Fifth Sunday of Lent
March 22, 2015
Having fought his way into power against the likes of Mark Anthony and Cleopatra, Caesar Augustus ruled the Roman Empire. The power of his victorious army, though, was not enough.
After gaining power by force in a bitterly fought civil war, Augustus was aware that he could easily lose it again. He was prepared to use any tool at his disposal to strengthen his claim to the imperial throne and thereby make it harder for his enemies to overthrow him.
He chose the power of religion. The Emperor of Rome was already the most powerful man on earth, but this wasn’t enough. Augustus wanted a piece of heaven too: he was determined that his people would see him as their supreme spiritual leader.
Roman religion had many gods and spirits and Augustus wanted to join their number as a god himself. Early in his reign, Halley’s Comet passed over Rome. Augustus claimed it was the spirit of Julius Caesar, the first Roman Empower entering heaven. If Caesar was a god then, as his heir, Augustus was the son of a god and he made sure that everybody knew it.
As son of god, Augustus re-established traditional social rules and religious rituals, sacrificing animals to Rome’s gods. In 12 AD he made himself Pontifex Maximus, the chief priest of Rome and head of the Collegium Pontificum, the highest priests in the land. Today – this same Latin name is used by the Pope as the Chief priest of Rome.
At his death, Augustus, the ‘son of a god’, was himself declared a god. His strategy had worked.
When Jesus was born in 4 BC it was the census of Caesar Augustus, the son of god, ruling over the Roman who beaconed Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. For most of Jesus’ life Caesar Augustus ruled in Rome as the son of god – all the while, in a simple, forgettable village in Galilee far from Rome - the true, the authentic, the only begotten Son of God lived humbly and simply as a carpenter waiting for the moment to arrive to begin God’s mission in the world.
The day arrived when Jesus was about 30 years old. We don’t know how he knew the starting date – but all 4 Gospels mark the beginning of Jesus’ ministry with his arrival at the bottom of the world – in the Judean wilderness, just north of the dead sea – for his baptism by John.
In this delta region where the Jordan River flows through this deep cut in the earth, John the baptism welcomes his cousin, Jesus with humility and awareness. ““I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me,” John tells Jesus.
Humbly, the man who knew no sin, Jesus submits himself to baptism. As Jesus comes out of the water, we get a glimpse of his true identity. Jesus is more than Jesus of Nazareth and more than a carpenter and even more than Mary’s Son. “Suddenly,” Matthew records, ”the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved,[a] with whom I am well pleased.”
The Gospel of John records this reaction from John the Baptist: “I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”
We have seen many ways that individuals have answered the question Jesus lays out before his disciples: Who do you say I am.
• The crowds called Jesus: Jesus of Nazareth
• The disciples called Jesus: Rabbi
• A few risked their lives to call Jesus: Messiah
• Jesus called himself: Son of Man
• God calls Jesus: Son
It is becoming clear that the titles of Jesus as such are not the decisive factor in understanding him. We should not cling to the titles. Rather, in faith and action we must cling to Jesus himself as the definitive criterion. Jesus is the one who defines the titles rather than the titles define Jesus.
This is especially important when it comes to translating these titles and ideas from biblical times into the outlook and language of our own 21st Century world.
Christians around the world do not to pay with our sufferings, still less with our lives, for Christological titles and predictive, formulas and propositions about Jesus. NO – we do so for Jesus Christ himself and for what he authoritatively represents, the cause of God and humanity.
This is especially true of the title Son of God. This title was not only used by the Caesars of the day like Augustus – it was also used in the Old Testament. At their installation ceremonies, all Israelite kings were installed as the son of Yahweh. The King is adopted as a son. The successor of David was expected to be the son of God.
Now, in the New Testament the title Son of God is applied to Jesus. originally, the title had nothing to do with Jesus’ origin but with his legal and authoritative status.
When I was growing up – I understood the title Son of God as establishing God’s paternity. The Son of God was born to Mary in the manager in Bethlehem. Frankly, this made it very difficult for me to understand Jesus as part of the Trinity. How could Jesus be both God and the Son of God? Maybe, you have wondered this too?
The paternity of Jesus as the Son of God is not how those who originally heard or used the title understood Jesus. The title Son of God was a question of function, not nature. Jesus as the son of God was not about genetics – but about divine election and authorization. Jesus as the Son of God means Jesus now rules in place of God over his people.
When Jesus comes to the River from Galilee he doesn't arrive with title or office – he’s a simple carpenter from Galilee – not much different from all of the others coming to be baptized. After his baptism – as the Holy Spirit descends upon him and the Father gives his authority – Jesus in all of his actions and speech becomes the personal messenger, trustee, advocate, confidant, and friend of God. God’s authority rests on him.
Hans Kung the great 20th century German theologian says this in his massive volume called On Being a Christian: “Jesus lived, suffered, and struggled in the light of an ultimate inexplicable experience of God, presence of God, certainty of God, and indeed of a singular unity with God which permitted him to address God as Father. The fact that he was first called “Son” in the community might simply be the reflection which fell on his countenance from the Father-God whom he proclaimed.”
The man Jesus of Nazareth belongs to God. He stands on God’s side. He is subject only to God. And he is once and for all God’s representative. Jesus is God’s Son.
This is the Good News: The Son of God was sent to save the World.
This Good News requires us to make a decision about Jesus. CS Lewis in his book Miracles makes this point forcefully. Lewis says the discrepancy between the depth, sanity and shrewdness of the moral teachings of Jesus and the rampant megalomania which must live behind the authority of the theological teaching of Jesus is great. Unless Jesus is indeed God – then the only other conclusion is he must be mad.
In Mere Christianity Lewis continues this thought. Today - If a man who was merely a man said the sort of things Jesus said he would not be considered a great moral teacher. Instead, he would either be a lunatic – on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the devil of hell or he is who he says he is. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is the son of God or else a madman or something else. We must make the choice.
Jesus was either the son of God sent to save the world or an imposter deserving of crucifixion. The people of his day understood the binary choice precisely. We like to have it both ways.
Phillip Yancey makes the distinction of our decision this way - Unless Jesus was in some way God, we must view the cross as an act of divine cruelty rather than sacrificial love.
This leaves you and me with a choice. We must decide:
Who is Jesus? Do you believe Jesus is God? Do you believe he lived, taught and died on earth with the authority of God? If this is what we believe – hold on to, cling to – then why do we treat the person of Jesus with such little respect and authority in our lives?
I know I do. Too often I treat Jesus as someone I can do without. I forget him and go on my business – taking care of my family, doing my work, playing. If Jesus is God on earth – alive in my life – how can I not make him my most important priority? How can I not give him my life? How can I not submit my life completely to him?
What is his mission? Not only does Jesus require us to decide his identity – his life also requires us to decide his mission in the world? Jesus describes this mission powerfully in John 3:16. Here it again.
“For God so Loved the world, God gave his one and only son, so that (his mission) who ever believes in – holds onto, clings to – will not die but will instead experience true, everlasting, abundant life.”
Jesus – God’s Representative, the Son of God – came into the world to bring you and me and the rest of the world – true, everlasting life. This is his mission. Jesus is more than rabbi, even more than messiah – He is God’s Son.
Will we follow him? Ultimately, everyone on earth must decide what we will do with Jesus. Don’t let that get too far away from us, though. Each one of us here must decide if we will follow Jesus as a disciple of the Son of God. This requires more than lip service to a religion we grew up in.
If Jesus is who he says it his – then following him requires more than religious acts on religious days – it requires our entire lives. It requires us to say “YES” to Jesus in every area of our life.
Jesus requires a decision from us. The consequences of this decision are found in a challenging poem by Sydney Carter called Point. If Jesus is not the Son of God – we would be forced to make the same indictment on God
But God is up in heaven,
And he doesn't do a thing,
With a million angels watching,
And they never move a wing.
It's God they ought to crucify,
Instead of you and me,
I said this to this Carpenter,
A hanging on the tree
The cross is not in vain. When Jesus – the Son of God, God’s chosen representative – died on that cross, God died on that cross so that you and I might live.
This leaves us with one final question What will we do? What will you do with Jesus?
Jesus – the Son of God – not only requires a decision, Jesus the Son of God also offers an invitation. An invitation to a life well lived. An eternal life full of purpose and meaning as God’s hands and feet on earth as it is in heaven.
Here are the facts that lead to God’s invitation for our lives:
1. The Son of God loves you.
At the heart of Jesus – the Son of God – is love. God’s love for you. This the mystery that holds the world together.
All that we see Jesus do as God’s Son in the world – extends out of God’s love for each of us. Out of love Jesus teaches us how to live the way of God in the world. Out of Love Jesus heals the sick, frees the oppressed, and welcomes the sinner. Out of love, Jesus sends his disciples into the world. Out of Love, Jesus enters into Jerusalem. Out of Love, Jesus hangs on the cross. Out of love, Jesus comes back to life. Out of love, Jesus – the Son of God – rules over the world.
2. The Son of God wants you.
You matter to Jesus! You matter to Jesus – the Son of God Jesus doesn't just want you to make a decision about him – Jesus wants you as his. Jesus wants you to love him. Jesus wants your life submitted to him. Jesus wants you to follow his ways in the world. Jesus wants you to say – yes to his life. Jesus wants you to stop playing games with your life. Jesus wants you to give him everything – your pride, your fear, your apathy. Jesus wants you and your family. Jesus wants you to accept him – to receive him – to allow him to be your rescuer. This life is not about propositions or theologies – life is ultimately about Jesus and his desires for you and your life.
For some of us – this might mean it’s time for baptism. For some of us – this might mean it’s time to stop some habits. For some of it this might it’s time to start some new spiritual practices. For some of us, it’s time to join this church’s mission. For some of us – this might mean it’s time to commit your life to a life time of service for Jesus.
3. The Son of God died for you.
All of these invitations are possible because of what Jesus did on the cross. The son of God died for you. Let us never forget the price Jesus paid so that you and I might experience this true and everlasting life. Let us never forget the price paid for our sin. Let us never forget the cost to overcome death.
Jesus loves you. Jesus wants you. Jesus died so that you and I could live. What do you say? How will you respond? How will your life be different?