This is the text of a sermon that I wrote on January 8, 1985, prior to attending seminary. I never ended up preaching the sermon (nor did I finish seminary, for that matter), but it illustrates the kind of practical approach I envisioned I would take as a minister.
Something important is missing from the stained-glass conception of Jesus.
Look at any image of him on a stained-glass window. Would you invite this man to your next cocktail party? And if you did, what would you talk about? There you are with all your best friends; you’re laughing and having a great time. Where would the stained-glass Jesus fit into this picture? Imagine him having the least interest in the latest movie you’ve seen, or whether you caught anything on your recent hunting trip! It seems much more likely that he’d sit apart from the group, perhaps reading a religious book and waiting for dinner to be served.
Nor is it easy to think of him – the lofty, holy Savior – trying to maneuver an automobile through rush-hour traffic and not getting peeved at a motorist who just cut him off. We can’t picture him slaving away at a monotonous job (like some of us do), or babysitting some bratty kids (like we’re sometimes stuck doing), or (again like us) getting involved in a dirty, no-holds-barred family argument.
Which is just another way of saying that there is no room for the stained-glass conception of Jesus in life as we know it. As much as we may love and adore him, we can’t expect much help from him when it comes to the details of day-to-day life.
The tragedy of it is that Jesus actually did fit into practical daily life – the real Jesus, that is – and he came to make it possible for US to live our lives to the fullest. (Not, in other words, like stained-glass zombies.)
Take, for example, the cocktail party: Jesus went to parties like that all the time. One notable tax professional even threw a party in Jesus’ honor and invited all his friends and business associates to come and meet him. The religious community was scandalized! Evidently Jesus didn’t put a damper on the festive mood. His detractors called him a wine-bibber and a glutton, and they criticized him for being in the company of unreligious people. One time, when they ran out of wine at a wedding reception, Jesus used his miraculous powers to make more wine before the guests were even aware that there was a problem.
As for taking an interest in your latest hunting trip, his closest friends were fishermen, and on more than one occasion, as they were wrapping up an unsuccessful night of fishing, he called to them from the shore and asked how it had gone. And when they complained about not catching anything, he again summoned his miraculous powers to point out where all the fish were.
(Hmmm. . . he might’ve been just the person to invite on your next hunting trip!)
There were no motorized vehicles in his day, but Jesus experienced his share of traffic jams. Because of his notoriety, people pressed in on him in large crowds on many occasions. One time he tried to get across town to help a sick girl, but traffic wouldn’t budge. The girl died before he got there.
We can’t imagine him slaving away at a mindless job all his life like so many of us are forced to do, and yet he did, apparently. The Bible only talks about the last three years of his life; the rest of the time he was working – we think as a carpenter.
As far as dealing with bratty kids, consider this: although his close associates tried to keep kids away from him, Jesus enjoyed them. The only reason it has never occurred to us that any of those little ones were brats is the fact that he got along so well with them.
And as for family arguments, Jesus had those, too. For a while, his brothers tried to get him to stop preaching. They thought he was a crackpot.
It makes you wonder how accurately we have pictured Jesus, doesn’t it? He faced all the problems we face, but he made constructive use of them. And people noticed. They observed how he lived, and they said, “We’ve never seen anything quite like this.” Jesus showed them how to live life at its best. He gave them a glimpse of what life could be like for them! This is what we miss when we think of him as Stained-Glass Jesus.
I want to illustrate this by talking for a moment about a problem we’ve all experienced.
Children aren’t the only ones who get picked on by bullies. We all meet them from time to time, at any age or station in life. Even the most sophisticated among us must deal with some form of intimidation or coercion on occasion. And when we do, we are often puzzled as to how to handle it.
Generally, we adults are no more adept at standing up to bullies than children are. In fact, adult intimidation is more subtle and complex. Volumes have been written, and will continue to be written, on how to deal with bullies in the workplace, at home, or at the check-out counter. Techniques have been advanced to help us say No to pushy salespeople. There are books full of snappy comebacks when someone insults us.
As helpful as techniques may be in specific situations, no one set of techniques can prepare us for the whole gamut of intimidation that may come our way. What we really need is a personality that can rise to meet whatever challenges we face, as we face them.
The Stained-Glass Jesus would be of little help to us here. He would want us to assume a sheepish position, no doubt, even to the point of letting bullies slap us in the face or crack us over the head. He’d want us to remain passive while they’re stomping us into the ground.
The fact is, however, that Jesus’ actual remarks on this subject are much more complex than that. . . and make more sense. He said lots of things about bullies, and I don’t want to give you the impression that I’m going to cover them all today. But here’s something he said that you would never expect to come from the lips of Stained-Glass Jesus.
He was talking to his closest circle of followers about some of the things that would happen to them in the days ahead. He warned them they would be coerced, lied about, and threatened with bodily harm. And he offered this prescription: “Therefore, be as wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.”
That’s the trick, isn’t it? Nobody wants to be a dishrag – thrown on the floor and stepped on. But when people insult us or intimidate us, we often can’t think fast enough. In the moment when we most need wisdom to keep from looking foolish, we can’t think of the right thing to say. Generally, we adults get stepped on far more than we care to admit.
But how many serpents, as a general rule, get stepped on?
In Jesus’ conception of Life As It Was Meant to Be, we could become like serpents in our ability to keep from getting stepped on, BUT. . . at the same time. . . our intentions could be pure. We could reach a state of being in which it would be possible for us to defend ourselves artfully from intimidation while wanting only the best for the person who was trying to hurt us.
It seems like an impossible balance, but what if it could be achieved! Who wouldn’t want that kind of power!
The problem is, Jesus didn’t lay out a Three-Step Program for achieving that kind of personal poise. The remark about the serpent and the dove was just part of the overall way of life he offered. The kind of character he had in mind included that and much, much more – and it would need to be developed over time. He taught us the basics and promised to guide us further by the Holy Spirit, but we’ll never get there if we don’t acquaint ourselves with the things he actually taught and let those teachings chart a course for our lives.
That’s why Stained-Glass Jesus is so harmful. He may be nice to look at during the Prelude, especially when the sun hits him just right, but you want to avoid thinking he’s the real Jesus. Because he’s not.
The plain folk used to gather around when Jesus met up with bullies. Proud, educated, aristocratic clergy tried one after another to make a fool out of him in public. The people used to howl with laughter at his replies. Anything the bullies said or did, he could turn masterfully against them. But when they nailed him to the cross, he looked down at those same people and said, “Father, forgive them.” Yes, he was a miracle worker, but in moments like that we see how powerful he really was.
Wise as a serpent. . . and harmless as a dove!
If YOU could have that kind of power, would you want it? Would you let him bestow it upon you? Even if it took him the rest of your life?