— David Barton’s Sermon for Sunday 23rd August —
I want to preach about Jesus this morning. That passage we have just heard is difficult. When I read it I thought – not for the first time – that our understanding of this and so many passages like it depends on the kind of larger understanding we have of Jesus – who he is, and why he says and does what he does. If we have that, then we can read passages like this and see how they fit. Otherwise we end up confused – like the people in the passage itself.
So I thought I would share with you this morning the kind of understanding of Jesus I have come to over the years. I don’t what to push this on you. But we all need our own understanding of who Jesus is – and we have to keep on revising it of course. My own has changed with the years. So I hope this attempt at a picture of Jesus might help in that personal process.
And since there is potentially a lot to cover, I thought I would say something today about the Jesus of the Gospels, and when I next preach at the end of September say something about who he might be to us now.
The first thing to say is what a very ordinary background he came from. Jesus came from the poorest part of Palestine, from a village that was at the bottom of the pile. Not a carpenter we now realise. The word really means a kind of general builder. Joseph and his sons were the people you went to if your roof leaked or you wanted to build a mud brick extension to your house. Jesus was poor among the poorest. Life expectancy in Nazareth at that time would be for about 30 years. But we know that when he was about 30 Jesus was baptised by John. This seems to have triggered a powerful visionary experience, and, like John, he went into the desert for a period.
But when he emerged from the desert it is with a message that was utterly unlike John’s. John preached repentance and judgement. Jesus preaches compassion and forgiveness and God’s welcome to everyone. God for him is utterly real, personal, constantly present in love and forgiveness. He uses an intimate word for God – Abba – which was the word he would have used from childhood in speaking to Joseph. And, for Jesus, wherever God is, God rules, God reigns. “The kingdom of God is at hand” he says. Wake up to it. See this wonder and love around you and in you. He reflected God’s welcome by being ready to mix with everyone, from Pharisees to prostitutes. There is no doubt that people experienced Jesus as being alive and vital, with a vitality that could only come from God. It seemed to flow through him, in what he did and what he said. It utterly electrified people.
It was this loving power in Jesus that he seems to have used to heal people. He did not heal everyone in Palestine, but those who came to him clearly drew energy from him and overcame their sickness. And he had power to cast out demons. We often feel uncomfortable about this, but it’s important to understand it. We now know that demon possession was virtually unknown in Palestine before the Romans arrived. With their arrival there was an epidemic of it. And with reason. The Romans and Herod were unbelievably cruel – capable of being like Isis if they wanted to. It’s not difficult to see people’s retreat into madness as an escape from the ghastly realities they sometimes saw and experienced. That is the context of what we read in the Gospels. Jesus seems to have understood all this. It is as if he speaks to the person hiding behind the madness. He offered them hope and love in place of despair, giving them courage to step into life again.
And there was another aspect of Roman rule: it created a huge gulf between rich and poor. That had not been true before they came. But now know from the archaeology that the towns of Tiberias and Sepporis in Galilee were very wealthy Roman towns. This is where the landowners lived. And their wealth came from exploiting the poor – who lived in villages like Nazareth. The parable of Dives and Lazarus is probably typical of the gulf between rich and poor and the ignorance the wealthy had of their lives.
Jesus loved the poor. He was one of them. His clear hope was that if everyone experienced the love and forgiveness of God, generosity and compassion would become the hallmark of their lives. So a new society might grow, where people genuinely cared for each other and gave to each other, because they lived out of the God given source of compassion in their lives. But people were reluctant to change – they probably feared the consequences in that society. And worse: there was inevitably something political about that, and Jesus found himself courted by those with a political agenda. The hills of Galilee hid a number of people who had plans to kick out the Romans. Jesus avoided them – though it could not have been easy. But it is as if Jesus in Galilee begins to discern deeper roots to the problems he sees. This is a battle with evil. The selfishness, the intrigues to spark a violent rebellion, the monstrous cruelty of the Romans, the collusion of the Jewish authorities with them: all these things point to a deep deep sickness in people and society. A kind of collective madness that has become demonic.
Luke records an extraordinary saying of Jesus: he tells the disciples “I saw Satan fall from heaven”. It is a vision of the love of God that is far stronger than all the evil that can be thrown at it. And it’s is a realisation that he must leave the Galilee he loves and go to Jerusalem. Jerusalem is the seat of government, and above all it is where the Temple is, the place where God has chosen to be. People have forgotten who God truly is. He has to go there and make it clear.
And that is the situation of today’s gospel passage. Jesus is under no illusions about what will happen, to him and possibly to anyone with him. And he knows that only those who have grasped the spirit of what he has been saying, and in some way live out of it, can face what has to be faced. The battle won’t be physical, it will be spiritual. Only those who understand the power of God’s love and live by it should stay with him.
So he goes to Jerusalem. And he cleanses the Temple, to the fury of the high priests. He had to do that. He had to show it had lost its purpose. No longer was it the dwelling place of the God of love. And from now on he probably sees himself as somehow the replacement of the temple. More and more he is conscious of what is in him. The love and compassion of God fills him, directs his every move and word. He literally embodies it, even more than in Galilee.
This is tough stuff. No wonder Judas hesitates and finally wobbles. When Jesus knows the end is inevitable he gathers his disciples in the upper room and he breaks the bread and gives it to them, as if this bread is him: a share of what it is to be that deeply loving. We are to take it. Let it work in us. The wine, poured out – as if we imbibe the generosity of love. And then Jesus simply meets the evil he has to meet, on the cross. And as he does so he reveals the inexhaustible love of God; becoming transparent to it. Showing the extent to which God will go to love us.
And that is not the story’s end. The giving of the bread marks the transition moment. The disciples who are, as it were born from this on Easter morning – and that of course includes us – are born into this unexpected mixture of crucifixion and resurrection. Satan does indeed fall to earth. But he is not yet eliminated. The Christian Faith – the Christian Church – is really a movement of people charged with the spirit of Jesus, resurrection people, continuing to do what he did: living out of the love of God and allowing it to shape our lives.
And how we might do that is what I would like to talk about next time.