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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Jesus Is Not Nice

2016-08-14 Luke 12 49-56 

Jesus Is Not Nice

Think of all the people you know. All of them. Aren't they nice! Most of them? At least one of them? 

And when I say nice, don't mean simply pleasant. I mean truly, deeply, fundamentally nice. Nice to the core. They're just nice people. Nice to be around. Nice to their family. Nice to strangers. They're nice to everybody. They're just nice.

Now, we all know nobody's perfect. But they're within two one-hundredths of a point. You never see them mad. They never complain. They don't have a mean bone in their body. They always do unto others regardless of how ugly others do unto them. You know at least one person like that, don't you? You might not know them very well. But you can tell. They're nice.

Maybe it's you. Maybe you're the one everybody's thinking of. But of course you're too nice to believe it. Nice people don't think highly of themselves. Nice people don't brag. Nice people are "umble." Sweet Jesus, they're so meek and so mild they will definitely inherit the earth. Probably Mars and Jupiter, too. And who better? They're that nice.

Speaking of Jesus, you know he's nice. Jesus is super-duper nice. He's gotta be. He's God's son. He's perfect. Even as a baby, he was nice. "The cattle are lowing, the poor baby wakes, but Little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes." If that happened today, Mary would have him to Children's ER so fast. 

"Doctor, what's wrong with him?"
"M'am, your baby is nice.

"Don't worry. It usually resolves itself by the teenage years."

Of course Jesus is nice. God is nice. At least, that's what people think, and sing, and say, especially in church, when God is watching. But is that really the whole picture? Because, in the Bible, God can be kinda grumpy. Even in the New Testament. Sometimes sweet baby Jesus is even kinda rude. A good example is today's scripture lesson. Jesus is not nice. 

He says, 

"Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!
"I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!
"I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!"
"From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; ... father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law."

That's not nice at all. Holy Steve Harvey; that's a family feud. 

What do you do? What do you do when people aren't nice? And maybe more important, what do you do when JESUS isn't nice?


What do you do when people aren't nice?

Well, if (by the grace of God) you're a Southerner, there is a code. Actually, more of a guideline. We have manners. When he comes back, our children will call him, "Mister Jesus." It's the Eleventh Commandment: "Be sweet." How do you handle people who aren't nice? Just "rise above it." "When they go low, you go high." And my personal passive-aggressive favorite, "Kill 'em with kindness." And if those don't work, there's always rumor and gossip. "Well, I had no idea she weighs that much."

I grew up in West Virginia, which, although they fought for the wrong side in The War, is still pretty Southern, but with an Appalachian twist. 

David Dungan, beloved professor of Religion at UT, who had roots right here at Lake Hills, was fascinated by Appalachian Christianity. The mountain Jesus has the blood of Scots-Irish immigrants flowing from his pierced side. Dr. Dungan used to tell the story of the time he visited a tiny church in the hills. The preacher was giving a lesson about loving your enemy. The preacher said,

"Jesus teaches that if someone strikes you on the cheek, you turn and offer him the other cheek. And if he strikes you on the other cheek, you knock the tar out of 'im." 

No matter which part of the world we hail from - most of us, I think, do our best to be nice Christian people. We try hard to turn the other cheek. Sometimes we turn it so hard our head swings 360. Or, more likely, 180. We look the other direction. 

"Bless their heart." "That's just the way they are. Probably had a bad childhood." We teach our kids: "Ignore bad behavior."

And that, for the most part, I think, is how we treat scripture where Jesus is somewhat less than nice, too. We just ignore it. Unless we don't.


"Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!"

When the Prince of Peace says that, what do we do? What do you do?

It depends, doesn't it? It depends on how you've been taught to think about Jesus. It depends on how you're allowed to think about Jesus, on how you allow yourself to think about Jesus.

Many of us who read scripture of Not-Nice Jesus try to ignore his bad behavior. We skip over it. Yes, it's in the Bible, but we're not going to talk about that one. Look away. Look away. Remember how he took the children on his knee, saying, "Let them come to me." Deep down, he's very nice. He's Jesus.

Or we explain it. He was having a bad day. Some people can explain away all the ugly parts of scripture. It takes them a while, but they make a convincing case. I've read brilliant professors of scripture who do Olympic-level gymnastics to explain how Jesus didn't really mean what you think he means. These are very smart people with whom I am too unqualified and too nice to argue. I am intimidated by their footnotes. Jesus is always nice. I'm just not intelligent enough to realize it.

Or, we like it. A lot. Some people crave passages like this. In this political and social climate passages like today's ignite people's passion. "I'm sick of this nicey-nice, politically correct Jesus! Swords and fire and families going at each other? Booyah! This Thanksgiving I'm gonna tell my mother in-law what I really think about her religion and her politics! And her potato salad, too!"

When Jesus isn't nice, some of us ignore him, some of us explain him, some of us draft him into service. 

What do you do? What do you do when Jesus isn't nice?


What are we supposed to do when Jesus isn't nice?

This past week, I've read and watched several examinations of this scripture. My favorite is the one by writer and mom, Stephanie Phillips. I've put the address of her video in the sermon blog. It's called, "Grace Stinks: When the Healer Carries a Sword," and it's better than any explanation I've heard. Probably because it's not an explanation, nor is it a denial, nor is it a call to arms. I will take her example and try not to solve this not-nice Jesus-problem for you, if indeed it is a problem. Just because it's a problem for me doesn't mean you give a hoot. I find it a problem because my first inclination as a preacher is to solve all your problems. That would be nice. I want to be nice.

AND THAT - I think - is the real problem. Not the scripture. Not that Jesus is or isn't nice. It's that we want to be nice. Nice is our goal. And so, we want Jesus to embody our highest wants and goals. 

Now, that works. It works whether we want Jesus to be nice, or mean, or whatever. What are your highest goals? What are your expectations of yourself? Aren't they exactly the same expectations you have for Jesus? Who's worshiping whom?


People are weird. Anyone who takes human form is weird. People can be really nice. And people can be really mean. They can bring sweetness and they can bring a sword. We see other people do both, all the time. We see ourselves do both less often, because we're normal. And because we're usually pretty nice to ourselves. 

The question, then, isn't which Jesus is the "right" Jesus. It isn't whether you see Jesus as meek and mild, or whether you see him marching onward as the first Christian soldier. Because both images can be pulled from the Bible. 

The question is, how do you imagine yourself? How do you want to see yourself? How would you be if all the nice people, and all the mean people, and all the weird people would just get out of your way? How would you be if all the people of your household - your mother, your father, your son or daughter, your mother-in-law, your daughter-in-law, your boss, your friends - 

… how would you be if you didn't always have them trying to shape you into somebody else? Who would you be if you didn't have to always be so nice?

Would you bear a striking resemblance to your image of Jesus? Or would Jesus make you into somebody new?

The Bible never talks about making people better. It never talks about making people nice. The Bible talks about making all of us - you, me, all people, even all creation - into something new. 

Isaiah 43:19: "See, I am doing a new thing." (NIV). Revelation 21:1: "Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth." (NRSV).

Not a nice heaven and a nice earth. A new heaven and a new earth. Isaiah says, "NOW it springs forth; do you not see it?"

No. We probably don't. Because we're looking to our own goals. Because we're trying harder to be nice than faithful. Because we're not yet how we or God want us to be. 

Jesus is not nice. Jesus is new. He is always new. Do you not perceive it? God wants the same for you. Not to be nice. But to be made new in Jesus. 

We don't always know what that means. If we did, it wouldn't be new. 


For further reading and watching: