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Sunday, February 12, 2012

What Christians Believe, and Why: Who Is Jesus?

Colossians 1:15-20
15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16 for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 19For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

John 14:8-13 
8 Philip said to him, "Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied." 9 Jesus said to him, "Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, "Show us the Father'? 10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works.  11 Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. 12 Very truly, I tell you, 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 the Father. 13 I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.

As many of you know, the week after Christmas Vicki and I hopped on a train in Ashland and headed to New York City, where we stayed for two nights in the theater district, visited some friends, did some sightseeing, and, for my birthday, saw the musical “Wicked” on Broadway.  It’s a wonderful play – a “prequel” to “The Wizard of Oz – about the childhoods, school days, and relationship between Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, and Elfaba, the Wicked Witch of the West.  Somewhere down the road that play is going to really show up in a sermon, because it poses the question Are some people born wicked, or do they have wickedness thrust upon them? 
Vicki and I have seen a lot of plays and a lot of musicals over the years.  We met doing a church production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta, Ruddigore.  We’ve seen plays in churches, dinner theaters, high schools, colleges, small towns, small cities, and big cities.  We’ve seen famous people on stage – Katharine Hepburn, Christopher Reeve, Edith Stapleton, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Goulet, and Ginger Rogers, to name a few.  We’ve seen famous plays and Broadway musicals, and experimental theatre best forgotten.  And always when we’ve seen these live stage productions, there were one or two actors who were wonderful while others were forgettable; the sound or the sets or the lighting or the orchestra or the choreography were good or decent or terrible but always uneven.  That’s just the way it is – not everything can be perfect.
But that Wednesday night, sitting in the eighth row of the orchestra in the Gershwin Theatre, everything about that show was breathtaking.  Every performer, from the young woman playing Elfaba to the lowest flying money, was incredible.  The sets, the dancing, the sound, the orchestra – every single aspect about the production was absolutely superb and right and stunning.  After every song, at the close of every scene, Vicki and I kept looking at each other and echoing our granddaughter:  Oh wow! And at the end of the show, following the moving final scene and song, I just sat there with tears in my eyes at the wonder of it all.  It was simply – perfect.
Speaking of theater, Judi was the co-owner and director of the restaurant and dinner theater on the Eastern Shore when we moved there in 1993.  Many of our church members performed in the dinner theater, and Vicki and I and our two sons got roped into performing in some of the plays.  Judi was a native of New York and, though raised in a Jewish family, identified herself as spiritual but not religious.  I’ve never known what that meant, and frankly, I don’t think the people who use that phrase know either.
Judi’s marriage fell apart, as did the restaurant and dinner theater business.  One Wednesday night I walked into choir practice at church, and there was Judi, sitting on the front row with the sopranos, looking very nervous.  She looked and me and in her typically theatrical manner, said I don’t know if I can do this.  I’m Jewish, but I need to be doing music.  Music heals my soul.  So I’m going to see if I can do this because I need to be singing.  But I’m not doing any of the rest of this Christian thing.
Judi, we’re happy to have you here, I said.  And you participate as you feel comfortable.  Make yourself at home.  At first Judi just sang with the choir, but didn’t do anything else in the service – no prayers, no communion.  Then she began reading the prayers with us.  Then one Sunday I was putting bread in people’s hands for communion, and there was Judi with outstretched hands, a wary expression on her face.  Judi, the Body of Christ, for you, I said.  A few months later Judi asked if she could sit in on the new members class.  I’m not making any commitments, Judi warned.  I just think that if I’m going to be around here, I should know what it’s about.
After being in the new members class, Judi came up to me on Sunday after worship and said,  Let me see if I have this right.  You believe that when you look at Jesus, that’s what God is like.  And when you look at Jesus, you believe that’s what human beings are supposed to be like.  And so, what you’re supposed to do is to be like Jesus.  I smiled and said, That’s it.  After a long pause, Judi said, I can do that.  Can I be baptized?  And one Sunday morning, I baptized Judi and her daughter and her two granddaughters.  And this morning Judi is directing the choir and playing the organ at Franktown United Methodist Church, and she has become a Certified Lay Speaker.
Since the dawn of time, people have speculated about what God is like.  Is God like a tree, or like a mountain?  Is God angry, or distant, or vengeful?  What does God like, and what does God hate?  What, and whom, does God love?
And all that same time, people have wondered what they were supposed to be like.  Why are we here?  What’s the purpose of life?  How are we to act?  What and whom are we supposed to love?  If we were at our best, what would we be like?
There have been good answers, and bad answers to those questions for thousands of years.  We’ve had good models for humanity, and we’ve had lots of bad models, forever.  We’ve had hints and glimmers and glimpses of what God is like, and what we, and our best, might be.  But we’ve only known in part, and the glimpses have been blurry, foggy, and dim.
Philosophers and theologians have concocted precise and brilliant formulations to describe God and to prescribe humanity.  But when, on a dark night two thousand years ago in Jerusalem, on the eve of an execution, Philip asked Jesus what God was really, really like, Jesus cut through all the speculation and said, God looks like me.  When you see what, and how, I love,  you see what and how God loves.  When you see what and how I hate, you see what and how God hates.  When you see what drives me to tears, you see what God weeps over.  And when you see what I do, you see what God is doing.
More than that, when we look at Jesus we see what you and I, at our best, were created to be.  Honestly, wouldn’t you like to be like Jesus?  Wouldn’t you like to take little children and bless them, to tell off the hateful and manipulative scoundrels of the world, to weep over lost friends and be able to restore them to life, to heal the sick and to befriend the friendless and to feed the hungry?  Wouldn’t you like to be so close to God that you could hear God’s voice of love?  Wouldn’t you like to be able to say no to all the temptations to selfishness and power?  Wouldn’t you like to have enough love and enough courage to lay down your life for your friends?  Wouldn’t you love to laugh and party with your friends, making new wine when the old wine ran out?  Of all the heroes on the world’s stage that you could copy, wouldn’t you really most want to be like Jesus?
The proof that Jesus is the model comes on Easter morning.  When God raises Jesus from the dead, Keith Miller says that is like God’s signature scrawled across Jesus’ life, saying, this is mine.  No other hero, no other role model, no other philosopher, no other teacher about God was ever resurrected and lifted to heaven.  That is the proof that there’s something different about Jesus from anyone else who ever lived.  Buddha didn’t rise from the dead.  Mohammed didn’t walk out of his grave.  Neither L. Ron Hubbard, who founded Scientology, nor Joseph Smith, who founded Mormonism, nor Frederich Nietsche, who said God was dead, has risen from the dead.  This one, this carpenter of Nazareth, God says, is eternal.
Who is Jesus, and why is he so important?  Judi got it right:  when we look at Jesus, we believe that’s what God looks like.  And when we look at Jesus, we believe that’s what we’re meant to look like as well.  When we follow Jesus, we discover that God really has come down from heaven and lives right here in the midst of us.  That’s why the angel said to call him Emmanuel:  God with us.
That’s what Christians believe, and why.  When we look at Jesus, we see God, and we see what we, with God’s help, could be too.
Could we do that?

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