Matthew 5: 17-20
October 30, 2011
The image is emblazoned in many of our minds. There he stood, leaning against the wall, black leather jacket thrown over his shoulder. His hair slicked back in a DA, half-burned cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth. He wore a white t-shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and of course the blue jeans. And the look on his face was unforgettable – sort of a “You can’t mess with me” look.
He was James Dean, and in his twenty-four years of life he cast an indelible impression. Just like his movie, “Rebel Without A Cause,” he came to symbolize a generation. He did the kinds of things and defied authority in a way that resonates with something inside us, whether we admit it or not. He was a rebel’s rebel.
James Dean was the classic rebel. But in no way was he the first.
There was another who came many years before him. There he stood, his skin tanned and roughened by the desert sun and wind. His hair unkempt and blowing in the breeze. He wore a single garment that covered his body, and on his feet he sported well-worn sandals. Sometime he even went around barefoot. His friends were the outcasts, the lowly, the sinners of his time – fisherman, tax collectors, a prostitute.
If the definition of a rebel is indeed, as Webster puts it, someone who “exhibits defiance and resistance to an established authority,” then Jesus surely fit the bill. But with Jesus, we get a different kind of rebel. Unlike Mr. Dean, Jesus was a rebel WITH a cause. His nonconformity to the status quo wasn’t because it was “cool” – it was because it’s what he came to do: to fulfill God’s vision for the world and offer his own life to reconcile ours to God.
And when we read Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in the gospel of Matthew, especially the verses today, we get a feel for this “rebellious Jesus.” From the very beginning of his message that day on the mountainside, Jesus makes it clear that things were not going to be the same anymore. Change was coming. At the same, time, though, Jesus goes to great lengths to emphasize that he was not undoing the faith of his forbearers. Thus the verse we all know well:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets;
I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.
Or, as The Message translation puts it:
I’m not here to demolish but to complete.
I am going to put it all together, pull it all together in a vast panorama.
You know, I kind of like that sense of putting things back together again – remaking what once was made; re-creating that which had already been created. I like it because it’s not something “new” as much as it’s re-newed. All the pieces, broken into little pieces, now put back together again.
It was a plate that I had shattered, I remember it vividly. It sat on one of the shelves in my grandmother’s living room in her home. I was so little, but even at my tender age I knew – this plate was something special in that special house. It had some significance attached to it beyond my understanding. And now I had broken it by accident. They had always told me not to run through there like that.
I stared down at that shattered plate in the seconds before a curious grown-up entered the room upon hearing the noise. I stared down at it, wishing and wanting so much for it to be like it was before.
I don’t remember if I got into a whole lot of trouble, but what I do remember are the steady hands of my grandfather as he lovingly and painstakingly put the pieces back together again. The glue dried overnight, and by the next morning it was back on display. You could barely see the tiny cracks unless you got up close to look for them.
I think about that plate when I hear Jesus tell us that he’s “going to put it all together again.” That’s what Jesus does, doesn’t he? That’s what the gospels tell us over and over again. Jesus, taking the brokenness of the world and bringing it much-needed healing. Jesus, taking the sad state of affairs around us and giving them order and meaning. That’s what he told the people on the mountain that day that he had come there to do. And he knew, probably better than anyone, how big of a job it would really be. Only a rebel with a cause would be up for the task.
One of my favorite movie scenes of all time comes from a little-known flick called “Grand Canyon.” At the beginning, which is set in Los Angeles, we meet Kevin Kline’s character, an immigration lawyer, driving home alone one evening after a Lakers game. In trying to take a short-cut home, he winds up getting lost in one of the more dangerous parts of east L.A. Then his car breaks down. As he rolls off to the side of the road, he calls for a tow truck on his cell phone.
While he’s waiting, a large white Mercedes slowly drives by, stops, puts it in reverse and pulls up behind him. Five young men hop out and walk to either side of his car. They motion for him to roll the window down. You can see the fear on his face as he anticipates what’s happening. They tell him to get out of his car as one of them shows a gun. Things are about to take a turn for the worst when, from over the crest of the hill, comes the tow truck; its headlights casting a glow over the horizon as if it’s from heaven itself. The truck pulls in front of the car and a large man named Simon, played by Danny Glover, hops out and, despite the present danger, begins to set the car on the truck.
The five teens stare incredulously at Simon – he knows the rules, and yet he’s blatantly intruded on their turf. Simon knows how things work here, so when he finishes he asks to speak to the one in charge, who he knows is carrying the gun. He pulls the young man aside and asks him to let him do his job and tow this man and his car to safety. The young man scoffs at his suggestion, tells him he’s crazy.
Simon then looks him straight in the eye and, on the streets of East L.A., turns philosophical. And he says,
You know, the world ain’t supposed to work like this. Maybe you don’t know that, but this ain’t the way it’s supposed to be. I’m supposed to be able to do my job without you asking if I can. That dude is supposed to be able to wait with his car without you ripping him off. Everything’s supposed to be different than what it is.
I’m telling you, if it wasn’t Danny Glover saying those words on a movie set made out to look like East L.A., it could’ve easily come from Jesus! I love it when movies surprise us like this. This ain’t the way it’s supposed to be. Everything is supposed to be different than what it is. This world was originally created as good, but something changed. We changed. As one of my seminary professors always used to say, “Every day, each one of us living out that little drama in the Garden of Eden.” “Sin” is what some have taken to calling it – not the individual missteps we make, but the larger scope. “Sin” with a capital “S.” The broken plate – not what it should be. Sin is how we’ve wound up with a world where folks are mugged while waiting for a tow truck, where children go hungry every night, where people are abused every second of the day, and where folks have to fight each day against depression or the craving of addictions. Danny Glover hit the nail on the head: This ain’t the way it’s are supposed to be.
And that’s what brings us back to the rebel Jesus.
Because only a rebel of the highest caliber could dare to take on the ills of our world and try to make them right. Only a rebel with a cause – the greatest of causes – could ever hope to bridge the gap that Sin had created. And that’s why Jesus had to, at times, be that rebel. Remember when Jesus lashed out in anger at the moneychangers in the temple, turning over tables? Remember how he challenged the religious authorities, telling parable after parable that not only answered their questions but revealed their hypocrisy? Remember how he valued women in a society that looked down on them, or how he surrounded himself with outcasts and sinners? Remember some of his more controversial statements, the ones you typically don’t hear preached on Sunday morning: I did not come with peace but with a sword. These kinds of things unsettle us – and that’s the whole point.
But you know something? None of these things – none of them – could hold a candle to his most rebellious act, so radical it would’ve made old James Dean blush. Out of all the things Jesus said and did, nothing was more radical than simply being human. Think about it. In Jesus we find the perfect marriage of two persons: on the one hand Jesus of Nazareth, a normal human being in his early 30’s, trained as a carpenter by his father; and on the other hand Jesus Christ, the Chosen One, sent by God to set things right with the world. In Jesus we have both Human and Divine, woven together into one. Can there be anything more radical than that?!? Can there be anything more shocking than God, in all of God’s holiness and majesty, stooping to the lowest level to this little planet of ours, and allowing God’s self to become human and live among us?
Just consider for a moment the way Jesus came into this world and the way he left it. Jesus, Son of God, born as a tiny baby in a dirty manger, lying in coarse hay in the company of a few country shepherds and barnyard animals. Thirty-three years later, Jesus, Savior of the world, suffering inexplicable pain while enduring a death reserved for the worst of criminals, hanging on a cross, until his lungs literally gave out. Can you see the irony – Jesus at his most human, most vulnerable, most weak moments; simultaneously and completely fulfilling God’s divine plan.
My friends, Jesus, the rebel with a cause, came to us for many reasons. He came to set things right, to fulfill and not abolish. He came to glue the shattered pieces of our world back together again. He came to save us from the Sin that would otherwise tear us away from the body of Christ. And the only way he could do all those things, really do them, was to become human like us. To walk in our shoes, not as an illusion or representation, but flesh and bone like you and me.
It really was the only way. And it was the most rebel-like thing he ever did. And thanks to be God for that. Thanks be to God! AMEN.