A Messiah on the Loose

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by Brian Keepers

I happened upon it this past week when I was cleaning out the closet of my study. To be honest, I’d forgotten I even had it. There it was, tucked away beneath some binders. The “Jesus Action Figure,” unopened and neatly sealed in the original package. It was a Christmas gift from a friend when I was in seminary.

Jesus is dressed like a Jedi Knight in a flowing robe and resembles Obi-Wan Kenobi, only with longer hair. He looks a little bare, like he needs some accessories or something—perhaps a light saber or a droid. (What kind of accessories do you include with an action figure Jesus, anyway? Loaves and fishes? Maybe a whip for the money changers in the Temple?) On the package it says in bold letters: “With movable arms and legs, Jesus of Nazareth is ready for action!”

You might call it serendipitous that I discovered my forgotten Jesus action figure during the season of Epiphany, in the midst of preaching the Gospel of Mark. Mark certainly gives us a picture of a Jesus ready for action. His is the shortest of the Gospels, but his storytelling is fast-paced and action-packed. It sizzles with urgency and there’s an air of breathless excitement in nearly every sentence he writes.

Mark presents us with a picture of a Jesus who is difficult to manage and control. All the Gospels do, but maybe it’s Mark’s vigorous tempo (with lots of turbulence) that seems to amplify just how untamed and wild is this Jesus. For the preacher, this can be especially irritating. It’s like chasing around a wild animal that escaped from its cage. You’re scrambling around trying to trap him, apologizing to everyone for the disruption, working hard on image management. If we could just get Jesus to behave—or at least not be quite so erratic and unruly.

Here’s something I had never noticed before: the number of times Mark tells us that people go looking for Jesus. The Greek word translated “looking for” (zetein) shows up in Mark ten times, and in every single case it is used pejoratively and involves someone trying to constrain or control Jesus. It’s used in Mark 3:21 when his family went out to restrain him because they thought he was out of his mind. It’s used again several verses later in Mark 3:31-33 when his mother and brothers come looking for him to try to talk some sense into him. And it’s used on the first Easter morning, when the women come looking for Jesus at the crack of dawn with their spices in hand. They receive a startling announcement when they discover the tomb empty: “You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.” The angel says. “He has been raised; he is not here!”

Have you ever noticed how it seems everybody, even up to the very end, is trying to handle Jesus, keep him sealed in the package, constrained by their own categories and expectations? I find myself doing this too. Do you? Don’t we all want a Jesus we can control and domesticate and bend into the shape we want him to be? Funny how he ends up looking an awful lot like the shape and image of ourselves when it’s all said and done. In the words of missiologist Alan Hirsch, “Show me your Jesus, and I’ll show you who you are.”

Catholic commentator and novelist Andrew Greeley, in a Chicago Sun-Times article, put it this way: “Once you domesticate Jesus, he isn’t there anymore. The domestic Jesus may be an interesting fellow, a good friend, a loyal companion, a helpful business associate, a guarantor of the justice of your wars. But one thing he is certainly not: the Jesus of the New Testament. Once Jesus comforts your agenda, he’s not Jesus anymore.” (“There’s No Solving Mystery of Christ”, Chicago Sun-Times, January 16, 2004, www.suntimes.com/index/.)

That last line haunts me: Once Jesus comforts your agenda, he’s not Jesus anymore. It makes me wonder about my own blind spots and the many ways I go looking for Jesus by insisting he fit nicely into my agenda (rather than me fitting into his kingdom agenda). This has been my prayer for Epiphany: “Lord, help me to see what I’m not seeing.” I want this…and I don’t. I might as well name it. Because I like being comfortable. I like having a Jesus that bends to fit my shape. I like a Jesus who stays in the package. But then what am I missing out on when I refuse to take Jesus on his own terms? Maybe the very life and freedom and adventure my heart most longs for.

Mark doesn’t bore us with a Jesus who is “meek and mild.” He has no time for that. Mark unleashes a Jesus who is untamed and wild. A Jesus who will not be bent into our shape (as hard as we may try) but insists on bending us into his. A Jesus who disrupts, confronts, agitates, offends, provokes and bids us to come and die. Not even a Roman cross could nail him down nor could a sealed tomb lock him up. Sure, roll a stone in front of it—the biggest one you can find. Put your nation’s stamp on it. It’s no use. He is a Messiah on the loose!

I’m looking at my Jesus action figure, turning the box in my hands, and I wonder…maybe it’s time to open the package.

Brian Keepers is minister of preaching and congregational leadership at Fellowship Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan

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