The drive (Hebrews 5.1-10)

Hebrews 5.1-10
“The Drive”
Ordinary 29B/October 21, 2018
Eastminster United Presbyterian Church
Tom James
For about a year and a half, I used to travel up and down Interstate 75 several times a week between my home in Cincinnati, Ohio and the church I was serving as interim pastor in Dayton. It was an incredibly boring drive—a little over an hour but it often seemed like at least two or three.  One of the few highlights of the trip was a megachurch visible from the freeway, off to the right as I was driving north, just about exactly in the middle of nowhere.  The church building itself wasn’t much to look at, but in front of it, there was a truly enormous structure: a statue of Jesus at the edge of an artificial pond. I looked as if he were rising out of the waters of baptism, with his hands lifted high and a smile of victory on his face.
We locals called him “touchdown Jesus.”
I often mused over the meaning of this structure as I drove to church, but more often I wondered about the people who had made it. What were they trying to say about Jesus with this structure? What did they expect from this one who loomed over the freeway?  Obviously, this wasn’t a crucifix, and I assumed the choice of a smiling and victorious Jesus instead of a head-bowed, suffering one was deliberate and meant something, but what could it be? I never got very far toward answering these questions, but I remember being at a dinner party one evening and being asked by a Jewish woman about touchdown Jesus.  She was vaguely worried about him, I think, maybe scared of him, and it made me realize that a towering figure of Jesus with a broad smile on his face can recall a painfully exclusive Christian triumphalism as much as it can convey the joy of worship.
Now, it would be uncharitable for me to assume that these Christians along I-75 were trying to intimidate or exclude with their touchdown Jesus.  But I cannot help but think that it pointed to a somewhat superhuman and unreal picture of Jesus that circulates in our culture: a Jesus that towers above human limitations, a Jesus that is joyful and happy all the time, a Jesus who doesn’t suffer, a Jesus who is always nice, always confident, always a success.  A CEO Jesus, as one recent book title puts it—a Jesus who appeals to the values of a consumer-oriented culture.  Come to think of it, a consumable Jesus; a marketable Jesus.
In comparison with this, our passage from Hebrews this morning gives us a somewhat deflationary picture of Jesus, a Jesus who commands less attention and who is less easily marketed than touchdown Jesus.  In his saving ministry as recounted here, Jesus is compared to priests in the ancient Hebrew tradition, ordinary people who had to struggle with the same human weakness as all of us do.  There is a remarkable picture of priesthood in these verses, in fact.  The ancient Hebrew priest was not like a magician who waved his hands and said some mysterious words that harnessed the power of God.  Now, of course, that image of the priest would be easy to market!  People understandably flock to faith healers and other religious magicians: after all, who wouldn’t want access to instant answers to prayer?  Who wouldn’t want certainties and assured outcomes, even if the costs were high? But the ancient Hebrew priest wasn’t that sort—he really couldn’t offer that product. Rather, he was a person who struggled with his people; he was a person who doubted; he was someone who got angry and confused, who grew impatient and who at times blasphemed and lashed out at people and at God.  The priest was a human being, just a human being with no special powers.  The power of priesthood, in fact, was precisely in being just a human being, because it was the fact that he offered prayers as a person who was not exempt from suffering and sin, the fact that had to take more than words to the altar but had to take his very self and place it among the flames of cleansing, that made him a worthy priest.
Something else that is very much in vogue these days—marketable, even—is creativity. Now, I have to admit that I’m kind of a sucker for creativity. I wrote my doctoral thesis on a theologian who identified God with creativity, and so I have sustained an interest in it and have even read a few books about it. What I’ve learned so far, from books, but more importantly from my own experience, is that creativity is not what we may initially imagine when we hear the word. It isn’t something that comes automatically. It isn’t something that flows without thought from us, or without preparation.  I’ve admired athletes, especially basketball players, who are known for being creative in their play, but watching them do their work under the bright lights in the space of just a few ticks of a clock conceals the fact that those magical moves on the court have been rehearsed thousands of time in dark and lonely gyms, that the impetus to learn them was forged in the furnace of numerous failures, defeats, and pain.  Their creativity was not a quick, effortless outpouring:  it was a process, a long, hard, slog filled with pain and doubt.
What do we want from Jesus? What do we expect from him?  I’m convinced that we Americans have a hard time coming to terms with the Jesus of Scripture, in part because we are a people who are, in many ways, in the thrall of magic.  We watch television commercials filled with beautiful people with perfect teeth, we see images of streets filled with new and shiny cars and lined with beautiful homes with manicured lawns. If we don’t have that shiny, happy life now, we think that, somehow, we almost certainly will, as if by birthright: it’s part of the middle-class myth of endless mobility.  Everything is fixable; everything is makeable, achievable. 
I remember feeling like I had seen touchdown Jesus before as I drove up and down I-75 during those months.  He looked strangely familiar, for all his hyped up, oversized and larger than life charisma. Over time it came to me—his face was familiar to me because it was the face of all the action figures and movie stars and Disney characters that have flooded my world and framed my expectations since childhood, those magical characters who were all but frozen in their grandiosity, whose march upward through adversity was as sure and as doubtless as a Hollywood script.
And then I realized that touchdown Jesus was not, in fact, a humorous interruption in the middle of otherwise boring scenery. He actually fits in perfectly well with the featureless landscape. Touchdown Jesus is boring, at the of the day. He gives us a picture of a shiny, happy Jesus that just projects our own fantasies. Touchdown Jesus has the same face as any face you might see in Hollywood or on TV commercials or on someone’s carefully curated Facebook page—that empty smile that invites us to forget real life and believe the marketable lie that the good life is always happy, always a success.
The Bible takes us on a different journey.  The Jesus we find in Scripture is a creative Jesus, but not like the creativity of a magician or the mythic hero or the successful CEO. The creativity of Jesus perfects the creativity of the ordinary faithful human being, depicted here as a priest who stands humbly before God and humanity. By offering himself, by placing himself in the purifying fire in the service of God’s kingdom rather than human fantasies, Jesus creates a pathway through doubts and anxieties and pain and struggle and all those human things that have nothing in common with Hollywood because they aren’t mere foreground to some fantastic ending.  The creativity of Jesus creates by bringing into being a people who can find joy in ordinary human life, in life that culminates in a cross or at the altar. It is a creativity that creates by restoring people to the truly human, only now with the faith and the courage to accept it.
Well, but even though this Jesus is not a profitable commodity, this is a Jesus who can be consumed. In word and in sacrament he offers himself to us.  He’s here for us, for our benefit. But there’s this difference from the products on offer in a consumer-oriented culture. Someone once said that the fast food burger is the perfect capitalist product: the more you eat, the less you’re satisfied. In other words, we can consume and consume and never be fulfilled—instead, we only grow emptier, as empty as the fake smiles of the ads that pop up on our screens. But, we cannot consume this Jesus without becoming something different than we are. This Jesus is not a commodity to be owned, nor to be incorporated within our bodies or our lives in such a way that we can go on as before, only a little better. In lifting himself up to the altar of Golgotha to be consumed, accepting the cup of his destiny from God, Jesus created a new kind humanity; he unleashed a new way of being in the world.

For us, perhaps it is a matter of being simply sane, simply human, free from magical illusions and endless ambitions and expectations, and able to find joy in our limited, life-sized possibilities.  This is a humanity that we take in and take on as we listen to the word, as we commune at the table, as we are sent into the world as ordinary people, making friends and loving our families and serving our neighbors and living our lives.  Now, this is no I-75, no numbing wasteland loomed over by unrealistic fantasies.  This is a path with ups and downs and twists and turns—the journey of a real life.  There’s much to see as we travel this road, and much to do.  Let’s take the drive. I’m betting we’ll see the real Jesus along the way. In the name of God, our creator and redeemer. Amen.
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