Jesus Was NOT a Nice Guy sermon series – Sermon #1 – No More Mr. Nice Guy

SCRIPTURE – Mark 9:14-29
When they came to the other disciples, they saw a large crowd around them and the teachers of the law arguing with them. As soon as all the people saw Jesus, they were overwhelmed with wonder and ran to greet him. “What are you arguing with them about?” he asked. A man in the crowd answered, “Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not.” “You unbelieving generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy to me.” So they brought him. When the spirit saw Jesus, it immediately threw the boy into a convulsion. He fell to the ground and rolled around, foaming at the mouth. Jesus asked the boy’s father, “How long has he been like this?” “From childhood,” he answered. “It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” “‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.” Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” When Jesus saw that a crowd was running to the scene, he rebuked the impure spirit. “You deaf and mute spirit,” he said, “I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.” The spirit shrieked, convulsed him violently and came out. The boy looked so much like a corpse that many said, “He’s dead.” But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him to his feet, and he stood up. After Jesus had gone indoors, his disciples asked him privately, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?” He replied, “This kind can come out only by prayer.”

SERMON
Jesus Was NOT a Nice Guy sermon series
Sermon #1 – No More Mr. Nice Guy
Feb. 26, 2012

There are some things that Jesus says that are really meaningful, that deserve to memorized and repeated and treasured. “Love thy neighbor.” “Come to me, all you who are weary.” “I am the light of the world.” Those are all touching, moving statements. But have you ever seen a wall-hanging or crocheted pillow that says, “You faithless generation!” It’s funny how there are certain things Jesus said and did that we conveniently forget because they don’t necessarily fit our image of who Jesus is. It’s easy to ignore the harsher stuff he says when we can and sing “What A Friend We Have in Jesus” and hear stories about him welcoming the little children. That’s the good Jesus. We want the good Jesus.

But just because we ignore the more difficult passages doesn’t mean they just go away. We either have to go through the Bible with pruning shears, cutting out the parts we don’t like, or we have to accept the whole thing as God’s word and then try to make sense of it. But what do you do when the Jesus of scripture acts and speaks in ways that make him seem – dare I say it? – like a jerk.

This is not a modern dilemma. Believers have struggled with this since the beginning. One group of folks tried to solve the ragged edges of Jesus’ humanity by saying that Jesus wasn’t really human. The Docetists said the body of Jesus was just an illusion and he never really walked on the earth or was crucified, so we can discount all those times when he acted thoroughly human. Let’s just focus on his divinity, they said, and forget all that other messy stuff.

That would be great if I could do the same thing in my own life. Let’s hold onto the beautiful, the joyous, the sublime, and just ignore the messy, the failures, the anxiety. But we all know that’s not a choice, is it? We don’t get to pick and choose what we want to experience in life. Bills still have to be paid, diseases still have to be treated, conflicts still have to be dealt with. We can’t stop being human. So if that’s true, then I need to know my Savior was human, as well. I need to know that when I experience fear or frustration or anxiety, Jesus knows what I’m going through because he went through it, too. He’s either my Savior in every moment of my life – even the less glamorous ones – or he’s not my Savior at all.

But in order for me to accept Jesus that way, I have to be willing to take him at his best and his worst. I have to be willing to accept him in all his humanity as well as in all his glory. I have to be willing to face those passages where Jesus comes across as impatient or harsh and figure out what that means for me as one of his followers. Can Jesus still be our Savior even when he’s not being a nice guy? That’s the question we’re going to wrestle with during Lent. We’re going to take a look at some of the passages in the gospels where Jesus comes across as less-than-Savior-like and see what we can learn from them. My hope is that we will get a more complete picture of Jesus, so that as we struggle through our own moments of glaring humanness, we can know we’re not alone.

The danger in going down this path, though, is that our image of Jesus may be altered, and you may not want that. It may be a lot easier to maintain our squeaky-clean image of Jesus, the meek and mild man who healed and said comforting things and taught important lessons and selflessly died, the guy with perfect teeth and flowing blond locks, the Jesus who turned the other cheek and smiled even as they were driving nails through is hands. After all, that Jesus is a lot easier to manage.

But there’s a problem with that Jesus. Andrew Greeley says it this way: “Once you domesticate Jesus, he isn’t there anymore. The domestic Jesus may be an interesting fellow, a good friend, a loyal companion, a helpful business associate, a guarantor of the justice of your wars. But one thing he is certainly not: the Jesus of the New Testament.” After all, if Jesus were merely loving, compassionate, kind – if Jesus were only a nice guy – why did both the Jews and the Romans feel compelled to murder him? If we fail to look at the darker sides of Jesus, then we’re not getting the whole picture.

So we’ll start this morning on our Lenten journey with Jesus as he starts the same journey. We pick up in Mark’s gospel where we left off last week, as Jesus is coming down the mountain from the Transfiguration, setting his sights on Jerusalem and the events of Holy Week. You would think after such an amazing, supernatural experience like the Transfiguration, Jesus would ease back into his ministry, take a little time to decompress after such an event.

But his disciples won’t let that happen. As soon as Jesus arrives at the foot of the mountain, he finds his disciples in an argument with the teachers of the law. It seems a man has brought his sick boy to the disciples to be healed, but despite all their efforts, they couldn’t do it. And what’s worse, rather than trying again, they get caught up in a fight with the teachers, who were probably ridiculing them for their failure. So here’s the scene Jesus sees when he arrives: the teachers, making fun of the disciples for not healing the boy; the disciples, trying to defend themselves because they didn’t heal the boy; and the boy, sitting there, still sick.

Let’s pause there for a moment to see if we can understand where Jesus is mentally at this point. The disciples have been with Jesus for a few years now, so they have heard his teaching and seen him in action. Just a few chapters before this in Mark, Jesus called the disciples to him and gave them the authority to drive out unclean spirits. In a sense, he empowered them to do what he had been doing. He’s told them over and over again about the importance of building a spiritual foundation in their lives through prayer in order to live out their faith. If anybody should understand clearly how to follow Jesus, it would be the disciples.

And yet, as he sets his path toward the cross, the first thing Jesus has to deal with is another failure of faith from his followers. So – as I read it – he loses his cool. “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you?” Or as it’s translated in The Message, “What a generation! No sense of God! How many times do I have to go over these things?” Jesus is verbally throwing his hands up. He’s frustrated. He’s exasperated. And he shows it. Is this our Savior? How do you respond to his behavior here?

I say, “Good!” It’s nice to know I’m not the only one. For me, this story is proof that Jesus had a bit of a temper and wasn’t above having his buttons pushed by the disciples. Does that make Jesus any less of a Savior in my eyes? No. But it does make him more human to me. For this brief moment, I see myself in him.

I believe there’s more to Jesus’ anger here. Yes, he’s angry at the disciples, but why? We get a hint of that at the end of the passage when the disciples pull Jesus aside and say, “Hey, boss, what happened back there? You drove out the demon. Why couldn’t we?” And Jesus says, “This kind can only come out through prayer,” with the implication being, of course, that the disciples forgot about the role of prayer in their ministry.

When she was little, our daughter Molly liked to go into my closet and put on one of my dress shirts, wrap a tie around her neck, slip her little feet into my dress shoes and then announce to us that she was going to give a sermon. Then she’d speak for about five seconds and say something more meaningful than I could in 15 minutes. “God loves you, Amen.” Now, was she prepared to deliver a full-blown homily on eschatology or the Messianic secret? Of course not. She was like a little boy with a plastic toolset trying to build a wooden deck. Neither of them could actually do what they were pretending to do. They were only play-acting.

As were the disciples. Sure, they knew the right words to say and the hand motions to make and when to close their eyes and scrunch up their brows during a healing. Anyone could do that. But in order for them to be effective, it took more than play-acting. They had to be connected to God, tapped into their power source, through a life of prayer. Jesus didn’t pray at the healing because he didn’t need to; his life was a prayer. And he upbraids the disciples because they knew this, they’d seen it and heard it over and over again, and yet they still thought they could get by without their faith. At the end of this passage, Jesus in effect says to them, “If you were doing what you’re supposed to be doing, this wouldn’t have happened.”

As we move into Lent, we’ve been told what we are to do. We’ve been told about the importance of prayer and self-examination and confession. We know the importance of being honest with ourselves and with God about the places in our lives where we need forgiveness, where we need to repent and change direction in our thoughts and actions. And, like the father in this story, we often live lives that are a mixed bag of faith, a combination of belief and unbelief. What can we do during Lent so that are lives testify more to belief in God than unbelief? How will we live in a way that sets us apart from those who don’t know Jesus? We are looking forward to the joy of Easter, and yet if we don’t do the work of Lent, what will it really mean? We want the miracle of the resurrected Christ to change our lives, to transform us, to make us new, but if we don’t use this Lenten time to recognize how much we need a Savior in our lives, we’re just play-acting.

I really hope that Jesus would never respond to us with the same frustration as he responds to the disciples in this passage. But we know better than that, don’t we? Because all too often we are like the disciples – beset by failure, too ready to engage in arguments, undisciplined in their prayer life, more eager to learn techniques and quick fixes than to take the time to walk closely with God. And all the while, there are sick people around us who need help.

I think Jesus was ultimately frustrated because he really thought he was getting through to these guys. After almost three years together, he hoped that they were finally ready to carry on this ministry after he was gone. And yet, even as he approaches the cross, his disciples still don’t get it. Do we? I don’t know. We’re trying, aren’t we? This faith stuff is hard. It takes time and effort. As do most things of value. Our time is short, you know. Easter is coming. Will we be ready? Or will we just play-act our way through Lent? “What a generation! No sense of God!” I believe, Lord. Help my unbelief.

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