Tuesday, October 31, 2006

“Vulnerable Messiah”

Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45[1]

We don’t like vulnerability, not in our dog-eat-dog world where it seems so often that you have to fight to survive. Vulnerability reminds us of two facts that we would rather avoid: other people often have the power to take advantage of us, and we are powerless to do anything about it.

Yet vulnerability is a part of what it means to be human. As C. S. Lewis observed, “to love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one …. Wrap it carefully around with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; …. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.”[2]

The last thing anyone in the First Century was looking for was a vulnerable Messiah. They expected a conquering hero to come riding in on a stallion—the ancient equivalent of an armored vehicle like a Humvee. They expected the Messiah to be a powerful warrior who would overthrow their enemies and give them back the “good old days.”

But the New Testament insists that Jesus came not as a warrior but as a servant. Jesus came to hope to the hopeless, to bring freedom to captives, to bring healing to those who were “inoperable”, to give acceptance to outcasts, and to bring God to the godless.[3]

We catch a glimpse of Jesus’ vulnerability in the book Hebrews: “while Jesus was on earth, he begged God with loud crying and tears to save him” (Heb. 5:7, CEV). It sounds like Jesus’ experience in the garden of Gethsemane. After his Last Supper with the disciples, he went out of the city to the garden to pray. He took Peter, James, and John with them and said, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me” (Matt. 26:38).

There, the Gospels tell us that Jesus prayed fervently, asking God to take away the suffering he was facing. Some ancient versions of Luke’s Gospel add, “in his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground” (Lk. 22:44). It suggests that Jesus was so anguished about what lay ahead that he was drenched with sweat!

Of course, that is only one episode from Jesus’ life—a life that was lived under the motto, “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk. 10:45). And because he came as a vulnerable Messiah who called into question the hypocrisy of a religion that promised blessing and security and prosperity, they crucified him.

Why would anybody have followed a crucified Messiah? As Paul explained (1 Cor. 1:23), a Savior who was lynched like a common criminal was utterly foolish to the civilized world. And to Jewish people it was nothing short of blasphemy to claim that one who was accursed enough to be strung up was in fact God’s anointed one.[4]

Why would anybody follow a Messiah who was vulnerable enough to be executed? We spend our time running after things like safety, happiness, and status. How can a crucified Messiah possibly help with that? We hedge everything in our lives, from redundant computer systems to insurance up to the neck—all to stave off the inevitable losses of life. How does that fit with faith in a Messiah who calls us to lose our lives?

We follow a vulnerable Messiah because he reveals to us a vulnerable God. [5] As one contemporary prophet puts it, “Only those who stand beneath the cross and watch him suffer and die will be convinced that at the heart of reality is One who enters into suffering.”[6] For most of our lives we have revered and feared a God who was so exalted as to be remote, so supreme as to be incapable of personal relationships, so all-powerful as to be untouched by our heartaches and struggles.[7] But in Jesus, the vulnerable Messiah, we see the God who “has moved into … our guilt, our alienation, our suffering, our death”[8] and has overcome them all!

God’s vulnerability doesn’t mean that God is not majestic or powerful. God is exalted, but not remote! God is supreme, but that does not stop God from being supremely capable of personal relationships![9] God is all-powerful, but God is also deeply touched by our struggles.[10] God is not separated from us, but loves us so completely that God is intimately involved with every aspect of our lives.[11] God is both majestic and merciful.

[1] A Sermon preached 10/22/06 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson TX.

[2] C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves, 121.

[3] Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, 242-45, 248, 276.

[4] F. F. Bruce, Paul, Apostle of the Heart Set Free, 70-71

[5] William C. Placher, Narratives of a Vulnerable God, 15, 17-19; cf. Clark Pinnock, Most Moved Mover: A Theology of God’s Openness, 27, 58, 81-2, 88-92, 94.

[6] Bishop Kenneth L. Carder, “Why Follow a Crucified Christ?” The Christian CenturyAugust 27, 1997:753, accessed at http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=655.

[7] Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of God, 139-41, 183-84, 187, 242-43.

[8] Carder, “Why Follow?”

[9] Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 75, 96, 127, 157, 178, 209-212.

[10] Moltmann, Crucified God, 246-47, 277. Moltmann, Trinity, 38-39, 57, 60.

[11] Cf. Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 57.

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