Gift Shop Jesus

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Preached at St. Anne’s Episcopal Church – Tifton, Georgia

Mark 6:1-13

Over the last few weeks
we’ve been reading through
the first few chapters of Mark’s gospel.

As you may have noticed,
Mark does not waste time.

He wants to introduce you to Jesus,
and he wants to do it quickly.
And from the get-go,
part of what he wants you to know
is that Jesus has power.

When you open his gospel,
that’s the point he starts driving home
from the very first page.

Mark is like Jesus’ publicist,
his hype-man,
his Jerry MacGuire.

“Look at my guy!” he says.
“This guy has
power over the Law,
power over creation,
power over illness,
power over death!
This guy can do anything!!”

Until today.

Today, Jesus’ power
comes to a screeching halt.
Like Superman in a room full of kryptonite,
our hero is rendered powerless.

Today, Mark hangs his head and says,
“And he could do no deed of power there,
except for healing just a few people.”

How? How is this even possible?

The way Mark tells the story,
it has everything to do with the fact
that Jesus went home.

*     *     *

For many people,
home can be an uplifting place,
but it can also be humbling.

At home, they know who you are,
but they also know who you’ve been.

At home, they’ve watched you grow up.
At home, they know your faults.
At home, they’ve seen you naked,
literally and figuratively.

No matter who you’ve managed to become over the years,
there’s always somebody at every family reunion
to remind you of who you used to be.

Compound all of that with the fact
that Jesus surely must have been
the black sheep of his family and hometown.

The expectations back then
were that young Jewish men staid put.
They learned their fathers’ trades.
They got married.
They contributed to the life of the family
and the neighborhood.

But not Jesus.
Oh no, not Jesus.
He had to go tearing off,
running around the countryside
preaching about God
as though the two of them
were on a first name basis.
He might as well have run away with the circus.

Knowing that helps to give a little context
as to why the people of his hometown
react the way they do
when he shows up and starts preaching.

They hear him and say,
“Wait a minute. We know this guy!
This is Mary’s boy!
This is Joseph’s son!
We knew him when he was in diapers.
What gives him the right
to talk to us like this?
Who died and made him savior of the world?”

They think they know everything about him,
so they write him off,
and they walk away. 

That’s the funny thing about the Son of God.
He may be all powerful,
but he’s not going to put up a fight
if you turn and walk away from him.

It’s easy to look at today’s Gospel
and hear it as a story about Jesus
and his dysfunctional relatives in Nazareth . . .
a distant people
in a distant place
at a distant time.

But this is also a story about us
and about what happens
when we think we’ve got Jesus figured out . . .
when we domesticate him
and turn him into what we think he is
rather than following him as he really is.

*     *     *

In his book The Jesus of Suburbia,
evangelical preacher Mike Erre
looks at what happens when we,
like the people of Nazareth,
stick to the familiar Jesus,
the domesticated Jesus,
the Jesus we think we know.
In the first chapter of his book,
he tells this story:

My two-and-a-half-year-old son loves animals.
He loves to see them,
make their sounds,
and watch them in action.

Seeing his interest and enjoyment,
my wife and I decided to take him
to the Wild Animal Park near San Diego.

The Wild Animal Park isn’t a zoo, exactly;
it’s more about wide-open spaces.
Instead of a maze of fenced cages,
the park is sectioned off into representative regions of the world,
in which most of the animals roam freely.
Can you see why we thought
this would captivate our little boy?

Right near the park entrance sits a gift shop.
All glassy and shiny,
it lured our boy right in.

We spent what seemed like forever in the gift shop
watching Nathan play with
plastic elephants, lions, and giraffes.

We kept reminding him
that real elephants, lions, and giraffes
awaited inside the park,
but he was content to play in the gift shop.

As my frustration with my son grew
(Didn’t he know we paid twenty-five dollars a head
and drove an hour and a half on my day off
for him to see the real animals?),
I realized I have often done
the very thing my son was doing.

I grew up in the Midwest.
For summer break each year,
my stepfather and mother
would take my brother and me
around the West in a forty-foot RV
for several weeks at a time.

We would see the most incredible sights:
Yosemite,
Yellowstone,
Glacier National Park,
and the Grand Canyon.

But to my brother and me,
the most important thing about each stop along the way
was whether or not the campground
had a swimming pool.

Seriously.

We were traveling the country
looking at some of the most beautiful stuff in the world,
and all we worried about
was whether or not we could go for a swim. . . .

As I stood there looking at my little boy
and being reminded of my own childhood,
a quote from C.S. Lewis came to mind:
“It would seem our Lord finds our desires,
not too strong,
but too weak. . . .
We are far too easily pleased.”

This is so true of my little boy and me.

There is nothing wrong with gift shops
and campground swimming pools,
but in light of what we were missing
by choosing those things,
our desires were weak and myopic.

My son settled for the gift shop animals
instead of the real ones;
I was content with the swimming pool
rather than the Grand Canyon.

The spiritual parallels are obvious,
and this is what C.S. Lewis was getting at.
Far too many of us settle for
the gift shop/swimming pool Jesus
than the real thing.

We are drawn to the Jesus of Suburbia—
the tame, whitewashed, milquetoast Jesus
who is primarily interested in our security and comfort—
and oblivious to the dangerous and wild
Jesus of Nazareth who beckons us
beyond the safety of our small lives. [1]

*     *    *

What Mark is trying to tell us in today’s Gospel
is exactly what Mike Erre is getting at
as he talks about zoos, gift shops, and swimming pools.

The truth is . . . we settle.

Far too often, we settle for the idea of Christ
rather than accepting the danger
of actually following Christ.
Like the people of Jesus’ hometown,
we stick with the Jesus we know—
the one we’ve formed in our own image—
because that’s a Jesus we can
understand,
contain,
control.

In doing so, though,
we forget that Jesus was (is!) a revolutionary.
We forget that Jesus was (is!) unpopular.
We forget that Jesus was (is!) the one
who gave his life for ours and
calls us to a new life that is anything but comfortable.

I don’t know what your image of Jesus is like right now,
but if it’s anything like mine,
most of the time he’s someone
who’s loving, and accepting, and kind . . .
all of which is good and true.

But less often does Jesus look like someone
who tells me where I’m wrong,
or calls me to greater discipline,
or beckons me to lay down my life
in the blesséd truth that
to save my life I must lose it.

The reason he doesn’t tell me those things
is because—like the people of his hometown—
I don’t want to hear them.

Too often, I—like so many others—
am stuck in the gift shop
while Jesus is calling me into the wild.

*     *     *

So, if any of that rings true for you,
what, then, is the grace for us today?

Well, the first grace
is that Mark was right:
we serve a Savior
who is powerful—
wildly powerful—
beyond words.

That’s good news for those of us who
in our more honest moments
realize we need help from beyond ourselves
to make it in this broken world.

The second grace
is that Mark was right again:
we serve a Savior
who is also gentle and lowly in heart
and who will never force himself on us.

Jesus may be the all-powerful Son of God,
but as messiahs go,
he is a gentleman.
His call to you is always that:
a call, not a compulsion.
That means you have
freedom to say ‘yes’ to him,
and freedom to say ‘no.’
And what we inevitably find
is that the even deeper freedom comes
in saying ‘yes’ to his invitation.

And that, my friends, leads to the third grace.
We serve a Savior
who stands out beyond the gift shop—
out there in the wild—
and says, “Come, and follow me.”

This is no namby-pamby guru,
no boring teacher who has come
to instruct you in all the ways
in which you need to get life right.
Like Mark, he doesn’t have time for that.

Instead, he is the Savior who has come
not to teach the world,
but to save it and reorder it
from the ground up
in the way of God’s love.

And the thrill of it all?
The thrill of it all
is that he stands out in the wild,
well beyond the gift shop walls,
and hollers to you,
“Come on!
Take up your cross.
Follow me.
Let’s do this together.
I could use someone like you.
I triple dog dare you.”

That? That’s the real Jesus.

Why would we settle
for anything less?

Amen.

 

 

[1] Erre, Mike. The Jesus of Suburbia.Nashville: W Publishing, 2006. 1-3.