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Sunday, December 15, 2013

Would You Prefer a Different Messiah?

Paradise Lost is the title of a famous book, but it also describes the human condition. The human heart longs for community in a safe place where our work produces fruits.
We read about that longing in the story of Israel, a macro-version of the garden of Eden with Adam and Eve: a historical parable of Exile into slavery and a promise of Exodus and rebirth. In the end, all the stories in the Jewish Bible eventually point to the final fulfillment of God’s promise in the Messianic Age.
Isaiah’s harsh words of judgment in previous chapters find their completion in these more gentle words (Isaiah 35)  of promise of life. Seeing flowers grow in the desert, hearing about safe paths and security, our heart dares once again to ‘hope for better days.’ Tucked away in these verses are some images which shaped Jesus’ understanding of Himself. "What kind of King will I be?" the Messiah asked Himself. "What manner of Messiah?" Isaiah provided many chapters which served as Jesus' model.

We learned last week that John the Baptist expected the Messiah to appear. He described that Messiah as one who would wash clean God’s people with water and fire. Water—the destructive power which wiped out the world in the Noah story—and fire—the destructive power which many believe will complete the job in the future, final judgment. John the Baptist, dressed as Elijah, no doubt was familiar with Elijah’s story. He knew that Elijah called down fire from heaven to consume his enemies on two occasions. John the Baptist expected the Messiah to invoke the power of God to set his enemies straight, once and for all. He expected the strong arm of God.

As he languished in prison it seems John the Baptist had a sort of crisis of confidence. After the miracle at Jesus’ baptism, John the Baptist was sure that Jesus was THE ONE. Now it appears he was having a crisis of faith. Locked up and under threat of death, the Baptizer sends his disciples to inquire: Are you the Sent One or do we wait for Another Kind of Messiah? [The Greek heteros means different in kind, as opposed to allos which means different though the same kind.] John the Baptist clearly did not know; and we do not know in the end if he accepted Jesus or not. [The real question is do I believe?]  Matthew does not say. What Matthew does tell us is that Jesus alluded to our Isaiah text, those words which shaped His self awareness and mission.
"The Blind see, the deaf hear, the mute talk, the lame leap. People are restored to health," all of it a sign and foretaste of God’s People being restored. “Someday” was here, the Kingdom was among us as the Messiah began His reign. Not, however, the type reign John the Baptist expected. Not the type reign the religious leaders of the Jews were ready to accept. Not a reign which Herod would renounce his crown for. Not the kind of reign which would induce Caesar and his legions to submit to.

It is a reign of good news for the poor. People who do not matter and are not counted. People who are alienated and at the periphery; people without vision who have no voice and are not free to walk in the corridors of the rich and powerful. Jesus has focused His ministry of mercy on those, and John the Baptist was confused.
Later on Jesus says that John the Baptist is a great man, the one who prepared the way for Messiah. Yet Jesus, perhaps surprisingly, negates John the Baptist’s greatness. The least in the Kingdom is greater than John. The least is greater, how can this be?

Jesus’ teaching explains: I am Messiah, but I come as your servant. The great ones in the church must be servants. The lowly will be raised up and the powerful will be toppled. The Messiah’s Kingdom is a world turned upside down. It is the weak, the fragile, the needy who rely on God who are saved. In the end Jesus will deliver His people not by slaying the wicked and powerful, but by submitting to them and dying.
God’s Kingdom—that is, the people who belong to God, the ones which He reigns over now, i.e., the church—is under attack. The powerful can and do overcome it. We are a martyr church not an armed military church. Our weapons are love, mercy and kindness. Showing compassion and reaching out to those in need, especially the poor ones, the outcasts and the losers.

Friday I visited the Neighborhood Christian Center on 785 Jackson. It is in eye view of the Pyramid. They minister to hundreds and hundreds of poor people in Memphis. They screamed and danced with delight when I handed them a check of $13,500. That money will do a lot of good. The same is true about Norman’s ministry, where we underwrote a meal and the distribution of socks and toiletries to hundreds of homeless and borderline homeless folks. These are people who have no power, no voice, and are crippled physically and emotionally and who literally are blind to a better life. In fact, they are sometimes trapped in the life because they have no hope.
In and through our support these ministries provide the Messiah’s touch.  I am not the type person who "sees" Jesus every where. I must say I was  emotionally moved after my visit, because I did see Jesus, in and through these ministries, active among people and saving them.

Perhaps we are impatient for the great day of deliverance when Jesus will appear and finally take care of it all Himself. I hope so. I hope we all care enough about “those” people that we are crying out “Come Lord Jesus, Hurry to save your people, all your people.” But as we wait impatiently for Jesus to come, I pray that we will live as people of faith. People who believe Jesus is the Messiah and believe not in the power of armies and destruction, but in self sacrifice, healing, and salvation. The good news is being preached to the poor, that is how Jesus wants it. Let’s continue to use our time, talent and treasure in the Messiah’s service, praying for Him to come soon. Thy Kingdom Come, O Lord, and if not today in all the world, then in us and through us now as we wait for tomorrow


  1. Jeff, it's a relief to see that you've left off commenting on current events, which seem to lead you into difficulties, but it seems your tendencies can't help but display themselves in other ways.


    Really, Jeff? JBap?

    Jesus said that among those born of woman none was greater than John the Baptist, but you refer to this figure with the impudent familiarity with which the popular press formerly referred to a movie star couple?

    I'm curious. Would you refer to Isaac and Rebekah as "I-Reb"? To Jesus's parents as "Mar-Joe"?

    For that matter, even in secular history, would you refer to the "Father of Our Country" as "Gee-Wash"? To the "Great Emancipator" as "A-Link"?

    I know that 14-year-old boys everywhere want to be cool, and in the end, you're really no exception, are you, Jeff? Which, come to think of it, is what I've been saying about you all along.

    Since typing "John the Baptist" is too much effort for you, I'll do you a favor and type your reply for you: "Lighten up, Michael. I'm just exercising my freedom in Christ."

  2. Michael, how nice to see you again.
    I have corrected my writing in light of your criticism. You are right, I should edit my sermon notes and JBap is not respectful. I often use shorthand in my notes and in this setting it is inappropriate.

    Sunday was a pretty busy day as I had some deaths to deal with. I chose to have something posted rather than not, unfortunately it was not in a form which it should have been.

    Thanks for pointing it out. Merry Christmas!

  3. Jeff, if I understand you correctly, you are saying that "JBap" was a momentary lapse, committed on the 15th, because you felt some urgency about uploading your post but also had some bereavement calls to make.

    In fact, if you just scroll down to your post of the previous Sunday, Advent 2, you will find the very same thing in the first sentence--indeed, "JBap" and "John the Baptist" are side by side, one in parentheses. Dunno about you, but in technical writing, which is what I do, that is what we do when we intend to introduce the reader to an abbreviation that will be used from then on.

    But perhaps you had a lot of funerals to go to on the 8th, as well.

    Or perhaps this points to a larger issue, in which you certainly have my sympathies, because it's something of an occupational hazard for you: the realization you must eventually arrive at, that many of the people in the pews simply aren't paying all that much attention to what you say in the first place.

    I can imagine how discouraging that must be and how it could sap your motivation to frame your remarks with care. I actually knew a former minister who said that once, just to see if anyone was really paying attention, he taught a mid-week Bible study to the effect that the Bible required Christians to invest in rare coins. Almost everyone just nodded attentively and dutifully made notes; only one of his hearers actually spoke up and said "Hey, wait a minute..."

    Fortunately, there actually is a class of people sitting in pews who really do pay very close and serious attention to everything the minister says and every word they read in the Bible. The down side, for church, anyway, is that such people eventually become atheists and leave.

    I honestly can't wish you personally a "merry Christmas" because I sincerely wish that you could somehow come to grips with your essential shallowness and immaturity, a condition that is rather embarrassing to see in a man your age. But for what it's worth, I do sincerely wish a merry Christmas to your family.

    Until next time...

  4. my gratitude for the kindness to my family. Your assessment of me will be pondered. In the end, as you know, my limitations are so deeply ingrained that there is little hope for me to make much improvement.

  5. I suspect that, Jeff, though I'm not entirely convinced, or I wouldn't make these comments at all. What you don't know is how much I sincerely wish, for your sake, that it were otherwise.

    1. Michael, so glad to know you are reading Jeff's blog. You may do well to remember Lewis warns, " In reading Chesterton, as in reading MacDonald, I did not know what I was letting myself in for. A young man who wishes to remain a sound atheist cannot be too careful of his reading." On this Christmas Eve, "May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit." Romans 15:13 Otherwise, "The one principle of hell is - 'I am my own.'" George MacDonald

    2. Fairy, it's kind of a stretch, to my way of thinking, to invoke Lewis, Chesterton, or MacDonald in the context of talking about Jeff's blog--a comparison that, to be fair to Jeff, he himself would probably never draw--but I agree that all three of the latter are challenging authors for the skeptic. I have read only "Lilith" and "Phantastes" by MacDonald and must confess I don't think nearly as highly of him, based on those two books, as Lewis seemed to, but he certainly had an interesting imagination. I read Chesterton's "Orthodoxy," "The Everlasting Man," "The Man Who was Thursday," and "The Ball and the Cross" some years ago. I've read most of Lewis's apologetic works, most recently "Miracles," a couple of years ago. Your comments make me wish to make three points. This site won't accept my entire text at once, so it will be in two parts.

      1. One quote from Lewis that I have thought a great deal about since first reading it 30 or 40 years ago goes something like this (my paraphrase): "As a young man, I adopted the conventional attitude toward religion--that it was a mere farrago of nonsense, a sort of endemic error that mankind tended to blunder into--while ours (Christianity), by a fortunate exception, was exactly true."

      Well I think there's a great deal to that, though not in a sense that helps Lewis's cause. The thing is, Christians are just as convinced as I am that religion is nonsense; it's just that they make a special and unwarranted exception for their own.

      No Christian is in any serious doubt that stories of elephant-headed Hindu god or the Muslim claim that the angel Gabriel personally dictated the Qu'ran to Muhummad are laughably false. No Protestant wonders, even for a moment, if the Catholic legend that St. Denis, beheaded by a Roman soldier, picked up his severed head and walked for 10 miles, with the head preaching to bystanders along the way. They know as well as I that such things don't happen in reality.

      In other words, the religious person is as convinced as I am that religion is based on very silly stories. But when it comes to his own silly stories, he suddenly changes his tune and says, "But wait a minute--*these* things are perfectly reasonable and valid."

      We atheists don't make special exceptions and in that regard, at least, don't play tricks with our minds.

      2. Now I know that religious believers often think of atheists as sulky kids who won't admit what they secretly know perfectly well is true (that there is a God) and that an atheist is rather like a stubborn little miscreant, sent to his room for misbehavior, who jams his fingers in his ears and refuses to listen to the sound of the birthday party taking place outside his room, a party he might be allowed to join if only he would give up his rebellion.

      What believers don't understand (or at least I don't think they do), is that there is an opposite way of looking at the whole matter that I believe is equally plausible. Here is an excerpt of something I have shared with my fellow atheists:

      "If religion is true, then humans are like gloves. A glove is made for only one purpose: to be filled by a hand. If a glove decided that hands didn't exist and that the idea of a hand was merely an unwarranted and fanciful extrapolation from the known properties of gloves; if it stipulated, further, that even if a hand could be supposed to exist, to allow itself to be filled by a hand would be a violation of its own innate dignity, the glove would make itself pathetic and ridiculous. It would miss out on the only purpose for which it had been brought into being in the first place. Forget being thrown into a fire; its day to day existence, left alone in a drawer, would be pitiful and empty.

  6. (Part 2)

    "If religion is not true, on the other hand, the believer is like someone who was taken to the seashore by his parents, as a child, was overawed by the power and endless reach of the ocean, and who picked up a seashell, held it up to his ear, and went running to his parents and said 'Look, mommy and daddy--I hear the ocean!'

    "His parents, not wanting to spoil his pleasure, did not correct him. What they didn't know was that even as he grew older, made good grades in school, joined the debate club, got into a good college, and so forth, he continued to privately cherish the belief that he really was hearing the ocean when he listened to that seashell and that Neptune, god of the seas, had a special plan for his life and a personal message for him, which he would eventually hear if only he listened long enough.

    "Today, he has a flourishing professional career, is raising a family, and gives many outward evidences of being successful and well-adjusted. But he has discovered a group of like-minded people who join him once a week, and they all hold seashells up to their ears and listen for messages from Neptune. And although he seems normal to his neighbors in most respects, from time to time, he approaches them with a strange smile and says something like 'Have you ever thought of just how much the ocean means to each of us? Have you ever wondered if there is perhaps something more?' The neighbors aren't quite sure what he is referring to but are not sorry when the conversation is over."

    3. Finally, in connection with the idea that people can't be too careful about what they read if they wish to remain convinced of their current beliefs, I'll comment that although I would not seek to convert someone to atheism, if I did have such an intention, I would not hand him a book by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, or Bertrand Russell.

    I would simply hand him a Bible. And urge him to read it through.

    It is axiomatic among atheists that the Bible is, hands down, the best advertisement for atheism ever written. Having read about 2/3 of it in a couple of months, earlier this year, I am even more convinced of that than I was previously.

  7. Michael, I hoped you would appreciate the double entendre reference to Lewis, Chesterton and MacDonald. Yes, no doubt Jeff does not regard himself as a member of this troop; yet, in the way he patiently shepherds and teaches his parish to love the Lord our God and our neighbors as ourselves; to prove our faith in giving our time, talent and treasure to the disenfranchised; and the importance of understanding scripture in the context of the time and style of writing he is as instrumental to the faith of many as the words of these men. If you wish to continue this conversation I prefer offline and a cup of tea.