What happens when Jesus becomes known? Notice how I’m asking this question. It has nothing to do with us knowing Jesus. I’m not asking if you know Jesus. Instead, I want to look at the verse: Jesus had become well-known. When Jesus becomes well-known, what happens to the world?
I remain convinced that it is impossible to be indifferent about Jesus. I realize some will argue with me on this point but frankly, I don’t care. To quote C.S. Lewis, “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse.”
Whether we realize it or not, we’ve all formed an idea about who Jesus is and live our lives accordingly. For some, Jesus is who he says he is. For others, they’ve made the gamble and rolled the dice; Jesus isn’t all that important. Regardless of the decision we’ve reached, we’re at this point in our lives, because Jesus became well-known. His stories, ideas, and reputation reached beyond Bethlehem, Judea, Nazareth, and Jerusalem.
Here’s the problem we face, one that is not new to us: there is a difference between being “well-known” and “understood”. Jesus was and is extremely well-known. King Herod knew of Jesus’ reputation. There is a chaplain in congress who prays for members of the House and Senate each morning. Blue collar fishermen were his disciples. Everyone knew Jesus. His name was talked about it houses and synagogues up and down the country. It is another matter altogether to understand what he’s doing.
When we confuse knowledge and understanding, we start to get into trouble. Making decisions on what we’ve heard (rumors vs. fact, context vs. no context) instead of what we’ve seen or witnessed, distorts what people know and understand about Jesus. It’s much like playing a game of telephone. The message which shared at the beginning is rarely what’s received at the end.
Following the death of John the Baptist, Jesus is caught between the conundrum of knowledge and understanding. This push and pull is essential to the Christian life. It’s where Mark places us this morning.
John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin and partner in ministry is dead. Herod’s decision to marry his wife’s brother was more than John could stomach. Arrested for questioning Herod’s ethics, it wasn’t long before his daughter helped Herod’s new wife gain the one gift not her registry: John’s head.
John wasn’t Jesus. At this time, John was the famous one. Jesus was on the way up but he wasn’t John. Now with John gone, what did people know about Jesus? Who was this Jesus?
Herod seems to be confused. “Didn’t I kill John?” “You mean they’re related?” “Are they same person?” What did they think they know about Jesus?
Herod and his cronies knew “recycled news”. Jesus couldn’t be someone new, different, or unique. Jesus must be a figure from the ancient Israelite past returned to judge the iniquities of the present. First of all, let’s say he’s the guy who just died, come back from the dead as a different person. In other words, “we think we know Jesus is John the Baptist.” If that can’t explain his teaching, preaching, or healing, let’s go back a little further. Maybe Jesus is Elijah. The think they know that he is the prophet Elijah who lived nine hundred years before the events Mark is describing in the 6th chapter. If Jesus isn’t’ Elijah, he’s probably one of the ancient prophets. The Old Testament is full of so many prophets, both major and minor, surely this Jesus, with his cryptic language of life, death, and healing must be one of those prophets. Jesus is Hosea, Micah, Amos, or even Jeremiah. Do you see the trend here? Jesus must be anyone but Jesus. We know what we’ve always known about religious matters, people, and ideas. Jesus fits into none of our preconceptions. A recycled faith, reapplied to the same concerns, has left what? People like Herod; people know about religion (words, terms, history, and people) but understand nothing about being faithful to the God who made them.
Knowing Jesus is more than having the ability to point out similarities between Jesus and other religious figures in the Bible (or history). You’re responding to your own religious past or your conscience. If that’s all you know, you’re fighting the urge to remain indifferent to what’s happening in your soul. Putting who or what you think Jesus is into boxes you can manage the same as knowing Jesus is uniquely Jesus. I’m not a big fan of the excuse people use to not go to church that is, “I’m spiritual but not religious”. There other kinds of people who are the exact opposite, “religious but not spiritual”. I think both perspectives miss the uniqueness of Jesus. If anything, now is the time that we need to be reminded God came to us from the bottom, the margins of society, in places forgotten and ignored by those who claimed religious traditions and self-serving spirituality as a way life.
One of the reasons we affirm our faith each Sunday is to remind us Jesus’ uniqueness. The Apostles’ Creed is one of the ways we know Jesus. Its words acknowledge the prophetic tradition of Old Testament while setting Jesus in his own story. We know that he was unlike any other figure in human history. That’s why we say together that he was, “born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate”. He wasn’t, as much as Herod wants to believe, John the Baptist. I think, it’s difficult, to be indifferent to Jesus’ unique story. It’s hard to shrug your shoulders when told someone suffered on your behalf. Saying “whatever” is difficult to do when you see children, taken from their parents and you hear Jesus’ words, “In so much that you have done this to the least of these, you have done it for me.” You may disagree with Jesus. He may make you angry. You may hear him, “I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me” and say he’s right. Church, let’s go and do.
My point is this: you can’t ride the fence with Jesus. He deserves a response. See him for who he is, what he says, and what he does. Agree or disagree but don’t ignore him. There’s too much good Jesus, embodied in his followers, can do in a fragile world. Ignoring what we know about Jesus is a statement in its own right. To embrace indifference toward Jesus, for most people, is a tacit admission that we believe in nothing more than a convenient idol we use to explain the mysteries of life.
Acknowledging Jesus’ uniqueness doesn’t hurt, it only helps. Nothing that Jesus touches leaves his presence worse off. Everything is better for being in and around Jesus. You know the saying, “A rising tide lifts all boats”.
For whatever reason, what you’ve heard of Jesus or understand about God isn’t moving you one way or the other. It may be that Christianity has gotten in the way. Sometimes in our zeal, we turn people off from the thing we’re supposed to love most.
That’s OK. I want to apologize, on behalf of the church, for making the well-known Jesus less knowable, angry, judgmental, or rude. I’m sorry. For the moment, let the church, allow me, and those around you respond anew. We will sing for you. We will pray with and for you. We will say the Creed.
Indeed, Jesus is well-known. He is who he is. Let’s point people toward what we know; the unique nature of the loving Son of God who dwells in the least known and overlooked corners of our world. Let’s talk about the Good News for all people. Where the darkness, may we bring light. Where there fear, may we carry hope. Where there is hurtful indifference, may we share Christ made real.
Richard Lowell Bryant