Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Jesus for President

Mark 4:21-25 by Daniel Harrell

A new novel is out entitled American Savior by Roland Merullo which has Jesus returning to earth to run for president of the United States. God knows we need him. As one reviewer wrote, “With a faultless candidate and foolish opponents, there is not much call for careful political strategizing. To his campaign staff of disciples, Jesus’ moves often seem impulsive, but the candidate’s instincts are perfect. His speeches are generalizations arguing that foreign policy must be founded on ‘moral rather than strategic imperatives.’ As president, he promises to apply the principle of the golden rule and to end greed and stupidity.” I’d vote for that. I haven’t read the book, but I do understand that Jesus wins the election. As much as I’d like to say that’s no surprise, if you turn to the gospels it’s hard to imagine Jesus winning any election. Oh sure, he scores big with the socially marginalized and outcast—Simon six-packs and hockey pucks—but among his supposed base—religious people—he’s treated like a heretic. He had them in the beginning, but as soon as he started claiming divine prerogatives for himself, like forgiving sin and working on the Sabbath, no way could they stay in his camp.

Most of us like to think that had we been devout believers living in Jesus’ day, we would never have written him off like the Pharisees did. We wouldn’t be like Jesus’ own family who thought he was crazy. If Jesus were running for President, most of like to think he’d have our vote. But imagine Jesus sharing the stage with Barack Obama and John McCain last Tuesday night. Tom Brokow asks a question about housing. Obama responds with tax credits and McCain talks about buying up bad mortgages. Jesus? “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” What about the war? Obama will withdraw troops and McCain will stay there for as long as it takes. Jesus? “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen.” How about education? Jesus says, “The Holy Spirit will teach you what to say.” Energy? “The wise take oil with them.” Healthcare? “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” Really. How about global warming? “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!”

What about the current financial crisis? McCain and Obama both favor government intervention for Wall Street. Jesus is less charitable: “Woe to you who are rich,” he says, “for you have already received your comfort.” If only that were so. Perhaps you read about how AIG, the insurance company thrown an $85 billion life preserver with our hard-earned tax dollars, that just one week later plunked down $442,000 on a California resort retreat for some of its sales agents. The tab included $150,000 for food, $23,000 in spa charges, $10,000 in bar bills and $7,000 in greens fees. Jesus has something to say about that too, not only for the AIG sales agents but for people like me with their disappearing 401(k)s. His words come from our text tonight: “To those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”

Here's what his campaign commercial might look like.

OK, there goes my vote. Jesus may win in a work of fiction, but no way he gets elected president for real talking like this. No way he wins in the gospels either. If you’ve been following along as I’ve walked through the red-letters of Mark (the red-letters indicative of the sayings of Jesus), then you know that all the religious opinion polls are running against him. Jesus still draws large crowds, but not the kind of crowds that matter much. Of course it’s just a matter of time before those crowds turn on him too. Even his campaign staff will desert him in the end, denying that they even know who he is. You’d think that Jesus, knowing his future looks doomed, would shift his message to rally his base and win over the undecided. But instead, he chooses to confuse everybody by talking in parables. Riddles. It’s as if he doesn’t want people to know the truth. Last week it was a farmer sowing miraculous seeds. This week it’s an oil lamp lit under a bed and the rich getting richer.

Puzzled by this themselves last Sunday, the disciples pulled Jesus aside and asked if he wouldn’t mind clearing things up a bit. Instead, Jesus only confused them more by telling them that, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you.” And they’re like What secret? Remember that secret is not what we tend to think of it as; that is, something that is immanently unknowable. In Biblical parlance, secret or mystery is something hidden and yet to be revealed by God. In regard to the kingdom of God, the secret revealed is that God’s Old Testament promises of victory and justice are fulfilled through defeat and injustice; specifically through the defeat and unjust death of Jesus. In other words, Jesus’ success depended on his being a failure. The supreme act by which God demonstrates his power is not an act of power at all, but rather, an act of powerlessness. Jesus defeats death by dying. He takes away sin by taking it on himself. He annihilates evil by using it to do God’s will. Jesus wins by losing. As do his followers. “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it,” Jesus later says, “but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.” None of this gets Jesus elected president. It gets him crucified.

If you’re serious about following Jesus, it gets you crucified too. Christ’s death for sinners is the death of sinners. The cross kills your sinful self, leading the apostle Paul to declare how he had been crucified with Christ and that it was no longer he who lived, but Christ who lived through him. Granted, among Jesus’ first disciples, losing your life also literally meant losing your life, which explains why they all initially ran once the Romans got out the hammer and nails. But for us, with martyrdom being fairly uncommon, at least in America, losing your life for Jesus isn’t nearly so daunting. Actual death is rarely required. But what if by losing your life Jesus also meant losing your lifestyle? You may recall the story of the rich and righteous young ruler. He comes to Jesus enthusiastic about inheriting eternal life. What must he do? Jesus says sell all your stuff, give it to the poor, come follow him and get riches in heaven. The rich ruler’s enthusiasm immediately evaporates; he sadly turns and walks away. Jesus shook his head and remarked to his disciples, “It is hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” And just so he wouldn’t be misunderstood, he added: “It is easier to thread a camel through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God!” The disciples were blown away by this. In their worldview, not too unlike ours, piety coupled with possessions was usually construed as a sign of God’s favor. The disciples bemoaned: “If a pious rich guy is out, what chance do poor sinners have? Who the heck can be saved?” “Humanly speaking it is impossible;” Jesus replied, “but not with God. All things are possible with God.”

Some have taken this to mean that God can bail out the greedy too—just like the Federal Government. And they are right. Grace shows no partiality. But salvation of the greedy always entails salvation from greediness. And like salvation from every sin, it only happens through loss. I wonder if that’s what’s going on now? Unwilling—unable—to lose our lifestyles for Jesus, since humanly speaking that is impossible; I wonder if God is taking matters into his own hands. It is interesting to note how this current financial mess is being described by almost every news outlet as “global economic apocalypse.” If you were in church a couple Sunday mornings back, and heard me preaching out of Revelation 17, I went so far as to refer to Wall Street as the Whore of Babylon. Now I’m not one of those Biblical prophecy bloodhounds who scrutinize every social crisis for hints of end times, but I am one who’s willing to view world events through a Biblical prism. I’ll leave it to you to go up to the church website or blog for how I did that, but suffice it to say here, everything that goes on in Revelation and throughout Biblical history is ultimately God’s doing. All things are possible with him. The Sovereign Lord executes his will through both the righteous and the unrighteous; through both Israel and Babylon; through both the church and the world; through both good and evil, through the just life of Jesus and through his unjust death.

What if the current economic meltdown is a means whereby we finally learn to stop putting our trust in riches? What if we finally get it through our heads that the love of money is the root of all evil? What if we finally understand that you cannot serve both God and money? What if God makes us to care about the poor by making us poor? That’d be good thing, right? But wait, you might say, “I know God. He would never cause disaster or hardship to strike!” “God would never allow evil to succeed!” or “I know God! He would never make me poor or unhappy” –no matter that in Scripture God in fact does all these things. This was the Pharisees’ problem in Mark. They knew God so well that they couldn’t recognize him as Jesus. Now given the Pharisees’ past history, descended as they were from those faithless Israelites banished to Babylon and overrun by Rome for refusing to heed God’s word, you’d think that they might remember their past so as not to repeat it. But like every mutual fund prospectus: “past performance does not guarantee future results.” I mentioned a letter to the editor I ran across a couple weeks back where the writer bemoaned the stock market and housing meltdown. He asked: “Did anyone really believe that real estate could continue to sell at the crazy prices of recent years? … Yet as bad as it all is, the crash may bring us back to our senses.” The date of this letter was November 8, 1987.

Five years earlier in 1982 was the financial crisis year many pundits compare with this year’s crisis. The country was in deep recession in 1982, just as I was about to graduate college. Job prospects were bleak—which partly explains why I’m standing before you tonight. I was trying to take Jesus’ advice to store up my treasures in heaven by becoming a minister. My fraternity brothers thought I was crazy. Members of my family did too—and they were good church folk. It’s one thing to attend services and say your prayers, but to make it your career? I’ll confess that it does kill me sometimes to tell people what I do for a living. Sometimes it kills me just to admit I’m a Christian. Is that what Jesus meant by losing my life? If so, then coming clean is also what it means to follow Jesus. Which finally brings me around to our text for tonight: “Don’t bring in a lamp to put it under a bowl or a bed. Put it on its lampstand instead.”

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says this to prod his followers to live their faith for the world to see. He says, “Let your light shine before people, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” Here in Mark, the lamp is Jesus himself. But if it is the case that you have been crucified and Christ lives in you, then the difference between the lamp as Jesus and the lamp as you should be pretty much indistinguishable. In John’s gospel Jesus says, “I am the light of the world.” He also says “you are the light of the world.” Jesus did not come to hide, but to reveal himself. Likewise with us. Verse 22: “Nothing is hidden except to be disclosed; nothing is secret except to come to light.” He did not speak in riddles to keep people in the dark, but to show us the light.

But then he tells another riddle. Verse 24, “With the measure you use, it will be measured to you—and you will receive even more.” If you understand measure as weight, as in a “measure of wheat,” then it’s easy to interpret Jesus as saying “the rich get richer,” especially when coupled with what he says in verse 25: “To those who have, more will be given.” But if instead you understand measure as weigh, as in “weigh what you hear,” then I think you’re closer to what Jesus intends; especially when coupled with what he says in verse 23: “If anyone has ears, listen carefully to what you hear.” Measure Jesus’ words carefully. Take seriously what he says. And how do you do that? In Hebrew and Greek, the verb to hear is the same as the verb to obey. What you believe is not what you say you believe. What you believe is what you do. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and do it”—whether that’s losing your life or just losing your lifestyle.

In this vein, “those who have” are those who hear and do something about it; to them “more will be given.” They will be blessed. By contrast, “those who have nothing” are those who do nothing, to them “even what they have will be taken away.” As to exactly what will be given and taken away, Jesus doesn’t say. But if you flip to Mark’s version of the rich young ruler, Jesus says “I tell you the truth, no one, who by obeying me and the gospel, loses home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or property, will fail to receive a hundred times as much now (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and property—and with them, persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life.” Jesus throws in “persecutions” so that you’ll know his is no prosperity gospel. So then what does he mean by saying you’ll get back “a hundred times” what you lost now? Last week when Jesus told how a farmer sowed seed in good soil that produced a hundredfold crop, folks thought that was ridiculous. Only miracle seeds could grow that much. But Jesus wasn’t talking actual seeds then and here he’s not talking private property or actual biological mothers here (one of those is enough). But he is talking about miracles. He’s talking about us. We are the hundredfold fruit. As in chapter 3 when Jesus said “whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother,” the hundredfold increase in family and houses and property are those who heed Jesus. To follow Christ makes us family. Brothers and sisters in Jesus. My house is your house and your house is mine. It adds up quick. This is a good thing. Because if this economic collapse continues, I might need a place to stay.

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