This sermon is part of the sermon series "No Wonder They Crucified Him". See series.
Of all the people admired in the world today, Jesus of Nazareth continually ranks at the top of the list. Even those who don't call themselves Christians regard Jesus as one of the wisest teachers and most loving leaders the world has ever known. He is still making the covers of magazines and being talked about in coffee shops with a popularity like no other person who has walked this earth.
So why did his contemporaries killhim? What was it about what he said or did that was so provoking and upsetting that religious and secular leaders alike wanted to see him dead? What was it about Jesus that could make the crowds that once followed him finally turn upon him—demanding his blood and cheering his pain? If Jesus was simply the gentle genius some portray him to be, how could this have happened?
There's only one explanation, I think: Jesus was much more than meek and mild. He was more than a poetic philosopher. Jesus was the Light of Heaven hitting a darkened earth like a meteor blast. He made claims and commands that left people undone. He named realities that others sought to bury. He broke barriers and battered bastions no one else had the nerve to assault. He called for the utter dismantling of the way things were and the new creation of something so much better. Jesus was not politically correct. He was not religiously pious. He was not socially tame. Jesus was a dangerous man because he was and is the God who is dangerously good.
What I want to keep asking during this Lenten Series is: Do you and I know this Jesus, and how does it show? Or has Jesus become so domesticated in our concept of him that he no longer really disturbs us, no longer really disrupts us, no longer—in a sense—really disciples us into the new life of the Kingdom of God?
For example, what do we do with the Jesus who says: "No one can serve two masters"(Matthew 6:24). "No kingdom … or city … or household that is divided against itself can keep standing." What do we do with the Jesus who declares: "He who is not [actively] with me is [actually] against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters." In short, what do you do with the Jesus who says: Get off the fence!
Life in a fence-walking world
Frankly, I think it is hard to face a Jesus like that. We live in what I might call a "fence-walking world." Ours is a world that has grown comfortable with partial commitments, hedged bets, and associate memberships. We want to feel part of the game, but we also like the safety of the stands. We like to crow about the heroism and victories of war and politics when it's going well for our side, but distance ourselves from taking responsibility for the bad-play and losses. We want good friendships and marriages, but we avoid facing the problems and sin that keep them from being great relationships. We want our kids to be spiritually vital but also on the traveling sports team on Sundays. We want a sane, healthy life, but also one packed with all the possessions and pace of "success."
Some of you will remember the story I once told about a man named Homer who finally worked up the courage to propose marriage to the girl of his dreams. Dropping to one knee, he looked his beloved in the eye and said: "Sue, I know I'm not wealthy like Tom. I recognize that I'm not handsome like Tom. I may not be as well-educated as Tom. But I love you, Sue." The woman, obviously moved, responded sincerely: "Why, I love you too, Homer. But tell me a little more about Tom!"
We do this fence-walking with God, too. We sing "Take my life and let it be …." It is so much harder to get the "consecrated" part—to go "All In" as fans of Texas Hold 'Em say. It isn't that we're not interested in God. We're just wary of full investment. In the words of Wilbur Rees: "I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please—not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep, but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk or a snooze in the sunshine. I don't want enough of him to make me love a black man or pick beets with a migrant worker. I want ecstasy, not transformation; I want the warmth of a womb, not a new birth. I want a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack. I'd like to buy just $3 worth of God, please."
But God is not interested in these partial investments and divided loyalties that produce such poor fruit. A religious leader can build quite a following by pretending otherwise. He can suggest that God is mainly interested in some fine-tuning of our personalities—that he's content so long as we're spending time and money on him on Sundays, even if we're dallying with Tom the rest of the week. Gordon MacDonald explains why: "When the crowd got too large, [Jesus] would inevitably sharpen the blade of his teaching. He would make it clearer that there was a dramatic cost to discipleship. It was almost as if he were saying the size of this crowd suggests that you haven't heard me plainly enough or some of you wouldn't be here; so let me give it to you another way. And when he finished restating his message, many would then leave because they finally understood that no one can remain in the presence of Christ and be merely a very nice person."
Grounding on God's side of the fence
This is why Jesus said such crazy-sounding things at times. To the Christians at Laodicea, Jesus says: "I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. How I wish you were either one or the other" (Revelation 3:15)! This is why Jesus described life with God in terms of leaving parents, getting out of safe boats, dropping nets, selling possessions, and denying self. In these statements, he is not really saying that there's something intrinsically wrong with those things. Jesus isn't against family or safety or possessions or self. He is simply calling the question of whether we're going to define and pursue these values in the world's way or the kingdom's way. He is asking: Where are you putting your feet down? Who and what do you really love? What's the ground you're planting in? What sort of fruit is it producing? Are you still trying to walk the fence?
Lent is the season when followers, or would-be followers, of Jesus have traditionally screwed up the courage to look down at their feet and examine the line they've been walking, the investments they've been making, and the loyalties they've been dividing in order to start walking in a different way. Will you do that with me in these next 40 days? Historically, Christians have done this by taking hold of a spiritual discipline or two to aid them in this process. The spiritual disciplines are simply means of grounding ourselves on God's side of the fence.
In our bookstore, you can find a copy of Adele Calhoun's Spiritual Disciplines Handbook. If you don't own one already, I encourage you to pick one up and simply try one of the very doable practices that Adele suggests. This Lenten season, I am investing in a practice called the Examen, a simple exercise I am doing daily to help me better discern God's hand and voice. You might try that practice or one of nearly 60 others described there. And if you do, I think you will find at least three blessings proceeding from that side of the fence.
For one thing, the spiritual disciplines lead us into a greater integrity—a greater integration between what we say we believe and want and what we actually feel and do. To use Jesus' metaphor, they help you to see where the house of your life has gotten divided against itself, or where it's gotten shifted off of rock-solid foundations. Through the disciplines, God will start to improve the alignment.
Secondly, as God uses the disciplines to further transform our character and conduct, that will lead to a greater influence. To be ruthlessly blunt, the world has plenty of people just like us today. It has millions of fragmented people running under their own power, driven by their anxiety, fear, or anger. If the church is going to truly be the kind of influential salt and light that Jesus calls it to be, then it will do so because there are disciples who have taken deliberate steps to get off the fence and ground their life more deeply in God.
Finally, I believe you'll find that the ultimate fruit of the spiritual disciplines is greater joy. I know that discipline is not usually a word we associate with joy. But, as my colleague Bob Geelhoed reminded some of us recently, ask an Olympian standing on the medal platform how she spells "The Path to Joy" and she will say "D-I-S-C-I-P-L-I-N-E." Ask Jesus, says the writer to the Hebrews, why he disciplined himself in the face of temptation or endured the pain of the cross, and He will answer: It was for the joy of living with integrity to my mission. It was for the joy of exerting an eternal influence on people.
Jesus said: I have taught and modeled for you everything I have, that your life might have complete integrity in your relationship to yourself, to others, and to God (Matthew 7:24-27). I have come and called and encrossed my life for you, that through you I might have complete influence here, there, and to the ends of the earth. I have said and done all that I have so that my joy might be in you, and your joy might be complete (John 15:11). But if you want all this, you cannot remain as you are. You cannot keep walking divided as you do. You must get off the fence and ground yourself in God.
You know, I'd like to think that if I were there on that day that Matthew describes, it would have been the start of a change for me. I'd like to believe that I'd have heard the Spirit of God speaking through Jesus. I would have seen the way he restored a level of integrity, influence, and joy to that demon-possessed man that no one thought possible. I'd have said, with all the people there: "Could this be the Son of David," the promised Savior? How do I walk further with Him?
But it occurs to me that I might not have. I might have been more like the Pharisees. I might have been so used to walking high and mighty on my familiar fence, and so sure that change was mostly what others needed, that I would have done the one unforgivable thing. I would have regarded the Spirit of God, still trying to reach me, as evil. I'd have called the Light darkness. And—so jaded by preaching, so smug in my niceness, so stuck in my religion—I'd have thought,How do we get rid of this man?
How about you? Would you get down off your fence? Or would you think: No wonder they crucified him?
The poet Edward Sandford Martin once wrote:
"Within my earthly temple there's a crowd.
There's one of us that's humble; one that's proud.
There's one that's broken-hearted for his sins,
And one who, unrepentant, sits and grins.
There's one who loves his neighbor as himself,
And one who cares for naught but fame and pelf.
From much corroding care would I be free
If once I could determine which is me.
Who are you? And who—with Christ's help, at work through the disciplines—might you one day completely come to be?
Dan Meyer is pastor of Christ Church.us, a nondenominational, multisite church with locations in Oak Brook and Lombard, Illinois.