Jeremiah 23:1-6 | Colossians 1:11-20 | Luke 23:33-43
A few months ago, Brie and I went on a trip to celebrate my graduating from seminary – which was as much a celebration for Brie as it was for me. For our trip we went to Iceland and Ireland. One thing you’ll come to learn about Brie and I is that Brie is a planner, and I’m more of a go-with-the-flow kinda guy (probably not something you want to hear from the guy who’s planning your worship!). That was certainly the case with this trip. Brie planned EVERYTHING. She booked the hostiles, she reserved the camper van and the car we rented. In fact, looking back, I can’t even believe how utterly clueless I was about what would happen on this trip. I don’t know if there was anything I really demanded that we do.
But on our first day in Iceland Brie told me that she hadn’t planned on us visiting the Blue Lagoon. Now, I didn’t really know what the Blue Lagoon was, but I had heard that you just had to go if you were in Iceland. It’s, like, the #1 thing you have to do. So without really knowing what it was, I told Brie that I really wanted to go. I was afraid we would regret it if we didn’t check it out. When were we going to be back in Iceland?
So the last day that we were in Iceland we had some wiggle room and we decided to go to the Blue Lagoon. To get to the Blue Lagoon you drive outside of Reykjavik toward Keflavik and you turn off the highway onto a side road, and the side road takes you into these fields of dark, black lava rock. And as you get closer you can see the steam rising up from the Blue Lagoon ahead.
But nothing really prepares you for what you’ll find when you get there. Before you get to the official “Blue Lagoon” which is a spa, you suddenly see a shock of bright, blue water contrasted with the black lava rock. It’s hard to describe what the water looks like. It’s a bright, light blue that’s almost white. And it’s hazy and thick, almost milky looking. It’s amazing.
When you get to the spa it’s super fancy. You go to the locker rooms and change, and you get a little towel that you have to pay like $10 for and then you go outside to get in the spa. And Iceland is COLD. So you go outside and the wind is whipping and you’re only in your swimsuit, and you hurry over to the stairway and you step into this warm, silky water. And as you lower yourself in, you feel it surround you as you’re totally immersed. The water, which consists of a mixture of salt water and freshwater, comes from 2,000 meters below the surface. It’s full of a mineral called silica, which gives the lagoon it’s unique color.
I never would have imagined the Blue Lagoon if I hadn’t seen it. I’d seen blue water before, but I’d never seen that color of blue. And I’d been in a hotsprings, but never been in one that had the soft, silky texture that this water had. The Blue Lagoon had to be experienced to be understood.
The theologian Karl Barth argued that we can’t know God without God’s self-revelation. Like the Blue Lagoon, we cannot imagine God on our own, God has to reveal Godself to us. If we were to try and look at the world around us, and gather who God is based on our worldly experiences, we would inevitably end up with a corrupted understanding of God. This is essentially what idolatry is. It’s trying to create a God, maybe even with the best intentions, out of those things we observe around us.
Throughout history, and even in the Church, people have made assumptions about God based off what they saw in the world, especially when it comes to ideas about God’s power and authority. People have seen the way worldly kings rule, and made assumptions about God’s rule. They’ve seen the way people flex their power, and assumed God must be the same, only more so. Worldly kings are powerful; God is even more powerful. Kings are sovereign: God is even more sovereign. Kings create laws, demand obedience, and punish those who disobey: God’s laws must be created in the same way, must also demand obedience, and the punishment must be even more severe: hell.
And there’s a kind of circular, reinforcement that happens between kings and God with this logic. God must be an all-powerful, sovereign, temperamental king who wields power like a weapon because that’s what earthly kings are like. And since God is like that, it must be okay for earthly kings to be like that. We shape our understanding of God off of worldly authorities, and then we justify worldly authorities because – we think – that’s what God is like.
The problem with all that is that God doesn’t really need to be engaged with at all for us to come to that conclusion. We understand God based off nature. We see the way the admittedly flawed world works and assume that God must operate the same way.
So I want to start there before we jump into our Scriptures for today. I want us to think about the ways we make assumptions about God based on understandings of worldly power. When we say God is all powerful, what does that mean? What kind of power is it? Is it life-giving power? Death-dealing power? Both? Is it coercive?
When we think of God as a king, what do we think of? Is God male? Does God wear a crown? Where does God live? Is God somewhere above us? Or in the midst of us? Where is God found?
What is God’s relation to us? Is God ruling us? Is God our friend? Is God always available to us, or only sometimes?
These are just some questions I want us to start thinking about. I want us to start thinking about what our assumptions of “God” are.
Now let’s jump into our Scripture passages, which all just worked so well together that I couldn’t help talking about all of them!
The prophet Jeremiah, as well as his audience, is very familiar with earthly kings. Our passage for today begins with the prophet condemning the acts of evil kings:
Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord.
And the passage ends with Jeremiah’s hope for the coming, just King:
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.
It’s quite likely that the prophet thought of this coming king – the righteous branch of David – in the same way we often think of God: just like all the other kings, only more so. This king that Jeremiah prophecies about will “deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land,” but Jeremiah precedes all this by saying, “he shall reign as a king.”
Jeremiah’s prophetic vision is still somewhat limited. How will God save? It must be through a king. Who could defeat the unjust kings? Only another king who is more powerful than the previous king, right? It’s just a matter of power. That’s the way the world works. Kings battle other kings and the one who wins rules. Either way it’s a king who’s in charge.
There’s certainly nothing in the text to imply that Jeremiah expects this kingly figure to actually be God in the flesh. He would never imagine it. We wouldn’t either, if it didn’t happen. To use Karl Barth’s word, it took a “revelation.”
The arrival of God in the human body of Jesus Christ was not expected by anyone. That’s why all the Pharisees want to kill Jesus for claiming to be God. It’s unthinkable. It’s blasphemous.
The arrival of Jesus, the incarnation, God in flesh and blood (if you remember last week’s sermon) is the kind of unprecedented revelation Karl Barth was talking about. In fact, Barth said Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God. It is through Jesus that we have any chance of really knowing this unknowable God because Jesus was a knowable, historical human person, and Jesus was also the transcendent God. That’s what Paul says in Colossians – “He is the image of the invisible God.”
Man, I just love, love, love this passage from Colossians. We could probably do a whole sermon series based on vv. 15-20, they are so jam-packed. These verses certainly seem to support Barth’s claim that we can only know God through revelation: namely through the revelation of Jesus. Let me just read it again because I just think it’s so beautiful.
Read Col. 1:15-20
This is the revelation we need to know God. This is the Blue Lagoon. This is the unexpected, and the shocking, and the beautiful. Like the warm, silky water of the Blue Lagoon, Christ’s presence surrounds us, envelops us. It is Christ who holds us all together. He is all around us, rising up from below, crashing in from all sides, buoying us up against the harsh winds of the world. He is a place of comfort and warmth amidst the lava fields of fear and doubt that we so often find ourselves in.
So who is this Jesus? What is this “Image of the invisible God” like? Where is he found?
Luke says, “When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals.”
Wait, that can’t be right. This is the coming king. The branch of David. The One in whom all things were created, both visible and invisible. Colossians says, “whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him.” So how is it that we find him on the cross between two sinners? This must be a mistake.
This cannot be God.
That is what (almost) everyone around Jesus says. Jesus is scorned by three groups in this passage from Luke. The Pharisees scoff at him. The soldiers mock him. And one of the thief hanging beside him “derides him.”
The cross is irrefutable proof to these people that Jesus is a fraud. Colossians is wrong. He is dying. He is hung on a cross with thieves. No king would find himself there, unless he lost to a more powerful king, and surely that is what has happened to Jesus. That is why a mocking sign is hung above Jesus on the cross: “This is the King of the Jews.” The kingdom of the world, the kingdom of Rome, and the kingdom of false religion have triumphed over this weaker king, and now they’re mocking him. The old ways have won. There’s nothing new under the sun. Nothing’s changed.
Unless God isn’t the kind of king we’ve come to expect. Unless we are guilty of making assumptions about who God is based off what we see in the world. Unless the God we’ve formed in our minds is actually only a beefed up version of worldly power.
There was a well-known, controversial pastor of a megachurch who once said,
“In Revelation, Jesus is a prize fighter with a tattoo down His leg, a sword in His hand and the commitment to make someone bleed. That is a guy I can worship. I cannot worship the hippie, diaper, halo Christ because I cannot worship a guy I can beat up.” I cannot worship a guy I can beat up.
Well, I’m sorry, but Jesus actually is someone you can beat up. Because that’s where we find Jesus in the flesh, in history: he’s on a cross, dripping blood. He’s been beat up by a lot of people by now. He’s been slapped in the face by members of the Jewish council. He’s got a crown of thorns around his head. He’s been whipped and beaten to within an inch of his life.
Ignoring who Jesus actually was in four gospels to champion a picture of Jesus that comes from Revelation, one of the most confusing, figurative books in all of Scripture is denial. This pastor decided he wanted a Jesus who fit in with the power structures of the world.
He let his understanding of the world shape who Jesus is.
He didn’t let Jesus shape his understanding of the world, of what true power is.
Jesus on the cross upends who we think God is and how we think God operates. I’m reminded of the bizarre passage from 2 Corinthians 12:9 when God tells Paul “power is made perfect in weakness.”
While the world identifies power as something one has over and against those who are weaker, God’s power is found in the midst of the weak. On the cross, the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, the one who holds the whole world together – Jesus – shows us who God really is, and where God is found.
If we want to find God, we should not look for God in the government buildings or the mansions, and certainly not in the UFC ring. We should look for God among the crucified in our own society, those who are mocked, and villainized. It’s not hard to identify those people in America today. They are the ones who are experiencing hate crimes. They’re the ones who are the first to be blamed for all our problems. They’re the ones we’ve been taught most of our lives to fear.
Those are the ones Jesus identifies with. Have you ever noticed that Jesus doesn’t visit Pilate or Herod or any other ruler until he’s arrested and forced to go? Have you noticed that he doesn’t do ministry in government buildings? Where is Jesus? He’s always in the streets with the sick and the poor, and when a Roman centurion wants Jesus to heal his servant, he has to go find Jesus in the streets. He has to enter that crowd of unwanted people. He has to leave his place of power and enter the place of the weak.
If we want to find Jesus we must go to where the oppressed are. That’s what the cross tells us. The famous theologian James Cone, called the father of black theology, says, “The cross is the most empowering symbol of God’s loving solidarity with the ‘least of these,’ the unwanted in society who suffer daily from great injustices.” (Repeat)
The crucified God is a difficult God to worship, and an even more difficult God to follow.
So the question for us is: will we follow? Will we follow God into relationships and solidarity with those who are stereotyped and villainized?
I was on Facebook a couple of days ago, and I saw that a pastor friend of mine changed his religious status to “Islam.” At first I was shocked! I mean, I’m all about interfaith dialogue and mutual respect between religions, but I was shocked that this strong Christian leader had, I thought, changed religions, but then I looked on his timeline and realized he did so as a reaction to claims that Muslims may, in the future, be forced to “register” just because they’re Muslim, so this pastor said that if they are forced to register he will register with them.
That’s just one example, but I’m sure if we pay attention there will be plenty of chances to stand with the vulnerable in our own world, our own city, our own neighborhood. And when we take that step we will find that Jesus is already there. He always has been.