Whistlestop Jesus

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John McCain rallies supporters ahead of the Presidential primaries of 2000.

Deuteronomy 18:15-20
Mark 1:21-28

“He taught them as one with authority.”

Authority. Who do we give it to, and how do they earn it?

Well, in American politics, we have a thing called the “beer test,” which comes around every campaign season. Of the candidates, we’ve asked each other for years, who would you rather have a beer with?

Along those lines, one of my favorite things to listen to or read is John Dickerson’s Whistlestop series (1). John Dickerson is the now just-former host of the NBC Sunday show Face the Nation, and Whistlestop is his nerdy little project that journeys through presidential history. As a former history major, I know that it helps everyone’s sanity, no matter the season, to take a long view.

I remember driving through rural Virginia on my way South and listening to Dickerson recount John McCain’s presidential run in the election of 2000. The McCain he described was one that many of us, no matter how old we are, probably do not readily remember — folksy, charismatic, energetic, hopping around campaign stops and his campaign bus, joking with reporters and staffers. The now 81-year old and very sick McCain was back then, after all, a spry and healthy 62. People often said of him what they would also say of George W. Bush and many candidates both before and after: he’s charismatic, friendly, helpful, down to earth — the kind of person you want to have a beer with. McCain, like many before him, passed the “beer test,” and that would bring him authority.

Lin-Manuel Miranda describes the same thing in Presidential history when he has the company describe Aaron Burr in his musical Hamilton — in the number “The Election of 1800,” we overhear some voters — and, you know, their wives — talking:
I don’t like Adams
Well, he’s gonna lose, that’s just 
And Jefferson—
In love with France!
Yeah, he’s so elitist!
I like that Aaron Burr!
I can’t believe we’re here with him!
He seems approachable…?
Like you could grab a beer with him!” (2)

Many of the people voting for the current President cited something similar — usually in the form of, “He tells it like it is.” They also cited his business skills, power, and perceived willingness and ability to help people like them. His voters gave him authority based on those things.

I confess that I had a similar reaction to our last President: part of his appeal to me was that I thought he could do good for people, sure — and that he was charismatic and funny. He seemed to me as one who spoke with authority, as they say.

An aside: do I think the two are equal? I do not. (Unless you think they’re both awful, you probably don’t think they’re equal either.) My point is simply thus: charisma, likability, and the ability to help / save us are reasons that we confer authority onto other humans, President or otherwise. We like those who speak to us with authority, you know, and not “as the scribes.” 

And in the midst of our current and previous political situations strolls Jesus, someone whom most of us, no matter whom we voted for, have also conferred some authority or we wouldn’t be here in church. Even if you’re just at church because you think there might be something to this Jesus thing, or because someone you love also loves Jesus and you’re attending for them, the authority of Jesus holds a lot of sway over this crowd.

The story about him today follows directly on the heels of last week in the Gospel of Mark. Last week, the ordinary fishermen threw down their nets and followed him. Because the Gospel of Mark moves almost as fast as today’s news cycle, they immediately head off to Capernaum together: the strange new mysterious teacher and his brand new disciples. When the Sabbath comes, they do what Jews often do, then as today: they go to the synagogue. And, like teachers do, the new teacher begins to teach. Mark tells us that he taught the synagogue crowd “as one having authority, and not of the scribes.”

I have to stop here to ask what Mark means, exactly. That none of the scribes taught with authority? Surely not, right? Does Mark mean that he taught with “confidence”? That it made sense to people? What does he mean by “authority”? 

Whatever it was, it was most certainly more about the crowd’s perception of Jesus than anything. After all, Jesus also preaches in places where they almost throw him off a cliff or stone him. Crowd mentality isn’t the most trustworthy thing, in the Gospels or elsewhere. Sure, they may be right here, but they could also be wrong tomorrow.

But today, whether they just like him or feel like they could grab a beer (wine?) with him or whatever, this crowd confers authority onto him. Whatever it is, they’re really digging Jesus and what he’s saying. Jesus no longer has to go out and recruit fishermen to follow him — people are about to start following him everywhere.

We usually think of all of this as a good thing, but as my colleague John Stendahl said this week, this authority they’re heaping onto Jesus will lead him down a path of exhaustion and, eventually, death.

Crowds will begin to gather, especially after word of the healings really gets going, but by and large, it won’t generate a lot of kingdom talk about how we can treat one another better or seek God more closely. Rather, the crowds will confer authority on him and seek him out because he “speaks as one with authority” and because they believe that he can help them and their loved ones — the same reasons humans always confer authority. You can almost hear them saying: “That Jesus really tells it like it is,” and “Jesus is going to bring us hope and change,” and “It’s morning in Israel!” Soon, crowds will follow him everywhere, stirring up quite a ruckus, putting him in danger with Rome and the religious authorities, and never letting him rest.

This is a beginning, this moment in the synagogue. This crowd is really digging Jesus, and it’s eventually going to kill him.

Just then, there’s a commotion in the synagogue because someone who is not well has come in and is ranting and raving at the new teacher. Given what I’ve just said, Pastor Stendahl says that in that light, the demons could be seen as not fearful, but as defiantly mocking Jesus: “Have you come to destroy us?” Good luck with that! This road you’re going down is about to destroy you, Jesus of Nazareth. There are, after all, few burdens as heavy as fame or an entire nation looking to you to save them.

You know the rest of the story even if you weren’t listening when we read the Gospel. Jesus drives the demons out, as he always does. Everyone is super impressed, as they always are.

Mark leaves the scene with a line that now sounds foreboding to me: “At once, his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee” (v. 28). Jesus is getting famous. The die is cast.

We always confer authority on powerful people, which we define as the charismatic and the strong and the skilled. Those who can stand up for the little guy and drive out demons. We follow those leaders anywhere. It’s no real wonder that the crowds will expect Jesus to eventually overthrow Rome in a military coup — that’s what any other charismatic, powerful Jewish leader of the day might seek to do. They don’t get it. Not yet. The crowds don’t. The demons don’t.

Forget Rome. Forget exhaustion. Jesus is more powerful than death itself.

And he is willing to walk this difficult road to show us what “authority” really is, and it isn’t found in charisma or strength, but in a willingness to die.

We live in an age where we do not trust institutions, and we haven’t for quite some time. We live in an age of accusations of fake news, where we typically only believe what fits with our preconceived notions of reality.  As always, it’s all about authority, who you like, and who you believe. We humans really haven’t come all that far in 2,000 years.

The Deuteronomy reading is distracting for its ending where false prophets get offed, but it’s the beginning of the reading which caught my eye in light of this conversation: when the text says “a prophet like me” it refers to Moses, who’s credited for receiving the Law from God. “Prophet” throughout the text can also be plural, and in the context of talking about priests, it seems to be. Generations of priests and prophets will stand in the place of Moses to talk to God. And Moses is clear about why they need priests: “this is what you requested of …God” (v. 16). The flames scared them. God’s presence scared them. They didn’t want to die. They said, “You go talk to God,” over and over again.

So a new class of people was created — prophets. Priests. Those who stand in for the people to talk to God and carry God’s words back to the people. Those with authority.

Of course, we know that some of them were legitimate, spoke God’s words, and led the people with care, while others abused their power, and still others did both — not too different from leaders today. And despite the penalty of death that comes along with being a false prophet, I’ll wager that many got away with it because they were charismatic and powerful. Because the Israelites were humans, just like us — drawn to those who “speak as one who has authority.”

The Good News is that God broke through, even though according to Christianity, it took “making God come down here.” We didn’t want to approach God, so God came to us, got famous, died, and rose again.

We humans tried to make Jesus into just another leader we could have a beer with, but he wasn’t that, and he still isn’t. Instead, knowing where this road leads, he sets the possessed man free, the demons fly away from him, and the die is cast. Jesus is famous. God is loose — Love is loose in the world.

“God has spoken to the people — alleluia!”

Christ came to rip the curtain that separates us from God. Christ came, knowing the cost,  so that we do not need to depend on finding leaders we could have a beer with to save us.

Christ is loose, and love flows freely.
Christ is loose, and all kinds of demons flee.

Christ is loose, and so are we.

This week I read a poem by Michael Toy called, “The Entire Bible in One Poem (The Good Parts).” As we tell the story of Jesus through this year, like we do every year, I thought it was an appropriate way to end my thoughts today. Here we go.

“contrary to all evidence
we are not an accident

we are not a meaningless coincidence

despite what it seems like

you are not the first to feel despair

nor the first to find hope,

you are therefore, never alone

find love

make love

be love

but you knew this, didn’t you

so don’t forget to tell the stories.” (3)

Jesus is not just a leader you could have a beer with. He is the story that changes everything.

And so, as we gather at the table and for annual meeting and for Lent and for Easter, let’s remember that love is loose.

But you knew that, didn’t you? So let us tell the stories. Amen.

1. You can find John Dickerson’s new Whistlestop book here.
2. Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton, 2015. Listen to “The Election of 1800” here.
3. You can find this poem and more of Michael Toy’s work here.

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