs, or we can surrender, turn around, repent of our ways, and follow the inconvenient messiah.
Yeah they might kill us. That’s the truth. So, we can let our fear of death keep us on the pathways of destruction. Or we can move beyond our fear of death and evolve into a fuller humanity. Either way we will die. But one pathway calls for a kind of living death; a way of living with our eyes closed to the pain of others, refusing to see the price that is paid for our power. The other pathway, the one that Jesus points us toward, calls us to live fully now, open to the pain of others, conscious of the price that is paid for our power, open to the wonders and possibilities of living fully, loving extravagantly and becoming all that we were created to be. Like the generations who have gone before us, we may still long for the kind of messiah who rides in on a white horse to save us from ourselves.
But in Jesus we have a different kind of messiah; a Saviour who rides in on a humble donkey, and points us toward another way of being in the world; a Saviour who insists that we follow the wisdom of peace through justice, generosity over greed, selflessness over selfishness, mercy over vengeance, hope over fear, and above all love over hate. Oh yeah, the inconvenient truth about this messiah is that Jesus’ way is dangerous, it might mean that people will take advantage of you, it might mean sacrifice on your part, it might also get you killed. But like Jesus you will not die. For love never dies.
So, to all your hosannas; all your cries of “Save us! Save us.” Jesus the inconvenient messiah says, “Follow me and you will save yourselves!” Let it be so among us. Let it be so!