Advent Devotion by Bishop N.T. Wright: The Jesus We Never Knew

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The Jesus We Never Knew

In the scriptures, the Creator made the world as a unified though two-sided creation. Heaven and earth were made for one another; the creation story in Genesis 1 is modelled on the idea of constructing a temple, a building where heaven and earth come together. The wilderness tabernacle in Exodus was then a small working model of the whole creation, with Aaron the High Priest taking the role of Adam and Eve, the divine image-bearers. When Solomon constructed the first Jerusalem Temple it, too, was a microcosm, a small working model of the whole creation, with king and priests as the image-bearers. Most people never think of Israel’s Temple like this, and that is one reason we don’t understand Jesus.

The Jerusalem Temple was always a sign of the divine intention to renew the whole creation. It stood at the heart of Israel’s national life as a sign that Israel was the bearer of the divine promise for the whole world. But remember what happened in the time of Jeremiah. The symbol was turned outside in. The Temple was seen as a talisman, an automatic guarantee of security against the outside world, no matter what the people and the priests got up to, and the result was destruction and exile. Then in Jesus’ day the chief priests who ran the system were worldly and wealthy. Equally, many would-be revolutionaries regarded the Temple as the focus for their ideology of nationalist violence. And though the Temple Mount still retained the sense of divine promise and presence, as the Western Wall in Jerusalem still does for millions of Jews, there was an equally strong sense that the great promises had not yet been fulfilled. Prophets went on promising that YHWH would return to the Temple. But he hadn’t done so yet. Isaiah had said that Israel’s God would return ‘in plain sight’, and that the whole world would know about it; but nowhere in that extended exile does anybody say it’s happened.

This is where the Jesus we never knew comes into sudden focus, as unexpected then as now. We are quite used to Jesus the ethical teacher, Jesus saving souls for heaven, Jesus perhaps as a social revolutionary – or, from the other side, Jesus as a Superman-figure doing impossible things to prove his divine power. We may not agree with any or all of these pictures but at least they are familiar. Even Leonard Cohen’s disturbing image of Jesus the drowning sailor is a poetic image we can understand and relate to. But Jesus as the living embodiment of Israel’s returning, rescuing God, Jesus bringing to its climax not only Israel’s history but world history – this is not what we are used to, and it’s not what Jesus’ own contemporaries were expecting.

This unexpectedness provides, incidentally, one of the clearest signs that this story was not being invented by clever writers a generation or two later. On the contrary: Jesus’ own closest followers clearly took some time to get their heads around what was happening and what it all meant. They didn’t have a template all prepared into which they could just fit Jesus. Jesus burst open the existing templates and seemed to be insisting that what he was doing was the new focal point around which previous ideas had to be reorganised. The kingdom of God, he was saying, is like this – and this – and this – with each ‘this’ indicating another extraordinary thing, the healing of a crippled woman, the raising of a dead girl, the shameless party with the riff-raff, the extraordinary catch of fish, and all accompanied by small, glittering stories which broke open the existing models of what the kingdom might look like and created a fresh imaginative world into which his hearers were invited to come if they dared. A world where a shamed father welcomes home his scapegrace son. A world where it’s the Samaritan who shows what neighbour-love looks like. A world in which the seeds of the final harvest will bear a great crop but only when three-quarters of them seem to have failed. A world in which the farmer will come looking for fruit and find none; in which the vineyard-owner will send his son to get the fruit and the tenants will kill him. A world in which God will become king but not in the way everyone expected. A world in which the full revelation of divine glory will not be in a blaze of light and fire coming to dwell in the temple but rather in a life and death of utter self-giving love which, for those with eyes to see, will reflect the self-giving love of creation itself….

In western culture, people have routinely imagined that the word ‘God’ is univocal, that it always means the same. It doesn’t, and never has. There are various options. If you ask someone… if they believe in God, chances are they will think of the god of modern western imagining, which is either the eighteenth-century Deist god – distant, aloof, detached but still threatening – or even the still more distant Epicurean divinities, off on their own while the world does its own thing. In reaction to that, now as in the ancient world, many flirt with pantheism – there’s a divine force in everything and we’re all part of it – but that too has little in common with the Temple-focused, story-shaped world of Jesus. Many Christians will think in Platonic terms, of an upstairs world where the soul belongs with God as opposed to the messy, shabby downstairs world of physicality and politics. No wonder we never really knew Jesus, even though in grace and mercy he makes himself known despite our wrong ideas and mistaken imaginings. But when you start with the story of a long-awaited return from exile which is also the forgiveness of sins; when you start with the unfinished narrative of YHWH and his dealings with his people; when you hold in your minds the promise that when all other help fails then Israel’s God will come in person to rescue and deliver; and when you start with the symbol of the temple in which heaven and earth belong together as a sign of creation and new creation, with a human being, a king or a priest, standing there to complete the picture in offering a true sacrifice; then it makes sense, glorious sense, world-shattering sense, heaven-and-earth sense to see Jesus of Nazareth as the climax of this story, the fulfilment of this symbol, the living embodiment of this God.

And the four gospels which tell his rich, powerful story are written as an invitation. Here, they are saying, is the story of the world’s true God. You didn’t know him, but he knew you. You didn’t want him, truth be told, because he comes to wound as well as to heal, to warn as well as to welcome. But the four gospels tell their story and invite you to read it and make it your own. To read it prayerfully, humbly, wonderingly, asking that your own life will be reoriented around this life, this divine life, this human life. Jesus reaches out his hand as to a drowning child, and we who feel ourselves sinking under the wisdom of the world will find that in his brokenness he will touch our brokenness, that in his forsakenness he will meet us in ours.

N.T. Wright
Excerpt from a lecture presented at SMU on 15 November 2016.