Saturday, January 2, 2010

Jesus Revealed

We begin now a 12-week series of sermons and small group studies based on the book by Mark D. Roberts. This series will take us through Lent and up to Palm Sunday and Easter. Copies of the book are available for members of the congregation in the Gathering Place. I encourage families to pick up a copy of the book and follow along, reading a chapter a week to accompany the Bible studies and sermons.

Dr. Roberts starts the first chapter with a list of places where Jesus has been seen lately, "in the water-stained wall of a house," "on a billboard for Pizza Hut," and in the skillet burns on a tortilla. His litany reminds me of "Jesus and Tomatoes," one of the first songs I ever heard by historian-turned-singer-songwriter Kate Campbell.

She is now one of my all-time favorite song writers, a real balladeer.

Kate Campbell page on

As Kate tells the story, the song came together when she saw a roadside sign in North Carolina proclaiming "Jesus and tomatoes coming soon!" This bit of serendipity, juxtaposed with the story of the "nun bun" (the figure of Mother Theresa that appeared in a pastry at the Bongo Java coffeehouse in Nashville, TN), led to the creation of a song in which the image of Jesus appears on a tomato, a "Tennessee Bradley, the best homegrown you'll find!" The owner of the tomato patch makes a killing until someone, either divine messenger or I.R.S. minion, shows up to shut her down.

(Image source,

Perhaps a better title song for this series is "Looking for Jesus," on the 2008 CD Save the Day.

You can read Kate's story along with many others in the book Girls Rock!

The point is

  • Longing. There is a great desire on the part of many people to know Jesus. People will go to all sorts of lengths to find Jesus, go anywhere, do anything.
  • Idolatry. We too often create a Jesus in our own image. We see Jesus where we want to and ban from our imaginations the sort of Jesus who might meddle in the secret places of our hearts and lives, where we hide in darkness hoping not to be found and hoping not to find the Jesus who has all of the time been looking for us. We are all-too-eager to find Jesus in an image on a tortilla and all-too-wary of finding that he wants to transform us into his likeness. We pick and choose those parts of the gospels that fit our own preconceptions and that least challenge our own way of living and make those parts we like into the Jesus we hope to discover.

Many folks have made this point, that we indeed tend to see the image of Jesus that is most comfortable for us staring back out at us from our readings of the gospels. If we are middle class capitalists, we assume Jesus was also a middle class capitalist. If we are socialists, so was Jesus. If we are non-conformists, so was he. Albert Schweitzer is famous for his formulation of this problem in the Quest of the Historical Jesus.

In his Quest, Schweitzer examined the works of more than fifty 18th- and 19th-century authors and scholars and concluded famously that they had made up their images of Jesus out of their desire for a savior who was the spittin' image of themselves. Their Jesus shared their biases and cultural mores. Schweitzer concluded more than that, of course, even contributing his own reading of who Jesus really was (a radical eschatological preacher and Jewish apocalyptic prophet) to the mix of those others he had examined. In other words, Schweitzer was a precursor of the modern questers for the historical Jesus, the Jesus Seminar and their like. What they arrive at in their pictures of Jesus is someone who is fully human (i.e., historical), but not fully divine. For people of faith--or for people who are seeking the Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ--such renderings of Jesus will always be unsatisfactory. Such pictures and biographies of Jesus will leave their longings unfilled.

The characterization of this quest by Dr. Mark Roberts in Jesus Revealed is quite negative, especially his view of the Jesus Seminar and its founder, Bob Funk. Bob, now deceased, was a graduate of Butler University and the Christian Theological Seminary (CTS) in Indianapolis, so Hoosiers may be forgiven for viewing Bob with a kinder eye. Though something of a showman (he was known to drive a pink Cadillac as a company car, if the Scholars Press rumors are to be believed), quite an attention getter, and never at all a shrinking violet, his work has resulted in much serious attention to the subject at hand, Jesus himself, as Jesus can be known from his own words as quoted by his followers in the gospels. It seems to me that there could be worse pursuits. Yes, the pursuit is often done in such a way as to yield results prejudiced against faith, but that needn't be (and sometimes isn't) the case. Orthodoxy asks us to confess a Jesus who is fully historical and fully divine, a paradox that requires us to embrace a Brother Funk as a fellow quester. Christians believe that the very historical, human Jesus was also very God. ...while never ceasing to be fully human and historical. So Funk's work, to the extent that it reveals the "historical" Jesus, reveals something but not all of the Jesus Christ we seek.

The scriptures themselves know about this seeking for Jesus and this great variety of opinion about him. In Matthew 16:13, Jesus himself takes part in the quest: “Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?” During his lifetime, people from other nations sought him out (the Magi, only obvious at this season, but also the Greeks, who came to Philip in John 12:20 saying, "Sir, we would like to see Jesus").

The church continued for centuries (we must admit, continues still to this very day) to argue over the person of Jesus, carrying on with the controversies long after his death and resurrection. The Nicene Creed (see last week's blog entry) states the classic, orthodox position: Jesus is "of one substance with the Father," "very God of very God," and "was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man." The Council of Chalcedon later stated that Jesus Christ is perfectly God and perfectly human, having two natures without confusion, change, division, or separation (in Latin translation, in duabus naturis inconfuse, immutabiliter, indivise, inseparabiliter). It may be possible for historians and the Jesus Seminar to divide and separate the human, historical Jesus from the Christ of faith (as per the Frontline questers for the historical Jesus), but the result is not the Jesus Christ of our confessions of faith, not the one with whom we have a continuing, living relationship as our Lord and Savior. Where the historical is separated and divided from the divine, the character and person of Jesus Christ has not truly been discerned and the revelation has been distorted. Historical (German, "scientific") dissection leaves us a Jesus who is dead, not resurrected and living still.

Dr. Mark Roberts rightly points us to the scriptures, and specifically to those "names and titles" for Jesus that are used by Jesus and by his followers to say who he is. These scriptures are our corrective. These "names and titles" for Jesus, as they are found in Scripture, will serve as our guideposts as we begin a quest for Jesus Revealed. Each name or title will serve to point out one aspect of Jesus that we will get to know better so that we can love him more. This Jesus revealed in Scripture is Jesus the Christ, the one in whom we believe, the one with whom we have a relationship. The greater our understanding of these facets of his personality that are named in Scripture, the greater the fulfillment of our longing for him, and the deeper our love for him will grow.

The names and titles to which we will turn in the following weeks are the stuff primarily of Christology, so we will spend our time delving into each title and its meaning and seeing how the names and titles are related to one another; seeing how (for example) the Son of Man, Son of God, and Word of God meet in Jesus of Nazareth.

One of my favorite books for thinking about Christology is Professor Jaroslav Pelikan's Jesus through the Centuries. In the images of Jesus Christ throughout history, one finds a crystallization of the beliefs of our ancestors (and, depending on the age of the image, of our contemporaries) about Jesus Christ, who they knew him to be, and especially how they understood the names and titles used by and about him. I hope to include particularly illustrative examples from the web for each name and title as we go through this series of sermons, being mindful, of course, of the human tendency toward idolatry, toward portraying Jesus as ourselves.

Now for a comment or two about today's readings:

Jeremiah 31:7-14

Ephesians 1:3-14

John 1:10-18

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Pastor Greg appreciates your comments on this week's scriptures!