John 1: 16-30
December 11, 2011
Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch, Preacher
The Christian message, simply put, is this: Jesus shows us everything we need to know about God.
Is there more to know about God than Jesus? Absolutely. But everything that matters about God we learn through Jesus. We learn it though His teachings. We learn it through his life. We learn it through his death. We learn it through his resurrection. In Jesus, God is distilled to God’s essence.
Here’s what we learn about God, through Jesus.
First of all, in case you had any doubts, this is the Jewish God, the God of the quote Old Testament unquote, who sent Jesus. There’s this idea that somehow Jesus is kind and gentle and God is vengeful and wrathful. But Jesus isn’t kind and gentle and God isn’t vengeful and wrathful. Jesus is short-tempered and impatient with hypocrisy. He has no patience with rules that exclude people because of their limitations or health issues or simply to prove the religious superiority of one group over the other. He is kind to repentant sinners, but still calls sin a sin, not a failing, or shortcoming, or mistake, or bad self-image.
Jesus is also generous and welcoming. He proclaims that God is generous and welcoming. In Jesus’ parables, God is often presented as an almost ridiculously generous figure: a father who welcomes back a son who has insulted him and squandered his money. A landowner who is over-generous to his least-productive workers. A king who throws a banquet and invites the poor, the blind, and the lame.
But that same God, we are warned, is not going to welcome or indulge or forgive everybody. Don’t take it for granted you belong in the Kingdom of Heaven. And just because God loves us unconditionally, that doesn’t mean God doesn’t expect something in return. God expects us to live right. God expects us to give to the poor and the needy, to show kindness to the hungry, the weak, the stranger, even to our enemy. Jesus didn’t invent this. God was this way from the very earliest books of the Bible. Jesus is teaching us to do as Micah proclaims: “God has shown you, O mortals, what is good: and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
In Jesus’ teachings, God gathers us as a shepherd gathers helpless sheep. But once we’re gathered, God expects us to become disciples, to take responsibility to live by the values of the Kingdom. God forgives, but God doesn’t accept excuses. Just like the God of the Old Testament.
People look at Jesus and say, “The God of the Old Testament was a god of war, but Jesus taught us peace. When his disciples drew swords to fight the people who’d come to arrest Jesus, He told them to put their swords away, that whoever lives by the sword dies by the sword.” True. But Jesus also taught, “You think that I came to bring peace. But I came not to bring peace, but a sword.” He knew what He taught would bring conflict—it was too contradictory to the way the rest of the world thinks.
Jesus doesn’t avoid conflict. At all. When He disagrees with someone, He tells them how wrong they are. He calls his critics liars and hypocrites and uses sarcasm to put them down. He says of the scribes and Pharisees, “Do as they say, but not as they do. They like make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long; they love to have the seat of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues and to be greeted with respect in the marketplace and to have people call them ‘rabbi.’” All those remarks are just painfully accurate and well-aimed sarcasm. Jesus was the John Stewart of First Century Palestine.
In the season of Advent, we’re struck over and over again with all the Old Testament passages that confirm for us that the God of the Hebrew Scriptures is also the God of the New Testament. Not a God of war, but of peace: “They will call him the Prince of Peace…” “They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks… They shall not hurt or destroy in all of God’s creation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me…he has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners, the proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort those who mourn…” (Is. 61: 1ff).
Well, forgiveness, that’s different, right, that’s what Jesus does, right? No, forgiveness is a huge part of who the Old Testament God is: “A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will in no way turn away…” “I am He who blots out your transgressions and remembers not your sins…”
Then of course there’s Jesus’ death and resurrection. The very vulnerability that’s implied by the death of Jesus strikes us as completely unlike the God of the Old Testament. But the Old Testament God is quite vulnerable when it comes to winning back humanity’s love. Again and again he forgives, again and again He tries to woo back his people from their injustice and their false gods and their self-love. The Old Testament God seems to have His heart broken by faithless humanity every few pages of the Bible.
But surely Jesus is the one who tells us that God loves us. Where’s that in the Old Testament?
Everywhere. It’s everywhere. “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness…” “God’s steadfast love endures forever…” “According to your steadfast love, remember me, O Lord!”… “With everlasting love I will have compassion on you, says the Lord, your redeemer.” “I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy.” God loves humanity so much in the Old Testament, God wants to marry us!
Murray Haar, a Jewish professor of Religion who for a time was a Lutheran pastor before returning to the faith he was raised in, wrote this:
What some Christians sometimes forget is that for Christians, Jesus is the God of the Old Testament become flesh. So the Old Testament God is really no different than the New. Both care about justice and love. Both are gracious and yet condemn sin. In point of fact, in the whole New Testament Jesus does not smile once. He does not sing camp songs. In fact, he rarely acts with grace or talks about how much he loves people. His first words in the Gospel of Mark are ones that make him sound like an O.T. prophet, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” So what we have are charicatures of Jesus as being loving and kindly and sweet and the O.T. God as lacking grace and being violent. The fact is in the Bible God is God is God, mysterious, ineffable, perplexing, ambiguous, with both a passion for justice and grace.
What throws us off, I think, is that in the Old Testament and in the Gospels, we experience God’s mystery and ambiguity in the midst of a very real world of war, oppression, poverty, humanity’s cruelty to one another, greed, selfishness, confusion, uncertainty, and fear. We wish that we could get some pure, untarnished picture of God that isn’t blemished by how bad reality is; or on the other hand, that faith in God would just make the world all pretty and bright and rainbows and puppies.
It doesn’t work that way. The God of Scripture, the God of the Old and the New Testaments, doesn’t transport us to heaven—at least not yet. First He meets us where we are. It is here, in the dirty, grimy, flesh-and-blood world that God dares us to believe. It is here that, mysteriously, God saves us.
The Word became Flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. The biblical God lives in the real world—and so do we. The miracle is that we, grimy, fallen flesh though we are, with all our flaws and quirks and imperfections, can also be Word become flesh; we too can show the world the grace and truth of Jesus Christ.
Look for grace and truth here, in this world. It’s here. Because God is here.