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Shock and Awe

July 1, 2007

Clay Nelson

Pentecost 5     Luke 9:51-62


I climbed into the historic pulpit in Bruton Parish in Williamsburg, Virginia, the oldest continuously used church in North America and laughed at the irony. Embedded in the lectern for the preacher’s eyes only was a clock and inscribed above it was the admonition from John 12:21, Sir, we wish to see Jesus. Preferably in 10 to 12 minutes, I thought.


While it is my deepest desire to show you Jesus, it is an impossible task in one sermon. To do so, I first have to scrape away countless coats of ecclesiastical dogmatic varnish concealing him. Ah, what I wouldn’t give to have the luxury of introducing you to Jesus before he was welded permanently to that fourth century understanding of the Godhead we call the Trinity. Is it still possible to see him as a man who revealed the nature of God instead of being God, disguised as a man, on a heavenly rescue mission? Is the image of God dying on a cross to atone for our sinful and weak nature too ingrained to show you the Jesus I know?


How I envy Luke who could show us Jesus before all the doctrinal accretions were added to his persona over the ages. He was able to do so with only six words. James and John have just offered to righteously incinerate the inhospitable Samaritans with divine fire (they are only heretics after all). Then Luke shows us Jesus with stunning clarity, “But he turned and rebuked them.” Too bad he hadn’t been invited to pray with Osama before he set loose the suicide bombers. Too bad Luke’s Jesus wasn’t invited to do lunch with Cheney and Bush before they exported “Shock and Awe” to Iraq.


In this episode Luke uses a story to show us Jesus. Stories are the only way we have to talk about that for which we have no words. It is not a historical account, but to appreciate fully how revealing of Jesus the rebuke of his disciples is, we need to appreciate the history and theology behind it.


Matthew, Mark and Luke’s understanding of Jesus were heavily influenced by accounts of Elijah and Elisha. Many of Jesus’ healings, miracles, and even his raising of the dead have their antecedents in the stories about these two prophets. For instance, Elijah doesn’t die after passing the mantle of his authority to Elisha; he is taken up to heaven on a chariot of fire in a whirlwind. As a result the Jews believe he will return to announce the coming of the Messiah. In Luke, John the Baptist is understood to be Elijah, who, as great as he is, is still unfit to untie Jesus’ sandals. When Luke’s Jesus ascends to heaven he sends fire and wind back to earth in the story of Pentecost. Sound familiar?


The antecedent in today’s story is Elijah’s contest with the priests of the Canaanite God Baal. After Solomon’s reign Israel broke into northern and southern kingdoms. The southern kingdom, Judah, had Jerusalem as a capital and it had the Temple. The kings in the northern kingdom, Israel, needed as a practical matter both a seat of government and a focus of worship within their borders lest the loyalty of their subjects be torn between Israel and Judah. On Mt Gerazim, where legend said Abraham took Isaac to be sacrificed, Samaria, the capital of Israel, was established. Establishing a political centre was easy compared to solving the religious problem. To break the hold of the Temple priests in Judah the king did three things. He recruited clergy from other than the tribe of Levi who had a monopoly on this career path. He decentralised worship allowing for many temples to be built serving the local populous and he let some of them worship the much older tradition of Baal. This was probably for the sake of marital peace. The king had married a princess from a neighbouring country in a military alliance. The princess, Jezebel, was also a priestess of Baal.


While these solutions brought peace and prosperity they did not please prophets like Elijah. His view was that right worship and right action were required by Moses and the Law to please God. Anything less would result in divine punishment.


In a confrontation with the king, Elijah berates both the people of Israel and Ahab for their worship of Baal. “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal then follow him” (1 Kings 18:21). He then proposes a dual between Baal and Yahweh. Two altars are built, one to each. Oxen are slaughtered and placed on them. Elijah invites the priest to pray for Baal to barbecue theirs. Nothing happens. Elijah mocks them by pouring water over his ox and then calls on Yahweh to do his thing. Yahweh zaps Elijah’s ox with a pillar of fire. In this battle of tribal Gods, Yahweh wins hands down.


By the time of Luke’s account, both Israel and Judah are long gone. Samaria is a land of half-breeds in the view of the Jews who revile them for rejecting the Temple in Jerusalem. Most Jews would’ve gone a day’s journey out of their way not to travel through Samaria. Considering the disdain of the Jews it was hardly surprising that the Samaritan villages weren’t welcoming of Jesus on his way to Jerusalem. As Luke saw Jesus as greater than Elijah it was not surprising he had the disciples suggest repeating Elijah’s barbecuing methods. What is surprising is he not only didn’t, he rebuked them for suggesting it. Even the Samaritans had it wrong. He wasn’t going to Jerusalem to worship at the Temple but to challenge the religious power brokers who thought they could control people by offering them security instead of abundant life.


I mark this rebuke as the beginning of the end of tribal Gods and I give Jesus the credit. He refused to play the my-God-is-better-than-your-God game. He revealed a radical new understanding of whom or what people called God.


To appreciate how radical this is lets go even further back in history. Say fifty to one hundred thousand years ago. That’s when we guess human beings were first coming on the scene. This is a time when our ancestors moved from consciousness to self-consciousness and from awareness to self-awareness. Suddenly we discovered that there existed “The Other.” We were not one with creation we were separate from it and one another. With self-consciousness and self-awareness came an awareness of the past and the ability to plan for the future. While in terms of evolution and the survival of this new species this was a good thing, it did create something new – anxiety. Insecurity was born. Lastly, they developed language. Yes, it was symbolic and limited, confined by human concepts and understanding, but it allowed them to articulate their anxiety.


Ever since, humans have been trying to quell their anxiety, ultimately defined by their fear of death that they know will eventually come. Because I only have 12 minutes to show you Jesus I’m going to skip a few steps. Eventually the human solution to anxiety and fear was creating an all-seeing, all-knowing, and all-powerful God to protect them. It wasn’t an easy God, because such a God had to be appeased by right worship and behaviour. Otherwise the hunt would not go well or neighbouring tribes would overwhelm them or nature would harm them with impunity. Human anxiety got focused on pleasing their tribe’s God so that it would protect them from the God of other tribes. We still have such Gods and people who believe in them are called theists. They may not like it when the God punishes them but at least they know why. Someone has displeased this God.


They believe their God is the ultimate Other. They attribute to him (and this God is usually a him) everything they wished they were: all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good and eternal. Furthermore this God hates everything and everyone they don’t like, wants everything they want, and wants to be the ultimate rule-giver issuing rules his worshippers agree with.


Eventually this God becomes the vision of ultimate truth, when in truth he is the vision of ultimate security.


There may have been a time when this understanding of God was useful to our survival, but two thousand years ago Jesus said this God had passed its use-by date.


Jesus, in his rebuke said, security be damned. Fear of those who worship differently, those of a different race or gender or sexuality, those who are considered unclean are to be loved not feared. By continuing his journey to Jerusalem and the cross without anxiety said death is a part of life, unless our fear of it keeps us from living. His refusal to condemn and punish; his offering of healing to all who wished to be whole without condition; his acceptance of the outsider and the outcast said we had to expand our understanding of God. We had to find new language to understand we needed not to survive, but to live abundantly. Ultimately his death was an act of showing us how to live fully, courageously and with integrity. There was nothing meaningless in his life and death. How he lived it and how he died gave us all the meaning we need. Ironically, his life was so radical, the only language the people had at the time was to tell stories that implied he was like a God that had descended into their midst. They attributed characteristics of their tribal God to him to explain the impact he had on them.


Jesus’ example revealed a new understanding of God. No longer was God about power and judgment. No longer was God angry and vengeful bent on punishing us for our flaws. No longer was God the security guard, protecting us from those who are different. No longer was God confined to the territory of the tribe. God cannot be contained. God is even in us and our neighbour. God is about love. God is about living life abundantly. God is about giving fearlessly even in the face of death.


The problem with tribal Gods is they don’t die easily. We are still tempted to call on a tribal theistic God in spite of all evidence to the contrary that such an external all-powerful God in heaven who interjects himself into our mortal lives even exists. The tribal God continues in our collective consciousness because we will never be in control of the world around us. We will always experience insecurity and anxiety. However longing for the old theistic God makes it difficult, if not impossible to see Jesus. The human Jesus says we can control ourselves if not our world. This Jesus says we can choose security or we can choose love, but we can’t limp along trying to choose both and still have abundant life.


When we choose love, all we need to do to see Jesus is look in the mirror. Now that is the kind of “Shock and Awe” we can live with.

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