The Man Jesus

What follows is Playwright Matthew Hurt’s journey towards writing the play ‘The Man Jesus.’  It is still touring the UK and ends on 4th November in Oxford.  You can visit the website here to see where else it is playing.  The play itself was very good indeed, and I think Hurt’s own account below is very good, even though I will disagree with him that in finding the man Jesus, he does ignore both his deity and his salvific death to quite a considerable degree.  The play is still worth seeing, and Simon Callow as multiple eye-witnesses is pure class.

 

manJesus

“It was my grandmothers who first introduced me to the figure of Jesus.  Their Jesuses were as different as they were.  My French-Mauitian grand-mere’s Jesus was a figure I only ever saw at a distance; in churches full of oily mahogany and oriental incense, his skin painted porcelain, with pink bruises and maroon blood.  Always bleeding, always on a cross.  My other grandmother’s Jesus lived in the leaflets and Bibles that Jehovah’s Witnesses kept delivering to her front door.  He appeared as a watery acrylic cartoon, always smiling, standing in the Garden of Eden amongst docile lions and bored giraffe.

The Jesus that Dorah, the Zulu lady who worked for my family, seemed to know was different again.  Him, I never saw.  But I observed the demands he seemed to make on her and her friends.  Their prayers and singing would last for twenty-four hour stretches, conducted at meetings by the side of a busy road.  The traffic never distracted them; their Jesu took them into a trance.  The plastic doll wrapped in an embroidered pillow-slip in my nursery school’s Nativity play had no such effect on anyone.  A five-year old Mary looked down on that Jesus with impassive shyness.  Another Jesus:  the Born Again Christians I met as a teenager described something between a superhero and a benevolent phantom, hating terminal illness in a loved one or rescuing a man trapped in a car washed into a river during a flood.

The cumulative effect of all these images of Jesus, layered one over the other, was to leave me with a bland figurine, in various cliched poses, of whom I had no sense whatsoever.  So when I was approached to write a play about JEsus, my initial thought was:  I have no idea who this man is.

But then the more I thought about it, the more I realised that something odd had happened.  For all my disconnection with the figure of Jesus Christ, the stories about him, and his words, lived very vividly in my imagination – and always had done.  I went back to the Bible and re-read the Gospels (emphasis mine).  The more I read, the more clearly a figure – a man – started to emerge.  He bore little resemblance to the Jesuses I’d previously envisaged.  He was much more radical, provocative, brilliant and contradictory.  Mainly, I was struck by how real he seemed.  Not a cartoon, not a doll or an ethereal presence, but a very human being.  An exceptional and strange human being, who, irrespective of questions of his divinity, merits being heard.

This play is not an attempt to reduce the figure of Jesus Christ to a mere man.  It’s an attempt to peel away the layers of assumptions and the residue of mythology so that we can look into the face of a man who once walked on a very specific part of the earth, at a specific moment in time, and who has had an impact on the history of mankind beyond all proportion to his riddling life.”

* * * * * *

Where I have emphasised Hurt’s account, is precisely the point that I found most interesting: To understand Jesus, he went back to the Gospels and read and re-read them. He wasn’t satisfied with the plethora of Jesuses from his childhood and previous experience, he wanted to get to the heart of the matter – and that led him to the Bible. In discussions with people who are opposed to the Christian faith, they will argue until the cows come home about Christ this, Christ that, but rarely has one actually done what Hurt has done, namely, actually read the Gospels.

Demanding Baal Stewards

British_Museum_from_NE_2After taking a group of budding Bible enthusiasts around the British Museum to look at the Assyrian and Babylonian displays, it becomes apparent that what one is faced with at every turn, is the prevalence, nay, dominance of gods. Dominance in the sense of world-view, and their necessity at every level of society, social, civic, legal and religious.

Ancient Israel never completely purged the idolatry of Egypt from her heart! In this regard she was not uniquely idolatrous in the world, just typical of all. Even during the Exodus, in the wilderness, the intoxication with idolatry is told plainly, “…the people…yoked themselves to Baal of Peor” (Numbers 25:1-3). Baal is a truly demanding god, a god of which the nations seemed to be in an insane love-affair with.

BaalBaal, whose name means ‘master’ was one of the major gods of the Canaanite religions. Often he will be anthropomorphised as a small, thin man, slightly larger than a figure made of pipe cleaners; one hand raised in a gesture of victory (as figure above at the British Museum shows). The bull is also a symbol of Baal, and there have been discoveries of this on a hilltop in what was Samaria, dating to the period of the Judges. It must be said, that there is very strong archaeological evidence to suggest that Baal worship was syncretised with YHWH worship, and any cursory reading of Judges will leave the reader unsurprised by this! This syncretism never really left the Southern Kingdom of Judah, and was totally dominant in the Northern Kingdom.

Worshiping_the_golden_calfThe bull as a symbol is fairly significant in the Biblical text. From the Golden Calf during the Exodus, as Israel were encamped at the foot of Sinai, with Moses actually receiving the Ten Commandments, the Israelites forged an idol because Moses was taking too long. The pathetic and familiar story is found in Exodus 32.

This clearly left an impression because after the division of the United Monarchy following the death of Solomon (931 BC), Jeroboam, a self-proclaimed King, a self-proclaimed appointer of priests and a self-locator of worship, installed two Golden Calves – in the south at Bethel, and in the north, at Dan (1 Kings 12:1-33). This set a monstrous pattern of idolatry, one that the Northern Kings never shook off; with the Southern Kings barely much better!

 

So as one reads through Scripture, it is clear that idolatry is the plague upon the human heart, and one that Yahweh insists must be healed, by Exile (722 & 587 BC) if necessary (2 Kings 17 and 25). This is what drives the prophets. It is seen clearly that idolatry is the outcome of covenantal unfaithfulness, and the call to repent and turn back to a patient and forgiving YHWH becomes ever urgent. It is noteworthy that Amos refers to the “Cows of Bashan” (4:1), the wealthy woman of Samaria, feeding and gorging themselves at the expense of the poor and needy.

This is what idolatry does, it is a self-feeding at the expense of everyone else, and everything else. It is the exact opposite of the Temptations of Jesus , who refuses to be a self-feeder, and a self-glorifier, and a self-promoter (Luke 4:113). He is the only One in history who has resisted the very things that everyone else has failed to resist.

Baal was a demanding monster and a liar. He consumed nations with a lust for wealth and fertility and war. He is the arch-enemy of mankind, and the destroyer of all that is good. He truly is demanding of those who look to him, of those who are stewards of him in any and every capacity.

In another post we will see how Baal as consort to Asherah and/or Astarte, is linked through the fertility rituals that would in Jeremiah’s time (if not before), promote enforced ritual temple prostitution of men and women, boys and girls, including homosexuality and bestiality – and this just the covenantal people of God!! At the British Museum, you can see this in the figures of large breasted women, holding them out as though tempting desire. The Apostle Paul faced the almost comical if it weren’t so sad scenario of this when he faced a mob at Ephesus, mad with religious fury and patriotism for their multi-breasted goddess, Artemis of the Ephesians (Acts 19:28-41). Artemis

This link to sexualised idolatry is, I think, seen in the present day obsession with sexuality being used as a perversion of relationships seen in the breakdown of marriage, the sexualisation of culture, meaning everything we see is often brought down to two lowest common denominators: If not money (a subject for another time), then sexuality, seen most obviously in pornography and paedophilia, not to mention advertising and film – nothing but locust like consumption, grabbing and taking, self-feeding and self-satisfying. It is this very thing, the self-feeding and self-satisfying, that the Israelites became good at when they hoarded the daily provision of manna (Exodus 16) – revealing a twisted view of their Redeeming and Providing God. They were rightly judged for this and their ‘additional Manna’ was fast-tracked to grow mouldy. Baal’s demands are as insatiable as death itself, even if, in the end, as Isaiah says, he is but wind.

By contrast, it is the One True God who is good, and he alone saves. Martin Luther called the human heart a factory of idols, and this is precisely why we need saving by a faithful Saviour, the true God, not some fictitious invention from our idolatrous heart! Freud said that God is a mere projection of our own desires. That may well be in part a truth, but God as He is God revealed in Trinity is no projection of any human heart. What is a projection of the human heart, is the vile thing that can often find a home in the heart – Baal. And we not only house him, we steward him.

If Christ is not our Saviour, the only One who can purge the human heart, remake it in fact, then we truly will become Baal-stewards, every last one of us. But, as Isaiah says,

“I the LORD speak truth, I declare what is right. Assemble yourselves and come; draw near together, you survivors of the nations! They have no knowledge who carry about their wooden idols, and keep praying to a god that cannot save….there is no god beside me, a righteous God and a Saviour; there is none beside me. Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God and there is no other!”

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Damned Money

There are lots of generous wealthy people in our world.  I get that.

There are lots of generous poor people too.  I get that.

There are lots of practically minded people.  I get that.

There are lots of non-practical philosopher types too.  I get that.

But why when money rears its ugly head do we suddenly see how secular and goddless we really are?

Why is it that great riches can be a web of deceit that it blinds people to the Kingdom of God?

What kind of Church is Jesus the Head of?  A Church with everything in order?  All sinners purged?  All accounts robust and healthy?  All the building needs taken care of?  The minister’s salary way beyond the minimum wage?  A godly investment in mission and ministry?  Clean carpets?  Clean teeth?  Cleen sheets?  Is Jesus the Head of this kind of Church?

When will we learn that faith and damned money are diametrically opposed?  Don’t misunderstand me.  Godly people can be very generous and in my experience often are, but why are so many people who let others know of their wealth, so damned atheistic in their worldview?  Why do these people impose a pathetically rigid, humanistic, managerial order onto something (the Church) that doesn’t funtion like that?  When will Churches stop being like Corporations?  When will we stop reinventing biblical faith as ‘the bottom line?’

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Let me defend why faith is diametirically opposed to money.  Money will divide the closest of families when there’s a sniff of money to be had.  Money will tear apart loving families as people made in the image of God become animals clawing at every last damned penny like wild animals, devouring anyone who stands in their way.  Money brings out the worst in people – because we’re greedy at heart.  In fact, we’re idolatrous at heart, which is why Paul likens greed to idolatry (Col 3:5).

The tensions within ministry are obvious.  We will always have needs and wants.  Our resources will always be stretched between the maintenance and the mission of the Church.  But if the Church does not recover the heart of the Gospel, of generosity, of sacrifice, of giving, then we will see churches fall prey to the zeitgeist of centralised secular bureaucracy meddaling in Church affairs with ever-increasing loopholes of complexity that we must just through, like performing religious poodles, in order to recieve our prize – the all conquering reclaimed tax!  The Golden Calf of British Churches!

The Church is Gospel centred or it is nothing.  Even tax reclaimed on giving in the UK is a massive mistake.  Since when did churches rely on the prevailing generosity of short-term governments.  When this generosity ends (and it will), we will see thousands of churches close overnight – why – because they will all have relied on the altruism of Government.  This is a big mistake, and in this setting, secularism will strike a massive blow against the Church in the UK.  But what we will be left with is a leaner and ‘meaner’ church.  Or as I like to imagine, a Church more biblically faith-FULL.

Imagine if Abraham had insisted he knew the ram was going to be caught in the thicket.  He didn’t know how or what or when God was going to provide.  He just obeyed God!  He stepped out in faith, even if it seemed to suggest that God wanted child-sacrifice.  But Abraham was so in tune with God that he trusted – even for God to raise Isaac to life again if need be.

Abraham-sacrificing-Isaac

But imagine where his faith was at, as Isaac lie there, bound and gagged, atop a pile of fire wood, his own dad stood over him, one arm raised with a razor sharp dagger in his hand – ready to plunge into the heart of his boy.  He didn’t know, but he trusted.  This is the kind of faith required “to please God” as Hebrews says.  This is the kind of faith we must never allow mere money to interfere with.

I want that for myself and for all God’s people.  I want this kind of trusting to take place.  Not driven by the bottom line but the last word.  Not what we can see now, but what faith reveals in the not yet.  I want us to see God and have our own stories to tell, of when God took us up on a mountain, confused but obedient, and how he brought us down, changed.

SeaRocks

Beyond Our Vision

The incompleteness of our faith is quite astonishing.  Don’t misunderstand me.  Not an incompleteness in the faith, but an incompleteness insofar as we are part of a complete faith.

I am convinced, personally, intellectually, academically, historically, experientially, that Jesus Christ as presented in the Gospels of the New Testament; as experienced by millions the world over; as known and loved; as thought upon, as worshipped….is the point of life itself.  The purpose of existence, mine and yours, is only and truly and fully found in this Jesus Christ.

That means we do not live for ourselves in the here and now, but for eternity, standing on the shoulders of the giants of the past, to live well in the present, that we may see and believe and live the glorious future of eternity that Christ Jesus has promised.

I have found the following prayer by Catholic Bishop Ken Untener such a thrilling description and encounter with the Divine-ness of God in a temporal world.  A world saturated with plastic faith and sound-bites and short-termism and quick-buck economics and cliche spirituality and hackneyed vision statements churchmanship and other Disney spiritualities.

Let us pray….

“It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.

The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.

Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.

No prayer fully expresses our faith.

No confession brings perfection.

No pastoral visit brings wholeness.

No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.

No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about.

We plant the seeds that one day will grow.

We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development.

We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.

This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.

It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.

We are prophets of a future not our own.”

 

Known as the ‘Oscar Romero’ Prayer but ironically never spoken by him.  They were offered by  Bishop Ken Untener of Saginaw, as a prayer in 1979  for departed Catholic Priests.  Oscar Romero was a priest and bishop in El Salvador. His love for his people who were suffering violence and oppression led him to take their side and to denounce their oppressors. And so he was killed, whilst saying Mass, on 24th March 1980.

Preachers as Watchmen of the Night

For all the negative diatribe spoken about preaching in our day, we must realise that it isn’t new, nor are preachers to lose heart.

Preachers mustn’t pander to so-called “short attention spans” of our high definition, graphics saturated age. Preachers are not to make the message more palatable by joke telling, or attempting to give a biblical text the wiff of relevancy by surrounding it on all sides about the wondrous examples you are experiencing that make your point so perfectly!

Night-Watchman

Not a bit of it.  Preachers are the messengers.  Messengers of God.  Angels.  Prophets.  Watchmen (or women – I don’t buy Complimentarianism).  Jeremiah was commanded to “Tell them what I tell you to tell them…”  Likewise Ezekiel, literally, “Open your mouth and eat what I give you…”  And so Moses, the prophets, John the Baptist, Peter, Paul and others.

They were messengers of the One who himself is the Message, the Word.  Jesus doesn’t bring the message, because He is the Message, in a way that everyone else isn’t:  We preach Christ and Him crucified.  We preach the whole counsel of God.  The whole Bible for the whole person in the whole world the whole time!

We do not select, pick and choose, cut and paste, add to or ignore.  We don’t embellish with cute stories, nice pictures, snazzy powerpoint (God deliver us from this banality)!  We preach with utmost courage because all of it is God’s Word and all the world is God’s.

Preachers are thus Watchmen.  A watchman does not fall asleep when everyone else is asleep.  A watchman stays awake, alert to danger, alert to mischief.  Alert to everything that may or may not be going on.  And when danger comes, and it will for the devil does indeed prowl around like a roaring lion – looking for people to devour – it is the duty of the watchman to raise the alarm, to fend off the danger, to proclaim a Redeemer who has conquered the lion.

The watchman must eat the book, even when people do not even think the watchman is necessary.  Even if they think they can do it without the watchman, lulled into a false sense of security, they do not eat the book, the nibble the edges, the palatable bits, the familiar bits, ignoring the wideness and vastness of God’s Word, whilst consuming the familiar, embellished as it is with the odd joke and tired story.

The Bible has enough material of its own for us to use, without our trivial attempts to make it palatable.  It is already relevant; it is already palatable.  We need to eat it and simply be faithful proclaimers among God’s people, faithfully declaring the Word of the Lord in all its beauty and glory and majesty, in all praise and inexpressible joy, with tears and hearts open to a God who heals and saves.

So, watchmen, stay awake.  Stay alert.  Be faithful.  Preach the whole word.  It is literally a matter of life and death.

Anonymous

Anonymous-Rain-l

Walter Lüthi said this about the cowardly nature of anonymity:

‘God has a name. The misery on this earth is nameless, the evil among men is nameless, for the powers of darkness love to be without a name. Nameless, anonymous letters, letters without signatures are usually vulgar. But God is no writer of anonymous letters; God puts His name to everything that He does, effects, and says; God has no need to fear the light of day.

The Devil loves anonymity, but God has a name. He did not get this name by chance; in fact He did not receive it at all: He gave it to Himself because He wants to have a name. For him, name does not mean noise and smoke that cloud the splendour of Heaven;

His name is His sign, the sign that shows that He is the true God; His name is His signature, so to speak, His monogram, His seal, His stamp (His trademark, if you will!) – whatever bears His stamp is God’s. God would certainly have had the power to be nameless; but because He loves clarity and hates obscurity He preferred not to be a nameless God’.

 

I hope this does not appear to contradict the reason for my own blogging anonymity.  I for one see mine as a way to write freely and honestly, even though there are a few who know who I am (I shall not be precious about it).  This post is aimed at the cowards who hide behind a self-righteous critique of others probably because they could not sustain their argument beyond the first round of responses.  To them this post is (sarcastically) dedicated.  Charles Spurgeon was once handed a note as he ascended the pulpit.  On it, was simply written “Fool.”  To which Charles responded by beginning his sermon, “Normally I get letters without names.  Today, I have received a letter with only the name:  Fool.