SERMON: Who Do You Say The Great I Am Is?
SCRIPTURE: Mark 11: 1-10
DATE: March 29, 2015
Mary did you know that the sleeping child you’re holding is the Great, I am? Of course the question is really asking, Mary did you know that your child is God? Because in the Old Testament, I Am is how God responds when the people want to give Him a name. When Moses asks God who speaks to him through a Burning Bush who he should tell the Pharoah has sent him, God replies, “Tell him I Am sent you.” And several other times the term “I Am” or Yahweh is used to describe God. But it seems to me that the phrase itself can have many meanings. For Moses it was a term of power and authority. He said to the powerful Pharoah, who was himself considered to be a god, I Am sent me to lead my enslaved people out of Egypt to their own land. But to Mary at the Cross, I Am must have had a different meaning, more submissive than authoritarian. More vulnerable than powerful. And I suspect that’s true for us. The meaning of “I am” changes depending on who we need God to be in the different seasons of our lives. If Mary did know that Jesus was the Great I Am, her understanding of that must have been very different at the manger in Bethlehem then it was at the Cross of Calvary. And perhaps that’s why God refused to let the Hebrew people assign Him a specific name. Names usually relate to specific characteristics. And God didn’t want to be pegged as King, or Lord, or Healer, or even all powerful. Even today, we continue to seek God in the midst of all the circumstances of our lives. Who are you God? It seems to me that “I Am” carries with it the assurance that God is going to be who we need Him to be in all circumstances of life.
In 1497, Leonardo DaVinci finished his famous painting of the Last Supper. At the close of the last century a 20 year and $8 million complete re-touching of the painting was completed and after several years the painting was once again able to be seen by the public. Dirt and grime that had built up for nearly five centuries had been peeled away, one millimeter at a time. Proponents said that when the process was complete the painting was sharper and more colorful than ever before. Critics, however, contend that very little of DaVinci’s original painting remained after this most recent of 10 re-touchings down through the centuries. They say that perhaps as much as 80% of the work is not original, but has rather been filled in with watercolors – that with the retouching an essentially new painting has been created. It’s a frequent debate in preservationist circles – whether it be with great works of art such as The Last Supper or the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or the Mona Lisa – or old buildings – or historical documents – or even classic films. And as technology advances, we become more and more able to do such re-touching and digital remastering and bring such antiquities up to 21st century standards, some say make them better than new, but sometimes I wonder about that as a goal. It seems to me that part of what makes DaVinci’s painting such a classic is the five centuries of history that goes with it. By re-touching I think we risk taking away something essential.
And as I look at the events of Holy Week, which begins with the Palm Sunday parade, I can’t help but wonder if we aren’t sometimes guilty of trying to re-touch our faith, especially our portrait of Jesus, by the way we think about Holy Week. It begins with a parade. The triumphal entry into Jerusalem. It was the dream of every Jew to get to Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover. It was on every Jew’s bucket list. But there were many who never made it. And so for those who did, it was a high moment. Even for Jesus it was such a moment. Now this was not the first time that Jesus had been to Jerusalem but His three years of itinerant ministry would culminate there. That had always been his plan. So in a very real sense, this Palm Sunday parade had begun far to the north several months before in Caesarea Phillipi, when Jesus and His apostles had paused along the road at the head waters of the Jordan river, near the ruins of a Temple to one of the Pagan gods and Jesus had asked, “Who do you say that I am.” And when Peter answered correctly, “You are the Christ, the Son of God”, it was as though Jesus was saying now that you understand that, we’re ready to go to Jerusalem. And so the parade began. But I read an interesting commentary about Jesus’s question to Peter, which suggested that down through the centuries people of faith may have retouched the question. That what Jesus really asked, as he looked at the remains of that Temple that had been built for one of the gods that ancient peoples had worshipped as the great I am, was: Who do people say that the Great I Am IS? Who do people say God is? That little word “is” can have a major impact on the meaning of this question. And I suspect that as Mary stood at the foot of the Cross, it was not so much a matter of believing Jesus as the Great I Am, as it was wondering just who the Great I am, now dying on the cross, truly was. Beloved son? Worker of miracles. Healer. Lord. Sacrificial Lamb. Mary did you know who the great I am is? You see, I think Holy week is a good example of how we have re-touched Jesus. These were dangerous times, the days and hours that would forever change history, but we tend to grab hold of just those events we’re comfortable with and truly make them a part of our faith experience. The Palm Sunday parade, the shouts of adoration of the crowd, the joyousness of that moment ,(thank you children and choir for helping us to recall), it becomes an occasion to celebrate. But the truth is we rush through other moments that are equally important but which we don’t really want to deal with. For instance, we’re not sure about what Jesus cleansing of the temple implies about our modern day church and so we let it pass by without much consideration. And then there are other such moments. Jesus’ washing the Disciples feet. The agony of Gethsemane. The scourging. We give them lip service but we don’t allow them to be a prominent part of our Holy Week observances. It’s as though we move from Sunday to the Last Supper and skip all that lay in between. Holy week is a clear example of how we struggle to know who God IS. So we retouch Holy Week to suit our understandings and include the Palm Sunday parade, and the Last Supper, and the trial and the crucifixion. Those are the prominent features of our Holy Week tapestry. The other things have faded just a bit through the years. We tend to re-touch Jesus to fit our understandings, our circumstances. Perhaps to make Him “better than new” for our 21st century skeptics. We try and remove the dirt and the grime and the ragged edges so that Jesus becomes attractive to everyone. We want to make Jesus all things to all people, when in truth He came to be just one thing to all people. And that one thing was our savior, salvation.
I imagine Mary to be very confused at the foot of the cross. Though the scriptures don’t specifically say so, she must have been somewhere in the crowd watching the parade unfold. And surely she followed Jesus through the days of the week that lay ahead. How confusing it must have been to go from the triumphal parade, to the cleansing of the Temple, to the Last Supper, to the Garden of Gethsemane, to the trial in Pilates courtyard, to hearing the shouts of “crucify him” and now the silent vigil at the foot of the Cross. You see, I think of all the questions that we have asked of Mary, this is the essential one, the same one that He asked Peter on that roadside in Caesarea Phillipi. Mary did you know that your boy was the great I am? But what does that mean? Who do you think the great I am IS? Riding a colt into Jerusalem. Who do you think I am is now, Mary? Surveying the upheaval in the Temple. Who do you think I am is now, Mary? Wiping the towel across the disciples feet. Who do you think I am is now? Breaking the bread and pouring the wine in the upper room. Who do you think I am is now? Watching Judas steal away in the darkness to betray him, turning to Peter with the haunted, hurting look of one betrayed by his best friend. Who do you think I am is now, Peter? Praying in Gethsemene. Led away in tethers. Standing before a hate filled crowd demanding His crucifixion. Stripped and flogged. Who do you think I am is now, Mary? Carrying the cross to Calvary. Nailed and hoisted up. Who do you think I am is now? How do we re-touch Jesus on the Cross? How do we make Him better than new after the betrayers kiss, and the cat of nine tales has pulled the flesh off his back, and the nails have pierced his wrist, and He has died a horrible death? How do we re-touch Jesus to fit our portrait of Him? Who do we think I am is, now?
You see, those who lined the parade route as He rode into Jerusalem were re-touching Jesus. They proclaimed him to be the king and expected Him as the Messiah to cast off the Roman oppressors and establish Jewish rule. We try to re-touch Jesus when we seek to add to who He is. Humanity has always tried to add to the portrait of Jesus by making him the champion of our cause. It’s true in politics. It’s even true in sports. How many times in post game interviews have we heard players praising Jesus for leading their team to victory in the big game. In his book, On God’s Squad, former football player Norm Evans wrote: “I guarantee you Christ would be the toughest guy who ever played this game. .. If He were alive today I would picture a six-foot-six 360 pound defensive tackle who would always make the big plays.” No, we say that’s not who the Great I Am is. But that’s how Evans had re-touched Him. The opposite of that is the portrait that Charles Dickens drew in a book that he wrote in his later years which portrayed Jesus as a sweet, Victorian nanny who was fond of saying, “Now, children, you must be nice to your mummy and daddy.” We retouch Jesus to match our perceived needs. Jesus the social activist. Some years ago there was a popular picture being circulated of a giant Christ with His arms outstretched over the United Nations building in New York blessing the nations of the world. In the aftermath of 9/11, one of the pictures that was floating around was of Jesus linked hand in hand with the thousands of victims superimposed over ground zero, leading them into Heaven. If you went to Cuba, in the days of the revolution, you would have seen pictures of Christ dressed in fatigues, sporting a gun in support of Castro. Some in the the gay community portray Jesus as a homosexual. Both pro-choice and pro-life forces claim Christ to be on their side. We say if only we had Christ back in the schools, then the kind of tragedies that have unfolded in recent years would not have happened.
Some use Jesus to justify their hatreds and prejudices towards their fellow man. Some view Christ as the cosmic parent who can somehow make up for the fact that so many children today are growing up without any positive parental influence. On Palm Sunday the crowd greeted Christ as they would a King, laying palm branches to cover the dust of the path before Him, as the Romans would make them do for Pilate and the Caesar. And in so many ways we greet Him the same way, the King, the conqueror, who will ride in and sweep our problems away. But the parade people had it wrong. He did ride in to Jerusalem in triumph that day, but He didn’t sweep away the Romans 2000 years ago, and He will not sweep away our problems today. Mary we can’t retouch the marks of the whip, or the indentations of the crown on his brow. We can’t retouch the horrible cross. He came to Jerusalem to help them triumph over their suffering, but not to end it. And He comes into our lives in the midst of our suffering to help us triumph. Jesus doesn’t need us to build him up into something He’s not. He came to be our way to salvation, no matter the circumstances of our daily life. And surely that’s enough. He doesn’t need to be more, because that’s all we need Him to be. Whether we’re old or young, communist or capitalist, gay, or prolife, or prochoice, or just lost and confused. Jesus came to be the way for each one of us.
And then sometimes we go to the other extreme. We re-touch Jesus by taking away from who He is. We tend to want to clean up Jesus, sanitize Him. Gentle savior, meek and mild. We have a lot easier time worshipping a savior in a cradle at Christmas, even one who rides in to town on a colt, then we do a Savior on the cross on Good Friday. And we would much rather picture a savior who hoists a child on His lap and says let the little children come to me then we do a savior who flies into a rage because of the defilement of the Temple. And we would rather talk about a savior who breaks the bread and feeds five thousand, then one who breaks the bread and says take and eat this for it is my body which is about to be sacrificed for you. Who do you say that I am is, now? We want to take Jesus out of the gritty places, the dark and dirty places (don’t wash my feet Jesus) and dress Him in shiny white robes, and build Him tabernacles. We want Him to be that mythical white knight who comes riding into our lives in triumph, just as those who laid the palm branches before Him did. And when he doesn’t turn out to be that way – when He goes in and makes a mess of the church and acts as a lowly servant and talks about sacrifice rather than triumph – in our confusion and despair, we put Him on a cross. We tried to re-touch Jesus, but we ended up with a picture that many just could not accept. Leonard Sweet writes:
The Jesus we. . find is committed to love of everyone including enemies, calling us to go in directions we’d much rather avoid – into raunchy red-light districts, over to the cramped apartments of single moms, down to the streets littered with the homeless, into shelters beside. . junkies, through the doors of hospices and prisons.
Because.,. when we take Jesus from the gritty, dirty, hopeless places of this world, then we deny His presence to those who probably need Him the most in our world. The lepers of today. And we deny His presence in the neediest times of our own lives. When Jesus comes into our lives, He comes for the whole package. The good and the bad. The dark and the light. Just as the parade did not begin when Jesus climbed on the back of that colt but rather began on the hot, dusty road of Caesarea when Jesus turned His face towards Jerusalem. Neither did it end when He rode through the gates of Jerusalem. It continued for several days until it wound back out the gates to a place called Calvary. And those who will follow the Savior must not just follow Him in His triumphal entry but must also follow Him up that hill of Calvary.
And then we try to re-touch Jesus by essentially denying His divinity. Rather than trying to understand who the Great I Am is in our lives, we deny that He is the Great I Am at all.
Robert Funk, who is a so-called scholar of the New Testament portrays Jesus as a secular sage and social critic who made fun of the pious and championed the cause of the poor. He writes that “Jesus was perhaps the first standup Jewish comic.” And a contemporary of his, John Crossan writes: “If you are empowered by Jesus’ life, in my judgement that makes you a Christian.” Where is the divinity of Christ in those statements? Many would want us to believe that Jesus was only human.
A recent poll revealed that the Christian concept that Church members have the hardest time believing in is the resurrection. They have no trouble believing Christ’s teachings or that He was crucified. But many do not believe that He was raised from the dead. But if not raised then not a living reality today. Many will follow Him to Calvary, but the parade stops there. They will not follow Him to the empty tomb. Leonard Sweet rightly contends that the Empty Tomb is the essence of Christian faith. He paraphrases Luke Timothy Johnson, a professor at Emory University, when he writes that ” the Christ of Christianity is still powerfully alive” – not a shadowy figure behind a thin chronology of sayings and deeds etched in unreliable ancient texts. Christianity is an ever-evolving, ever-changing, ever-growing religion based on personal leaps, tests of faith, and the good works of believers filled with the ever-active Spirit of Christ. The living Christ is with us right now, and probably more visible in unpopular places than in the hottest hangouts, probably closer to the losers of this world than to the winners.
It’s a curious paradox really. We try to re-touch Jesus in a way that makes Him acceptable in polite company, yet we frequently point out the fact that He spent the majority of His time with the poor and the sinners. It was the same problem that the pharisees had with Jesus. But in spite of their protests, don’t be misled. Jesus didn’t love the poor and sinners, more than He did the Pharisees. It’s just that the poor and sinners welcomed Him into their midst, when the Pharisees would not. You see, that’s the danger of re-touching Jesus. Of making Him something that He’s not. Making Him fit our notions of what our Lord ought to be. Of seeing Him in the triumphal moments of life, but glossing over the moments of despair and defeat and sin and sickness. If Christ is truly the Lord of our life – the way – then He must be Lord over the parade of triumph as well as the parade of sorrow. He must be the Lord of the passion as well as the Lord of the empty tomb. The Lord whom we lay branches before and the Lord whom we lay down our lives for. The Lord of all our life. Mary did you know that your Baby Boy was the Great I Am? How hard it must have been knowing that, as she watched Him dying by human hands on the Cross of Calvary. The portrait of the Great I Am of the manger, of the miracles, of the healings, of the triumphal parade, was so very different than the picture of the Great I Am, dying on the Cross.
It is said that the painting of The Last Supper took Da Vinci seven years to complete. Da Vinci always used real people for the faces of the people in his portrait. Accordingly, he looked at hundreds of young men to use for the face of Jesus. He was looking for a face of innocence and beauty, free from scars and any signs of dissipation caused by sin. Finally a young man, 19 years old was found, and Da Vinci began the painting with Jesus. After completing Jesus, Da Vinci set about the task of finding the faces of the other apostles. It took him six years to find suitable models and paint the apostles. The last face was that of Judas. Da Vinci searched for a face that he thought would adequately portray his vision of Judas – dark, unkempt and vicious. Finally he found the face he was looking for in a Roman dungeon. And by special order of the king, the prisoner was released to Da Vinci. And for many days and nights, Da Vinci worked on the face of Judas. Finally, the portrait was complete and Da Vinci returned his “Judas” to the prison. But as he was turning to leave, another prisoner grabbed him and said, “Oh, Mr. DaVinci, look at me! Do you not know who I am?” DaVinci looked at him once more, and then shook his head. He did not recognize him in this terrible place. To which the man lamented. “Oh, Mr. Da Vinci, I am your Christ!!! I am the man you painted seven years ago as Christ! 0 God, have I fallen so low?” The Messiah that they cheered as He rode triumphantly into Jerusalem on Sunday, was the same Messiah they jeered as He hung on the cross on Friday. But they did not recognize Him. Mary did you know who the Great I Am is?
And what about us? Do we recognize Jesus as the Great I Am in all the circumstances of our lives – the days of triumph as well as the days of sorrow and defeat. Who do you say that the Great I Am IS?