Frederick Buechner Sermon Illustration: Messiah (Acts 3:12-19)

In our blog post every Monday we select a reading from the Revised Common Lectionary for the upcoming Sunday, and pair it with a Frederick Buechner reading on the same topic.

Next Sunday we will celebrate the Third Sunday of Easter.  Here is this week’s reading from the book of Acts:

Acts 3:12-19

When Peter saw it, he addressed the people, "You Israelites, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk? The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong, whom you see and know; and the faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you. "And now, friends, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer. Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out’

Here is Frederick Buechner’s excerpt called “Messiah” found in Wishful Thinking and reprinted in Beyond Words:

"WIE MAN'S MACHT, IST'S FALSCH" is a crude German saying that means, freely translated, "Whatever people do, it turns out lousy." The Russians throw out the czars and end up with Stalin. The Americans free their slaves so they can move out into the world as paupers.

Or take the Jews. The nation that God chooses to be the hope of the world becomes the stooge of the world. The nation of priests becomes a nation of international politicians so inept at playing one major power off against another that by the time they're through, Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, Rome, all have a chance at wiping their feet on them—the cream of the population deported, the Temple destroyed, Jerusalem razed. The law of Moses becomes the legalism of the Pharisees, and "Can mortals be righteous before God?" becomes "Is it kosher to wear my dentures on the Sabbath?" The high priests sell out to the army of occupation. The Holy City turns into Miami Beach. Even God is fed up. Nobody knows all this better than the Jews know it. Who else has a Wailing Wall? Read the prophets.

Wie man's macht, ist's falsch. But the Jews went on hoping anyway, and beginning several centuries before the birth of Jesus, much of their hope took the form of an implausible dream that someday God would send them Somebody to make everything right. He was referred to as the Messiah, which means in Hebrew "the Anointed One," that is, the One anointed by God, as a king at his coronation is anointed, only for a bigger job. The Greek word for Messiah is "Christ."

How and when the Messiah would come was debatable. Theories as to what he would be like multiplied and overlapped: a great warrior king like David, a great priest like Melchizedek, a great prophet like Elijah. Who could possibly say? But whatever he was, his name would be called "Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace," and "of the increase of his government and of peace there would be no end" (Isaiah 9:6-7). Handel set him to music. On Passover eve to this day an extra cup is placed on the table for Elijah in case he stops in to say the Messiah is here at last. The door is left open.

When Jesus of Nazareth came riding into Jerusalem on his mule, a small group of radicals, illiterates, and ne'er-do-wells hailed him as the Messiah, the Christ. Everybody else suggested that you had to draw the line somewhere and advised as public and unpleasant an execution as possible, so nobody would fail to get the point. No one can deny that reason and prudence were on the side of the latter.

Reasons for Drawing the Line Somewhere

  1. He wasn't a king, a priest, or a prophet. He was nobody from nowhere. He spoke with an accent.

  2. On the one hand, his attitude toward the law was cavalier, to say the least. He said that it wasn't what went into your mouth that mattered, but what came out of it, thus setting back both the kosher industry and the WCTU about a thousand years apiece (Matthew 15:11). Also, some of his best friends were whores and crooks.

  3. On the other hand, he not only went further than Moses, but claimed his own to be the higher authority. Moses was against murder. Jesus was against vindictive anger. Moses was against adultery. Jesus was against recreational sex. Moses said love your neighbor. Jesus said love your enemy too. Moses said be good. Jesus said be perfect (Matthew 5:21-48).

  4. Who did he think he was anyway?

  5. Who can be perfect?

  6. Who wants to be?

  7. He was not only a threat to the established church but to the establishment itself. Jewish orthodoxy and the Pax Romana were both in danger. He could easily have become a Fidel Castro.

  8. His fans attributed a great many miracles to him up to and including bringing a corpse back to life, but there was one miracle he couldn't pull off, and that was saving his own skin. He died just as dead on the cross as all the others who had died on it, and some of them held out a lot longer.

  9. His fans continue to ascribe a great many miracles to him, including his own resurrection, but the world is in just about as bad shape since his time as before, maybe worse.

As far as I know, there is only one good reason for believing that he was who he said he was. One of the crooks he was strung up with put it this way: "If you are the Christ, save yourself and us" (Luke 23:39). Save us from whatever we need most to be saved from. Save us from each other. Save us from ourselves. Save us from death both beyond the grave and before.

If he is, he can. If he isn't, he can't. It may be that the only way in the world to find out is to give him the chance, whatever that involves. It may be just as simple and just as complicated as that.