On March 13, 2017, I delivered a sermon at RUF UCLA at the kind invitation of Rev. Matthew Trexler. I chose to write about the (not very often discussed) scene in Luke 4 when Jesus visited the synagogue of his youth in Nazareth to deliver a message. I ask whether or not it has any relevance for our lives today.
Below is a selection text from a longer draft version of the sermon that I particularly enjoyed writing:
What are the signs or miracles that you are asking God to give you so that you will believe and trust in him more?
Some of us have demanded from God a sign, and think that its absence must be proof positive that God is not there or couldn’t love you—but could it be that your desire of a sign is an indication of your hardness of heart, just like the churchgoers listening to Jesus? The Jews had no heart of repentance; they didn’t love what God loved. What was once hidden in the depths of their hearts has now been revealed. Their hearts were whitewashed tombs, and their mouths were open graves. When Jesus brought this to light, the people in the church tried to kill him by forming a mob and throwing him off the cliff that their city was built on. Thankfully, Jesus escaped.
Now you’d say to me, “Keanu, if I were there I’d certainly not try to kill Jesus.” But I’d say, if the work of the Holy Spirit is convicting us of our sins, if we are putting on masks and not allowing the gospel to renew our minds, and we reject this conviction that comes from God, functionally we’re no different from the churchgoers who tried to murder Jesus.
Here’s a question that we should ask ourselves: What would it look like if Jesus Christ himself appeared here tonight and spoke to us? What do you imagine he would tell us? Sometimes I think some of you think he’d stop by and start yelling at all of us. I’m reminded of an Australian drama that aired in 2011 called “The Slap,” that was based on a book that came out in 2008. It’s about what happens when a man slaps a child that is not related to him at a barbecue. And of course, it’s at a barbecue since it’s in Australia. But the spot that was released for the Australian version of the drama is darkly humorous—he slaps a boy named Noah who stole a toy from a girl at the barbecue, and then proceeds to slap all the adults at the event as well. When the police arrive, he slaps all of them too, and he slaps all the remaining children, even the girl who had her toy taken away. At the far corner is a disinterested teenager playing on her phone, and he slaps her too! He slaps everyone! And sometimes I think we think of Jesus in this way. He’s come to slap us into submission, into conformity. This couldn’t be further from the truth. What if Jesus enters into our reality and is the most tender, kind, gentle, loving person you’ve ever met, and he starts hanging out with all the wrong people, and he gently undoes the expectations of what we thought he would do. It’s not so much that he’s the angry one, but the honesty of Jesus brings out our wrath and anger by making us see our own brokenness and hatred.
Jesus is not a moral ninja, but he is a truth teller. He is a good physician who doesn’t delay in telling us the disconcerting truth about our condition. Jesus is the unmasker, the revealer, the revelator. If Jesus came to unmask us, what would he see? Aren’t our lives, for at least a good chunk of the day, just a rehearsal for some unknown and unexpected Big Other? Why are we putting on a show, and for whom? We put on masks, much like the early Italian Commedia dell'arte masks, which were leather face straps that signified very rigid character tropes: servant, fool, happy, sad. Today our masks are subtler, we veil the brokenness of our souls making sure no one else can see the darkness within us. It’s not all nefarious, either. Sometimes we must shield our minds from the demands of the day, which can become so overwhelming for our conscious experience that we find some way to suppress the things that cause us anxiety.
We are surrounded on every side by demands to be physically attractive, to be beautiful, to eat a certain way, to exercise a certain number of hours each week. Our environment of cultural exclusivism requires us to be up to date on the latest celebrity gossip, on the newest HBO series, or the latest trends and fads in technology. We are nestled deep in a culture predicated on the morality of performance, this is a zero-sum game, we’re told. We live in the “country of the curve,” in which there are winners and losers. It’s no longer a question of picking two out of three items on the pyramid of college success: academics, social life, and sleep. We’ve got to maintain the appearance of being highly successful at all three. And that’s the price of being successful, even when our grades are slipping out of control, our friendships are suffering, and we’re becoming ill due to lack of adequate rest.
More than this, however, many of us here are “religious folk.” We’re representing Jesus in dark communities. We’re doing the work of the Gospel, making Jesus’ name famous. Many of us here are the “churched.” But what does this translate to if we insist for a moment on being ruthlessly honest with ourselves? Sunday is our day to—show off our newest clothes, to catch up on the latest drama and intrigue about so and so and such and such. Did you hear Sarah failed her bio test? Did you hear Michael got wrecked at that party? We perpetuate the very culture that enslaves us and subjugates us to the morality of performance, all for the sake of being thought of as one of the good ones. We think we’re like Nazareth, not like those unwashed lepers out there on Skid Row. Granted, the churched have a permutation of this morality of performance that’s not as outwardly horrific as that in the world, “out there,” but make no mistake, friends, it’s just as harmful.
If the prospect of putting down your mask seems impossible, that’s because it is. The call to ultimate authenticity, living into the version of yourself that God has called you to be, would be enslaving were it not for God’s great love for us in Jesus Christ. Also, it’s not just putting down our masks, but having his heart, having his goal, loving what he loves. Without his work on the cross, so many years ago tomorrow on Good Friday, and without his resurrection so many years ago this Easter Sunday, this challenge sounds enslaving. Jesus came to preach and live out the good news of his own mission, to rescue us from the misery of self-justification. The cross itself is the ultimate sign of God’s mission—it is itself the sign we all need, it is the sign we should never stop singing about, it is the sign we should keep holding onto—until, as Luther said, we get splinters in our fingers. In a word, Jesus Christ himself is God’s mission who will bring you to himself, reconcile you to the father, and allow you to end the game of the morality of performance and live in true fellowship with the Lord.