A sermon preached at St Mary’s, Iffley by Alice Lawhead on 25th June 2023
Today’s gospel lesson naturally puts me in mind of a memorable scene in that otherwise forget-able movie, ‘Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby’ — which tells the story of an immature but successful American NASCAR driver, played by Will Ferrell. In one scene Ricky sits at the head of a family dinner table that is groaning with junk food: pizza boxes, chicken buckets, individually wrapped snacks, energy drinks, beer – you get the idea. Before the family eats, they pause to say grace, and Ricky begins:
‘Dear Lord Baby Jesus ….’ and continues to address his prayers to Dear Lord Baby Jesus, including asking Him to use his Baby Jesus powers to heal his father-in-law’s leg wound, before finally being interrupted – mid-flow – by his exasperated wife.
‘You know, Sweetie, Jesus did grow up. You don’t always have to call him ‘baby’. It’s a bit odd and off-putting to pray to a baby.’
To which Ricky says, ‘Well, I like the Christmas Jesus best, and I’m saying grace. When you say grace, you can say it to grown up Jesus, or bearded Jesus, or teenage Jesus or whoever you want.’
Prayers resume – ‘Dear Lord Baby Jesus’ – until the father-in-law interrupts. ‘He was a man! He had a beard!’
At which point everyone weighs in with their favourite Jesus. His friend says he likes to picture Jesus in a tuxedo t-shirt, because that says, ‘I want to be formal, but I’m here to party, too. I like to party, and I like my Jesus to party.’
It gets even worse after that, with one of the children saying he likes to picture a Ninja Jesus, fighting the bad guys.
(BTW, This is the stupidest movie I will ever admit to watching all the way to the end. )
Back to the gospel lesson. This is a pretty difficult passage. It starts off easily enough: a student is not above his master. That’s obvious. What is hidden will be made plain. That’s good! The hairs of our head are numbered. That’s reassuring. Don’t be afraid. That’s comforting.
But when Jesus says that he will disown before the father those who have disowned him before men ….. now I’m uncomfortable. Because I know I’ve disowned him before men – in thought, word, and deed (as we said this morning when we confessed our sins). And by the time he says he has NOT come to bring peace but a sword – well, that’s almost closer to the Ninja Jesus than anything else.
If we’re honest, I think we all have our favourite Jesus. Baby Jesus: He doesn’t say anything, he just lays there beautifully and gloriously. He doesn’t challenge me; he doesn’t say that I’ve sinned and that I’m going to be judged; he doesn’t tell me to sell all my stuff and give the money away.
As long as I get to choose my Jesus, naturally I’m going to choose the Jesus who says ‘Let the little children come,’ the Jesus who heals sick people, the Jesus who cries at the death of his friend Lazarus. Probably not today’s Jesus, who outlines this worst-case scenario that is upsetting and confusing and impossible in all kinds of ways.
Of course we need to read Bible passages like this with understanding. We need to put the words of Jesus in their context – What just happened? Who is he talking to? And we need to ask ourselves what rhetorical tools he might be using, such as understatement or exaggeration. Is he speaking literally, or figuratively? Importantly: Who is recording what Jesus said, and what is his purpose in recording it? How does that harmonise with what other gospel writers wrote about the same event, or why doesn’t it quite harmonise?
Today’s passage, for example, records what Jesus said to his disciples before sending them out on a first foray into the Jewish communities, when they are to emulate his ministry by preaching the arrival of the Kingdom of God. So these were marching orders of a sort, spoken to twelve particular men who were being sent to a particular group of people for a particular purpose at a particular time. I can almost picture a Wing Commander Jesus addressing his troops before a battle, pinpointing enemy positions, outlining the objective of the exercise, warning of the perils they will encounter.
And there we might leave it, skimming over this passage so that we can get back to the more agreeable Healing Jesus, or Walking-on-Water Jesus, or Turning-Water-Into-Wine Jesus.
But if we continue to fixate on the Jesus who pleases us, we will miss the Jesus who challenges us. The Jesus who tells the truth about our basic condition, which is one of separation from God. The Jesus who tells us how to fix that problem, which is follow him, because he can bridge that gap. The Jesus who points out that the things in life we cling to for security – family, friends, a safe place to live, money in the bank – will never fully satisfy their brief, and will certainly keep us from trusting the One who can actually make us safe. The Jesus who tells us that if someone hits us on this side of the face, let them have the other side, too; forgive people who keep doing the same thing over and over. Not cutting them off, but continuing to forgive – again and again.
I do not have an explanation for all the hard sayings of Jesus that are found in the Bible, or even in this morning’s reading. Nobody does. For 2000 years the best minds and the best people have struggled to understand what He said, have constructed apologies and theologies to help us through the life of faith, but difficulties remain. And with the best will in the world, we can get confused, we can get overwhelmed. Just when we think we know Jesus, he surprises us – and not always in a comfortable way.
But here is a truth we can hold on to: Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who lived on this earth during a troubled time, who had friends and family just as we do ….. loves us, understands our situation completely, and if we want it, we can have his companionship in this life and the next – with a hope that ultimately it will all make sense.
Jesus came as a baby, yes. He was a teenager – a precocious one, I’d say. And he was a man – probably with a beard! He liked to party, although I don’t know about the tuxedo t-shirt. And you could say there was a bit of the Ninja about him, standing up to the bad guys. All that and more. What do we make of this? Embrace it, I say. Take a deep dive into the life and words and character of Jesus Christ and open ourselves to all of it. See where He takes us. Pray for understanding. Find out what happens when we allow ourselves to experience not the Jesus we like best, but Jesus Christ as he truly is.