I want you to indulge me with a little exercise. I want you to close your eyes for a moment. Now with your eyes closed, imagine that you are living back in biblical times in Israel. Picture the surroundings. And now imagine that you see Jesus.
Now I want you to open your eyes. Did anyone picture Jesus with a whip in his hand driving money changers out of the Temple? That wouldn’t be the type of Jesus that we would expect to see. We typically see a very approachable Jesus A loving Jesus. It’s a Jesus that everybody loves.
Stephen Prothero is the chair of the Department of Religion at Boston University. He wrote a book titled American Jesus. And in that book he lays out one of the truisms of life: Jesus is a man “nobody hates.”
According to Prof. Prothero, roughly 85 percent of the U.S. population professes to be Christian. Seems high to me. Until you consider that his number includes people who may not have been to church since they were baptized. Even so, he says that two-thirds of contemporary Americans say they have made a “personal commitment” to Jesus.
But that’s not all. He reports that almost half of America’s non-Christians believe that Jesus was born of a virgin and resurrected from the dead. In America, Jesus is very popular. The only thing is, which Jesus are we talking about?
Because in America, we have a history of continually remaking Jesus into someone who resembles our current heroes of the day. Prof. Prothero identifies four different Jesuses that have shown up in American Christianity. See if you recognize any.
Let’s start with Jesus the “Enlightened Sage.” This was the Jesus that Thomas Jefferson envisioned.
Thomas Jefferson was a deist. That is, he believed in a God who created the universe and when he got done with that he took an eternal coffee break. Thomas Jefferson’s god is a “hands off” God. He sits up in his heaven and watches us, but he really doesn’t get involved in our world – he doesn’t intervene.
A God like that doesn’t perform miracles. So if you went through Thomas Jefferson’s bible, you would see that he cut out of the gospels all references to miracles that Jesus performed. He cut out anything that might have made reference to Jesus’ divinity. What he ended up with was a slim volume he called The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth.
The “Jefferson Jesus” prayed to God and believed in an afterlife. But he didn’t do any miracles, And – more importantly – he didn’t die for anyone’s sins. The Jefferson Jesus did not come to save, but to teach. For Jefferson, Jesus was not the unique Son of God, but an enlightened sage, a brilliant teacher.
That kind of thinking continues today. There is a group of bible scholars called the Jesus Seminar. They come together to ruminate over the Gospels. They will get together to dissect the Gospels. They figure that through group consensus, they can determine among themselves just which quotes from Jesus are genuine and which ones must have been added by later writers. I dare say that most of them don’t believe Jesus rose from the dead.
Marcus J. Borg is a well-known American New Testament scholar and a fellow of the Jesus Seminar. Here’s how he understands the resurrection: He writes: Easter need not involve the claim that God supernaturally intervened to raise the corpse of Jesus from the tomb. Rather, the core meaning of Easter is that Jesus continued to be experienced after his death, but in radically new way: as a spiritual and divine reality. Marcus Borg believes in the Jefferson Jesus, the Enlightened Sage.
Another Jesus is what Prof. Prothero calls Jesus the “Sweet Savior.” This was the Jesus that was preached by all those evangelists in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In that time, preaching changed from the colonial days. You didn’t hear those long doctrinal dissertations like Jonathan Edwards had preached.
These evangelists used a lot of storytelling for their sermons. They called their congregations to an intimate walk with Jesus — You see, the Jesus that they preached was not so much an historical figure. And he wasn’t an object of faith. The Jesus they preached was more of a buddy that you could know and hang out with.
To make this work, they had to describe Jesus as approachable. A friendly Jesus. A meek and mild Jesus.
He wasn’t anything like what you might have heard from Jonathan Edwards sermons of “sinners in the hands of an angry God.” Not a harsh Jesus, no a demanding Jesus. The religion of this Jesus was a feel good religion. So hymns like “In the Garden” were typical of this era. “And he walks with me and he talks with me and He tells me I am His own.”
Remember Malcom Boyd? He was a well-known Episcopal priest in the 60s. He described this kind of Jesus in his book, Are You Running With Me Jesus? He’s Jesus the Sweet Savior.
A third American version of Jesus is Jesus the “Manly Redeemer.” This was kind of a muscular reaction to the Sweet Savior. He started elbowing his way in during the late 19th century as a testosterone-powered hero. Books with titles like The Masculine Power of Christ and The Manhood of the Master appeared.
This Jesus challenged his followers. He was the one who would lead Christians to war against the social ills of the culture. Consider the lyrics of Hymn 563: Go forward Christian soldier, beneath the banner true The Lord himself, thy Leader, shall all they foes subdue. Jesus the Manly Redeemer!
And, finally, the fourth and most recent incarnation of the American Jesus. It’s Jesus, the “Superstar.” Prof. Prothero says that the 60’s brought us the Jesus movement. And some among the youth counterculture started to see Jesus as a revolutionary leader of an underground Christian liberation movement.
Well, that movement fizzled in the ‘70s. But out of it emerged a Jesus who became the subject of the rock musicals. Remember Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell? Later on he was adopted by rock groups as an upbeat guy who can give you a high that is better than drugs. Eventually this Jesus morphed into the figure that inspired Jesus T-shirts, bumper stickers, posters and a lot of the Christian music industry.
When you picture Jesus, do you see any of these four? And are any one of these guys the person we meet in the gospels?
Consider today’s Gospel reading where Mary and Joseph go to the Temple and encounter a man named Simeon. They are fulfilling two biblical requirements that follow childbirth. Having birthed a baby boy, Mary was required to come to the temple 40 days after that birth to restore her ritual purity. Under Jewish law, the Lord had first claim on all firstborn baby boys. So the parents would also bring an offering to redeem their son back.
As it would happen, a man named Simeon just happened to be at the Temple when the Holy Family arrives. Simeon sees the couple with the baby in Mary’s arms. He takes the baby in his arms and offers praises to God because he realizes that he is holding the long-awaited Messiah.
Now how did Simeon know? The Messiah was supposed to come as a conquering hero. How did he know that this poor, teenage couple was holding the Messiah in their arms?
The bible describes Simeon as “devout.” So we know that he was a man steeped in Scripture, someone who observed the feasts, someone who patterned his life after the Torah.
Like the rest of the Jews, he was waiting for Messiah. But unlike the rest of the Jews, the Lord had promised Simeon that he would indeed see the Messiah before he died. It happened that on this day, the Holy Spirit tipped off Simeon: Go to the Temple. So Simeon went to the Temple expecting something. Simeon was looking for “the Consolation of Israel.”
Now, that doesn’t mean much to us. But a devout Jew hearing that title of the Messiah would be taken back to Isaiah’s prophecy where Isaiah says: Comfort, comfort my people says your God . Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, That he sin has been paid for, That she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
It’s the same Isaiah who prophesied: Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given.
Yes, some Scripture speaks of the Messiah as God’s conquering hero. But you also had these other descriptions of the Messiah. Simeon could recognize the Messiah first appearing as a poor child because he took in the whole counsel of God’s Scripture. The Messiah first appeared – not as you would expect, not as a conquering leader – but as a helpless infant. And long before Jesus would call any apostles, long before he would perform any miracles – Simeon recognized the Messiah in his life.
Is Jesus a personal sweet Savior who walks with me and talks with me? Yes, we see that in the bible when he invites the children to come to him. We see it when he speaks tenderly to Mary on Easter morning at the tomb. We see it on his walk to Emmaus.
Is Jesus a sage with wisdom to impart for successful living? Yes, as we see that in his Sermon on the Mount. We hear it in his many parables.
Is Jesus the muscular Messiah who challenges us to go forward and conquer? Yes, we see that warrior in the desert when he battles Satan. We see it when he’s cracking the whip in the Temple and driving out the money changers.
And is Jesus the Superstar? He certainly was on Palm Sunday. He was the super star riding into Jerusalem with the crowds shouting: Hosanna!!!!
He’s all these things. But you make a mistake if you limit your perception of Jesus. Because when you limit Jesus, you limit his blessings for you.
If Jesus is just this cool guy who is fun to hang with, If he is a Jesus who never convicts you, never calls you to holiness, then you miss the blessings of correction he brings to your life.
And by the same token, if Jesus is always the fierce judge, if you’re living with guilt that you’re not doing enough, not measuring up, then you’re apt to miss the Jesus who says, “Come unto me, I will give you rest. For my burden is light and my yoke is easy.”
That’s why it is important to see The Whole Jesus. That’s why it’s important to take the whole counsel of Scripture. And that happens when you’re in the word each day, when you’re immersed in its fullness and variety. Because God’s full word reveals the fullness of Jesus – the whole Jesus.
There are times when we need to hear from the Sweet Savior, gentle and true. But there are also times when we need to receive the insight of the sage, or the challenge of the warrior.
When we are steeped in God’s word, we won’t limit the Jesus we know. When we’re steeped in God’s word, we won’t be channeled by the culture’s latest Jesus fad. When we take in the whole counsel of God’s word, we get the full Jesus.
Simeon recognized the Messiah long before anyone else did because he was steeped in the whole counsel of Scripture.
Taking the Lord’s full counsel not only opens us to God’s full provision, it makes us a blessing to others. You know, I hear some of America’s most well-known preachers who preach really upbeat messages. In fact, that’s all you ever seem to hear from them – messages of how great your life is going to be if you just follow Jesus.
Well, what they say is true. But what concerns me is the stuff they’re not saying. Sometimes, we don’t want to hear what Jesus tells us. Sometimes, Jesus might make us uncomfortable. Look in the bible and see how often God has a message for His people that they really didn’t want to hear.
You remember when David had Uriah killed in the battle field. He did it to cover up the adulterous affair that he had with Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba. The prophet Nathan had a message from the Lord that David didn’t want to hear.
Then there was that period in Israel’s history when Babylon was becoming a threat. God’s prophet, Jeremiah, told the people not to resist a foreign ruler who would deport them to Babylon. The people didn’t want to hear it.
When John the Baptist was in prison, he sent his disciples to Jesus to ask, “What gives? Are you the Messiah or not?” Jesus had an answer that John didn’t want to hear.
And so too, the Lord had a hard message for the Holy Family that day. Simeon took the baby Jesus in his arms. First he praised God for the Light that had come into world. Mary and Joseph stood in amazement of all the good things Simeon was speaking.
But then he went on to tell Mary the hard news: This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and [Mary] a sword will pierce your on soul too. Those are hard words for Mary to hear. And those words might have caused her some discomfort.
Simeon could have taken the easy way out. He could have told Mary just the good stuff. After all, he was old and wouldn’t be around for the crucifixion. Let someone else give her the bad news.
Yet, Simeon would not withhold from Mary the full counsel of Gods’ word. He didn’t withhold the whole Jesus. And while that might have been uncomfortable for both of them, later it would be a blessing for Mary.
When Mary knelt at the foot of the cross watching her son die, she would hearken back to Simeon’s prophecy. And it would assure that God was in charge. She would remember that the same man who prophesied this sword piercing her soul also prophesied that her son was indeed the one who brings salvation.
When we are steeped in the whole counsel of God’s word, we are equipped to be blessing to one another.
Now the Lord promised Simeon that he would see the Messiah before he died. And taking Jesus in his arms, Simeon offered a hymn which we call the Nunc Dimmittis after the first two words in the Latin translation. It means: Now I can die in peace.
You know, as a young person the world is your oyster. All your dreams are waiting to be fulfilled. But as you grow older, the options begin to narrow. You make choices that close some doors. And unforeseen events occur which might shatter the dreams you had. Then in old age you look back – maybe with some regrets. Maybe with some “I should’ves” and “I wished I’ds”
Will you come to the end your life lacking in something? Lacking in purpose? Lacking in accomplishment? Lacking in satisfaction?
But look at Simeon. All we know about him is that he’s an old man and devout. But he can die in peace – not because of his many accomplishments. Not because of the status he’s attained. He can die in peace because he has encountered Jesus.
There’s wisdom there for the young and the old. For the young, the measure of your life will not be who you were, but who you know. What you will be and what you will accomplish is not fully in your control. Things happen in the best planned lives that you can’t foresee But the choice to know Jesus is yours alone to make.
And for the seasoned ones who look back on the lives you’ve lived: The measure of your life is not who you were or what you accomplished. We’ve all made mistakes along the way. And maybe life threw an obstacle in your path. Or maybe you were an obstacle for someone else. No one lives the perfect life.
The good news of Simeon is that all that stuff doesn’t matter.What matters is who you know. Did you encounter Jesus along the way?
Simeon could finish his life freed from any “would’ves” or “should’ves” or “could’ves.” He had seen Jesus. He had firsthand knowledge that God was true to his promises.
And so he can offer a hymn of praise. It’s the hymn that everyone who knows the Whole Jesus – the Messiah, the Christ – may offer at the end of life: Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace According to thy word For mine eyes have seen they salvation.