God is Love (Not Santa or Zeus)
Jesus began to teach his disciples that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
"God is Love (Not Santa or Zeus)"
2nd Sunday in Lent, B
There is a difference between how most people in our culture envision God and how God is described in the Bible. Americans typically imagine God in one of two ways: (1) Santa Claus and (2) Zeus.
Santa Claus: "God" is there to watch me all year and judge whether I’m naughty or nice. If I do well, God will give me whatever I want. If I behave badly, God will give me something kinda bad like a lump of coal, but I won’t be too worse off for it. This is a judgmental God, but one is ultimately very nice and cuddly.
Zeus: "God" is an angry, old white man with long hair and a beard. (Think Sistine Chapel) This God carries a thunderbolt in his hand, and a grimace on his face at all times. This God is cruel and mean, waiting for people to screw up and ready to punish us on a moment’s notice.
Neither of these predominant cultural images for God come very close to the Christian God, the God who Jesus shows us. For one, both are old white men. They uphold the status quo in dangerous ways, and they don't embody God's defining characteristic: Love. Santa Claus is too wishy-washy and conflict-avoidant to offer true love, while Zeus is too cruel and sadistic to be loving.
Our God is not Santa Claus, and our God is not Zeus. Our God’s character is perfectly embodied in the person of Jesus Christ. He is the Incarnate Word of God and the perfect Image of the Father (John 1; Heb 1). So whenever we have doubts about what God is like, even if they crop up from other depictions of God in the Bible, we have to turn back to Jesus. Jesus is that window into God’s heart. The way Jesus behaved on earth is critical to our understanding of God.
In this passage from the Gospel of Mark, Jesus begins to disclose some secrets about himself to the disciples. “Jesus began to teach his disciples that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priest, and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (Mark 8:31). This is not a prediction in the typical sense. Jesus isn’t talking like a prophet or seer who has insight into the future. Instead he is describing what will inevitably happen when the Lord God of Israel interacts with selfish human institutions.
Our God created the heavens and the earth in total and perfect love. Human beings rebelled against God’s purposes. And not even the chosen people of Israel could overcome our common addiction to sin and selfishness. God saw our failings and offered a “part” of Godself, the Word or Son of God, to become the perfect offering for our sin. When things got messy, God didn’t send a thunderbolt or a lump of coal. God came in person.
But God’s Love doesn’t jive with our sin and selfishness, especially not when it becomes entrenched in political and religious institutions. Jesus did not live as a chief priest or as a Pharisee or any other part of the establishment. He wasn’t a Roman governor or general or Caesar. He was a peasant who got popular through his dynamic preaching.
Jesus preached a message of hope for all. It was simple: “The time has come. The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe in the Good News!” (Mark 1:15). It’s time to stop fooling around with war and exploitation and robbery. Now is the time to repent, to turn away from sin, and toward God’s promise of mercy.
The people on the bottom of society loved that. God loves us too? We can be saved from oppression and hunger and evil? Sure, we can follow this guy!
But people in seats of power weren’t so excited. Jesus’ message asked everyone to change. All people needed to give up some of their own stuff for the sake of their neighbor. And those with most wealth, power, and privilege had the most to lose.
So it was necessary or fated that when the God of Love appeared on earth and called for social and personal change, that powerful people would reject him. They would make him suffer. And when pressed hard enough, they would kill him. Jesus peacefully preached the Good News and called people to repentance. And that message exposed the violence and brutality at the heart of the Roman Empire and Jewish religious establishment.
But Jesus wasn’t finished. After being killed, it is also fated that he would rise again. Death would not hold down the God of the Universe. The love of God is stronger than the powers of hell and death. Jesus would emerge victorious.
This shows us what kind of God we serve. Not a Santa Claus or a Zeus, arbitrary, selfish creature like the rest of us. We serve a God who is willing to get down in the trenches with us, to suffer with us, to die with us. Our God is willing to go to hell in order to save us. This God loves us enough to go before us. Jesus loves us enough to let go of self-centeredness and sacrifice himself for the sake of others. God is Love because God cares about other people and not just the self!
The hard part for all of us this Lent is finding the courage to follow after Jesus. Let us draw closer to him in our prayers, fasting, and almsgiving this season and forever. Amen.
Davis, D. Mark. “The Imperatives of Discipleship.” Left Behind and Loving It. Blog. Published 18 February 2018. Accessed 22 February 2018. http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2015/02/the-imperatives-of-discipleship.html
Portier-Young, Anathea. “Apocalyptic Preaching.” Working Preacher. Blog. Published 1 June 2009. Accessed 22 February 2018. https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1835