Monday, March 23, 2015

The Animal Philosopher

My sermon for this week was based on John 12:20-33.

To download an audio of my sermon, click here.

There is a name applied to Jesus in several places in the New Testament that always used to baffle me: the Son of Man.  Christians believe that Jesus was the son of God, so what is this whole "Son of Man" thing all about?

The term "Son of Man" as used by Jesus and/or the New Testament authors likely hearkens back to the book of Daniel, who in turn was probably borrowing imagery from the Book of Jeremiah.

In Jeremiah, the prophet says ""Behold, the days are coming", says the Lord, "when I will sow the house of of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of man and the seed of beast" (31:27).  Needless to say, the seed of men behave like human beings, and the seed of beasts behave like beasts.  Jeremiah is attempting to explain why some people behave rationally and morally, and why others seem to have lost their moral compass and behave like wild beasts.

Daniel picks up on this imagery a couple hundred years later.  He has a dream in which he sees four fantastic beasts rising up out of the waters: a lion with wings like an eagle, a ravenous bear with three ribs clamped in its jaws, a leopard with four heads and four wings, and an undisclosed beast with ten horns and teeth of iron.

Opinions vary, but it is generally accepted that these four beasts represent four conquering kingdoms: Assyria, Babylon, Media and Persia, the first three of which had already risen and fallen, the fourth of which was yet to come.

But what is telling is that as the vision continues, Daniel sees "one like a son of man, coming with the clouds out of heaven".  This being is "given authority, glory and and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him" (7:13-14).

It is interesting to note what Daniel does NOT say.  He does not say that this "son of man" threw the beasts down, slit their throats, cut off their heads, or anything violent.  This "son of man" merely appears and the beasts are subdued.

So this "son of man" was a person who was governed by logic, reason, intellect and rationality.  This "son of man" was a being who acted in accordance with mercy, justice, compassion, forgiveness and love.  In short, this being acted like a human being, and not an animal.

Why is this relevant?  Well, it gives us an indication of the type of kingdom Christ envisioned.

Throughout the Gospels, we have every indication that the disciples and the followers of Jesus failed pretty consistently to understand the message Jesus was trying to convey.  They were very much rooted in the Jewish apocalyptic messianic hope: that a man would come who would be a great warrior-king, who would overthrow the powers of oppression by military force, and reestablish the foremost position of the chosen people of God.

But then along comes Jesus with his "love your neighbour" and his "pray for your enemies" and his "let he who is without sin cast the first stone"...not exactly the fearsome champion one would hope for.

But here is the thing: kingdoms come and go.  Empires rise and fall.  Nations wax and wane.  That is because kingdoms, empires and nations are without exception based on power.  Name one kingdom that has not fallen, I dare you.  Even the US is on the decline.  That is because all kingdoms and nations throughout history have been based on military might, political power and economic muscle.  They are essentially selfish endeavours.  They are, in other words, characteristic of animals, among whom "might makes right" is the only rule.

What Jesus was proposing was a kingdom based on the exact opposite of those things.  He was proposing a kingdom based on those things that elevate us above the animals (side note: I believe in animal rights and I believe that human beings are merely a part of nature, you'd have to be an idiot not to acknowledge that there are a few things that separate us from the other animals).

Jesus was proposing a kingdom based on ethics, values and morality; a kingdom based on compassion, justice, mercy, forgiveness, acceptance, tolerance, inclusion...all those things most other animals have such difficulty mastering.

Yeah, it would be a different kind of kingdom, and I hasten to add that I don't think Jesus was envisioning a "Christian" kingdom.  I personally feel that Christ would be shocked an appalled at what has been done in his name, but I think that the virtues and values he embodied in his life are solid.  I believe that his self-sacrifice was unfortunately necessary as a cautionary tale to warn us of the dangers of letting our animal impulses get the best of us.

We are human beings, capable of such feats of intellect, but we are also capable of such great atrocities.

Choose your nature wisely.

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