I’m not a preacher. But, just the same, I was asked to bring a short message for an Easter sunrise (ok, earlier-in-the-morning-but-not-quite-sunrise) service. Reposting it here because it’s relevant to a discussion I’m having with someone; also because I meant to but just hadn’t gotten around to it. But, hey, it’s still the Easter season, so it’s not even out-of-date!
There have been a couple big things I’ve been pondering these past few weeks, and then I ran across an article that tied them together in my mind and tied them to Easter.
The first is that I was asked to play Jesus in an Easter musical. The tryout process went something like this: “Hey, you have a beard; will you do it?” It caused me to wonder what Jesus really looked like; I doubt he was Anglo-American with a beard and long (but not hippie-long) hair, always wearing a white robe. I sometimes wonder if Jesus, who knew of these images ahead of time, refused to ever wear white. Chances are that he looked more like people who we, at a glance, tend to look at twice, wondering if they’re a terrorist.
Why, then, has this become the ubiquitous “picture” of Jesus? Well, I’m sure it’s the combination of several hundred years of artists’ depictions, many full of rich symbolism (for example, the white robe to speak of Jesus’ purity). But surely artists would’ve known that Jesus wasn’t born in Europe or America, right? Do you think that one possible reason might be that we like for Jesus to look like us?
The second was the circus of activity around the Trayvon Martin shooting. Regardless of what exactly happened that day (and we don’t know), the reaction we’ve seen shows that there is still an ugly tendency to stereotype and assume the worst about people who don’t look like us. Some were quick to call racism and condemn the shooter. Others were quick to defend. Pictures of innocent-looking boys and “thugs” were circulated. As the story continued to be hyped, things got much uglier and much darker.
So, with those things in mind, I ran across an article about the Martin story. It discussed the story and made some observations about our natural tendancy to favor people who are like us, then came around to this:
“Consider the significance of the second commandment: ‘You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.’ … Neil Postman … conjectures that the commandment was given because
a people who are being asked to embrace an abstract, universal deity would be rendered unfit to do so by the habit of drawing pictures or making statues or depicting their ideas in any concrete, iconographic forms. The God of the Jews was to exist in the Word and through the Word, an unprecedented conception requiring the highest order of abstract thinking.”
Think about that: “The God of the Jews was to exist in the Word and through the Word.” In our day and age, more than ever, it is difficult to imagine this. Every news story has a picture, if not video. Advertisements, Facebook, entertainment. Everything, it seems, needs a picture.
So, then, is that how God expects us to relate to Him? Through just words? How can He possibly compete with the cacophony of images we see? No, God wasn’t done yet. Let’s look in John chapter 1. We’ll read the whole passage, to see it in context, but pay special attention to phrases that mention the Word.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.
“The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’”) For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.”
Imagine what this would mean to a Jew at the time. After spending your life anticipating the promise, now the Word has become flesh. No longer abstract, but here, living among us.
But what of us now? Jesus isn’t our next-door neighbor. Is the artist’s depiction the best we have? No, not by a long shot. Jesus left us something far better. In fact, we pick up the thread back in the second commandment.
“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.”
Why would we worship a carved image of God, when we can worship an active, loving God. Not a romantic-comedy love, but true, steadfast love—love that cares enough to bring correction when it’s needed. But wait, there’s more. Just when you thought I wouldn’t make it around to Easter after all. Let’s look at John 15. Here Jesus is talking of Himself as the true vine, we’ll pick it up in verse 9.
“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”
Jesus came to leave us the only perfect example of love the world has ever seen. That’s the Easter story—true love. Jesus, the sinless Son of God, wrapped Himself in flesh like us, then allowed that flesh to be broken for us on the cross. But, lest it be said that death and hell could triumph over God’s love, Jesus rose again, victorious over the grave.
So, then, what is the image of Jesus to the world? No, not a bearded, long-haired white man. The best way for someone to see Jesus is for those who trust Him to truly love them. I’ll close with the words of I John 4: 7-12:
“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.”