Let’s play word association. I say a word, and you allow your mind to present you with an image in response. For example, if I say ‘red’ you may get a picture flash into your mind of a balloon, or a Ferrari, or Little Red Riding Hood, or something personal to you.
Are you ready? Blank your minds, and I’ll say one word.
What picture did you get?
A common image for people is the one that graces the wall of the car park downstairs. A tall slim guy with long blond hair and strange clothes, holding a lamb under his arm and hailing a taxi.
In some cases he is seated with a small child on his lap.
It is also quite common to get a picture of the same guy hanging on a cross. He should be covered in blood from multiple wounds, but somehow he looks very clean and tidy. He’s there so I can go to heaven when I die. His only job was to die so my sins could be forgiven. This is a great and a wonderful thing, no doubt about it. But it is all rather removed from day-to-day life. Not really relevant to the historical present and politics.
Another picture we often have of Jesus is a great teacher. Unfortunately there are people who see him standing before a crowd and teaching them, and are pleased that they can use those words to prove themselves right and others wrong.
We all have pictures of Jesus, and I’m sure yours were better than these examples. But!
How did Jesus see himself?
To answer this question we need to adopt a new point of view. For example, we all see ourselves in terms of our nationality, our race, our gender. We see ourselves in terms of the moment in history at which we live, with all events before shaping what we are now – a 21st century man or woman.
Jesus was part of a story. That’s how he would have seen himself. The central character in the story was God; with a supporting cast of Adam, Eve, Abraham, Sarah, Moses and David.
God is at the centre from the beginning in Genesis, where he makes everything and gives life. But it is never independent, he sends the rain. He remains close and involved.
In chapter 2 we have the pair Adam and Eve. The first humans. Made in the image of the God who made everything. Which means they reflect his creativity and freedom. Very soon their close relationship goes wrong, and they disobey and disconnect from God.
And from this point in the story we have shame, alienation, violence, disharmony with creation, misunderstanding among people, and conflict.
Chapter 3 is God’s response to this. He doesn’t walk away. He doesn’t revoke the freedom he gave us and force us to live his way. He doesn’t destroy everything and start all over again. God’s response is to put together a rescue team. He will train and equip the members of this team to rescue his people.
The founder members of his rescue team for mission impossible are an old couple. There task is first to remember him and his purposes. And then they are to bring truth, blessing, wisdom and healing to all people so that God can rescue them. He begins by giving the old couple – Abraham and Sarah – children who will eventually become the Hebrew people.
A few centuries pass and things get pretty bad until God calls a man named Moses. To help the team in their task, God gives Moses a set of laws to pass on to them. These laws are to help the people live in dignity and fulfill the purpose of their creation. This introduces a new period in their relationship with God that sees priests, prophets and political leaders helping develop the community and guide them in their struggle to remain faithful.
God is faithful and finally after about one thousand years they come to a period of peace and stability under the leadership of King David. In this chapter, sadly things deteriorate. Their is a time of foolish and arrogant leadership. Two generations later the kingdom is embroiled in civil war, foreign powers come along and take control.
Another thousand years and another chapter opens.
Into this story comes the figure of Jesus. He is born at a time when all hope has been dashed and the rescue team is splintered into factions.
How did Jesus see himself? He knew he was born as the leader of this rescue team. As a young man he was aware of the story and of his place in it. His parents had taught him.
He knew he had a historic role at a historic time in a historic story. How would he understand that? How would he deal with it?
Jesus made his first public appearances knowing his place in this story, and his position as head of the rescue team. We do know that he saw all the threads of the past coming together in his time. We read about one of his first speeches in Luke. And we understand he is speaking from this perspective.
Jesus is in his boyhood home town. It’s the Sabbath and he’s in the synagogue. He comes forward and reads the scripture.
He sits down and says; “The Scripture you’ve just heard has been fulfilled this very day!”
Jesus appears to see the whole of this story coming to fulfilment in his day.
He has invoked the memory of the great king David by speaking of the kingdom. He is reminding the people of a time of great peace, prosperity and blessing. And he is claiming to be a new David.
In talking of liberation he is reaching further back in the story to the time of Moses, when he liberated the Hebrew slaves. He reminds the people of this amazing rescue in the past. In John 13:34 Jesus says “I am giving you a new commandment” and in Matthew 5:21 he says “You have heard that our ancestors were told … But I say …”.
Jesus is saying he is a new Moses and a new lawgiver.
Jesus keeps calling for faith, reminding his followers of Abraham the father of faith. Asserting the need to be able to believe impossible things are possible with God.
Jesus keeps reaching back through the story and bringing it all up to date in himself.
Abraham was the one who was blessed so he could be a blessing to all nations. And Jesus lives this out by eating with Gentiles and Jews, Pharisees and prostitutes.
He is the second Adam, who seeks to bring all people together. He heals the sick, raises the dead and exorcises spirits. He has an amazing relationship with nature. He even links himself directly with the central character in the story of mankind, God. Jesus says that anyone who has seen him has seen God, because he and God are one. John 14:9
Jesus is not just a brilliant teacher. His words go far beyond poetry or philosophy. His claims transcend even those of the prophets.
Jesus is seeking to turn over the world. Shake it up and disturb the comfortable. He is telling the rescue team to get ready because it’s time to rescue the world from sin.
But it is so strange. No well oiled political machine or weapons. He says over and over that his new kingdom is different – it is not built with bloodshed. God’s kingdom advances slowly, under the surface, like yeast in dough. It becomes real through faith.
I grows through reconciling forgiving love. When we love strangers and enemies.
When we believe what Jesus taught so much that we foolishly live like this, then we find the kingdom of heaven coming upon the earth. Jesus has opened the door to the goal toward which all of history has been progressing. He has given us salvation so that we can write the final chapter in the story that God started.
We can overthrow the most powerful nation mankind has ever known, the most prosperous city can be conquered. The military industrial complex can be overturned. All because we believe an obscure Jewish carpenter was the central figure in God’s great story. Jesus was the greatest revolutionary of all time. And we are part of his fantastical revolution of faith and love.