’The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!” For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.
Oddly, something we actually haven’t discussed specifically is Christmas Day itself, the day when we celebrate rampant consumerism, Coca-Cola, and an obese Arctic deity whose origins and activities the rest of the year remain shrouded entirely in mystery the birth, just over two thousand years ago, of Jesus Christ. Despite this, one interesting fact of which you may be unaware is that he actually definitely was not born during this time of year. Based on the limited information available, it seems most likely that he was born in mid-March, closer to the spring equinox than the winter solstice. We actually celebrate Christmas in December because of a shrewd Roman emperor a few centuries down the road. Constantine, emperor during the fourth century, attempted (successfully) to consolidate his political power over the empire with a convenient marriage of Christianity and Rome itself. It was, for him, most convenient to schedule Jesus’ birth for the same time as the solstice, when there already were many very popular holidays. (It was for this very reason that the Puritans forbade its celebration during their tenure.)
The Romans were not monotheists, and though they claimed absolute sovereignty over wide swaths of the earth, they claimed no such monopoly over spiritual truth, so their pride was never threatened by assimilating different beliefs within their own. Allowing conquered people to continue unabated in their cultural ways often allows them to feel less conquered, so why not? Unfortunately for the proud Romans, this did not work well in Judea, Samaria, and Galilee, the provinces in which the Jesus story takes place. Maybe it was because the religion of the Judeans, they themselves were at center as the chosen people of a “one true god,” or maybe because of their history as a conquered people endlessly striving for freedom and identity and survival. Maybe it was something else, but they refused to shut up and give in.
In AD 70 (a few decades after the death of Jesus), the rulers of the world got tired of dealing with this, and they torched the Temple in Jerusalem. Since the Judeans believed that God himself lived there, this was the worst thing that could possibly happen. God, in a way, had been killed, or at least suffered grave dishonor. This was so world-shattering that they themselves splintered into different sects whose views evolved and took form as coping mechanisms. Some considered the Temple to have lived on in the holy texts, the sacred law, and set about to study and interpret them endlessly—these sects formed the basis for modern Judaism. Others found redemption in a prophet/son/savior directly sent by God himself just prior to the Temple’s destruction. The Christians. When they changed their rules to allow the conversion and inclusion of non-Jews, they exploded into a mass movement that could not be ignored. What Constantine did by “converting” was both surrender to necessity by avoiding another costly challenge to the Jesus movement, as well as completing a huge coup for the empire, strengthening it by incorporating some of the most irritating holdouts still resisting.
All right, but babbling about trivia like when he was born ignores the real question: Who was Jesus?
Never mind all that historical stuff about Councils and how they built the Bible and decided what ideas were truth and which were heresy. Let’s say they were right about everything. What does the Bible they handed down to us tell us about Jesus himself?
The answer is surprising in that there is not one answer, but many. The Councils left us only four Gospels, out of potentially dozens of options, and yet the four they selected do not even entirely agree with one another. Upon examination, the greatest disappointment is not in how little the general public understands Jesus, but the lack of deep understanding possessed by his supposed followers.
After all, Jesus wasn’t even the guy’s real name. “Jesus” and “Christ” are Greek words, and his actual name in Aramaic, the actual language of himself, his family, and his friends and followers, was Yeshua, closer to “Joshua” than anything else.
But again, semantics and dates hardly teach us anything useful, and the little-known bits of curiosity go much deeper. Going in the order you will find in any Bible, the New Testament opens with the book of Matthew. Its author, whether he was really named Matt or Mike or anything else, was a member of one of those troubled sects we referenced earlier, in the time period following the devastating destruction of Herod’s Temple. He was deeply Jewish, and his Gospel is a deeply Jewish one that, in fact, opens with a genealogy connecting Jesus by blood all the way back through Israelite history to Adam, the first man. Matthew is seeking to tell the people that, though the temple may be destroyed, the Jewish story continues because of Jesus. Matthew was bringing hope to a people who remembered Moses and the way he brought the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery and into freedom, a people who longed for a new Moses to free them from the Romans. They remembered a prophet named Elijah who brought their wayward inclinations ever back in line with the Lord, and needed a new prophet to do it again. And, of course, they remembered a king named David who ruled over a proud and prosperous kingdom and people under the Lord, and longed for the return of such golden days. Attributes of all three of these people are ascribed by Matthew to Jesus, and central to the theme of this book is the notion that God is with us. Sometimes it seems like he’s left us, when instead he has fulfilled the great divine plan for our kingdom.
In Matthew, Herod—the Jewish viceroy assigned by the Romans to babysit his people—is an evil pretender to the throne, a pretender so worried about the birth of a true king that he has to kill babies everywhere. In fact, he has conflict with authority figures everywhere, and even highly regarded and pious Jews like the Pharisees were heavily denounced. Many believe the Pharisees were the same as the chief priests, but in reality they were more comparable to the most rabid southern evangelicals today—eager to show their religious superiority but equally if not more eager to gain political power and engage in the oppression of the people. Even still, Matthew’s Jesus isn’t going to contradict a word of Moses’ established law, which was also integral to Jewish identity. Instead, he’s going to explain to us what it really means.
Jesus’ words in this Gospel tell the people mourning the loss of their most sacred place not to worry, describing the way in which God feeds the birds without the birds ever worrying about it, and how he clothes the flowers without them ever thinking about it. “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given unto you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own,” he implores in chapter 6, verses 33 and 34 (NRSV). Get over your fears and we can move forward. There is more in store for us. “Ask, and it will be given to you; search and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you” (7:7).
Next we have Mark, which was probably the first written of the four and has a much different tone. In contrast to the ultra-Judean background of Matthew, Mark makes mistakes about Jewish matters ranging from geography even to the prophets themselves, crediting Isaiah in his opening paragraph for something that the prophet Malachi actually said. Judean customs are explained in a way that a native Judean wouldn’t have required. Jesus here is depicted as the son of god (alternating with the still-mysterious phrase “son of man”), a healer and brilliant teacher, but he’s also very human. In the third chapter, a man with a busted hand shows up at the synagogue on a Saturday, and the Pharisees watched to see if Jesus will heal him and break the commandment against work on the sabbath. Jesus, knowing the set-up, asks them if it is lawful to save life or to kill on the sabbath, to do good or harm, and they don’t answer to him. Mark tells us, “He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart.” In Mark, there seems even to be limits to his power. Describing his hometown, Mark tells us he “could do no deed of power there” (6:5-6)
Indeed, Mark’s Jesus displays significantly more common human emotion that Matthew’s. He’s constantly telling his disciples not to reveal his true holy identity (they always disobey) and he’s constantly getting angry with them for being stupid and having no faith. Along the way towards a suffering he admits is inevitable, he battles almost as much with his own followers as he does with random demons (who, unlike people, always know exactly who he is) and the political and religious authorities. At one point in chapter 9, he is sick of everyone. “’You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you?’” In one of my favorite stories, Jesus and his posse got on a boat at night and went floating off on the Sea of Galilee, and Jesus goes to sleep. While he’s snoozing, a giant storm came upon them and the boat began to take such a beating that the disciples are convinced they are going to die. “They woke him up and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was dead calm. He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’” (4:39-40) The story is told in more than one of the other Gospels as well, but Mark is the only one in which Jesus accuses his disciples of having “no faith” (it’s also the only one that reveals to us what exactly Jesus says to the wind and the waves to get them to chill out. In fact, Jesus continues to yell at the disciples even after being raised from the dead, when he “upbraided them for their lack of faith and stubbornness” (16:14).
The other Gospels tell us about Jesus preaching to 5,000 hungry people and then using a tiny amount of bread and fish to feed them all, but only Mark tells us why he spoke to them all in the first place. “As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things” (6:34).
In another sermon before many, he explains what he is calling everyone to do. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will use it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” (8:34-36) This is a major component of what I’m ultimately driving at, here. He’s demanding that people looking for answers make changes within themselves. Again, in chapter 10: “’Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” It’s easy to overlook how radical this statement is. To his audience, the word messiah was not intended to refer to divine offspring making vicarious atonement (look it up if you want), but was instead a term for a revolutionary warrior to deliver them from political and cultural bondage on Earth. And here Jesus, instead of rallying his people to resist and overthrow the Romans, is advocating servitude and predicting not victory but his own death.
The author of Luke, the third Gospel, reveals through his wide knowledge and sophistication that he was likely either a Judean heavily exposed to Greek influences or a Greek heavily exposed to Judean influences. He understands both worlds, and tells us a very populist story about a prophet coming specifically to the oppressed outcasts, bringing us the first use of the term “savior.” In this case, savior was not intended as a spiritual reference but meant something along the lines of “benefactor”—someone who is going to help us right now, not later.
This Jesus is very specifically for the downtrodden. Whereas in Matthew, Jesus’ birth is grandiose, dreaded by the puppet king and visited by magi-kings from far-off lands, Luke tells a more humble tale of no room in an inn and a newborn baby being laid to rest in a thing from which farm animals eat their food. He’s sought out by Bedouin shepherds, not anybody special. When he grows up and wanders off into the desert to conquer temptation, he returns to deliver his first sermon in his hometown of Nazareth, and he uses the occasion to preach on a passage from Isaiah: “’The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor’” (4:16-19). The Beatitudes, commonly known from their iteration in Matthew as part of the “Sermon on the Mount” appear in a very different version in Luke. It’s not the poor in spirit who are blessed, it’s the poor. “’Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh…But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation’” (6:20-26). Stop and think a minute about why you haven’t heard that version as often as the other one. Its specificity makes it almost subversive.
As with the other two books, he journeys to Jerusalem, flips out in the temple, the powerful want to kill him, and he yells at a tree. He is betrayed and arrested, and there’s a wonderful passage that describes his arrest in chapter 22: “When those who were around him saw what was coming, they asked, ‘Lord, should we strike with the sword?’ Then one of them struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear. But Jesus said, ‘No more of this!’ and he touched his ear and healed him. Then Jesus said to the chief priests, the officers of the temple police, and the elders who had come for him, ‘Have you come out with swords and clubs as if I were a bandit? When I was with you day after day in the temple, you did not lay hands on me. But this is your hour, and the power of darkness!’”
There’s no sense getting into the Book of John, mostly because it is so different and so much more strange than the other three that it would take an entire post of its own just to explain. But in the other three, the final narratives are very similar: arrival at Jerusalem, throwing stuff in the temple, hanging out a couple more days, then getting arrested by the priests and handed over to the reluctant Roman Pilate for execution. In each story, Jesus stands before a crowd along with another man, a man named Barabbas, who had been arrested for leading an insurrection. Citing custom (which didn’t actually exist), Pilate offers to free one of them. The crowd always picks Barabbas, and confused Pilate sends Jesus on to be killed.
We know why the chief priests and Pharisees and many others wanted him dead. He was upsetting the social order and even perhaps offending (gasp!) the key players in commerce. But why the crowd? Especially in Luke, why would this lover of the common people be sentenced to death over an “insurrectionary”?
It goes back to the crowd, a crowd that heard phrases like “Kingdom of God” and added in “to replace the Kingdom of the Romans” on the end. A crowd that, as we already discussed, used the word “messiah” to mean a political hero, not a theological one. When Jesus became popular and began to have a reputation, especially when he dared speak hope to the downtrodden, the people of Judea expected him to follow through—to lead them to actual military victory over their oppressors.
But it turned out that wasn’t what he was there for. He hadn’t come to give them their own country back. That’s what Barabbas was trying to do, and that’s why they set him free. Barabbas was giving them what they wanted. Jesus, instead, gave us all what we needed and still need—the concept that, before we can deal with the Romans, we must first deal with ourselves.
That’s one of the most challenging ways to think about our own current post-modern predicaments. Before we can escape or overthrow the evil powers of empire and mammon that control our lives…we must first deal with ourselves. There is indeed a revolution afoot, but it’s not the emotionally satisfying kind of revolt. It’s the more difficult kind, where we are forced to transform not the external contours of nationality and society but the often uncharted internal territory of our own nature—a nature which, if we are radical enough, can possibly come under our control.
As we begin this year, and as we end this amazing period of holiday celebration, we will lay out some concrete ways in which we will be able to make real revolutionary advances.
As Jesus says in Luke 17:20-21, “’The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!” For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.’”
Can you recognize it?