I remember sitting with Suzanne and her family at her Grandmother’s house one day when someone went to the coat closet in the front hallway and pulled down a large square package. Inside was a beautiful old bible bound in tooled leather, with a metal clasp that clipped into the cover to hold the book closed. That bible, deposited in my lap must have weighed at least ten pounds and I am sure it cost a small fortune when it was new.
Gently opening the cover we discovered an ornately ornamented announcing the date the Bible was given, the presenters and the recipients. There were pages that allowed you to keep track of important family dates: births and baptisms, marriages and grandchildren, and the deaths of members of the family. Having been printed by a Methodist press the family record and genealogy pages were followed by a page that offered the family the opportunity to sign a temperance pledge… interestingly blank in this bible… and then a piece of thin tissue paper, protecting the first full page illustration in the volume…
There he was. Jesus of Nazareth, a first century Palestinian of Semitic origin, a descendant of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebeca, Jacob and Rachel, staring back at me with beautiful blue eyes and a head of long wavy blonde hair that would make any high fashion model proud!
I am sure that we have all seen this image of Jesus. He may be sitting peacefully under a tree with his hands in his lap looking at directly at us. He may be coming towards us with the newly recovered lamb on his shoulders. Or he may be standing there with his arms outstretched in welcome, a heavenly backlight ensuring that we know exactly who this attractive and welcoming figure is.
While Jesus, born to Mary and Joseph, in first century Palestine, in a town called Bethlehem, almost certainly didn’t look like the model in the shampoo ad that seems to adorn so many of the bibles on our bookshelves it’s really not surprising that we would portray him this way. Jesus, Emmanuel, God among us as one of us, belongs to all people, for all time, and his identity as the Son of God transcends any boundaries of race, ethnicity, culture, or country.
Google “faces of Jesus” and you will find representations of the one we call the Christ with the physical and cultural characteristics of pretty much every people in the world.
How do we experience Jesus today? It is only natural, and I might argue appropriate, that we would experience and depict him as one of us.
Natural and appropriate, that is of course, as long as we don’t try to claim that our representation is the only one that is valid and deny other people’s representations… as long as we don’t find ourselves feeling indignant or offended by portrayals of Jesus as black, and Hispanic, as Hmong… That is a real danger against which we need to be vigilant and aware.
I think that there is another danger though, one that is highlighted in our gospel reading from Luke today but in order to see it we need a quick review of Jesus’s ministry up to this point in the story.
At twelve years old Jesus stayed behind in the temple in Jerusalem while his family headed for home. Three days later when his panicked parents finally found teaching the teachers his response to their distress was, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
After his baptism in the river Jordan and temptation in the wilderness Jesus arrives in his hometown of Nazareth where he proclaims that in him, Isaiah’s prophecy describing the restoration of the kingdom, the year of jubilee is fulfilled. His people are understandably excited and proud.
But when Jesus points out that the people of Nazareth don’t have any special claim on him, and that God’s grace, mercy, and love extend beyond the people of Israel his hometown crowd tries to throw him off a cliff!
During his ministry in the Galilee Jesus regularly comes into contact and interacts with lepers defying the purity laws and risking being declared ritually unclean.
Word that Jesus is in town healing people, and the crush of the crowd to see him, leads a group of folks to tear the roof off a house in their efforts to bring their paralyzed friend to Jesus and in healing him Jesus claims the authority to forgive sins.
Jesus eats with tax collectors, Israelites who are collaborating with Rome and calls one of them as a disciple.
Jesus defends his followers for plucking grain on the Sabbath and claims to be the Lord of the Sabbath.
Jesus heals the servant of the ultimate outsider, a Roman Centurion, and holds the centurion up as a paragon of faith.
And he offers harsh critiques of the people of Israel and their lack of faith.
Jesus has been pushing the envelope, breaking the rules, challenging people to examine themselves and their beliefs. He has been defying convention, disregarding tradition, and creating conflict between the people and the authorities.
I am sure that people were struggling with this man. Who is he? By what authority does he do and say these things?
I would guess that these were the questions on the mind of the Pharisee who invited Jesus to dinner today. He invited Jesus to his home so that he could see for himself, so he could question and examine this troublemaker who was gaining such a following among the people.
Given Jesus’s history to this point the Pharisee shouldn’t have been too surprised that Jesus’s presence at his dinner table caused a ruckus: allowing a woman to touch him in a public place, a woman who was notorious in her community. If Jesus was a true prophet he would have known all of that and rejected her.
But Jesus didn’t send her away. His actions made the Pharisee and his friends uncomfortable, he rocked the boat, he pushed them to, and eventually beyond their limits… He kept pushing them right up to the moment that they abandoned and crucified him. How could Jesus be a prophet, the Messiah?
Some two thousand years later, we are here today affirming Jesus as “The Prophet.” We are here today affirming Jesus as The Messiah: “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one being with the father.”
So here’s the danger in our blonde haired, blue eyed Jesus.
Do the blonde hair and blue eyes of a Jesus who looks like “us” mean that we have domesticated him, taken away the rough edges, anything that might be threatening?
Have we made him so beautiful and benign because we are afraid of a prophet who pushes the envelope, breaks the rules, challenges us to examine ourselves and our beliefs? Are we ready to embrace a Messiah who defies convention, disregards tradition, and creates conflict between the people and the authorities?
What if the full-page color illustrations in our bibles depicted Jesus wearing a hoodie with six inches of his boxers showing above his jeans? What if they depicted Jesus with tattoos on his arms and a mohawk, hanging out on the street corner talking to the homeless and the unemployed? What if those illustrations in our bible depicted Jesus in dirty ragged clothes eating at a soup kitchen, washing the feet of people who were in danger of losing hope…
If that’s the way our bibles depicted him would we be less likely to embrace the words of our creed: “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one being with the father.”
If Jesus didn’t look like “us,” but instead looked like “them” might we be quoting the Pharisee… “If this man were a prophet he would have known who and what kind of people he is associating with… He would have known that they are people who make us uncomfortable, who aren’t like us, who don’t get invited to dinner parties…”
Do we come to this table to be affirmed as we are and loved by a God who looks just like us, a God who just wants to fit in…? Or are we prepared to come to this table to be challenged, to be made uncomfortable, to have our boat rocked, to be changed and to be driven into the wilderness, called to live out our faith in the public arena; proclaiming by word and example the Good News of God in Christ; seeking and serving Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves; striving for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being?
Ok. So maybe I have a bigger problem with the blonde haired, blue eyed Jesus than I realized. Because if that’s the Jesus we had our hearts set on when we came here this morning then I am afraid we are going to be sorely disappointed.
If, however, we have our hearts set on the Jesus who walked the earth in first century Palestine, the Jesus whose presence calls to us through the Holy Spirit today, the Jesus who is still out there pushing the envelope, breaking the rules, challenging our understanding of ourselves and of God, and working to touch all of us, all of us, especially the lost and the broken, the disenfranchised and the forgotten, the marginalized and the oppressed… Then our hopes today will be met.
Because that Jesus, the first century Palestinian Jew shoes life, death, and resurrection changed the world is here, calling us to follow him into the neighborhood where we can ask folk who don’t look like us what Jesus looks like to them.