The Sunday Sermon: Second Sunday after Epiphany – January 19, 2020
Scripture: Luke 3:23-38
Jesus: Full Humanity
As another season of Ordinary Time begins for us, as our sanctuary returns to green and we spend a few weeks counting once again, this time Sundays before the Lenten season is upon us, I find myself mystified, once again. On one hand it’s all happened very, very fast. On one hand, it always does – from Christmas to Epiphany to Baptism, Jesus ages thirty years in two to three weeks in our church life. On the one hand, it’s all happened very, very fast.
On the other hand, it’s all happening excruciatingly slow – because it’s been happening all our lives long and we still don’t get it. Or we do and we aren’t admitting it, aren’t acknowledging it, aren’t allowing it. Either way it’s taking forever – understanding the revelation of God in Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus Christ. But, that’s okay.
Christian faith, Christian life, is not about perfection, or even completion. Not in this lifetime, at least. It is about perseverance. So, year after year we tell our story, for others, if others are listening, but mostly to ourselves, for ourselves. I honestly don’t know about all of you, but for my part, in my role as the primary “teacher” of the mystery, I do this year after year hoping that something different, something original, or maybe something very ancient will be heard in a new way.
Jesus was born on Christmas day. We sang nine Christmas carols on the Sunday that followed: Shepherd hymns, Baby’s lullabies, and Angel’s songs. The week after that, on Epiphany, he was visited by the Magi. We pledged not to leave Jesus as they did. And just last week, he was baptized in the Jordan river and we stepped into the water with him. I mentioned last week as we “got wet” that, in our day and age, there are different ways of understanding “God” and “God’s way;” different ways of believing in and sharing the character of God and the God’s passion. As Christians, we find the character and passion of God by what we see in Jesus. But Jesus, too, is understood differently across Christian denominations, and even within them. So, as we try once more to live a life that reveals God to the world in the way that Jesus’ life did, we must understand who Jesus was. But first … Pray with me …
So, Jesus is …
Prophet, Healer, Movement Founder; The Good Shepherd, The Great Physician, The True Vine; Lamb of God, King of Kings, Risen Lord; the Way, the Truth, the Life; Savior, Messiah, Christ; to name just a few. And all of these names, and the multitude of others, are the “cumulative” way that Christians throughout the centuries have attempted to reveal God in humanity.
“The central claim of Christianity is that Jesus is the decisive revelation of God. He reveals, discloses, what can be seen of God in human life” (Speaking Christian, Marcus Borg. 85). Seeing the decisive revelation of god in a person distinguishes Christianity from other religions. Two other examples: Jews find the decisive revelation of God in a book, the Torah. Moses is he revealer, but not the revelation. Muslims find the decisive revelation of God in a book, the Qur’an. Muhammed is the revealer, but not the revelation (Ibid.). But for Christians, the decisive revelation of God is found, not in a book, but in a human, in humanity. This distinction is not about superiority, but about difference. What does that “belief” mean for us? For our life and our lives?
The responses to those questions and legions of others like it, make this central figure of our faith problematic, to put it lightly, for many in our time, in our lives. Maybe even for our own life. For far too many Jesus’ name has negative associations because that name has been, and is being, used in conjunction with a “fear-based Christianity that emphasizes sinfulness, guilt, unworthiness, and the threat of eternal damnation.
From my very first sermon to the one delivered this morning, I have preached, not a fear-based Gospel framed by a heaven-or-hell afterlife. But a Gospel framed by salvation in this life through Love (capital “L”), community, and justice. But even through that message, begun in the words and through the life of Jesus, he is puzzling to far too many of us. “He is both human and divine. What does that mean? He was born of a virgin. Literally? Or if not, what does that mean? Able to perform miracles that no human could? If so, was he then really one of us? … Raised from the dead? Literally? And if not, what does that mean?” (Ibid. 86)
It is into this reality, these questions, that we begin again. It’s happening so fast and it’s taking so long. A good time to turn to another special revelation of our faith, our Bible. This morning’s reading will slow us down a bit and root us deep in a history that we share with the one who we follow.
Listen for the Word of God. Read Luke 3:23-38 … The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Where is “the Word of the Lord” in that? A list of names, almost always skipped over except by those whose job it is to not skip over them. We know that there are theological reasons for this genealogy. Matthew has one of these, too, but his begins with Abraham and works its way forward to Jesus in order to establish Jesus’ heritage “from the stump of Jesse,” the prophecied Davidic king who will bring peace on earth. Luke’s list moves backward in time, all the way back to Adam, Son of God, perhaps foreshadowing a bit of John’s cosmic claim that the Christ in Jesus “was, is, and always will be.” Matthew places his list in the opening verses of his writing, as part of the “overture” we’ve discussed. Jesus’ lineage will be a key theme in Matthew’s story of the human who lived so fully and loved so wastefully. Luke places his list in the opening verses of his third chapter, just after Jesus’ baptism, just as the “opera” itself is beginning in his Gospel.
Here’s why, I think: Beyond all the deep theological rationale, beyond all the scriptural allusions, beyond all the traditional interpretations, Luke is grounding the Christ event in Jesus of Nazareth in history. “This happened,” Luke is saying. “It’s not a story. It’s not something I, or anyone else made up. I’m not simply using a literary device to make my story more meaningful or keep all of you interested.
“Once upon a time, this human lived a life like yours and mine with parents and grandparents, and great-grandparents, and by extension aunts and uncles, and cousins, and even brothers and probably sisters, in spite of what your church may claim centuries later.” The person we’re going to hear about, follow, learn from, and ultimately emulate was as human as we are. Again … in spite of some of the claims about him that will come after, Jesus was fully human.
Theologian William Barclay writes in his commentaries from the 50’s and 60’s that any questions about, and any understandings of, (Jesus as) Christ, must begin from the historical fact that those who lived and walked and ate and talked and companied with Jesus saw absolutely nothing unnatural and abnormal about him. His (humanity) was complete.”
Minister and novelist Frederick Buechner writes that all of us must “ask ourselves what it means to be human” – what it means to be a particular human – “ourselves.” He notes that we gather together on Sunday’s, in part to ask questions like that together, but the majority of your lives and most of our “discernment” will be spent alone. “So ask yourself over and over again, ‘Who am I and whose am I?’ ” To hear yourself answer a question like that “is to begin to hear something not only of who you are but of both what you are becoming and what you are failing to become.”
Luke is answering those questions, or at least beginning to answer them, for Jesus in this “boring” scriptural genealogical reading. Who is this human being? Where does he come from?
This human being is Jesus … of Nazareth. He comes from … well, Mary and Joseph, and their parents; from Nathan and David and Jesse and their parents; from Jacob and Isaac and Abraham; from Enos and Seth and Adam. He comes … from God … this human. Like all other humans before him. Like all other humans with him. Like all other human beings that will come after him. He comes from God. We come from God.
Jesus does not differ from us in kind. Only in degree.
So deeply engrained in our hearts and minds is the idea that Jesus is different from us that I’ll bet most of you don’t hear the radical nature of that proposition. You think, “Well, I know what I think I heard, but he must have some intricate theological underpinnings that makes it all okay, that returns Jesus to his special status far better than me, much different than me.” If you’re thinking about that statement at all it’s only glancingly with a parallel thought that it means more than it sounds like it means. It doesn’t. Jesus does not differ from you in kind. You’re a human being in the exact same way that he was a human being, daughter of – daughter of, son of – son of … and so on.
Redeeming and reclaiming our “sameness” with the one we stepped into the river with last week, the one we call Lord and Savior, the one we have decided to “follow” begins with understanding that Jesus was a human first, who lived in history, a Galilean Jew born around 4 BCE, crucified some 30 years later. A flesh-and-blood human being like us, he was a particular height and weight, he had to eat and drink and was mortal. He had a beginning and an end.
I can feel some of you getting uncomfortable. I’m pushing this farther than ever before. And I’m going farther this morning: That Jesus doesn’t exist anymore. He died, brutally, we know from history books other than our Holy Scripture. This was, that is, the “historical Jesus,” the human being who walked this earth before his death. Son of, son of, son of … fully human. And that’s where we differ from him.
Jesus is the decisive revelation for us, for Christians, for the Christian faith, precisely because he lived into his full humanity. Jesus answered the second question that Frederick Buechner says we must: What will I become? He had the courage to “become” all he was created to be … by God. In his compassion for the marginalized, for “the least of these,” we see God’s compassionate character … In his passion for the “kin-dom” of God, we see God’s passion for a world transformed by justice and nonviolence in which no one needs to be afraid. In his challenge and confrontation of the way things are, the way we are, we see God’s challenge of all that gets in the way of the well-being of all of us and all that is (Ibid. 94).
Jesus is not special because he was divine and had a divine “boost” that we don’t have. He was special because he was an utterly remarkable human being – like Moses and Muhammed, like St. Francis and Saint Elizabeth, Plato and Aristotle, Mother Theresa and Martin Luther King, Jr., like you and me … only more. So much more that his followers for two thousand years have seen in him the decisive revelation of God-with-us.
Jesus … fully human. And so … divine? What have we gotten ourselves into, what have we stepped into, this time? Please come back next week. We’ll find out more.
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor
Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / January 19, 2020