Sermon July 20, 2014 The Many Faces of Jesus Part Three: Jesus of Popular Culture

Scripture Lesson: John 3:16-17
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

In the year 2000, candidates for the Republican nomination for president gathered in the Des Moines Iowa Civic Center for a televised debate. In the course of conversation about the usual – abortion, school violence, and ethanol – the candidates were asked which “political philosopher or thinker” they “most identified with.” The responses included John Locke, the founding fathers, Theodore Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, and Ronald Reagan. Oh, and there was one last response – Christ – offered by George W. Bush. [Jesus in America A History: Personal Savior, Cultural Hero, National Obsession, Richard Wightman Fox, p. 384-5]

There’s no question that Jesus Christ is an influential figure and not only because he changed the heart of W. In countless ways and contexts, it can be asserted that Jesus Christ, who began as a Palestinian peasant over 2000 years ago, is top ranked today as a figure of influence even celebrity.

In 1966, John Lennon remarked that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. [Fox, p. 377] Later he apologized for the overstated comment. Today, we have become used to such insolence, but a performer would be hard pressed to say such a thing because the popularity of Jesus seems to be growing, or at least it is more universally recognized.

Jesus is a major figure in music, film, literature, and of course, art. A few examples include The Tale of Two Cities, JC Superstar, The Passion of Christ, Last Temptation of Christ, and the list could go on and on and on.
Jesus is recognized as a figure influencing social change. He is revered by civil rights activists including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He is honored by Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement. Jesus was influential upon Cesar Chavez and the National Farmworker movement.

Jesus is a revered figure not only in Christianity. He was admired by Mohandas Gandhi. He is respected by the Dalai Lama. For Muslims and Jews, he is considered a prophet. BaHai’s revere Jesus. Hindus and Buddhists honor Jesus. He is considered an avatar for the Hindu god Vishnu.

Jesus is a significant figure not only for what some of us may consider positive initiatives in society, but he is also a key symbol for the Ku Klux Klan, the Lord’s Resistance Army in the Congo, militia groups and hate groups in the US and the world over.

Capitalists, socialists, fascists, pacifists, the armed forces, and so many other diverse factions and groups, claim Jesus as an ally.

Jesus is a frequent subject of tattoos. I saw a woman this past week with a tight, short spaghetti strap dress on, high platform shoes, looking like a street walker on 34th Street, and there on her back was a huge depiction of the crucifixion of Jesus. What does that mean to this woman? To have a huge tattoo of Jesus dead on the cross adorning(?) her back?

Visually, you can find Jesus represented as a yogi in the lotus position, as a business man in a suit, as a homeless person asleep on a park bench. You can find images of Jesus depicted laughing, crying, and dying. African or Aryan. At a computer or cell phone in hand. Toting a cross or toting a gun. As President of the US, as a Zombie, or astride a tyrannosaurus rex. I even found an image of Jesus flipping the bird. The only thing I did not find was Jesus having sex, and I am sure if I looked long enough the internet could have provided that, too.
Perhaps the greatest testament to the notoriety of Jesus is the popularity of Christmas. Christmas is celebrated the world over by people of all cultures and religions. It is the most celebrated holiday in the world.

This morning we listened to those beautiful words from the Gospel of John extolling the love of God in Jesus: “For God so loved the world that God gave the only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal live. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” These words, written well after Jesus died, convey the importance of Jesus to the community the writer was addressing and beyond. They are words which have come down to us encapsulating the meaning of Jesus. God’s gift to the world to show God’s eternal love. A gift to save the world, to foster life, to embody the good, to show the way. This teaching was specifically addressed to people within the Jewish tradition both those who had chosen to follow Jesus and those who had not. The writer wants people to know that there is a decision to be made about Jesus. If you believe, then you are saved. The word used for belief implies to have faith in, to be committed to, to put trust in, to rely on, to place confidence in. So, if you believe in Jesus, then you are saved. The word for saved is used in various settings implying healing, wholeness, and deliverance. It can be used to refer to this life, suffering, sickness, or danger. It can also be used to refer to the life of the spirit, to eternal damnation or eternal life, to the outcome at the end times. Which side do we want to be on?

Who does not want to be on the side of good, the right side, the side of God, the side of Jesus, however we may envision that? Who does not want to be saved, to be delivered in whatever way that we may conceive of that? When presented with the choice, with the decision, most of us want to believe and be saved. We have mentioned how Jesus is ubiquitous, imaged, portrayed, and conveyed in countless ways. I think this is indicative of our desire to be on the right side of things. We want to show our alignment with Jesus and thus with God. We want to know we are loved and cared for by a power beyond our own. Jesus gives us
access to that; he is a symbol of that.

Last week we read from the first chapter of John, “The word was in the world. . . but the world did not recognize the word.” The invitation, the option, the opportunity was there. But some missed it. The story before the verses we heard this morning is the story of Nicodemus, a Jewish leader who comes to Jesus by night. He is seeking. He, too, wants to be saved, whatever that may mean to him. He knows that Jesus is offering something that makes a difference and he wants to get in on it. As the story proceeds, Jesus talks to Nicodemus about being born anew, or from above, or again. Nicodemus is confused and doesn’t understand.

One aspect of the meaning of saying “yes” to God through Jesus is the willingness to change. To be born anew. To be remolded. To see things differently. Embrace a new kind of life. Following Jesus is marked by an openness to a continual process of growth, transformation, and change.

Now what about change? I could tell you numerous things I would like changed about my husband. Let’s see. Where to start? But I surely do not want to change. We don’t like change. People never really have liked it even in ancient times. Change is fine if it involves someone else changing to suit our desires. Otherwise, we’re not so enamored with change. In the Nicodemus story, Jesus talks about submitting to the Holy Spirit that blows where it wills. It might puff us in to a new locale, out of a familiar relationship, into a new movement for social change, out of a lucrative career, into a new perspective about something important, out of old prejudices, or even on to a cross. It’s no wonder Nicodemus ends up sneaking off back into the darkness. Taking Jesus on those terms is quite a challenge and a commitment and it’s beyond him in this story and beyond many others as well, then and now.

We see that Jesus offers salvation. He wants to remake us in God’s image. But I
think that we find it easier, more palatable, more convenient, to remake Jesus in
our image. We want to be aligned with Jesus and his saving love, so we find ways to portray him, image him, and reconstruct him, that suit our sensibilities. We enlist him in our causes so that we appear to be on the same side, the side of what is good and right and true. We appear to believe so that we will be saved. In my estimation, much of this occurs subconsciously, inadvertently, and naively. “The word was in the world. . . but the world did not recognize the word.”

This has been a difficult week. I get my news from reading the newspaper and from the radio. Every time I glanced at the latest headline or hit the button on the radio, the world seemed to get more depressing and depraved. A passenger jet shot down out of the sky over Europe? Israel sending ground troops into Gaza notching things up instead of working for peace? Isis creating more chaos in Syria and environs? The inside scoop on Boko Haram, the group that kidnapped the girls in Nigeria. They are carrying out beheadings with swords according to the rituals of some ancient sacred writings. Then there is the crazy dysfunction of our government and the Supreme Court. And our STEM governor who doesn’t seen to want to be influenced by what scientists have to say about global climate change. I know there were some wins for gay marriage this week, but overall, this was a week for despair. Or maybe I should say, another week for despair. We simply seem to be going the wrong direction.

This making Jesus in our image, enlisting him in our causes, getting him on our side, it doesn’t seem to be saving us – from ourselves or from anyone else. Here is Jesus, a ubiquitous figure, portrayed and displayed in profusion, and look at the shape things are in. Jesus offers us salvation through healing, wholeness, justice, reconciliation, compassion, and community. He faced death for the well-being of others. He is a gift of salvation to the world. But he will only save us if we let him. Amen.

A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.

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