Getting to Know Jesus
September 30th, 2018
Christians need to know not only the greatness of Jesus, but also the complexities involved in getting to know him. Jesus is the central personality of our faith. He, indeed, is not merely a personality as we ordinarily understand the term, he is Christ, Messiah, the unique presence of and insight into God.
I want you to know that to simply say that is not an easy or obvious matter at all. Our text for today reminds us that the people of ancient Galilee and Judea met with Jesus, and there was [great]... division among the people over him. What meaning are we to draw from this cryptic description of the popular reaction to Jesus? Well, to confront Christ face-to-face was not to have faith. The Lord did not leave one with an automatic passport to the kingdom of heaven, but rather with the questions: Who is he? What does all this mean?
Some who saw him, the gospel says, believed. Others had him crucified. Most were not quite sure what to think. You dare not leave this room with an assumption of an easy or obvious gospel. You dare not go out these doors with the presumption that true faith for you is somehow related only to the accumulation of more facts, and that when you have time, therefore, to research the Lord, then you will more readily and fervently believe. The gospel is simply not presented to us in such a way. It is the understanding of that truth, of the difficulties of getting to know Jesus, that I will address today.
The initial difficulty which we face when dealing with the four gospels is simply hunting down the facts. People who believe that they can base their faith, or their commitment to Christ, upon some gathering of more facts about Jesus must face, first of all, the enormous uncertainties (even in the gospels) regarding just what the facts about Jesus are! If you were a reporter for a respectable news organization, assigned to bring in a story about Jesus based on the facts, you might have considerable trouble presenting with absolute certainty just what the facts might be. Any self-respecting editor will demand of an investigative report some hard evidence respecting the questions like who, what, when, and where. But, it is precisely these kinds of questions about Jesus which the New Testament simply refuses to let us pin down with any kind of rigorous certainty.
For example, go and inquire of the gospel writers just where the post-resurrection experiences with the Lord took place, and you will return from any serious search with a collection of conflicting testimonies. Read the stories quite carefully, with the eye of an investigative reporter or a historian and you will discover in Luke’s Gospel that the answer to the question where they met the Risen Lord is without exception in the near vicinity of Jerusalem. But, when you turn to Matthew’s account you are told the opposite. There were no appearances in Jerusalem. In fact, Matthew says the Lord himself told Mary Magdalene to tell the disciples and others to go to Galilee, and so they did.
Suffice it to say, if you approach the gospels asking the question where, you often come back with empty hands. There simply is no where pronounced with certainty for some of the important information about Jesus. An absolute where must remain a troubling uncertainty for most of us, should we choose to pursue the facts of many aspects of the Biblical record about Jesus.
When is often no easier a matter for us to discern. Leave aside entirely the problem that we cannot date exactly either his birth or his death, for that is no less true about many famous figures of human history. Forget, then, the matter of trying to nail the life of Jesus onto a page of the calendar. Look instead at the story of the gospel itself. When (within this story) did certain things occur? That’s what a serious reporter or scholar would ask. But, to this question when another quite uncertain response must come. For when is not really dealt with in the gospels in a manner satisfying to today’s factually-oriented mind.
Again, for example, all four gospels in one way or another describe Jesus’ anger at the profanation of the Lord’s Temple in Jerusalem and his chasing of the moneychangers out of that house of worship. But when did this confrontation occur? John says it happened at the beginning of our Lord’s earthly ministry. Yet, the other three gospels say this crucial event occurred during the last week of his ministry and contributed to his death sentence. When was simply not the same kind of question for the gospel writers as it is for us today. If you go to the gospels asking many of your questions that begin with the adverb when, you will come back with an assortment of replies. There is very little here in this ancient witness we call the Bible upon which a so-called factual account or sequential biography of Jesus could safely rest. Why, because the answer to the question when is simply not available very often. And why is that? Because it is not facts of this nature upon which the faith of the gospel writers rested.
Well, you may say, if where is not available with real certainty, and if when is obviously so imprecise in such an ancient book, there is surely some response to the question what! What happened? What was going on in this life that was the most important the world has ever known?
Here, of course, there are some generalities which are fairly well-assured. He was born; he lived, he died on a cross outside Jerusalem. He lives on in the faith of believers. There is a bit of history there; some kind of answer to the question what. Yet, have you noticed how even the Apostles’ Creed is remarkably brief on what happened in this life? Born, it says, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried. Isn’t it remarkable how this ancient creed is so quiet about our Lord’s life? The silence in the Creed concerning so much of the question of what about him is a wise and wonderful commentary, because just what we do know about him, in fact, is very limited indeed.
What happened, for instance, during those thirty or so years of ministry in Judea and Galilee? How would you answer that? How would you take those four gospels and come up with an accurate chronological account of what happened during those years? Again, the problem is that the gospel writers did not concern themselves with the question what in the same way we do today. As an example, we might ask ourselves, what did John the Baptizer think or know about Jesus? John tells us that when the Baptizer saw the Lord he pointed to him and said, Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world ... I have seen and bear witness, says John the Baptizer, that this is the son of God. Yet, turn with me to Luke or Matthew and these gospels tell us that when John heard about the work of Jesus, he sent this inquiry, Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another? What precisely did John know about Jesus? Did he feel one way on one occasion and differently on another? The honest historian or Bible scholar can only admit that we do not know these things. We do not cannot know with historical certainty many matters. We do not know the facts of what happened at so many points in our Lord’s life. We do not know them as the historian or reporter wants to know.
So what are we to do? Well, let me ask you this ... have you noticed one strange phenomenon about what we tend to call in life the facts? Have you noticed, for instance, that some facts by themselves are not enough? Let me illustrate what I’m getting at here by turning to that renown theological authority, Garfield the cat. Garfield is seated indoors on a comfortable reclining chair when he sees the dog Odie peering eagerly through the window. Odie, it seems, is out in the weather and would like to come inside. Poor Odie, Garfield says to himself. Locked outside in the cold. I just can’t bear to see him like this. I gotta do something. And, at that point, Garfield gets up out of the easy chair. He goes to the window and draws the curtain.
The message I’m relaying from the world of Garfield the cat is that the facts in life are not what are most important. Life is looking for our reaction to it, not our definition or observation of it!
And so, likewise, the facts about Jesus, as you grow in faith, become less and less significant when compared with your reaction to him. The facts about him are in question from time to time because the details are often uncertain as, we have already seen. But, the overall impression of him standing there looking in the window of your life is such that the only important thing is your response to him.
Do you open the door for him, or close the curtain? It is your reaction that is on trial in the gospel, not the facts. The gospel, in the final analysis, has never been about facts, but rather our response to him.
To understand anything, whether in life or Scripture, we must look beyond whatever facts we are presented to the meaning behind those facts. Again, let me illustrate. There’s this story about a bulletin board on a church lawn somewhere in North Carolina. It seems that the pastor was intent on having both the topic of the next sermon and a warm invitation on display at all times. Usually the two went together quite well, but sometimes not. One week, passerby caught the words of the sermon topic on the first line, Do You Know How Awful Hell Is? and then were astounded to see the second line read, Come and Hear our Pastor!
Sometimes, you see, it is not the facts but the intention which matters most. So often we have to look beyond what the facts say to what was intended by them, so with these stories of Jesus. You will never discover what the gospels are all about until you get beyond and behind the stories to the faith that put them there. You won’t know all the meaning that they hold until you know the spirit of the heart that told them. It is a strange truth about all of life’s so-called facts, isn’t it? The intentions are as significant, if not more so, than the facts themselves.
Dare we try to understand it, perhaps, this way? There was once a little girl, who was kneeling one night to say her bedtime prayers. She said, Dear God, if you’re there and you hear my prayer, could you please touch me? Just them she feels a touch. She gets so excited! She says, Thank you, God, for touching me. Then she looks up and sees her older sister and gets a little suspicious. Did you touch me? Yeah, so what? What did you do that for? God told me to ... Now you decide, if you will, just what was going on. The facts are obvious. One child touched another on the head in response to her prayer. Did she do this to be mean, or to tease her sister? Or did she do it, demonstrating that God touches us in this world through those who allow themselves to become God’s instruments? Did she do it because her touch was the touch of God? Which is the answer? You cannot be sure - not on the facts alone. You need to know the lives and the love involved.
And so it is, we must learn, with the gospel of our Lord. Some ... said ..., our text declared today, This is the Christ. But others said, Is the Christ [like this] ...?
The answer, for you, to the question who Jesus is will never depend on the gospel stories alone. You have heard these stories all your lives, and the answer to your questions will not be found in the gathering of more facts. The answer lies in the response of your heart. You, and you alone, must decide in your heart just who Jesus really is. To quote the immortal lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein from Carousel, all the rest is talk.
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