Seriously, Who is this Guy? [Matthew 21]
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Seriously, Who Is This Guy? 04.10.2022
Scot McKnight is a professor at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary. He teaches a lot of different classes, but he tells a story about one class in particular. At the seminary where he teaches, he teaches a class on Jesus of Nazareth. And every semester, on the opening day of the class, Scot gives out a standardized psychological test. There are two parts, and the results are amazing. The first part of the test is about Jesus. It asks students to imagine Jesus’ personality. It asks questions like, “Does Jesus prefer to go his own way rather than act by the rules?” or “Is he a worrier?” It has the students give a comprehensive picture of what they imagine Jesus’ personality is like. The second part of the test asks the same questions to the students, but instead of “is Jesus a worrier?” it asks, “Are YOU a worrier?” The second part of the test is aimed at their own personal psychological make up. The test is not about right or wrong answers, and it’s not about trying to understand Jesus. Instead, if given to enough people, the test will reveal that most of us think Jesus is a lot like us. Introverts tend to answer that Jesus is introverted, and on the basis of the same questions, extroverts think Jesus is extroverted. What Scot McKnight exposed in his seminary class is that humans have a habit of crafting God in their own image. We are drawn to the practice of creating a convenient God, who just so happens to agree with us on all the things we use to shape our lives.
As so many of you know, today is Palm Sunday. Every year we take the Sunday before Easter and we tell the story of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. You know, when I was kid one of my absolute favorite movies was Shrek – which was kind of an irreverent fairy tale parody type movie. And at one point, Shrek and Donkey (our two heroes) are walking on their epic journey and they’re chatting. Shrek says, “Ogres are like onions.” Donkey responds, “They stink?” Yes! No. And then they launch into this hilarious back and forth which finishes, “Layers! Onions have layers. Ogres have layers.” And one of the core messages there is that when you go deeper, you’ll find that there’s more than meets the eye. And I think this applies to how we see Jesus. For so many of us, if we keep our faith superficial – we end up creating a God who looks an awful lot like the person we see in the mirror, like the students in Scot McKnight’s class. But if we peel the layers of the story, we can discover the truth of the historical Jesus, the actual son of God who came and rode on a donkey all those years ago. And what I want to show you today is that the truth of who Jesus is will transform how you look at faith.
So we dive into Matthew 21, and like I said – you’re probably familiar with pieces of this story. [read v.1-5]. So Jesus gives the disciples some instructions, go grab me a donkey. And the writer comments, “this happened to fulfill a prophecy.” Then it continues, [read v.6-9]. I love the picture. Jesus riding in on a humble donkey, people waving branches and spreading their cloaks under his feet shouting with a loud voice “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” Beautiful Picture, and out of it rises a single question. [read v.10-11] Who is this guy? And then they say, “Oh that’s Jesus from Nazareth, and they call him a “prophet.” Is that what Jesus was? A prophet? To find the real answer, we need to peel the layers of the onion.
The story starts out and Jesus tells his disciples to go get a donkey. And considering that this guy has walked literally everywhere for years – it’s sort of an odd request, but verse four peels the onion. It says, [read v.4]. So, hundreds of years before Jesus was born there was a guy who was a prophet, his name was Zechariah, and he said these words. [read v.5]. Now, here’s the crazy part. The bible is not just one big book. The bible is actually a collection of 66 different books, that was put together over literally thousands of years. There is no other text like it in the whole world. So this prophecy about a king riding on a donkey – it came something like four hundred years before Jesus, but it’s in the same book. We can go check the prophecy. Zechariah chapter 9, verse 9 says, [read it]. That was written literally centuries before Jesus walked the streets of Jerusalem. And it keeps going, [read v.10]. The donkey is not just a cute anecdote of the story, it’s an identifier. It’s how we will identify the King, the one who brings salvation to the world, and speak peace to the nations. Jesus fulfills the prophecy, which means that Jesus is the king.
Back in Matthew, Jesus rides in on the donkey, and the people welcome him with shouts of praise. This is probably the best known part of the story – they wave palm branches and lay down cloaks. But verse 9 gives us the next layer of the onion. It says, [read v.9]. What you might not realize is that that thing they are saying? That thing is a direct quote from the Old Testament. In the book of Psalms, written in the time of King David, even older than Zechariah. Zechariah was 500 years before, King David was a THOUSAND years before Jesus. Psalm 118, verse 26, well you know what? Let me back up a bit to give you some context. Verse 20 says, [read v.20-26]. Oh no! Did you hear it? I was quoting what the people shouted to Jesus, I backed up a couple verses to give you a framework and we found another onion layer. Did you hear a familiar phrase in the Psalm? Something Jesus uses to describe himself? Verse 22, [read it]. If you don’t know, if you’ve never heard that before. Those words are very important, Jesus uses those exact words to describe himself in the same chapter where he enters Jerusalem. Matthew chapter 21, verse 42, Jesus calls himself the stone which the builders rejected.
Alright, at this point it’s getting a little confusing. I’ve got onion layers all over my cutting board and no idea what it means. So let’s step back for a second. My goal here is not to say, “hey, look how cool it is that this part of the bible references that part of the bible, and there’s all these internal connections.” That’s not my goal here. Here, let me show you something. This is a picture of all the internal connections within the bible. This guy Chris Harrison and a Pastor named Christoph Romhild got together back in 2007. They wanted to put together a dataset of cross references in the bible. What you see on the screen is every book of the bible, with Genesis down in the bottom left, and Revelation in the bottom right. The rainbow arch is made up of 63,779 cross references that can be found throughout the text. Jordan Peterson used this graphic to describe the bible as the world’s only “hyperlinked book.” What I’m trying to show you with all of this is that the bible is a single story, written over thousands of years designed with one purpose: to introduce you to Jesus. Holy Week, when Jesus enters Jerusalem, is the moment when Jesus’ historical, physical life and his teachings connect with the history and the grander divine story that God is telling of our salvation. Jesus was a real, historical human being who lived and sweat and ate and got thirsty and bled, but he was also the fulfillment of ancient prophecy, the long awaited messiah, son of God, King of Kings who would bring salvation to God’s people. Just like an ogre with his sidekick donkey, Jesus had layers too.
The good news for us today is that Jesus is real. And I don’t just mean that he was a historical character long ago, what I mean is that the story is true. Jesus is real. He really is the messiah, the son of God and savior of the world. He’s not some nebulous heavenly dress up doll that we get to put little outfits on and get him to look like whatever we want. He’s an actual person, with a well formed and stable identity. Jesus is real, which means that we don’t transform him to be like us. God is the one who does the transforming. We are transformed to be like Jesus, because Jesus is real. The incarnation demands contextualization. His historical reality keep us from changing him into the latest religious fad. He’s not going to fit our picture. He is the same yesterday, today and forever.
Sometimes I talk with folks about God or Jesus, and I’ll say something from the bible and they’ll respond and say, “well, MY Jesus would never do that.” Or I’ll be talking about something God says and they’ll say, “I wouldn’t worship a God like THAT.” There’s a very real sense in which people think that who Jesus is is up to us. Like we get a vote on what Jesus said or taught. We have this urge to craft Jesus to be what we want him to be. But that doesn’t make any sense if he was a real person! And this isn’t new, right? This is exactly what the disciples did. They wanted Jesus to be this conquering hero – entering Jerusalem in a warrior’s chariot. The disciples thought Jesus was running for president and they were all going to serve on the cabinet. He was supposed to overthrow their oppressors and lead a military victory over their enemies! They tried to fashion Jesus into what THEY assumed the messiah would look like. But Jesus is real. Which means Jesus is the source, not the subject, of transformation. We don’t get to personalize God like he’s a starbuck’s coffee order, there is no “your Jesus” that’s different than someone else’s Jesus, there is only THE Jesus, the real person. And that is SUCH amazing good news, because if we get to make up Jesus in our heads – then he is nothing. The atheists are right, and he’s just a made up opiate of the masses meant to appease us and make us happy. But if Jesus is real. Then salvation is real. And if the story is true, then hope is possible.
And all of that’s very lovely – but now we need to ask the question: how does it apply to our lives? Why does it matter? Well, the first application is about our posture. What I want you to work on this week is: Be the clay, not the potter. We have to make sure we’re in the right seat for worship. God is the potter, and we are the clay. We don’t “sculpt” Jesus, we discover him. He’s a real person, found on every page of this story, and if we get our posture right it will deepen your worship. If you are the clay, transformation is possible. Here, let me give you an example. When I started out as a Pastor, I used the pulpit like a soap box. I would start out my week and I had something I wanted to say. In my arrogance, I thought to myself, “I am the brilliant, deep and wise religious leader, and I know what people need to hear.” And then each week I would go diving into the bible looking for a couple verses here and there to support what I want to say. And here’s what I learned – when you do it that way, you can get the bible to say ANYTHING you want. I took my position that I already had solidified in my heart and in my mind, and then I went looking for tidbits that would support me and my brilliance. Here’s the problem though. After about a year or so, I started to run out of stuff to say. I only had so many clever teachings that I could make up in my own head. And so eventually, and I don’t remember when exactly it was, but eventually I got busy with Pastor stuff, and there was a week when I couldn’t think of a fresh teaching, so in desperation, I reversed the roles. I grabbed a scripture and said, “okay, rather than deciding ahead of time what I WANT the scripture to say – what if I START with the text? What if I start by asking “what can the bible teach ME?”? How could God, through this book, transform ME? When I stopped telling the bible what to say, and I started opening my ears and my heart to find out what God might be telling ME – it radically shifted my relationship with God. It was a HUGE shift from pretending to be the potter to accepting my role as clay, and from that moment forward I have grown so much closer to God. We don’t read the scriptures looking for tidbits to sculpt into OUR narrative. We read the bible to discover Jesus. Be the clay, not the potter and you will discover new depths of who God is.
Once we’ve got the posture correct, and we’re sitting in the right place in worship – we tell God, “I’m the clay, you’re the potter” once we’ve got that down, the next step is to let the teachings, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ change who you are. Jesus is real. A life lived in the presence of God IS possible. Think about what the disciples learned when Jesus did not ride in on a war horse. Think about how challenging it must have been for them to watch him go into the synagogue and flip tables, or for him to get arrested and nailed to a cross. The historical presence of Jesus violates our ability to craft God into whatever we want him to be. Jesus is not here to be shaped by you, you are here to be shaped by Jesus. The real story of what Jesus taught and who Jesus is shocks us and changes our hearts if we are willing to keep our eyes open and look at what it actually is instead of trying to get it to fit some picture we made up in our head. Jesus may not agree with you on all the things you want. The real guy might challenge you, push you to holiness, shock you with his example. Once you have the right posture for approaching Jesus, I want you to turn to your bible with your mind open for learning and your heart open for transformation.
Ogres are like onions, and humans have a habit of crafting a Jesus that looks an awful lot like us. But Jesus is a real person. He really is the son of God, savior of the world and he is ready to work a transformation in your heart. And so I’ll leave you with this. May you give up trying to sculpt Jesus as if he was made of clay. May you discover the real Jesus, and you be the clay, let God be the potter. May you open your heart and let the life, death, resurrection and love of your savior get to work in your life. Amen.