January 1, 2006
Luke 2: 22-40
Please turn in the pew Bibles to the gospel of Luke, chapter 2 and follow along as I read verses 22-24.
22 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord
23 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, "Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord"),
24 and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, "a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons."
Amen. The word of God. Thanks be to God.
If Jesus were still living among us today, most of our agencies would be mad at him.
The FDA for turning water into wine without a license;
The EPA for killing fig trees;
The American Medical Association for practicing medicine without a license;
The Department of Health for feeding 5,000 people in unsanitary conditions;
OSHA for walking on water without a life jacket;
SPCA for driving hogs into the sea.
I am joking of course. Actually, everybody seems to like Jesus. Stephen Prothero is the chair of the Department of Religion at Boston University. He has written a book called American Jesus. He says that Jesus is a man “nobody hates.” Prothero says that roughly 85 percent of the Americans are Christian. That figure includes people who may not have been to church since they were baptized as an infant, but even subtracting those, there are still a lot of Christians in this country. In fact, according to Prothero, two-thirds of Americans say they have made a “personal commitment” to Jesus, and three-quarters of Americans say they have sensed Jesus’ presence at some time.
But that’s not all. Almost half of America’s non-Christians believe that Jesus was born of a virgin and resurrected from the dead. Prothero says:
“Here [in America] atheists and Buddhists are active producers and consumers of images of Jesus, who in many respects functions as a common cultural coin. Talk to a Hindu and she might tell you that Jesus is an avatar of the god Vishnu. Ask a Jew and you might be told that he was a great rabbi. In a best-selling novel from 1925, Bruce Barton described Jesus as The Man Nobody Knows. Today he is the man nobody hates.”
Jesus is very popular, but which Jesus? Professor Prothero says, we Americans have a history of continually remaking Jesus to resemble our current hero-type. This is a cultural Jesus who may or may not have anything to do with the real Jesus. Prothero says this is “Jesus as he has been interpreted and reinterpreted, construed and misconstrued, in the messy midrash of American culture.” This American Jesus is constantly changing and, Steven Prothero says that over the years, this remaking of Jesus has gradually separated him from the creeds, from the Scriptures, and even from Christianity itself. Thus, there are now some people who claim that the religion about Jesus and the religion of Jesus are very different things. Thus, we are undergoing a process whereby Jesus is separated from historical Christianity, and Americans of any religion, and even of no religio, feel free to embrace their own version of Jesus.
Dr. Prothero identifies four different “Jesuses” that have shown up in American Christianity.
The first “Jesus” is the “Enlightened Sage.” This was the Jesus of Thomas Jefferson. When he was president, Jefferson spent his evenings cutting out of the gospels all the references to miracles and to the divinity of Jesus. Jefferson ended up with a slim volume he called The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth. Jefferson’s Jesus prayed to God and believed in an afterlife, but he did not die for anyone’s sins. Jesus was not a savior but a teacher. Many still believe that today. The Jesus Seminar which has received so much media attention is basically Jeffersonian in outlook.
Another Jesus Prothero identifies is the “Sweet Savior” who was a product of the evangelistic fervor of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. During that time, the style of preaching changed. Earlier Puritan sermons were doctrinal dissertations—long and learned and difficult. In nineteenth century America, the style of preaching changed to storytelling. The minister told stories about Jesus and about the effect of Jesus on believers and called his audience to an intimate walk with Jesus. Jesus was our buddy whom we could come to know and hang out with. He was not really a historical figure and was not incarnate God. The Sweet Savior Jesus was approachable and friendly, meek and mild. This was not a Jesus to be thought about; this was a Jesus to be felt. We have some great hymns from this period. We have also some pretty bad hymns. One of the worst is “In the Garden,” which speaks of Jesus as someone you might meet in a place where the “dew is still on the roses.”
A third American version of Jesus, says Prothero, is the “Manly Redeemer,” which is a male reaction to the girly-man “Sweet Savior”. This is a mainly twentieth century movement, which has Jesus as a testosterone-powered hero. Books with titles like The Masculine Power of Christ and The Manhood of the Master appeared. This Manly Redeemer was no more linked to the historic creeds of the church than was the Sweet Savior, but at least he was more vigorous. He was a Savior with sex appeal. This Jesus brought with him strenuous demands. He was ready to lead Christians to war against poverty and racism and the social ills of the culture.
The fourth and most recent version of the American Jesus is the “Superstar.” In the 1960s, a Jesus movement began among the youth counterculture, and some saw Jesus as a revolutionary, a leader of an underground Christian liberation movement. Even though the movement fizzled in the ‘70s, that version of Jesus remained with us and became the subject of the rock musicals, Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell. Thereafter, Jesus was adopted by rock groups and rap singers and heavy metal bands as an upbeat guy who offers a high that is better than drugs.
The result of all this is that most Americans love some version of Jesus, but the question is: Which Is the real Jesus? That is the question for us today: Do we have the real Jesus? Or are we worshiping some sort of cultural fad that is going to change tomorrow?
Luke chapter two has a word for us on this question.
In the passage beginning in v22, Mary and Joseph were apparently trying to “kill two birds with one stone” as the old saying goes. The Law required that women who had given birth be ritually purified and also that first born sons be presented or redeemed (v. 22; cf. Leviticus 12 and Exodus 13:2, 11-16, respectively). Mary and Joseph had come to Jerusalem to do both those things.
Their presence in the temple is the setting for an encounter with a senior citizen: Simeon. The encounter is found in verses 25-35.
Simeon is a prophet, a righteous man, a devout man, full of the Holy Spirit. He does not meet the baby Jesus by accident. We are told in v26, that the Spirit “guided” Simeon into the temple at the precise time when Mary and Joseph were presenting Jesus, so that even as they fulfilled their responsibilities under the Torah, God was fulfilling his promise to Simeon—which was that Simeon would see the messiah.
This is a lesson to us here about things we think of as accidents or coincidences. They may not be accidents at all, they may be the Holy Spirit’s guiding us, as the Spirit guided Simeon, so that he was “accidentally” in the temple at the right time and place.
There some other things we should note about Simeon. Luke tells us in v25 that he was “looking forward to the consolation of Israel.” Simeon is an old man. Sometimes old people get locked into looking backward to the so-called “good old days,” an thus they miss the “good old days” that are still coming right around the corner. But old Simeon is looking forward. He finds the messiah not in the past, but in the future. Important lesson. Jesus is certainly about the past, he is the creator of the past, but ultimately the believer looks forward to Jesus. Jesus is the hope of the future. The whole universe looks forward to Jesus. He is Omega, the end of all things. His identity is that all things find their identity in him. All things find their meaning and goal in him. His identity is that our lives have meaning only insofar as we live in him.
Simeon senses this. When he sees Jesus, he takes the baby in his arms, and praises God, for he knows that this baby is the one he has been expecting. Simeon addresses the issue of the real Jesus in two prophecies.
The first, verses 29-32, is a song of praise to God. Simeon had been “looking forward to the consolation of Israel” (v. 25), and once he encounters the Christ child he realizes that God has “prepared” this “salvation ... in the presence of all peoples.” This is an astonishing revelation for a prophet of Israel. The messiah comes not only for Israel, but for everyone.
Now, what would have been obvious in the first-century is sometimes lost on us in the twenty-first century. This promise of “salvation” to the whole world was a direct challenge to imperial Rome. “Savior” was a title given to the Roman emperor. Caesar Augustus was “savior.” To call the baby Jesus “Savior,” bordered on treason, but I do not suppose a prophet like Simeon would have been much concerned about that.
Then Simeon spoke a second prophecy, directly to Mary. He foresaw that “this child” would provoke a division among the people. Opposed to the child, there are those who only recognize “salvation” in political terms — and this includes both Roman emperors and Jewish nationalists. These two groups are opposed to each other, but they want the same thing—political power. And thus both of these groups oppose this child, who represents another kind of power. The reference to the “sword” that will “pierce” Mary’s “soul” in v35 appears to be a foreshadowing of the suffering of Jesus’ passion she will witness when the political powers unite in their opposition to this Savior. Thus, we see that the real Jesus is not in any politics and not in any nationalism. He is far more than that.
As we return to Professor Stephen Prothero’s book, American Jesus, we can see that none of the cultural “jesuses” were wrong. Jesus was a teacher like Jefferson said. He was the sweet savior and the manly Jesus and the superstar. But all of those cultural Jesuses fail to appreciate the Real Jesus. The real Jesus is the cosmic Lord, the center of all things, who stretches across all matter, all life, all creation. The real Jesus is the center of our lives, so that whatever we do, it is for Jesus. Christians are a people who are about Jesus. As the Apostle Paul says in Romans 14: “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's” (7-8). Amen.
Prothero, Stephen. American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
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