Our No, God’s Yes

Well, it’s been a crazy week, hasn’t it, what with all the hullabaloo and that big court case. All those people shouting at one another, some for, some against. I don’t know about you but I’ve been kind of disturbed by the whole thing. I mean, I’m as liberal as the next person, and I certainly think that people ought to be allowed to live and let live. I like change; I like it when they do something new. But new for its own sake is not helpful. There are some things you just don’t change. Too much change and the world starts to slide, things get out of whack. I’m happy for those people to do their thing off wherever they do it; but do they have to come and get in our faces with it? What right do this Jesus and his roughneck bunch of Galilean fisherman have to come down here to Jerusalem and stir up such a hornets nest?

Look, you don’t know what it was like last time one of these so-called “Messiahs” came along. Everybody got so riled up that it seemed a sure bet that the Romans and that bunch of thugs they call an army were going to sweep through the Temple district and kill everybody! I was part of the delegation from the priestly families that went to the Roman governor to lick his boots and promise that we would keep the people quiet. And here we’ve got another “King of the Jews,” preaching all kinds of crazy stuff down at the Temple day after day, just when everyone is in town for the Passover. Did you hear that he said that he was going to tear down the Temple and build it back in three days? This Temple, our Temple, that our families rebuilt with so much blood, sweat, and treasure all those years ago?

Listen, I understand what this Jesus is trying to say. God knows the Pharisees and all those others “teachers of the Torah” need a swift kick in the pants. But Jesus has gone too far! It’s as though the Temple means nothing to him, as though you could find God in the midst of that smelly rabble following him just as easily as you could find God here in Jerusalem, at the Temple, God’s footstool on earth. Who does he think he is, the prophet Amos or something, talking about transformed hearts being better than sacrifice, mercy better than grain offerings? Let me ask you, how are transformed hearts going to do anything for this rotten economy? When was the last time mercy put food on the table? Jerusalem needs the Temple; Jerusalem needs the sacrificial system. Do you know how many people we employ? Do you know how many people would be out of a job if everyone thought they could access God directly, without coming to us to do it for them?

No. This man is too dangerous. His message is too radical. I say, we say get rid of him; do it as publicly as you can, so no one else will become infected by his crazy notions. The people don’t need God; they need religion. We are the priests, the mediators between heaven and earth, and to this Jesus we say no.

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Yes, it has been a crazy week, but not for the reason those stinking collaborators the priests would have you believe. It’s been a crazy week because a known blasphemer and violator of the Sabbath has been parading around Jerusalem, teaching in the Temple, spreading his venomous lies! Oh yes, I know all about this Jesus; I’ve heard him with my own ears. I was up there in Galilee one day when somebody told me about this new rabbi and his strange message. Wanting to hear for myself I went to the house where he was teaching. Not that I was the only Pharisee there, I can tell you; a lot of us were interested in what he was going to say. At first it sounded pretty good; he quoted Deuteronomy, and told us that not one dot on an “i” or cross on a “t” would pass away from the Torah. But then this bunch of yahoos brought their paralyzed friend along to see Jesus, and because the crowd was so thick they hauled the guy up on the roof, cut a hole in it, and lowered him down through the hole! I remember thinking, “O.k., now Jesus is going to tell us whether it was this misbegotten wretch or his dirtbag parents who sinned, leading God to paralyze the guy.” But what he actually said about knocked me off my seat: “Son, your sins are forgiven.” “Whoa!” I thought; “you don’t get to say that!”And then he looked right at me as though I had spoken those thoughts out loud, and he said “Which is easier to say; ‘Your sins are forgiven, or ‘Stand up, take your mat, and walk.’” Which, of course, is what Jesus said next–and the man stood up and walked!

But the blasphemy of implying he could forgive sin the way God does wasn’t good enough for him; no, he had to go and perform another one of his miracles by healing someone ON THE SABBATH!! Years that person had been sick, and Jesus couldn’t wait another lousy 24 hours to heal him? And then he did it again, and more after that! Once, he made some smarmy comment about the Sabbath being made for human beings, not the other way around. I tell you, it doesn’t work that way. Look around; do you see any shortage of people? No there’s people everywhere, more than we need. All these people, and only ONE SABBATH! Of course God cares more about the Sabbath than people!

Listen, I understand and appreciate some of the stuff this guy is trying to say. Somebody needs to tell those stuck-up bluebloods in the priestly families that God doesn’t dwell in temples made with human hands. But this Jesus goes too far! He claims to love the Torah, and he can do a pretty good job of quoting it and preaching about it, but whenever he’s teaching he goes off the reservation. He says crazy stuff like what comes out of your mouth is more important than what goes into it; he tells subversive stories about Samaritans and worthless sons; he acts as though the Kingdom of God is nothing but a big party to which God has invited everybody, even (or especially) the unbelievers and the unclean. Worst of all he associates constantly with the worst kinds of sinners, from tax collectors and hooligans to, to, . . . “loose women.”

No. This man is too dangerous. His message is too radical. I say, we say, get rid of him; do it as publicly as you can, so no one else will become infected by his crazy notions. The people don’t need his warm and fuzzy “God”; they need lives of order and discipline, listening to the right people. We are the Pharisees, the teachers of the Torah, and to this Jesus we say no.

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My God, what a crazy week it’s been. Jerusalem has been full of Jews and more Jews, all of them here to celebrate this thing they call the “Passover.” It’s some religious festival, something to do with their God killing Egyptians back in the day. Ha! As though you need a God to kill Egyptians. Me and the boys under my command did plenty of that all on our own during our last tour down in Alexandria. Anyway, like I was saying Jerusalem has been a zoo: people pushing and shouting at one another, livestock on its way to be sacrificed at their Temple making a mess everywhere, scam artists and grifters working the crowd, looking to rip off some poor hick down from the Galilee for the festival. Being a Roman centurion is never easy when you’re assigned to one of the provinces, but working crowd control in this flea-ridden mudhole of a place they call Judea? The worst.

And just to put the cherry on top of the whipped cream they got one of their so-called “Messiahs” in town. A real nut job this one, goes around one day calling himself the “Son of Man,” the next saying he’s the “Son of God,” whatever either of those are supposed to mean. Jesus of Nazareth is his name, was supposed to be a stone mason or maybe a carpenter before God flew down and started whispering in his ear. For the last three years he’s been going around Galilee, Samaria, and Judea, preaching about peace and love and all that junk.

I’ve heard him talking, and some of what he says makes sense. He tells them that this Temple they’re all so proud of is no big deal, and that it’s how you treat other people that matters, not whether you’ve checked off every item on this list of rules they call the Torah,. I mean, he must be doing something right, because he’s got those oily backstabbers the priests and those sanctimonious prudes the Pharisees all upset with him! In fact, just yesterday I heard a bunch of priests and Pharisees planning to off the guy–and those two never agree on nothin!

Yeah, as I see it, the guy would be doing us a favor by getting the Jewish authorities mad at him for a while; it would distract them from moaning to us about every little problem. Except for one thing: This Jesus character keeps talking about a kingdom. Oh, he’ll call it the “Kingdom of God,” or the “Kingdom of heaven,” but we know whose kingdom he’s talking about: his. Why, just last Sunday when he was arriving in town for the festival, he let them put on a victory procession for him, with them waving palm branches and tossing their coats in the road so he could ride over them! And here he comes riding down the lane as though he were Caesar himself–except, of course, that his followers were either too cheap or too stupid to get him a real horse; they had him ride in on a donkey! I promise you, that donkey part was the only thing that kept us from arresting him right there on the spot.

Oh, but we’re gonna arrest him. Because, you see, nobody talks about their kingdom to us. This is our kingdom. We, the Romans, conquered it fair and square, and it belongs to the Empire now. No two-bit Galilean preacher is going to start a rebellion on my watch. This town, this province, this world, answer to the only power that matters: Rome.

No. This man is too dangerous. His message is too radical. I say, we say, we’re gonna get rid of him, and we’re going to do it as publicly as we can, so no one else will become infected by his crazy notions. The people don’t need God; they need Caesar. We are the Romans, the keepers of law and order, and to this Jesus we will say no–permanently.

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So it was then, and so it is now. If I’ve learned anything about how to read the Bible over the years, it’s this one thing: whenever we encounter anyone in Scripture who has made the wrong decision, acted out of fear, chosen to hate instead of to love, what have you; it’s not so the story can have bad guys along with the good guys. Those people are there in Scripture to hold up a mirror to the reader–which would be us.

In the Cross the priests, the Pharisees, and the Romans all said no to Jesus–and so do we. Like them, we say no to a full and rich relationship with God, preferring instead the empty form of religion without the genuine power of God’s Spirit. Like them we prefer dead rules and restrictions to a warm, life-giving fellowship with all those whom God has named beloved. Like them we say no to any power that does not rely on coercive force and violence, to any family that includes more than our narrow cliques and tribes. Like them, we say no to God in Jesus Christ.

In the church I grew up in, we were pretty hung up on the Crucifixion. We talked all the time about the Cross, we had pictures of it everywhere, it showed up in all of our hymns. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but it meant that, except at Easter, we spent very little time talking about the Resurrection. Sometimes I had to wonder whether, if the whole point of the exercise was for Jesus to come and die, the empty tomb was necessary. That was, of course, one of those questions you never asked in my church–or, if you did, you only asked it in order to exasperate your 8th-grade Sunday School teacher.

But now, I think I might have an idea. You see, brothers and sisters, on that Sunday and on this one God says yes. Why the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead? So God can say “yes” to our “no.” To all our denials, rejections, and equivocations God answers from the empty tomb with one vast, unavoidable, irresistible affirmative. God says yes, life can transcend the shallow pursuit of self interest. God says yes, we can live in free and joyful service to others. God says yes, true power flows from emptying yourself, giving yourself away, not grasping after whatever you can.

At the Cross, we flung our “No” to what we thought was an empty sky. On the third day, and on every day, God’s answer comes back: yes.

Preached at Christ United Methodist Church, Franklin, TN March 31, 2013: Easter Sunrise Service

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