For my birthday in February I received an excellent present from Lois: it was the Reed Book of NZ Quotations. What makes it so good is that it is eminently modern and useful. You see, it is the ideal book to accompany TV. Pick it up in the ad break and you can read six or seven quotations, you don't have to bother with page numbers, chapters, or markers, you can also become wiser, wittier and the life and soul of the party. You should try it sometime. On one of my first ad breaks I discovered a quotation about Michael Joseph Savage which set me thinking. Sir Carl Berendsen said that Michael Joseph Savage was the most Christ-like man I've ever known, and an absolute ninny. Now a quotation like that is bound to stop any parson in their tracks. Could it be that the conjunction of Christ-likeness and ninnyness may not be accidental or a coincidence? What if they are one and the same thing? What if they belong together? Or, to put it boldly and plainly, what if Jesus himself were a ninny?
Now, many of you won't like this, and will be uncomfortable with me saying this. It doesn't fit in with your picture of Jesus: young, strong, eager, handsome, capable, and successful, a master strategist, above all charming. A man there lived in Galilee, a grand, heroic peerless soul. And when I suggest that Jesus was a ninny perhaps 9% of you will mildly say, Perish the thought! 90% of you will want to take me out and stone me, and possibly the remaining one or two will smile secretly into their prayer books and say, What a ninny he is for even suggesting it! - I stand here alone, condemned out of my mouth, by my own foolish action.
And now, maybe, you begin to see it, and the penny will drop. What you want to do to me for saying something you don't like and didn't want to hear they will do to Jesus when he comes to Jerusalem and enters royally. Neither Roman nor Jew wanted him as a king; neither Roman nor Jew wanted his way of peace; neither Roman nor Jew wanted to know his Father who cared for sinner as well as for saint, and who was troubled by our sickness and weakness and need. In his arrival at Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, in his teaching in the Temple throughout Holy Week, in his death on the cross Jesus keeps on saying the things they don't like and didn't want to hear, and most of them called out 'Crucify him'.
It's not the story of Jesus that we disagree on; it's what we make of it. That's why when I read the story of Jesus I am left wondering why Jesus did that ninnyish thing of provoking Jew and Roman by his actions and his teaching. Why didn't he tread quietly? After all Jesus knew the common wisdom: Softly, softly, catchee monkey. Why did he have to stand up and shout? Why did Jesus have to provoke the opposition? Read what happens in the Temple during that last week of his life, and Jesus is tempting fate, sticking his neck out, courting trouble. Earlier Jesus told his disciples he must go to Jerusalem and die. That word must is in the Greek a word of absolute necessity, of ultimate demand. Why the necessity? Why the hurry? Why the must? Or consider this: I don't have to be a ninny and preach this sermon to you; I could preach a bland, conventional panegyric on the noble Jesus so supremely in command he feels no emotion, knows no pain, no fear. And you will go away untouched, unmoved by Jesus; and you=d never get to know him in his strange reality; and if I did this all of us would be the loser, me for not saying what I must say, and you for not hearing what you must hear. Shall I be a ninny and disturb you, or shall I be expedient and toss you religious platitudes. And when he comes to Jerusalem what would you have Jesus do?
It's what we make of the story that's so important. When I see Jesus going his own way, doing his own thing the gospel starts to come alive for me. And it's because I now start to see Jesus in his uniqueness over against every other member of the human race. Jesus is not a super hero, a kind of religious James Bond, Batman or Captain Marvel. Jesus is not for me a person who does what we do better; he is for me a person who does things differently, radically differently. He does things in ways that I would never think of, let alone choose. We set limits to forgiveness, Jesus doesn't. We set limits to those God might save, Jesus doesn't. We would have the good Samaritan pass by as a prudent man should; we would have the prodigal son sent packing as his just desserts demand, our shepherd shrugs his shoulders, lets the last, lost, loneliest sheep go hang, thinks how you win some, and you lose some. Not Jesus. Jesus is radically different and until you see it in Palm Sunday and the Passion the gospel in them will not come our way.
It's what we make of the story that=s so important. I read with interest that Jeffrey Archer has written a book about Judas. Judas once more is the man who tried to keep Jesus honest, expedient, reacting in our kind of way so that Jesus could never be called a ninny. Judas tries to save Jesus from himself. CK Stead has written a similar book. And the popular fiction that Jesus marries Mary Magdalene, survives the cross and produces a secret dynasty is all in the same boat. Our modern age is fascinated by the Jesus story, but it can't accept the radical difference, it wants to make Jesus react as we would react, and so it rewrites the story to make it more ordinary, more plausible. In these stories Jesus is never a ninny. Jesus is just like us.
If there's a gospel for the church it lies in the radical difference of Jesus. Somewhere out of my theological memory comes an echo: the gospel changes the signs of life. That's exactly what Jesus does. In his coming to Jerusalem he is not caring what reception he will get; he is rather saying, I embrace all you people of God's city, Roman, Greek, Jew, whoever and whatever you are. In his death he is saying that death is not the defeat of goodness and mercy and love, that death is not God's final intention for our life. We often wonder why life doesn't work out as it ought, Jesus shows us in changing the signs of life that we're putting in the batteries the wrong way round. The vulnerability, the naivety, the weakness and foolishness of Jesus are part of the way he demonstrates the gospel changes the signs of life.
God works another way. God doesn't work with the smart or enterprising. God works with suffering servants who give their back to those who smite and who do not hide their face from insult and spitting. God works with ninnies who waste money and time on the church, who give energy to boring complainers, who listen and bear the miseries of the world, who take the slap in the face, who know they are of no account, who pray for their enemies. God works with the one who did not regard equality with God something to be exploited but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form he humbled himself. God works with Paul who understood at last: We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and a ninny to the GentilesY for to those who are called, Christ is the power of God and the Wisdom of God. Palm Sunday, Holy Week, Passion and Death of Christ. Here God works another way; here God changes the signs of life. So Love itself, in human form, for love of me he came; I cannot look upon his face for shame, for bitter shame. If there is aught of worth in me it comes from thee alone; then keep me safe, for so, O Lord, thou keepest but thine own. Love is always the fool; Jesus is foolish enough to love us, and knowing that will we be foolish enough to crucify him?