“Write Home if You Find Yourself”
Before I get into this second sermon in a short series on re-imagining the life of Jesus, I’d like to say something about the twin roles of head and heart, reason and faith, in developing a mature approach to religion. I think it is profoundly wrong, when a child questions something in the Bible, to say “We aren’t allowed to do that,” or “There are mysteries we just have to accept,” both of which translate finally into, “It may not make sense right here, but you just have to believe.” Thousands of intelligent young people are lost to Christianity that way when in high school or college they discover a world where asking questions is the royal road to truth— where teachers do not say, “Believe this because so many others have taken the leap of faith,” but who say, “Look at the evidence, look at it openly and honesatly, and then make up your own mind.” Aabout a great many things which puzzle us, the church likes to call for a “leap of faith.” I like what the great London preacher Leslie Weatherhead said about the “leap of faith” business. “Reason should take us as far as possible, and then we should leap in that direction rather than in the opposite one.” I want this church to be an unapologetic advocate of the life of the mind as inseparable from the life of the spirit. It was a Rabbi who said, “An hour of study, in the eyes of the Holy One, blessed be He, is as acceptable….. as an hour of prayer.” Why not, since the God who gave us a heart to pray gave us also a mind to be curious and to test our faith by asking tough questions.
We are considering just such questions this morning. I promised last week to talk for a couple of Sundays about trying to get behind the sometimes contradictory images of Jesus painted by the early church, a generation or more after his death, to a a real person — not an alien masquerading as one of us, but one of us…..except that he was filled to a most extraordinary degree by the spirit of love and truth and goodness — so much so that we have called him the Son of God. This search for a historical Jesus holds no interest for many Christians who like the images they brought from childhood and prefer not to have their faith disturbed, but it’s irresistible for anyone who has read the gospels with enough intensity to discover that they are portraits of Jesus rather than biographies — that each one presents a Jesus who advances the purpose for which the author wrote.
Furthermore, as any capable literary critic can see at once, Jesus talks differently in the three “synoptic gospels” (Matthew, Mark and Luke) from the way he talks in the Gospel of John. Actually, it doesn’t take a professional literary critic. Anyone who can read language and dares to be honest can see that if Jesus talked the way he does in Matthew, tersely and with highly concrete diction, he could hardly have delivered the long abstract discourses we find in the gospel of John. The change in modes of expression is remarkable. But it is not any more more remarkable than the personality change between, say, Mark’s sketch of a self-deferential Jesus who says, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but the Father,” to John’s extraordinarily confident Messiah who says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life…..no one comes to the Father but by me.” The portraits drawn of Jesus grew steadily more worshipful until there were actually early Christians who decided he wasn’t human at all, that he did not really die on the cross but only appeared to die.
This increasing glorification of Jesus is a process known to theologians as apotheosis, which means the elevation of a person to the rank of a god. There is probably no clearer illustration of this tendency than in the way the birth of Jesus is handled. (This is the second most sensitive issue among those who profess Christianity, so please listen carefully for the next few minutes). Mark wrote first among our four gospels and gives no sign of interest in a virgin birth beginning for his Lord. The Apostle Paul, writing even earlier than Mark, gave absolutely no hint in any of his many letters that he knew about a miraculous birth. But Matthew and Luke, writing later than both Paul and Mark, glorify their beloved Master by adding the story of a miraculous birth, and when John comes along later still he elevates Jesus even more. Making no mention of the virgin birth, he gives Jesus a cosmic origin with God in the eternities before time began. Scholars with no creed to defend see this as a clear example of apotheosis by an admiring early church already into its second generation of believers. Or, to use non-professional language, as the steady exaltation of Jesus from Mark who begins with a grown man, through Matthew who begins with a miraculous birth , to John who begins with a god who existed from a time before time began. When John finally does get around to mentioning a human birth he says simply that Jesus “became flesh, and lived among us.” It seems the perfect place for John to bring divinity to earth by means of a miraculous birth, but he ignores that story completely. Either he has not heard of it, which seems unlikely, or for some reason he decides to leave it out of his account of the life of Christ. I cannot imagine his doing that if the virgin birth story had for him the huge significance it has for so many today.
And “huge significance” is not an overstatement. One day, years ago, at a unity forum in St. Louis, I delivered a lecture on essentials of Christian faith to several thousand people who had gathered from all over the United States. In a question and answer period following the lecture, a man stood up to ask whether I would accept as a fellow Christian someone who refused to believe in the story of the virgin birth. I told him I thought the word “refused” skewed the question by suggesting deliberate stubbornness, but that I would gladly answer this question: “Can one be a Christian who sees evidence, even in the Bible itself, that belief in the virgin birth story is not essential to living a life of beautiful devotion to the teachings of Christ.” How could I say anything but “Yes” when from all the evidence we have the church was born without such a story, when the first and last gospels make no reference to it at all, when 25 books of the 27 in the New Testament say nothing about it, and when — most important of all — Jesus himself seems not to have considered his biological origin a matter in any way related to discipleship. Never once, on all those occasions when he sought to win faith in what he was doing, did he use the virgin birth story to convince people of his authority. When he was disturbed at lack of respect, he never once said, “Have you not heard of my miraculous birth?” No disciple, to our knowledge, was ever required to affirm faith in the virgin birth before being allowed to follow Jesus. In Acts, that book about the early history of the Christian movement, no sermon preached by Peter, Phillip, Paul or anyone else refers even once to a miraculous birth for Jesus.
It is because of these things that thousands of people who consider themselves devout Christians do not regard the few verses about the virgin birth as attempts at literal and scientific history, but as poetic songs offered up on the altar of adoration. What I have just said to you can be found in literally hundreds of articles and books written by both Protestant and Catholic scholars who respect the Bible so much they have devoted their lives to learning how it should be read. I won’t bore you by reciting names and books except to say that the single most splendid study of the virgin birth I have ever read is Jesuit scholar Raymond Brown’s 570 page book entitled The Birth of the Messiah. Despite the fact that it says the kinds of things I have been saying to you, it bears upon a cover page the official imprimatur of the Catholic Church — which I consider that Church’s way of recognizing that there are many levels of faith, and that for many Father Brown’s approach will make sense.
Would the magnificent life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth mean less to you if after all, as I suspect, his birth occurred in silent, unheralded loneliness? That besides the sounds of birth itself, the pain and sharp cries of his mother, the helpless sighs of his father, Jesus came into the world utterly unnoticed? The poetry of faith says in a couple of places that the manger was a crowded, noisy place, serenaded by angels and visited by wise men and shepherds. But what if a little boy was born in complete obscurity, wrapped against the chill of the night and given less than 50-50 odds of surviving to see his 12th birthday? What if all that Mary was pondering in her heart was what all mothers ponder: will I be able to feed him? Will he survive or die in my arms? Will I be taken care of so I can care for him, or will I be widowed in a world where widows count for nothing?
Biblical art follows Matthew and Luke in glorifying that incredible moment in human history, so that the baby Jesus is born beautiful and clean with a halo over his head? Was it so, or was this child — like the rest of us — all squinty-faced and bloody and howling at his painful entry into a world of sudden cold and noise? What if no one else was there but his mother and father? What if God chose to save the world by slipping through the side door where the servants come and go? What if God decided to work through the flesh instead of around it? What if the Love of the Universe sent no advance word, issued no press release, informed no shepherds, tuned up no angel choir, composed no new cantatas? I know the hearts of some of you beat faster, as mine does, to think of a baby born to ordinary people who are no more than numbers in a Roman census — a baby not made of magic, but who grew up to make magic in a world filled with selfishness and cruelty.
I have spoken of apotheosis, that process by which mortals are elevated into gods, and once on another occasion I mentioned some of the incredible stories in other Gospels written about Jesus. In one, at age five, Jesus molds sparrows out of clay, then claps his hands to bring them to life and make them fly away. At about age six, when a playmate accidentally bumps him on the shoulder, Jesus is annoyed and says: “You shall not go further on your way,” at which point the child immediately falls over dead. You heard it correctly: Jesus bumps off a playmate who bumps into him! The church, in deciding which books to sanction as scripture, wisely rejected those extreme examples of apotheosis.
Imagine, instead, a normal boy growing up in the hill country of southern Galilee, about a hundred miles north of Jerusalem. He would amost certainly have attended school in the synagogue at Nazareth, where the first order of business was to read and study the Torah (the first five books of Jewish scripture). Like other Jewish boys he learned a trade. The Greek word used to describe it is tekton, which means one who makes doors and roof beams, wooden plows and yokes for oxen — hard work for low wages, a job at the lower end of the peasant class. So far, so ordinary: a good Jewish lad from a poor Jewish family, with no hint that anyone in all of Galilee noticed in him anything special. We have no idea what sort of relationship he had with his mother or his father, what sort of company he kept, whether he owned a pet, whether he was difficult or a quiet and obedient child. We don’t know what the Rabbi wrote on his report card about his potential, we don’t know if he kept a diary, got a crush, ever had his heart broken by a girl.
But this much we do know. At some point in his life he becomes a religious seeker and leaves Nazareth to go hear the most popular evangelist of his day — a wilderness prophet called John the Baptist. We have no hint of how long he stays with that radical Jewish prophet, out in the desert, but we know that when he comes back home he begins to preach. And we know from the Scripture ________________read to us earlier that his preaching is so radical people are ksoon saying he is “out of his mind” — a report that bringshis own family out to “take charge of him.” Can you imagine how the gossip must have gone? “I hear Joseph’s son has joined that new wilderness cult…… probably some trouble at home…..didn’t fit in…..out now trying to find himself.” And so, at last, we reach the sermon title, which came from something my mother told me once about the Great Depression of the 1930’s. She said that when a good friend or a family member left home in those days, someone’s desperately hopeful parting word would always be: “Write if you find work.” As I prepared this sermon last week those words came back to me in a new form as I thought of the pain of a mother who has lost her son to a wilderness preacher: “Write if you find yourself.” Oh, I know that’s not how the Bible puts it. She “ponders things in her heart.” But read between the lines. The writer can’t say she is beside herself, that she is despondent, that she made a scene once in the temple and said, “Why are you treating your father and me like this when we’ve done all we know to make a good home for you?” And now, nearly 18 years later, when people are saying Jesus is out of his mind, the family goes out to take charge of him. Interesting phrase: “to take charge of him,” as if in their view he needed to be managed. This is one of those rare behind-the-scenes glimpses of a Jesus we rarely imagine. The word about the little town of Nazareth is that young Jesus has left home and gone “looking for himself.” Lucky for us!
Next week, more about that search and the world in which Jesus made such an indelible impression that those who loved him created in his name one of the world’s great religions. I hope you will want to come back.
Eternal Spirit of love and wisdom, help each of us to so balance
those qualities that we will be for others attractive representatives
for the only true source of meaning and hope in this world. Amen.