Losing Action Figure Jesus

The lectionary text for October 4, 2015:

Hebrews 1:1-4, Hebrews 2:5-12

1 In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. 3 The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. 4 So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs.

5 It is not to angels that he has subjected the world to come, about which we are speaking. 6 But there is a place where someone has testified:

“What is mankind that you are mindful of them,
    a son of man that you care for him?
7 You made them a little lower than the angels;
    you crowned them with glory and honor
8     and put everything under their feet.”

In putting everything under them, God left nothing that is not subject to them. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to them. 9 But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

10 In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered. 11 Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters. 12 He says,

“I will declare your name to my brothers and sisters; in the assembly I will sing your praises.”

The sermon began with an edited (for language) version of this video:

One woman said, “There’s something special about him…just like there is something special about you and me and everybody.”

“He’s like a Ghandi-type person.”

“He’s a moral guy and maybe he had some special gift.”

“I know he inspires people and that is really cool.”

In our Scripture reading for tonight, we are listening in like listening to one side of a telephone conversation. We don’t know exactly what’s happening on the other end, but the author of Hebrews is really concerned with angels, and the ways in which Jesus is like an angel or not. So we’ve got to believe that Hebrews is written to a community of people that believed in angels, and they seem to have had really complex ideas of the how angels related to human beings and God.

So when this community starts thinking deeply about this man Jesus who they are following, they compare him to an angel. “He is like an angel-type person. He’s a moral angel and maybe he had some special gift.  He inspires people and that’s really cool.”
The temptation for the first disciples is to believe that Jesus is a really special angel. But if you believe the video that we just saw then the temptation for us is to believe that Jesus is a really neat guy.

Maybe you’ve spent much of your life in a church community. If the early church community, the folks that actually walked and talked with Jesus, struggled to identify who Jesus was then we shouldn’t be surprised when the contemporary church gets Jesus wrong. I don’t mean that the church as a whole has gotten Jesus wrong. I believe the Holy Spirit has been guiding the church for 2000 years so that we do not fall into massively wrong thinking about who Jesus is. I think the church as a whole tends to do pretty well in her thinking about Jesus.
But specific instances of the church, or sometimes just particular Christians like you and I, we’re prone to make all kinds of mistakes in our thinking about Jesus.

Some of you know that I became a Christian when I was about 18 years old, having gone to church only a dozen times or so before then. I suppose I probably thought of Jesus a lot like Santa Claus. Jesus was always making his list and checking it twice. Jesus was figuring out if I’d been naughty. I was pretty certain that Jesus was usually putting me on the naughty list.

I don’t think we have to dig very hard into the Scriptures to determine that the real Jesus of scripture is not the Santa Claus Jesus. Paul says “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them.” According to Paul, Jesus isn’t busy keeping a list of our sins. The Jesus of Scriptures is busy making the grace of God available to all who would receive it. We have to learn to exchange the Santa Claus Jesus for the Second Person of the Trinity, whose love reaches all the way from heaven to become incarnate in a first century Jew.

I remember that when I went to seminary there was another popular image of Jesus that seemed to miss the mark. My fellow seminarians liked to talk about Jesus as if he was just a profoundly nice guy. Jesus was one that blessed kids and fed poor people and comforted those that mourned. I call this the Barbie doll Jesus. Barbie doll Jesus loved people well. The dogs and the children wanted to be close to him. But this Jesus never seemed to challenge anyone to greater holiness. He never required very much of anyone. He never required you to change your life and expectations. I think we have to exchange this nice Barbie Doll Jesus for the Son of God who overturned tables in the sanctuary. The Son of God demanded that we send our whole life in a new direction.

Maybe you have come to follow the Action Figure Jesus.  When I first became a preacher I think I was preaching an action figure Jesus.

This Jesus was always busy calling out those that weren’t living holy lives. Or he was declaring the injustice of driving an expensive car or not tithing ten percent to the church.

This Jesus was bold and strong and saving the world. I think we have to exchange
the super macho action figure Jesus for the humility of a King that comes riding on a donkey.
There are so many ways that we can build these false images of Jesus. I’m sure there are many others.

Tonight, I want to suggest that if we settle for one of these false images of Jesus, we never get to live into the rich, beautiful, and glorious life that God has called us to as sons and daughters.

The real Jesus is one of the great mysteries of our faith. That’s why we often struggle with these false images of Jesus. The truth of God becoming incarnate is beyond our capacities to understand.

But the author of Hebrews gives us two ideas that will help us begin to understand the mystery of who Jesus is. First he says: “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.” (Hebrews 1:3 NIV)

This Jesus is the God of the whole universe. The Scripture says that Jesus is the “exact representation” of God. Some translations say he is the “perfect imprint.” The Greek word here is “eikon,” which is where we get our English word “icon.” What does an icon do in our world? In this case that analogy is pretty helpful.

Some of you know that I really love all that my phone does for me. I particularly love apps that are interconnected in deep ways. I love those most because I simply can’t understand them. I don’t know how they work anymore than I know how God works. But on my screen there is a little icon. And when I touch that icon, all the powerful realities that live inside that app that I don’t understand become available to my feeble little mind. The icon is actually part of the app itself. It isn’t something else. It is the app, but it’s the part that we can touch and see.

Jesus is the person of God that can be seen and touched. The Greek from our Hebrews reading says that he is the icon that lets us access God.

But if we stopped there we still wouldn’t get the full picture of what our Scripture for tonight is telling us. Every image or analogy of Jesus falls short. And this app and icon idea falls short in lots of ways. One way is that the icon on my screen isn’t actually a physical thing. Our scripture for tonight tells us that Jesus actually brings God into the everyday flesh and blood world where we live.

Hebrews says it this way: “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death.”
(Hebrews 2:14 NIV)

The real Jesus is not an action figure doll or a fairy tale. We have to get rid of Action Figure Jesus and embrace the flesh and blood man that God became. Jesus was willing to embody the Gospel for our sake. If we want to understand what this might mean then we only need to look at the saints that embody the Gospel in this world every day.

I’ll tell you about Marc Tindall, because I suspect we can learn more about Jesus’ relationship to us from Marc than we can from anything I could say tonight. Marc is a missionary in Honduras and has been there for about a decade. Before Marc and his wife, Terri, moved to Honduras, he was a regional manager for Nabisco. When he retired, he could have lived a plush life as a corporate executive retiree. He instead made a choice to leave his place of comfort and safety to move to Honduras.

In 2008, Marc found a community of people that made their living by waiting for garbage trucks to arrive at the public garbage dump and then sorting through the garbage to recover recyclables that would earn them a few pennies. Not only was the work miserable…the kind of work that you only do if you are desperately poor…but the competition was also intense. Violence and rage were the norm, as people would compete for the materials worth the most. When Marc and Terri arrived with beans and rice and tortillas for the first time, they literally feared for their lives as people rushed their truck and pushed children and mothers down in an effort to eat a hot meal.

But that is a different place today. Marc and Terri Tindall began going twice a week to provide beans and rice and tortilla. They stayed and helped people sort garbage. They learned their names and stories. They helped transport the kids to a nearby school so that they would be safe during the day and get an education. The smallest children would be cared for by interns while their mothers worked.  They built a bathroom and shower just outside the dump so that the workers could leave clean. Most of them didn’t even have access to a shower at their own homes.  Today people are still working the dump. But there is camaraderie among the workers as they look out for one another’s safety and help one another in their work. There are breaks in the work when the missionaries and the Hondurans build deep relationship with one another and bring dignity to these folks as they live their lives with the presence of grace and love. Grace and love came to them as a person…as a group of people.

When we hear a story like that of Marc and Terri Tindall, we learn a little about what God is like. We learn a little of what it means to say that Jesus is incarnate among us. Jesus comes and embraces our stinky and violent selves and invites us into a way of life that is more beautiful and gracious and more like God’s design for us.

My analogy to Marc’s story is inadequate as well, because ultimately Marc cannot lift these people completely from their suffering. Hebrews says that Jesus will one day lift us completely out of suffering, because he has suffered death on our behalf. Friends, a day is coming when their will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain. But in the meantime, Jesus has made God really present with us. But we have to stop thinking of Jesus as a fairy tale or an action figure.

Jesus is the real and present Son of God. Tonight I want to invite you to embrace the real Jesus. I want to invite you to believe in a God who enters into our suffering, not as an angel and not as wise guru, but as God made human like one of us.

I pray that when you do, your faith will be wholly altered as you embrace this powerful God. I pray that you will know the presence of Grace made real.

The truth is though, that it is easier to believe a false image of Jesus than it is to believe the truth of the Gospel about him. The truth about Jesus is complex and mysterious. It’s easier to believe in a superhero or a wise moral leader. But fortunately the Church has given us some concrete language to help us understand what this mystery of Jesus means. It’s given to us in the Nicene Creed. The Church has given us these words because they help us to comprehend the mystery of who Jesus is. I believe the Holy Spirit guided the process of forming and writing this Creed, which has been the standard of Christian faith for over 1600 years. Literally billions of Christians over the years have used these words to describe the Jesus whom we worship.

So I want to challenge you to spend the next week or two memorizing the Nicene Creed. It isn’t incredibly hard to memorize and I suspect that some of the Catholics in the room have already memorized it.  But it won’t be easy, and this includes me. Even though I have a PhD in theology, I have yet to memorize the Creed. But I believe memorizing this Creed will help us to understand who the real Jesus is. It will help form our minds to believe the real Jesus as the words give us direction and clarity. They remind us that when we worship Jesus, we worship God incarnate.

If any of you are up for memorizing the creed, I want you to post little snippets of the Creed periodically to your social media…that will be your reminder and the reminder for those around you to continue memorizing these words. Amen.

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