What Does It mean to Kill a Messiah?

ImageEditors Note: This is the manuscript of a sermon preached 3/30/14 at the Anglican Church of the Good Shepherd in Pelham, Ala. As always, some revisions to the text were made on the fly as preached but this is the text that was sitting on the lectern. 

There is a question that has earwormed me. It has stuck in my head. I cannot get it out. During Lent and beyond, I cannot stop hearing its refrain. But it is especially bad during Lent. How do you kill God? If the surprising announcement of the Advent season is that God became man. The mysterious message of the Lenten season is this: humanity killed the God who became man.


Nietzsche’s correct assertion may be true after all but our question remains, how do you kill God? This leads, of course, to an entirely new set of questions. And what does it mean that God can be killed? Would you want to serve a God who is mortal? Would you want to serve a God without the requisite guts or muscle to protect himself? How can this talk of death be?


If one were to study this time period of Christ, you would see messiah after messiah entering into official notice, causing a controversy, and being summarily executed for their troubles. Wave after wave of frenzied followers found their hopes and dreams dashed on the hills of Jerusalem. The closing scene of Monty Python’s Life of Brian gets one thing right with its panoramic view of crosses stretching as far as the eye could see. Yet I dare say no one was singing, “always look on the bright side of life.” No, everyone knew just what it meant to see another messiah on another cross. It meant that Rome had won, and the hope that this was the moment of salvation was over.


This is what it means to kill a Messiah. It means that the dream is over… for now… until the next one comes around. In a way to be a Jew in this time was kinda like being a Cubs fan, at the end of the day you were always waiting until next year.


One day, maybe next year, the true Messiah would arrive, and things would really change. Woulda. Coulda. Shoulda. Those were the words that should be put on each of those crosses.


This was the world into which Jesus was born. Messiahs came and Messiahs died. But Rome remained.


Yet there was the hope. One day a new king, like King David of old, would ride into town; and it would be on. And this time the right people would win and the wrong people would be slaughtered like the swine they were.


This was the world into which Jesus walked. And if we can just understand this back story, this hope that one the Messiah would come and repel the Roman incursion, and establish Israel as the dominant force in the world creating a lasting time of peace and justice, so much of the Gospel accounts make a new kind of sense. They tell us a new kind of story. A bait and switch story. A story about not getting what you want; but getting what you need. To paraphrase Commissioner Jim Gordon at the end of the Dark Knight movie, Jesus would be “the hero we need; not the hero we wanted.”


To see the hero that was wanted, we can look no further than the story of the Temptation.


Like me, you have probably heard plenty of sermons on the temptations. Yet until recently I had never considered the temptations for their place in the story of Christ. Here’s where we are: Jesus was born with much fanfare. For the first three years of his life there were plenty of people talking him up, telling Mary and Joseph that this baby was important. There was all the hubbub, all the to-do, people were praising him, people were trying to kill him, and then… nothing. For. 25. to. 30. years. The Bible gives us one verse, “and he grew in wisdom and stature.” Think about it. All that promise. All that hope. Angels. Death squads. Random people falling down in worship. Then nothing. Not. One. Thing. For 25 to 30 years. Guys, I get antsy if something doesn’t happen in a week, a month, six months. Yet here Jesus had been waiting all this time. Then we have the Baptism account and Jesus heads into the wilderness to prepare for the coming year. He was preparing to step on the stage and say, “OK, guys here I am, the Messiah.” I would argue that as a good Jewish boy heard all the stories. Someday Messiah will come. Someday we will be free from Rome. All that hope. All that expectation. That was what Jesus was preparing to face.


You have to think as he waited in the desert, Jesus was thinking about the hopes and prayers he had heard in the Synagogue. He was thinking about the conversations he had heard sitting around the Passover table. He was thinking about the little old Grandmas and Granpas and the red tinge of excitement they got as they talked about what would someday be. You have got to think that somewhere in his brain and in his heart, Jesus was struggling with the idea of Messiah. I think he was thinking about the kind of Messiah he knew the Jews were expecting and the kind of Messiah he knew that he was called to be. The difference would be glaring. What would happen? What would people say when he chose the path he knew lay before him? Imagine if you can a very human, very real, Jesus who had laid aside his Godliness enough to feel pain, and hurt, and anger: a human Jesus who could suffer and die. Knowing what is coming next; and knowing that it was going to hurt. Knowing that this was the cup given to drink. But as I think anyone in this room can attest: knowing what to do and doing what you have to do are two radically different things. That was the challenge that Jesus was facing.


And in this time period, the tempter came upon him. We have often talked about the temptations in terms of Jesus’ humanity; but what if the temptations have as much to do with Jesus’ calling, His Messiahship. How many times how you been in prayer thinking through, struggling with your place in Christ, only to have the tempter came upon you. Maybe the temptations have a human component, but how many times do similarly empty and small temptations begin to whisper doubts about bigger issues, questions about our calling and place? I think this is what happened here. Satan was tempting Jesus not just with the sins of the flesh; but on a much grander scheme he was whispering poisons in his ear trying to get him to doubt, question, and wander of from the divine purpose set before him. Now look at the Temptations anew:


First we get the temptation to make the rocks into bread. This is a real human need- hunger- that Jesus undoubtedly felt. Yet at the heart of this seemingly bland challenge to his hunger is another challenge. For centuries men had been collecting power by using the human need for food, clothing, shelter, and comfort. Imagine what power one could amass with a seemingly endless supply of bread. Imagine how much goodwill, how many followers could be amassed by a man capable of turning rocks and sand into a gourmet meal. Such a man could draw everyone away from Rome. Such a man could be a god amongst the Jews. Such a man could dominate and control the whole of Israel if not the entirety of the known world. Who wouldn’t want to be a servant of a king who had the power to end world hunger? In the modern world many a president or world leader has risen to power based upon the promise to take care of folks. A President who can claim to fix the economy and provide plenty of food for all in a country could win election after election. And so right here in this moment, we have that temptation thrown down. You can free your people. You can establish Israel as the place to be. Just turn these rocks into stone.


When Jesus says no to this temptation, we get a quick switch of strategy. Come to the Temple. Wait until the courtyard is full. Throw yourself off the roof. Allow the Angels to catch you and float to the ground. Such a demonstration that would be! Even in a time without twitter or facebook, you could imagine the awe and excitement such an act would accrue. Imagine if you turned on facebook and saw the video of a man doing just that? Wouldn’t you want to know more? Wouldn’t you be willing to cede any amount of power to such a man? Here is a man who can throw himself off building and not be scathed. What will he do next? What other feats are there? Imagine.


When we talk about the Pax Romana, one of the terms we use to describe the Roman ability to provide peace is this: bread and circuses. These were two of the primary vehicles by which the Romans keep the captive populations sated. If you want to keep a people docile; give them plenty of food and material goods. And if you do not have enough, or if the people are looking a little bored, get the circus in town.


Survivor is one of my favorite TV shows and if 20 odd seasons have taught me anything, it’s that the character who is a little bit crazy and promises to keep things hopping and can provide some entertainment can make it far in the game. Often farther than the person who can fish or make fire. It seems silly but we love to be entertained. Give us something to take our minds off our problems and we will love you.


Think about that temptation anew. Perhaps the tempter is saying, “Hey, maybe you don’t want to go down the bread route; perhaps, the circus is more your game. Entertain the crowd and you will have them eating out of your hand whatever you want them to have.”


One of my musical heroes is a man named Jason Isbell. Recently he made the courageous decision to go sober. After years of self-medicating with alcohol, he decided to face up to his issues. While in rehab he wrote many of the songs on his amazing new album. On one of those songs, he lays bare his biggest fear during rehab; that when he came out his wife, his friends, and his family would say, “You’ve changed. When you were drunk, you wer fun. A pleasure to be around. We loved you as a drunk. We don’t like this sober new you.” Listening to the song you are hit with how many times, we really love and enjoy each other’s weaknesses. We may complain; but when push comes to shrove, we dig the excitement and the drama. Lose the drama and life gets boring. This is the power of the circus, and this was the second temptation Jesus had to face.


Yet Jesus faced down and conquered this temptation as well; which left one last challenge, one last temptation for rulers everywhere. In a sense the temptations were always leading to this, last one. This was the big temptation for a man considering a run at being the Messiah. I call the temptation of the sword. You have heard the cliché, “might makes right.” It’s a cliché because its really true. Many a philosopher, a politician, a sociologist, a historian, a whatever, will tell you: a strong arm is the quickest way to power.


I have always joked that the term for this time period, Pax Romana (the peace of Rome), was a misnomer. You had peace if you were willing to bow your knee to Rome. Do things the way Rome wanted you to do them and you got your peace. Step out of line for one instant and you learned first hand just how Rome achieved its legendary peace. That peace was won on the backs of the Centurion’s sword. Keep to yourself and you get the peace. Make waves and you got the sword.


In the book Ender’s Game, the main character is placed in a fight or flight situation by his teachers to see what he will do. Ender wins the fight; but even after winning the fight he continues beating his opponent. When asked why he keep punching and kicking even after his opponents were down on the ground defeated. His answer was, “Because I wanted to not only win this fight but every fight to come.” In other words by making such a spectacle and destroying his opponent beyond all logic and sense, Ender was showing anyone else with an idea to fight just why they should keep that idea to themselves.


This was a strategy that the Romans would have loved. Because it was their own.  A crucifixion is absolutely the longest, worst, bloodiest, time-consuming, unnecessary punishment ever devised. It is a doctor’s thesis on inflicting needless, senseless, hopeless pain. Why wouldn’t the Romans just round up their dissenters in a square and ram a sword through them. It was be quicker, easier, and less messy. The point behind a crucifixion is this: look what we can do to you. Look at what we can make you suffer: endless, hopeless, pointless pain beyond measure or comprehension. Mess with us and you will suffer greater than any human has any right to suffer. Mess with us and we will destroy you and take our time doing it in front of everyone with your loved ones watching the entire time.


This was the temptation faced by Jesus. Satan was saying: “You have lived here for 30 years. You know what they are capable of doing. These people may look and act like perfect gentlemen but they are really bloodthirsty monsters who only understand one language: pain. If you want to even consider becoming king, you need to be prepared for the worst; you need to be the worst. You need to make these monsters take notice and cower in fright. They don’t understand anything not said with a sword dripping with blood in you hand. If you would be the Messiah, sooner or later you are going to have to become comfortable either with handling a bloody sword or finding an army that will be. So let’s cut to the chase, I am the biggest monster of them all. I have the biggest, badest sword, and I would love to get it running with blood. Just drop a knee and say the word, and I will wipe out entire races of people to make sure that everyone knows your name and cowers at it. You will rule the world.”


For those of us who know the story; we are aware that Jesus survived the temptation and would go on to an amazing ministry; doing many of the things the Jews had come to associate with the wannabe messiahs that had come before. He had miracles attributed to him. He spoke and taught and explained what it meant to be a Jew. He talked about freedom and he made a journey to Jerusalem where he was welcomed with a frenzy of emotion and joy. And it was in Jerusalem that another part of this all-too-familiar story took shape. Jesus caught the attention of the leaders of both the Jewish people and to some degree of Rome. In this withering glare of the spotlight we find Jesus and his followers encamped at the garden of Gethsemane. There we find Jesus in a similar situation to his desert experience. He is there knowing full well the expectations of the Jewish people longing for the Messiah to free them from Rome and the unexpected path to which he has been called. Since I can’t capture this moment better, allow me to quote John Howard Yoder as he sets the scene for us:


“In the reverence which surrounds Christian interpretation of Gethsemane, the reader and even the professional commentator seldom have indulged the historical curiosity which would ask what it could have meant for ‘this cup to pass.’ In what way would it have been possible, in the situation Jesus’ offensive behavior in the temple had brought upon him to avoid the ultimate clash and destruction? What was the option with which he was struggling? Was it that he might slip away to Qumrun until the storm was over? Or could he have reconciled with the authorities by retracting some of his more extreme statements? Should he have announced a de-escalation, renounced his candidacy for the kingship, and gone into teaching?


The only real option in terms of historical seriousness and the only one with a slim basis in the text, is the hypothesis that Jesus was drawn, at least in the moment of temptation, to think once again about the messianic violence with which he had been tempted since the beginning. Now is finally time for holy war. All four Gospels report Peter’s use of the sword in legitimate defense. All but Mark interpret it in such a way as to suggest that the episode is symbolic of a deeper struggle. According to John, Jesus’ rebuke of Peter uses the very language of his prayer: ‘Shall I not drink the cup which the Father has given me?’


The narrative of Matthew interprets the episode of the sword by spelling out at greater length what Jesus might have done. ‘Do you think that I cannot appeal to the Father, and he will send me more than 12 legions of angels? How then should the Scriptures be fulfilled that it must be so?’ The themes of appeal to the Father and the notion of fulfillment of prediction again place the sword episode in the context of the words of the Prayer. I have little qualification for surmising what it would have looked like for 12 legions of angels – a Roman legion is said to be have been 6,000 soldiers- to come into the garden. But what I can imagine is not very much the point. Matthew’s report is clear, and Matthew could imagine that final encounter with Judas and the Jewish and perhaps Roman police would have been at just that point at which God would unleash the apocalyptic holy war, where the miraculous power of the angelic hosts, Jesus’ disciples as shock troops,  and the crowds of Jerusalem with their long-brewing resentment would rise up in one mighty surge of sacred violence and would finally drive the heathen from the land and restore to God’s people (as Zechariah had predicted) the possibility to serve JHWH in freedom and without fear….


This is the third chance. As the tempter has suggested, Jesus once could have taken over the rule by acclamation after the feedings of the multitude. His second chance for a coup d’etat had been at the entry into the Temple, with the jubilant crowd at his back, the temple police thrown off guard by the noise and the Roman guards cowed by Jesus’ air of moral authority. Both times Jesus had turned away from the challenge to take over.


Here now is the last opportunity. As Satan had come thrice in the desert, so the real option of Zealot-like kingship comes the third time in the public ministry. It is not without both literary and theological justification that commentators have pointed to a parallelism between the testing in the desert and the trial in Gethsemane. Once more, now clearly for the last time, the option of crusade beckons. Once more Jesus sees this option as a real temptation. Once more he rejects it.”[1]


This is the defining temptation of Christ. It was not to be a human with a wife and kids and live out a quiet existence as the film The Last Temptation of Christ would have us surmise. It was not to be a dowdy college professor with a handful of doting student. It was not to the CEO / Superstar / Pastor / Writer / Motivational Speaker of a mega-church. The question was that of the same that struck Hamlet. It was the question whether or not to be Spartacus: whether or not to take revenge on those who had threatened and killed his people for years. To lead an uprising that would take control and bring a Messianic formulation of the Pax Romana to the world.


And yet Jesus submitted himself to the Romans and allowed himself to be brought before Pilate. There he was questioned about his Kingship. And when offered a chance to define himself. He responded that he was the Truth and We have Pilate’s great response, “What is Truth?”


One sees Pilate mulling over this comment; then providing, as Brian Zahnd as so moving illustrated it in his book Beauty Will Save Us, his version of the truth. Here was Pilate’s truth: I can destroy you. I hold in my hand the ability to totally and completely own you. I can inflict the kind of pain that you had never known existed. I can have you screaming for mercy. I can own you. I have the power and you have the chains. If I chose to act, no one can save you. There is no hope besides that which I choose to provide, That is truth; the sword I hold is all the truth I need to know.


And yet standing in front of him was the Truth about God as revealed by Jesus. It is a truth to which our bible readings last week affirmed. Listen again to the words of Paul to the Roman church:


“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.”[2]


The truth about God staring us in the face of Jesus is this. God would rather die; than kill his enemies. I’m going to say that again to allow it sink in: God would rather die; than kill his enemies.


Pilate would rather kill a thousand men in the worst fashion imaginable than break a sweat. Think about the popularity of movies and books surrounding revenge. Quentin Tarantino is a very rich man because whether the enemy is Hitler or a slave master, he is a genius at creating cinematic masterpieces giving us the possibility of achieving revenge. To be honest, even I would rather see my enemies die horrible deaths than be simply inconvenienced.  This is the truth of the world as we know it.


Archbishop Desmond Tutu has said it best: yesterday’s victim is today’s oppressor just as surely today’s victim is tomorrow’s oppressor. We live in a world timed and moved by the cycle of violence and revenge. You slight me. I hit you. You hurt me. I kill you. Your brother kills me. My brother flies a plane into one of your office buildings. This is the truth about our world.


And yet as we celebrate Lent and move into the Easter season we are met with the truth about God. Let me say it again.


God would rather his son die; than to kill his enemies.


So in this world of violence and hatred; let me ask you what would happen if we began to believe, began to talk about, and began to live like we believed in this central truth about who God is?


This truth, this axis of power, is how Satan keeps us wrapped up in our sin and dominated by him and his minions. The grasp of and desire for power is the one ring designed to rule us all. Yet the Messiah comes with a new truth.

I know this is a time of devotion and of looking upon ourselves in sober reflection; but this is a message of good news. It is a message of good news that we celebrate each week in the Eucharist. And yet it is a message that ought to bring us out of our seats clapping and dancing. Yes, we ought to be dancing up the aisle to the wafer and the cup.


Here is the good news: Jesus has brought us a new way of being human. In this new way, violence has no place in our new world. Death has no place in our new world. Satan has no place in our world. He has been cast out. He is defeated. We have a new King, like David of old.


Not by power. Not by the sword, but by the blood of the lamb. This is the great truth of Christianity. God has preferred to die rather than kill his enemies. God has died; rather than killing Matt Rickman. Or Barry Bruce. Or Derek Jones. God has died rather than kill any of us.


And with all this as prologue, we come to today’s scripture reading. And to the words of Paul, once again to the Romans:


“Therefore let us be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”


When one gets, truly gets, the meaning of this verse then martyrdom will always become a possibility. Now let me define my term here. When I say martyrdom is a possibility for Christians, I am not advocating that you wonder the earth looking for grenades to jump upon. I am not arguing that what Christianity needs is more people looking for death and willing to strap on bombs to their chests. That’s not martyrdom, that’s just being willfully stupid. I am not suggesting we become dour kill-joys always looking for the hardest option on the menu of possible strategies. I am not calling you to go around trying your best to make people hate you. Let’s not be dumb. I can handle a lot of things in our lives, but let us never be so stupid as to think dying to self means any of these things. I don’t think we need any reminders of what such a poorly executed life might look like, we see every day as we turn on the news of hear of the Koran-burning pastor in Florida, or Westboro’s new outrage, or this politician diminishing rape or that actor using a racial slur. Examples of lives lived in the chaos of the world’s system are all to easy to conjure up. Like the Jews of Jesus’ time we have way to much experience with dead, bitter, cynical, failed Messiahs who burned bright; then met their bitter end at Rome’s spear.


Here’s what I am suggesting. We go through our lives, we walk our paths and when we see someone beside the road crying we go over, put our arms around them, and cry together. And when we walk a little further and see someone dancing, we come alongside and dance. C.S. Lewis said that “obedience is the key that unlocks every door.” And that is what I am calling for: obedience. Living a life that asks one question: “what is the Father doing;” then precedes that do just that, nothing more and nothing less. I am suggesting that when the Father offers you the cup, you take it and say “thanks be to God.”


I am suggesting that we learn to live lives of beautiful humility, lives that put ourselves to the side (not in a way that diminishes us or our needs), but thinks first about the Kingdom of Heaven and finds that when we are faithful serve God, he is faithful to serve us better than we could have asked him to do.


One of the most beautiful examples of this kind of life can be found in the movie Of Gods and Men. In fact let me say this sermon has some homework, find this movie and watch it. If you want to see what it means to live life with the type of beautiful humility I am advocating for, watch this movie. It is about the monks of Notre-Dame de l’Atlas of Tibhirine. These men served at a monastery in the Islamic region of Algeria during that country’s civil war. They received word that one of the rebel armies was burning its way through the countryside and heading their direction. Their superiors offered to evacuate them; but together the men stated that they would live and die with the men and women of their community. How can we claim to be for these people if we flee at the barest mention of danger, they asked. The Abbot, Father Christian de Cherge wrote a letter to be published only if their monastery was attacked. I would like to close by reading it to you:


“If it should happen one day- and it could be today- that I become a victim of the terrorism which now seems ready to encompass all the foreigners living in Algeria, I would like my community, my Church, my family to remember that my life was given to God and to this country. I ask them to accept that the One Master of all life was not a stranger to this brutal departure. I ask them to pray for me: for how could I be found worthy of such an offering? I ask them to be able to associate such a death with other such deaths that were just as violent, but forgotten through indifference and anonymity.


Obviously my death will justify the opinion of all those who dismissed me as naïve and idealistic: ‘Let him tell us what he thinks now.” But such people should know that death shall satisfy my most burning curiosity. At last I will be able- if God pleases- to see the children of Islam as He sees them, illuminated in the glory of Christ, sharing in the gift of God’s passion and of the Spirit, whose secret joy will always be to bring forth our common humanity amidst our differences.


I give thanks to God for this life, completely mine and yet completely theirs, too, to God, who wanted it for joy against, and in spite of all odds. In this Thank you- which says everything about my life- I include you, my friends past and present, and those friends who will be here at the side of my mother and father, of my sisters and brothers- thank you a thousand-fold.


And to you, my friend of this last moment, who will not know what he is doing. Yes, for you too I wish this thank you, this ‘Adieu,’ whose image is in you also, may we meet in heaven, like happy thieves, if it pleases God, our common father.”[3]


We Americans long for the brave hero who vanquishes his enemies, captures the girl’s heart, and rides into the sunset. These heroes are great at the moment; but as soon as they leave, more villains arise and the cycle starts over.  That is not the hero we need. We have too many heroes like this. What we need is something else. Someone else. Someone willing to break the cycle of violence that dominates our lives. Someone who can say no more. It is finished.


And so I ask you this: have you had enough? Are you tired of the cycle? Are you desperate for a new way, a new kind of hero? One is heroism is not wrapped in power but in mercy, in forgiveness and not revenge, in love and not hate.


If God would rather die than kill his enemies; then what should your life look like? For whom should you be laying down your life? Where is your Algeria, your Golgatha? Who are your enemies and how can you be offering your life for theirs?


Such a beautiful life that would and can be! Who can stand against such a life? Who can hope to succeed against a man or woman who considers death, even their own death, to be a gift received not with trepidation, but with joy? Such a person can say with one of my childhood heroes, Obi-Won “you may strike me down, but that will only make me stronger.” Such a beauty. Such a life. This is a life that makes a fool of the powers and principalities of this world with their ceaseless calls for blood.


My friends let us be like thieves stealing victory from the jaws of defeat and death, let us be like happy thieves who will one day- God willing- meet in paradise.


[1] John Howard Yoder. The Politics of Jesus (2nd edition). (Grand Rapids, Mich.; William B. Eerdmans, 19940, 46-48.

[2] Romans 5: 6-11. NRSV.

[3] Zahnd, 125. 


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