The Iconic Jesus
January 1, 2006
It’s likely that if Jesus were still living among us today, He would be considered a criminal. Everyone would be mad at him
§ The FDA for turning water into wine without a license;
§ The EPA for killing fig trees;
§ The American Medical Association for practicing medicine without a license;
§ The Department of Health for asking people to open graves, for raising the dead and for feeding 5,000 people in unsanitary conditions;
§ The NEA for teaching without a certificate;
§ OSHA for walking on water without a life jacket and other unsafe boating practices;
§ SPCA for driving hogs into the sea;
§ The National Board of Psychiatrists for giving advice on how to live a guilt-free life;
§ The NOW for not choosing a female apostle;
§ The Interfaith Movement for condemning all other religions.
In American Jesus, by Stephen Prothero, a recent book by the chair of the Department of Religion at Boston University, it’s all spelled out. Jesus is a man “nobody hates.” According to figures Prothero reports, roughly 85 percent of the U.S. population is Christian. Sure, that includes people who may not have been to church since they were baptized as an infant, but even subtracting those, there are a lot left. In fact, according to Prothero, two-thirds of contemporary Americans say they have made a “personal commitment” to Jesus, and three-quarters of our countrymen and women say they have sensed Jesus’ presence at some time.
But that’s not all. Almost half of America’s non-Christians believe that Jesus was born of a virgin and resurrected from the dead. Here’s more from Prothero
Here [in America] atheists and Buddhists are active producers and consumers of images of Jesus, who in many respects functions as a common cultural coin. Talk to a Hindu and she might tell you that Jesus is an avatar of the god Vishnu. Ask a Jew and you might be told that he was a great rabbi. In a best-selling novel from 1925, Bruce Barton described Jesus as The Man Nobody Knows. Today he is the man nobody hates.
The same cannot be said for Europe, where Christianity isn’t showing much vigor and where half or more of the population of many countries claim no religious affiliation.
But in America, Jesus is very popular.
The only thing is, which Jesus are we talking about?
You see, we have a way of making Jesus into what we want Him to be. In his book, Prothero differentiates between the cultural Jesus (or historical Jesus) – the one we know about from Scripture, and the American Jesus – or the one that fits our current need.
Prothero identifies four different Jesuses that have shown up in American Christianity, plus several reinventions of him that some other religions have welcomed.
1. Those Jesuses within Christianity itself include first, the “Enlightened Sage.” This was the Jesus Thomas Jefferson envisioned. When he was president, Jefferson spent a few evenings scissoring out of the gospels all the references to miracles and Jesus’ divinity, ending up with a slim volume he called The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth. Jefferson’s Jesus prayed to God and believed in an afterlife, but he did not die for anyone’s sins. In fact, that Jesus did not come to save, but to teach. Many believe that in our own day, the people of the Jesus Seminar are the children of Jefferson and un-enlightenment thinking.
2. Another Jesus is what Prothero calls the “Sweet Savior” who was a product of the evangelist fervor of the 19th and early 20th centuries. During that era, the style of preaching changed from doctrinal dissertations to storytelling, and the life of Jesus, often embellished by the pulpiteer, became a central subject. The call of evangelism was to an intimate walk with Jesus — so intimate, in fact, that preachers felt compelled to talk more about Jesus as a buddy whom we could come to know and hang out with, rather than either an historical figure or an object of faith.
To make this work, this Jesus had to be described as approachable and friendly, meek and mild rather than harsh and demanding. That, coupled with the fact that a lot of religious training took place in the home under the tutelage of women, led to a viewing of Jesus as one embodying the more feminine qualities — warmth, caring, humility, piety and so forth. The religion of this Jesus was not so much to be thought about as one to be felt. Hymns like the maudlin “In the Garden” are typical of this era. Jesus is someone with whom you might have a rendezvous in a place where the “dew is still on the roses.”
3. A third American version of Jesus, says Prothero, is the “Manly Redeemer,” a muscular reaction to the girly-man Sweet Savior. Beginning in the late 19th century and elbowing its way into the 20th century, Jesus as a testosterone-powered hero came to the fore. Books with titles like The Masculine Power of Christ and The Manhood of the Master appeared. This Manly Redeemer was no more linked to the historic creeds of the church than was the Sweet Savior, but at least he was more vigorous — a Savior with sex appeal. This Jesus brought with him strenuous demands, and he was the one who was ready to lead Christians to war against the social ills of the culture.
4. The fourth and most recent incarnation of the American Jesus is the “Superstar.” In the 1960s, a Jesus movement be-g an among the youth counterculture, and some started to see Jesus as a revolutionary, a leader of an underground Chris-tin liberation movement. When that movement fizzled in the ‘70s, that Jesus emerged unscathed, and became the sub-jet of the rock musicals, Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell. He was thereafter adopted by rock groups and rap singers and heavy metal bands as an upbeat guy who offers an experiential high that is better than drugs. Eventually this Jesus morphed into the figure on whom is built Jesus T-shirts, bumper stickers, posters and other collectables, much of the Christian music industry, as well as some seeker-sensitive mega-churches and who gets cover story treatment every Easter and Christmas by Time and Newsweek.
The good side to this is at least people are entertaining the idea of Jesus – He is in some way on their minds. However, it begs the question of us – is the Jesus people associate with the Jesus of Scripture?
That is where we come to our text today. In the passage we’ve read, see Simeon and Anna – to people who have committed their lives to seeking the Messiah. They have been waiting and watching for Him. They have devoted their lives to prayer and seeking – hoping and trusting that God would show them the Messiah.
How did Simeon know Jesus when He saw Him?
1) Simeon sought the Holy Spirit.
a) He was a devout man. He committed His life to seeking God. Talk about this in all areas of life – it does not mean just being a Pastor or Theologian…
b) Simeon was open to God’s leading – He did not put expectation upon God and then wait for God to meet those expectations – instead he waited to see what God had in store.\
2) Simeon had patients. It doesn’t say how old he was, but either way, we know he waited. His hope and expectation was placed in the Lord and in the Lords timing – not in his own plans.
a) Talk about the Zionist faction of Judaism – they expected the Tough Military Jesus to come in and wipe out their enemies and establish His Kingdom. Some speculate that Judas Iscariot was of this group and that is why he betrayed Jesus – he thought he would “jump start” the battle.
b) Why didn’t so many of the Pharisees and Sadducees see Jesus as the Messiah?
How do we know Jesus Today?
1) We have the Word of God
a) Jesus is the Word Become Flesh – if we want to know Him more, we must seek Him first in the Word. If we don’t, then we can easily be mislead by our own sinfulness – making Jesus into something He isn’t – or we can be mislead by the worlds definition of who Jesus is.
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning.
2) We, too, have the Holy Spirit.
a) We can, and should, seek God’s protection and leading through the Holy Spirit so that He will reveal to us the “real Jesus.”
15 For this reason, ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, 16 I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers. 17 I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better.
So, then, who is Jesus? According to the Scriptures, here are a few of the ways we can describe Him:
- Jesus is the one, who, after he was baptized, lived up to his baptism every day by the way he honored and obeyed the heavenly Father.
- Jesus is the one who proclaimed the good news of God, preaching repentance and announcing that the kingdom of God had begun and was available to all people.
- Jesus is the one who was so filled with compassion that though it sometimes seemed to get in the way of his proclamation ministry, he still took time and energy to heal the sick.
- Jesus was the one who embodied the very authority of God, and whose life etched the deeds of God in human experience. This was so evident that people who heard him commented on it.
- Jesus was the one who did not shun bad company, but who loved them so much He called them also to repentance and a place in the kingdom.
- Jesus is the one who repeatedly withdrew to pray.
- Jesus is the one in whom his contemporaries recognized a special connection with God — a recognition that led Peter to call him “the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16).
- Jesus is the Prince of Peace – ushering in peace between God and man.
- Jesus is the one who went to the cross, understanding that in doing so, he was being obedient to the will of God, and was doing something profound for humankind.
- Jesus is the one who arose victorious over death on Easter and is thus living today.
So, as we look to the new year, who is the Jesus you see? Is the Jesus of Scripture or is it an “iconic” Jesus – formed out of the needs of the culture around you? It’s my hope and prayer that this year we can all look to the Holy Spirit to lead us to Jesus and that we can learn from Him and each other what it means to shine a proper reflection of Him into the world around us.
Talk about next Sunday’s meeting and how this fits:
There are many pictures of Jesus in Scripture and some are more comfortable for us than others. How can we learn from each other about the fullness of Jesus?