Beware the Jesus Bobblehead

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, February 12, 2017
Matthew 5:13-20



Last Sunday, we took a look at verses 1-12 here in Matthew, chapter 5.  It’s what we commonly call The Beatitudes.  The word beatitude comes into our English from the Latin word meaning happy.  In Christian use over these many centuries, beatitude has come to mean the state of “supreme blessedness”.  The original word Matthew used meant “very fortunate”.

So, we get Jesus’ drift:  we have come into a really marvelous state of being in this life.  Nine times, Jesus says, “…blessed are you…blessed are you…blessed are you.”  I presented these beatitudes as a kind of clothing, each blessing as though an article of clothing in which we are dressed as though dressed by Jesus Christ.

To be dressed by Jesus, as we might guess, will mean that we will be differently clothed in contrast to the many ways we might be clothed in this life.  So differently clothed are we as citizens of the kingdom of God that we will encounter misunderstanding and hostility.  Jesus wants us to understand that harsh reality of opposition.  It comes in his final beatitude, in verse 11: “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil nonsense against you falsely on my account.”  It means you’re wearing your Jesus-clothes well.

But, again, what does that look like, to be clothed in Christ?  Well, I have here with me this morning one way of depicting what Jesus looked like, all dressed up in his Jesus-clothes.  This is a Jesus Bobblehead that some well-meaning soul gave to me.  It’s a very Anglo-Saxon, Roman Catholic, depiction of our Palestinian Jewish Lord.

As with other bobblehead versions of famous figures, this Jesus Bobblehead has his little body, with his great big head mounted on a spring, so his head can bob around and back and forth.  It’s really handy when you need some guidance from Jesus.  “Jesus, is my wife the luckiest woman in the world?”  See!  Jesus is bobbing his head up and down: “Yes,” says Jesus Bobblehead, “that is indeed a true statement.”  Oops, no, now he seems to be changing his mind on that question.

The Jesus Bobblehead I really wanted to get is called the Buddy Christ Bobblehead.  It’s based on a movie that I won’t name because I’ve watched it a few times, and I cannot as your interim pastor, recommend it to you.

In this movie that shall not be named, there’s a Catholic Cardinal named Cardinal Glick, based in New Jersey.  Cardinal Glick wants to revive interest in the Catholic Church, so he comes up an outreach campaign called, “Catholicism WOW!”  For Cardinal Glick, the Catholic Church has an image problem; it’s the crucifix.

The crucifix is a symbol commonly associated with Catholicism.  The crucifix presents Jesus crucified on the cross, his face contorted in agony.  Cardinal Glick finds the crucifix is way too depressing.  So, he proposes to replace the crucifix with a new symbol of the faith that he calls, “the Buddy Christ”.

The Cardinal has a news conference to kick off his “Catholicism WOW!” campaign.  Next to the Cardinal is what appears to be a statue covered up with a sheet.  With a dramatic flourish, the Cardinal  pulls off the sheet revealing the life-size sculpture of “the Buddy Christ”.

Buddy Christ is based on the famous painting, The Sacred Heart of Christ.  I’m sure you’d recognize if you saw it.  It’s your iconic, handsome Caucasian Jesus, with thick long hair flowing down around his shoulders, an immaculately trimmed beard, and a bright red heart that seems to glowing out his chest.

Buddy Christ has got this wide, toothy grin.  He’s wearing this big red heart medallion on a pretty red sash across his chest. He’s winking; he’s pointing at you with one hand, while giving you the “thumbs up” sign with his other hand…he’s everybody’s Buddy, Christ.  You can get Buddy Christ’s in a fairly expensive bobblehead edition.

Jesus Bobbleheads are fun.  They’re always smiling, always bobbing, always just what they are, a big, empty-headed – and, some would say, sacrilegious – depiction of our Lord.  Jesus Bobbleheads in many forms are always tempting alternatives to the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount.  This world and even many preachers in this world offer to you and to me many versions of Jesus other than the Jesus who was and who is and who is to come, the Jesus who calls out, “blessed are you destitute ones, you grieving ones, you starving, thirsting ones…you are the blessed ones, for to you belongs the Kingdom of Heaven.

Jesus says, you are blessed, for in your need, you have sought and found what only, finally, is real:  purity of heart, mercifulness, humility, genuine peace of spirit that compels you to be a witness for peace, so much so, you willingly suffer for that peace you’ve found.  That’s why you’re harassed and persecuted.

Of these people and of us, Jesus says, you have come to the kingdom of God.  But, having once found our way, desperate, starving, thirsting, to our Lord, having been clothed in the character and qualities of our Lord, have we continued to be so clothed, have we continued to fill our closets only with the garments of Christ, or have we returned so quickly to the rags of this world?

Jesus warned his listeners there with him on that day, as Jesus warns us even in this day, we can lose that spice, we can dim the light, we can trade truth for fakery, we can walk in an apparent righteousness which is no righteousness in reality.

Or, to use my little sermon gimmick this morning, we can trade away the genuine Jesus for this more convenient and agreeable, bobblehead rendition of our Lord, and often at great sacrifice.  Our flawed and even blasphemous image of God can be very demanding and rigorous.

Jesus cautions his listeners about the most demanding, rigorous representatives of God on earth imaginable:  the Pharisees and the Scribes.  But, says Jesus in verse 20, they offer distorted images of God:  “For I tell you for a fact:  unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you’re doomed!  You will never see the inside of the kingdom of heaven.”

Well, the people must have heard Jesus say that and thought to themselves, “that can’t be right!”  “The scribes and the Pharisees know the Scriptures backwards and forwards!  The scribes and the Pharisees are the epitomes of godly righteousness!”  “Good heavens!  If that’s what it takes to please God, then we might as well just give up now!”

We need spiritual guidance; we need spiritual mentors.  Our guides and our mentors must help us to discern the leading of our real Guide and Mentor who is the Spirit of Christ, rather than themselves.

As a young man in my early twenties, I went through something of a personal spiritual revival.  Very eager to prove my worthiness of God’s favor, I thought I should get me down to our church every Tuesday evening for personal visitation.

If you’re unfamiliar with that weekly tradition, usually on a Monday evening or a Tuesday evening, a tiny clutch of church members would meet at the church building around 6:30, divvy up names and addresses of people to visit that night.  These might be recent visitors to church services or names submitted by church members of their neighbors and relatives whom they thought needed a visit.  So, we’d pair up, take two or three addresses to hit that night, say a prayer, and off we’d go.

Since I was a novice visitor, they assigned me to very experienced weekly visitor, a much older church member who’d been visiting folks on Tuesday night visitation for decades.  We’ll call him “Bob”; honestly, I don’t recall Bob’s real name.

So, Bob drove us to the first home.  We sat there in Bob’s car, reviewed the names and other information we had, said another quick prayer, and off we went up the sidewalk with Bob in the lead and me trailing putting on a brave front, knowing I was doing the right thing although dreading what lay ahead.

Lady comes to the door, welcomes us in to her living room, gathers her family there on the couch with her.  Bob sits in a chair across the room from where I take a chair.  Bob reintroduces us, “Hi, I’m Bob and this is Gary and we’re from Bon Air Church.  We were given your names because a concerned friend thought you might like to know more about our church and especially that you might want to know a little more about Jesus.”

Then, Bob looks across the room at me and smiles real big and says, “And Gary now would like tell just why he loves the Lord.”  Just like!  With no warning, Bob throws me into the deep end of the witnessing pool and expects me to put out this marvelous testimony of my faith!

“I don’t know, Bob…can’t really say off the top of my head exactly why I love the Lord.  You know, if you’d given me a little warning maybe I could come up with something to save these poor folks from their wretched spiritual state, but, no, Bob, you didn’t show me that simple courtesy, did you?”

Of course, I didn’t really say that.  In fact, knowing myself, in my admiration of Bob as such an advanced Christian witness, I’m sure that I didn’t allow myself even an inkling of reproach toward Bob.

But, I had a pretty good idea of how Bob would answer that question, so I started saying what I thought Bob would say.  I gave a pretty good Bob-witness, but I sure didn’t give a real Gary-witness as I sat there in the witness chair that night.

See how the little Jesus Bobblehead started getting shaped in me?  Not trusting that I was clothed in Christ, I started clothing myself in Bob.  I began taking on a form of faith, borrowing from this person, Bob, and other persons in their faith that all looked pretty much like a Bob sort of faith.

Somehow, I couldn’t believe that Jesus would really want me to say what was actually true:  something about how spiritually uncertain I was, how I had become, sad, confused, desperate to please Jesus and not really knowing how to do that.  How these folks here at Bon Air really seem to know what they’re doing, and they really seem to love the Lord, and they actually seem to really love me, too.  So, I just told the Lord I’ll do my best to serve you and that’s why I’m out here in your home tonight with Bob.  “And, now, back over to you, Bob!”

The scribes and Pharisees had a pretty well-set depiction of God which they expected everyone else to hold to.  The scribes and the Pharisees were all about knowing and keeping the entirety of the Hebrew Bible, “the Law and the Prophets” as Jesus sums up the Hebrew Bible there in verse 17.  And, to tell you the truth, Jesus continues on there in verse 17 down through verse 19, that’s what I’m all about, too:  I’m all about knowing and keeping the entirety of the Hebrew Bible, every last dot and dash of it, and you had better be about that, too, says Jesus to his horrified listeners.

What in the world were they to do now?  The scribes and the Pharisees…these were the guys who knew how to do that!  If we can’t look to the scribes and the Pharisees to show us what it means to know and to keep every last little bit of the Law and the Prophets, then what are we to do?  Who will show us what that means?

Well, if the scribes and Pharisees won’t do it for us in the way that pleases God, then I’m pretty sure a Jesus Bobblehead of anyone’s design and construction won’t do the trick either.

Nothing I’m saying diminishes the need for you and for me to know this book.  In fact, Jesus directs a pretty severe warning to those of us who dare preach and teach among God’s people.  Right there in verse 19—Jesus includes us all, of course–but since we preachers and teachers and evangelists and other promoters of the Christian faith present ourselves as one’s who know a thing or two about God, well, we’ve got an extra responsibility, don’t we?

So, please hear me quite clearly this morning:  you yourself need to read and to grapple with the pages of this book, from Genesis on through to Revelation, and the maps in the back, too.  Out of the abundance of that study, if you do it the Jesus-way, the Spirit of God will be forming within you the fullness of Jesus because only the Spirit of God can do that in you.

It is an adventure of soul-formation.  It is a journey along which we will often stop and rest for a while, where we will pitch our tents and sometimes where we will stop and raise a religious fortress.  But, don’t be surprised if one day, the Spirit of the Living Christ comes chipping away, perhaps even sledge-hammering our way at our fortress doors.

That’s why Jesus was so critical of the scribes and the Pharisees…they were very much into building religious fortresses, religious forts constructed of layers of their Scriptures stacked one atop the others, so much so, they could no longer here the voice of God calling to them from on the other side of the wall they’d built.

Of course, there’s the other pitfall:  Jesus warned us about the scribes and Pharisees, so we end up  all our time reacting to their excesses and their foibles of the faith as played out among us Christians.

The Arctic Monkeys is a British band…isn’t that a great name for a band?  The Arctic Monkeys’ first big album is entitled, “Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not”.

“Whatever People are Saying a Christian Is, That’s What I’m Not.”  Perhaps the loudest, most public personifications of our Christian faith are absolutely not what you are in your personal Christian faith.  Fair enough.  But, then, who are you in your own faith in Christ?

If those folks there that day had gone away saying, “Praise the Lord, whatever those scribes and Pharisees are, that’s certainly what I am not!”  “Those scribes and Pharisees have totally messed up saying the Law and Prophets have to say about God, so good riddance to the Law and the Prophets.”  Jesus says, Nope, don’t get to do that, my friends.

“My goodness, I sure don’t like what I’ve been taught about all that stuff the Apostle Paul wrote…good riddance to him!”  “I sure don’t buy into all that crazy stuff I’ve heard people preach from the Book of Revelation…good riddance to those nutty chapters of the Bible.”

“That whole blood bath theology in the Old Testament and that whole blood bath theology in the New Testament…glad that’s not what I believe.”

No, says Jesus.  I have not come to lead you away from the resources of biblical faith…Jesus says, I have come to fulfill those resources…you’ve got to know what it is, then, that I have come to fulfill.

You are the salt of the earth….you are the light of the world….Let [them] see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”  (verses 13-16)

Let’s let Jesus say who we are and what these good works are all about.  We can trust Jesus on that subject.  That’s why Jesus, one day, climbed up on this mountain, and gathered all his disciples around him, and said, “Here’s how you do it.”

So, allow the Spirit of the Living Christ to make you a little salty.  Let the light of God’s kingdom community shine brightly here, in and through this church, and in and through you.  Believe me, nobody’s going to confuse you with being just another Jesus Bobblehead out there wagging its head this way and that way.  But, maybe, just maybe, they will see something of the genuine Christ in you…and that is so worth all the risk.