“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”
In the centuries before the Common Era, the Jewish people had long awaited the promised Messiah. The Messiah was heralded by the Hebrew prophets by great and glorious names: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Prince of Peace, Everlasting Father, Holy One, Lamb of God, Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Root of David, Lord God Almighty, Word of Life, Author and Finisher of our Faith, Advocate, Dayspring, Lord of All, Shepherd and Bishop of Souls, The Truth, Chief Cornerstone, Righteous Judge, Light of the World, Morning Star, Sun of Righteousness, Chief Shepherd, Resurrection and the Life, Horn of Salvation, Governor, The Alpha and Omega, The Way, The Savior of the World, King of Kings, Son of God. This was the promised Messiah.
There were two problems with this great panoply. For one, it seems that the newly-come Messiah did not go by any of these names. He was simply called “Jesus,” not an uncommon name, and he was born into virtual obscurity.1 Through our internal documents – what we call the Gospels and New Testament writings – we know about the shepherds and wise men who came to worship him in infancy; however there’s no reason to think his birth caused much of any other notice. In the eyes of observant Jews, he was a disappointment at best and a bastard at worst. A disappointment because Jesus did not simply arrive on earth as a fully formed adult and formidable king, but rather as an infant, having been carted on a donkey and given birth in an animal’s manger. And then, this purported Messiah was born out of wedlock to a mother who was clearly crazy, and a father who was a carpenter. Carpenters were artisans, which put the family on a lower socio-economic scale than a peasant farmer. I’ll say more about his family. Those were the start of the problems with the Jews.
The problem for Rome was sedition. Emperor Caesar Augustus was already proclaimed the “Son of God” and “Divi Filius,” was inscribed on every coin used by Romans and Jews alike. At the time of Jesus’ birth the Roman Emperor was already called “Divine,” and “God from God,” and whose titles were “Lord,” “Redeemer,” “Liberator,” and “Savior of the World.” That’s the Roman Emperor. To think that those titles could be applied to the baby of Jewish peasants was a sorry mistake in judgment, a mistake that crescendoed into treason, which is why Jesus was eventually crucified by Rome.2 Meanwhile, back to Jesus’ infancy, the only Roman agent who seems to have noticed Jesus’ birth was Herod. Herod was a Jew employed by Rome to maintain the peace, Pax Romana, in the client kingdom of Judah (which included Jerusalem). Either out of his personal insecurities, or his sense of duty in office, he was not about to see any new movement arise among the Jews. There was too much stirring already, and he had a career to maintain. Herod wanted this baby Jesus dead. Period.
The Scriptures are then almost completely blank about Jesus’ upbringing. We know only a few things for sure. First, he had a very complicated “family of origin,” as we would say today. Not one of us here would believe a young woman engaged to be married – let’s guess she is about 17 years old – who reported that she was pregnant, and not by relations with a man, but by God’s Spirit. We here would be incredulous, even if such a miraculous conception had happened already once in history with Jesus’ mother, Mary, the Blessed Virgin Mary. Jesus had to grow up with that conception story his mother reported. I suspect many people – many practicing Jews – thought Mary concocted the story. And then there was Joseph, Mary’s fiancé who became her husband, and who did not admit to impregnating his fiancé. Quite to the contrary, he reportedly believed her because of a dream. In a male-dominated, ancestral-venerated culture, Jesus had no biological father.
Inevitably Jesus would have learned that there was also prophecy which purportedly destined Jesus to be the Messiah. You will know that children who are handed an identity into which they must grow do not have an easy time. Jesus did not ask to be the Messiah! And whatever happened in his upbringing and through most of his adulthood, his life is largely hidden. We have only one story about him in the Gospels when at age 12 he makes an appearance in the Temple. He seems precocious and willful. The Gospel according to Luke reports “Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.”3 Otherwise there is only silence until he appears before his cousin John to be baptized. By this point, Jesus is about 30 years old, and life expectancy in the ancient Middle East was about 30 years. Jesus has not yet begun his ministry.4 All those years, from infancy to relative old age, Jesus seems to have spent in Nazareth, in the northern Galilee region, and not far from Cephoris, a bustling Roman town where Jesus probably earned his living, we assume as a carpenter. Jesus was then baptized, spent time in the wilderness, and then began his public ministry. It was too late.
It was too late and too complicated not to have made a mark on Jesus, his earlier life. He wasn’t married in a culture which presumed he would be married and would father children. He had these very weird parents with this unbelievable story about his birth and destiny, a destiny which had seemed to have materialized. Well, it did materialize, but Jesus had spent virtually his entire life, not living up to the prophecy. Even the people who had not jeered him and his family because of his “birth story” surely would have abandoned believing the Messianic prophecy stuff long ago. Jesus proved to be quite an ordinary human being who hadn’t found his way in life.5 As they said, “How can this be?” “What good can come out of this?”
What I’m suggesting here is not the perspective of the later church. It’s not the perspective of the 4th century Nicene Creed, which looks backwards on Jesus’ life and the prophecies which preceded his birth. Lots of things in life make sense when you look backwards. I’m speaking here about what is was like for Jesus navigating forward in life, and with very little road map. I think it was very difficult for Jesus to find his way, for three reasons.
For one, his infancy and childhood. Jesus, as a newborn infant, was marked for murder by Herod and the courts of Roman power. And though Jesus seems to have been well guarded by Mary and Joseph, I can’t imagine he ever got over the trauma of his infancy and childhood: the possibility of his own murder and the report of many children around Bethlehem having been killed on his account.6 When would the shoe drop for him? When Jesus eventually finds his voice, he speaks a great deal about children. Why does he do this? It’s so counter-cultural. Children in Jesus’ day were worthless, that is, they did not have worth in their own right as children. At best, their worth was in their potential as future adults. And so children who were not promising – not promising because of their birthright, not promising because of their brightness, or their appearance, or their gender (females being inherently inferior) – were like chattel. Children who were promising were recognized for their potential future but not for their presence in the here-and-now.
When Jesus raises up a child in his arms and tells his followers that we must become like children, his point is not about educating children, nor about encouraging the best out of children, as important as that all is. Jesus’ point is far more radical and subversive. Jesus publicly embraces a child with care, which in itself was a “lowly” action reserved for women. Is it a boy or girl? The gender would have made a difference given the cultural norms, but we’re not told because it does not matter to Jesus. Jesus commands his disciples to welcome children, all children, which, because children are the lowest rung, means his followers are to welcome everyone, even the last imaginable.7 Everyone has a place within God’s embrace, which is a drastic reversal of the norms.8 Jesus radically confronts the existing structures of power and privilege and piety and purity: Jesus (not Caesar Augustus) represents the God of Gods, and children represent Jesus. We could ask, why was Jesus so attentive and compassionate toward children? He had been a child, a vulnerable, powerless, probably-jeered child.
Secondly, Jesus’ finding his way was difficult because when he does find his voice, he teaches telling stories, parables. There are two themes which re-appear in his teaching. One theme to which he returns again and again is the theme of being lost. Lost sheep; lost coins; lost pearls; lost sons (a prodigal son and his older brother, lost in jealousy); lost men and women – lost because of their own conception, because their race, their vocation, their destiny was perceived as impure, inadequate, or misunderstood. These stories Jesus tells about being lost are his stories. I mean, they’re autobiographical. These are his stories, which he tells in a variety of contexts, and a great assortment of people identify with his message. Jesus poignantly tells stories about being lost and being found because, for most of his lifetime, his destiny was lost on him. He even falters momentarily while on the cross when he cries out to the God he calls “Father”: “Why O why have you forsaken me?” The other theme that appears frequently in Jesus’ teaching came from family gardens and farmers’ fields. At the very least, plants, vines, bushes take time, and they require water and light and feeding and pruning. Pruning must feel like death to a living plant or vine. Where did that metaphor come from – planting, growing, feeding, pruning – in Jesus’ stories. It’s autobiographical. It’s his way to describe most of his life, his 30 years. It takes a long time to grow up.
Lastly, Jesus’ finding his way had to be difficult because, his opening words in his public ministry are actually not his words but rather quoting the Prophet Isaiah. He identifies with the prophet’s words and says he personally is going to fulfill these words: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me…to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners… to comfort all who mourn…”9 Before Jesus could offer those words to his followers, he had to receive them himself. He needed to hear those words, and claim the truth of those words for himself, first: about being brokenhearted, held captive, needing comfort in his own mourning, mourning about the impossible complexities of his own life.
In the fourth century, Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, said, “Jesus cannot save what he did not assume.”1 Jesus cannot save in us – in our humanity – what he did not experience in his own humanity. “Jesus cannot save what he did not assume.” And I assume that Jesus had as real a life, and complicated a life, and as amazing a life as you and I do, or he could not be fully human, as we say in the Creeds, nor could he be our Savior. Jesus’ finding his way was and is no easier than you, finding your way. The reason he could say, “I have come to seek out and to save the lost,” is because he’s been there, and he knows where to look to find us, to find you, lost as you are prone to be.11 The bad news precedes the good news of the Gospel.
During these next two weeks we will say more about Jesus and his message, and the difference the movement he inspired has made down through the centuries. There is very good news, and it’s for all of us.
1The name “Jesus” is the Latin form of the Greek name Ἰησοῦς which comes from the Hebrew Yeshua, and from the same root as the Hebrew name “Joshua.”