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Here's Looking at Jesus

Sermon - 3/25/07
Chuck Sturms
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

John 1:1-18

I understand there's a game being played today? [The Ducks were playing Florida in the Elite Eight bracket of the NCAA tournament -- during this worship service!].  I'm not making that up, I just found out.  So, I apologize, because I think I'm in some stiff competition since I've never been to a basketball or football game in my life.  Except my grandchildren--I do attend their games.  So, I may be on another planet, and I need to be on this planet that you folks are on.

I wanted to think about Jesus today, and God, and the Bible, and how big they are -- how big is Jesus?  How big is God?

I'm also giving a slide presentation, which I've never done in my life, a PowerPoint.  I figured it out last week, you're my experiment J.  So I apologize.  I ask for your patience.

I also need to put on a timer, so that I'm aware that there is a game being played J.

I'm a professor [at Northwest Christian College], and professors can do anything in the classroom because they have academic freedom.  I've been at NCC long enough (I haven't been fired yet), but I may never be invited back into the pulpit here.  I promise I'll behave myself -- more or less.  Students will put up with things with professors, but I'm not sure what you'll put up with in the pulpit.  So my sermon is "G" rated, because I'm going to show some slides.  I won't get too creative -- I can do that with my students and they try to get me fired, but my President just smiles.  So hang in there with me.

This morning I want to talk briefly about religious symbols and icons, and how they interact with culture.  A long time ago I read a book by J.B. Phillips called "Your God is Too Small".  I was a new Christian, I think I read it in 1965.  It was provocative -- this man said to me, and I guess I'm saying to us, that our God is too small.  As we wrestle with God, with Jesus, with the Bible, with the church, my hunch is (and I think J.B. Phillips is right) whatever conclusions we draw, they're temporary.  And flawed.  What we start out with as our understanding of the infinite is continually in tension with reality, and continually being revised.  At least that's been my journey.

So, my slides are to start us on this journey to think about 'how big is God?'.  One way to think about God is that God is somewhat like the universe in that its ever-expanding.  I'm told it's not expanding at the speed of light, but almost the speed of light.  So by the time I give you a definition of what the universe is, it's not.

And let me use that for a metaphor to think about God, or I dare even say Jesus, that my understanding and your understanding and our understanding is limited.  And that it's a continual process of wrestling with how we get our brain around the infinite.  How do we think about it?  How do we get our heart around God, who is infinite?

And it's problematic, because when you're "done" figuring it out, you have to start over.  And you do that over and over.

Now, I've only been a Christian since 1965, but most everything I understand about God in 1965 and what I believe now has been tinkered with.  And probably that's been the journey for you also.

I want to show you some slides about the Bible, 4 slides, and then about 30 slides with some pictures of Jesus.  A lot of what I have to say is what you think as you see these pictures.


The above image is John chapter 1, King James version.  That's right off of my mother's Bible.  I know those of you here today may not be able to read it, but it's John chapter 1, verse 1, the prologue "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God".

My mother was satisfied with that Bible her entire life -- she read the King James her entire life.  I was raised on the King James, I memorized the King James.  And by the time I was 20, the "thee's" and the "thou's" were giving me a headache.  So, I started reading more what my church might call more 'liberal' translations, of the Bible.  We got modern translations.  But my Mom never went to that, she always stayed with the King James version.  I honor the King James version, but for most of us, we move on.  And if we stay in the King James version, the static translation of 1611, that's not how we talk.  

Language changes, culture changes.  It's not static.  And for most of our children or grandchildren, when we read to them from the King James version, they kind of roll their eyes and humor us.  We are from another planet, we're old, etc, etc.  Won't you just get with the times.  I know when I show films at school, the first thing the students ask is whether it's from 1990 or 1980, they don't want to watch it.  This is a class on history, you know, this is only 20 or 30 years ago, but I forget that my students are 19.

So how do we live as Christians in a post-modern world that is changing very very rapidly?  By the time I get it, it's obsolete.  I'm told PowerPoint is now obsolete and there's something else, and I don't. . . get it.  Dan told me I can't use chalkboards and overheads here, we don't do that--we use PowerPoint.  OK, so I learned it in a week and after I learned something about PowerPoint, it's already gone, and you have to get something else.

Let's go on to the next slide: 

This is a modern translation, this is the New Revised Standard Version.  When I used the NRSV, when I preached in a Singapore seminary, the president of the college came up to me and said "This is the last time you ever set foot on this campus.  We will never use the RSV, and you won't use it either".  I said "Oh, OK", I apologized.

It's not that 'new', but for some folks it's really new.  Is your religion, or my religion, and how we approach it, a static thing?  Do you pour it in concrete for the rest of your life?  I wish it was so.  How do we hang on to faith?  How do we change with an ever-constant changing world?  I'm forced to change.  I don't want to change, I'd like to have something to hang on to, but it doesn't work that way.

This is the Greek:

If you want something to hang on to, let's go to the Greek New Testament and if you read that, this is John chapter 1, verses 1-18, in the Greek.  Probably you're not impressed.  Who speaks fluent Greek?  Nobody.  But that's what the text says.  We have to put it in another language.

Finally, this is a language I speak:

John chapter 1 goes something like this [Chuck then read the first few verses in Indonesian].  So what?

If you look at the Greek text that I put up, the word "Word" is "Logos", a Greek word.  The writer took the Greek concept and put it into a Jewish concept.  In the above passage, the writer is taking Muslim concepts and putting them into a Christian context.  Because there's no other words in Indonesian except all the known words from Arabic.  If you want to talk about God, you have to use "Allah", there's no other word.  

What I'm saying is that when we read scripture, it has to be culturally contextualized, we say.  It has to be relevant and understood by the people who hear it.  And it varies from place to place.  Even the most conservative Christian would not be against Bible translation.  

When I was a missionary in Indonesia I was working in the largest Muslim country in the world.  If I talked about Christ, Jesus, I have to make it not only in their language but in concepts that they can understand.  So I'm forced, then, to take this stuff that you may be comfortable with and make it understandable.  You go from the known to the unknown, so they can understand.  No one is going to fight that, we support the Bible translators, they're trying to translate the Bible into every language in the world.  That is necessary.

Now, we're comfortable with that.  Let's take the next step:


I took this (above) out of the basement of a Baptist church here in town, in a child's Sunday-school class.  And when you're 5 years old, that'll probably work.  Jesus is good, Jesus is happy.  Jesus is a white man.  Jesus is middle class.  And if you're white, you'll probably buy all of that.  But, it's problematic for a number of reasons.  One is, my hunch is you don't have a picture of this in your house.  It's childish.  And in our journey as Christians we grow, we mature, we change, we are stretched.  And so the picture of Jesus is adequate for our Sunday-school, but it's probably not used in any adult class, and you know the reasons why.  I want, you want, a more mature faith.

Here's a Rembrandt picture:

I hope you can all see it, I apologize for the lighting.  That's a more mature picture, but probably not a picture that appeals to most of us.

Here's a picture of Jesus in Turkey:

The above is a mosaic, very old picture of Jesus.  Is it important that we have a discussion about what Jesus looked like?  Well, yes and no.

Let's look at the next picture:

What did Jesus look like, originally?  This is a picture of a man selling peanuts in Palestine, it was on a web site.  Jesus was not white.  He's just not.  That's a fact.  But in our Sunday-schools, Jesus is white.  Can we do that?  If I preached a white Jesus in Indonesia, it won't work.  It won't go down.  Because my Indonesian brothers and sisters will say "I don't want a white Jesus, I want a Jesus that I can relate to".  In cultural terms, that makes sense to me.  If you were to put an Indonesian Jesus in front of my face forty years ago I would have said I can't relate to that, it doesn't make sense.

So people all over the world related to Jesus in different ways based on their culture and their language and their understanding.  So this Jesus, then, looks different to different people.  I put him as a peanut-seller in Palestine.  This guy (above) is 55 or so, Jesus didn't live that long, but you get the picture -- Jesus was from a Semitic culture.  He didn't speak English, by the way.  Jesus didn't speak English.  He spoke Aramaic, and Hebrew, and Greek.  Jesus never spoke English, OK?

Here's Jesus looking at chickens:

It brings up images of Jesus worrying about his people.  Maybe that's what Jesus looked like, I don't know, we're all guessing.

I like this one, Jesus as CEO, Mr. Businessman J:

Can we do that?  That's outrageous.  Not my Jesus.  But people do it.  People make Jesus into things they want to, that they can relate to.  This looks like Jesus as an insurance man, a CEO.  Can people do that?  Well, they do.  They do in American culture.

For you ladies, Jesus as a professional wrestler:

You can't do that.  Well, you know it doesn't work to say "no" to that, because people do it anyway.  There's a web site on "Wrestlers for Jesus".  There's a cowboy church here.  How can we build fences around Jesus?  How dare we do that.  Of course Jesus wasn't a cowboy or a wrestler.  What's your point?

Here's Jesus as an African-American:


Here's Jesus as Chinese:

When I was showing this picture in a classroom of Chinese students who Fred [Brandenfels] brought in, a student got up and got in front of the class and was angry.  She said there's no way that Jesus can be Chinese, that no Chinese person can be a Christian.  Impossible.  And I started arguing with her in the class, and she just shut down -- there's no way that Jesus can be Chinese!  Jesus, and I'm quoting "is an American".  Discussion over.  She was a 4.0 student, smart, bright.  But could not conceptualize that Jesus was bigger than a white American.

Here's Jesus in India:


Here's Jesus in Korea:


Here's Jesus in the Philippines:


Here's Jesus in Indonesia:

That's a montique, and the montique is similar to Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita and the Ramayana.  Now Jesus looks like a Hindu.  You can't do that.  Well, they do.  And that's how it gets inside their head.

Here's Jesus in Bali:

He's blessing the children.  Jesus is a Balinese now.

Here's Jesus in Sri-Lanka:


Here's Jesus, now in Congo:


Jesus in Ethiopia:


Jesus in Tanzania:


Jesus in Zaire:


So what kind of Jesus do we preach?  A white, middle-class, kind of looks like me and talks like me, Jesus?

There's something about taking Jesus out of that context.  It's interesting, God made humankind in God's image.  Now we've returned the favor -- we take God and make God in our image.  That's just a basic point in sociology.  We do that.  Our religion is a reflection of our culture.  Everybody does this.  Is it bad or good?  I'm not here to discuss that, what I'm saying is that's what we do.  We make the infinite anthropomorphic.  We need to understand these abstractions in some way that makes sense to us.  So we turn Jesus into a cowboy.  Is that good, or bad?  I don't know -- I wouldn't turn Jesus into a cowboy, but I can't do the gate-keeping and keep other people from turning Jesus in to a cowboy, or a wrestler, or on and on.

Here's Jesus in New Zealand:


Jesus in Mexico:

There's lots of these images out there.  My slide presentation, I told you, is "G" rated.  There's lots of things that you'd have to close your eyes on.

Here's an ugly Jesus:

This is from South America.  This is a liberation Jesus, about liberation theology.  Jesus is not very attractive.  Imagine Jesus hanging in our church looking like that.  I don't think so.  But if you've been in South America, Central America, you go into cathedrals and you see not-sanitized pictures of Jesus.  They're gruesome.

Here's another one from Brazil:

This was done by an artist that had been tortured.  This is an angry Jesus.  Again, could we put that in here?  I don't know.

This one I like -- Jesus on death row as a black man:

What is your conception of Jesus?  Can we do that?  Can you conceptualize Jesus that marginalized?

Jesus in a feminized form:


And one more -- Jesus as a woman:


Is that possible?

How big is Jesus?  A few years ago, a lady asked me "Word's out Chuck, that you said Jesus was a black woman, in the church, and they're talking about it".  She was mad.  "Is that true?  You can't do that".  Let me go to the next step -- Jesus is a black woman, and she's homosexual.  "You can't do that".  And I said "I do".  That's how I understand Jesus.  Now, that's not historical, I know that.  That's not the way it is.  I understand that.  But for me, to conceptualize Jesus, and to carry that around in my brain, I've done something that maybe you haven't.  And I'm not saying that you need to do that, but that's where my head's at.  And she said "The students are angry, the churches are angry", etc, etc.  And I said "Well, I'm sorry.  That's where I'm at in this point in my life in understanding what Jesus is like".

I don't want to deny Jesus as a literal person.  I'm not here to argue history.  What I am trying to do is to hang on to my faith in a post-modern world, and I need my Jesus to be really really really really big.  I need my God to be really really really Big.  I need my church to be really really really big.  The small church, the narrow church, the gate-keeping church, was what I was raised up in.  And I'm not saying, just reactionary, I'm trying to hang on to my faith, and belief.  And at this point, this is where I am.

I'm saying that my God is too small.  I'm saying that your God is probably too small.  I'm saying that we need a God who encompasses the whole planet and all our differences.  All our languages, all our religions, all our ethnicities.  

That, to me, is the good news of God.  Thank you.


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