Russell Levenson: Hold On to Jesus

I promise I get no financial payment for what I am about to say, but, to be honest, I love Amazon. I know some people don’t, but I love Amazon. I do almost all my gift-giving through Amazon. When I ask my kids what they want for Christmas, I don’t get a list anymore, I just get “links.” Search, click, into the cart it goes and then the magic happens. A day or two later, that box arrives at the door. I open it up. It’s nicely packaged, everything in its place. And if I decide I don’t want it, I put it back in the box, print out the return label, and I get a refund.

Boxes on your porch are usually great. Boxes are great things – for holding things, storing things, moving things around. Sometimes though, you know, we put people in boxes. A few years ago, I flew into the Birmingham, Alabama, Airport to visit family. Now I had not lived in Birmingham for nearly 25 years, but I stood waiting on our luggage and, as I did, I recognized an old friend with whom I used to go to church. She looked at me, kind of twisted her head, and said with a question mark, “Russell?” “Yes!” I said with a smile. As I walked toward her for a little mini-reunion, the next words out of her mouth were, “You’ve gotten old!” I said, “Well, yes, thirty years and three grown children will do that to you!”

What had she done? She had put me in a box. She remembers the younger, slimmer, less wrinkled, less war-torn version of me.

Boxes are nice for storing old things or ordering new things, but life cannot happen if it stays in the same old box. No one proved this more powerfully than Jesus. Some of Jesus’ contemporaries tried to put Jesus in a box.

Some put him in a box called “Revolutionary,” but then he paid his taxes. They tried to put Jesus in a box called “Rabbi,” but then you could find him worshipping in all kinds of places, not just the synagogue. They tried the “Righteous and Holy” box, but then Jesus kept hanging out with sinners, with prostitutes, and tax collectors, and Samaritans and Gentiles – all deemed unclean by the religionists of Jesus’ time. Some tried to box him in as a strong male leader, but then he specifically recruited women in a very male-dominated society. He spoke like a king but lived like a pauper. People tried to box him in, but they couldn’t.

Do you ever think we try to box Jesus in?

Have you ever been in one of those cabs with a little Jesus super-glued onto the dashboard? Watch closely next time you are riding in a cab like that, and you are likely to see the cabbie reach up and touch that Jesus when they want a parking place or want to make the next green light – that’s the “Jesus Who Does Me Favors” box. Do you ever find yourself putting Jesus in that kind of box?

That’s what we call a “transactional God” – a God who deals with us about the way Amazon does: click this way, take an item off your wish list and it drops into your shopping cart – and you’ve done your deal with Jesus.

That Jesus is not God. That Jesus is a barter agent, a floor trader, a shopkeeper. That Jesus fits nicely in a box, but the Jesus of the Gospels does not operate in a box. No box can hold him.

When all the boxes failed, what did Jesus’ enemies do? They crucified him and buried him in a borrowed box called a tomb. They thought, “There, there…” dusted off their hands and said, “He’s done; gone forever.” But Jesus showed them: “You cannot keep me in a box… any box.”

Even when he rose, he did not do it in a way anyone expected. He could have done it in the way his apostles might have hoped… perhaps rode back into Jerusalem in a heavenly chariot drawn by divine steed, encircled with sword-swinging angels in a kind of cataclysmic “I’ll show you what happens when you crucify God.”

But, nope, he shows himself first to women. He pops up in quiet places: a garden by dawn’s early light, a locked room and here, in today’s lesson, on a road not overrun with folk, but just coming up alongside two of his disciples.

At St. Martin’s in Houston, where I serve, we have a wonderful bronze sculpture of this scene which shows Jesus with a man and a woman. Since we installed this piece, more than a few people have said to me when they see the sculpture, “Oh, but the Bible says nothing about it being a man and a woman.”

That’s true, what the story tells us is that Jesus appears to two disciples, one a man named Cleopas, the other is nameless, and also no gender is mentioned. Women followed Jesus too. Don’t try to box Jesus in!

We might expect Jesus to come up and say, “Bam! Ta-Dah! Here I am! Miss me?” But he does not. He walks alongside them. For whatever reason, Jesus keeps his identity from them, asking them, “What are you talking about?” They, almost incensed, say, “Are you from around these parts? Have you no idea what’s been going on here?”

“Hmmm,” Jesus says, and they continue, “Some women went to the tomb this morning, and said it was empty! They said some angels said, ‘He has risen.’ But you know, some of the others found the tomb empty, but they did not see him.” (As if to say, it was women after all).

At that point, Jesus - not yet fully unveiled - has a full-on Bible study with them. He takes them all the way through the Hebrew Scriptures… and with every step, he begins breaking open their stale boxes. They thought they had it all figured out, but Jesus was showing them he could not be kept in a box.

They implore him to come and walk with them, to eat with them. They sit down for a meal, Jesus breaks the bread and, in that moment – that very moment, they get it, the disguise falls away. They recognize Jesus – the real Jesus, the risen Jesus; and at the very moment they might have liked to lay their hands on him and hold him down, he disappears. But he leaves something behind – his presence.

And one says to the other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us? Were not our hearts burning?!”

Do you long for your heart to burn in that way? Do you want to know the presence of Christ in your life – as real as the bread and the wine? As present as the person in the pew next to you? Then, my friends, don’t box Jesus in.

Here's one of the most common ways we box him in today: that is, we put ourselves in a box. We find a neat, tidy, familiar place and we stay there; we pull the top over ourselves. But, all boxed in like that leaves little room for light or life to enter – especially if you are holding that box top tightly closed.

So, you might need to ask the one who could not be boxed up to help you out of the walls you have placed around yourself. You might be in the “I’m just not going to believe in all that Jesus stuff” box. I love what C.S. Lewis wrote: “When you argue against him, you are arguing against the very power that makes you able to argue at all: it is like cutting off the branch you are sitting on.”

Maybe you’re in a box of anger. You’ve got a really deep grudge. You’ve decided going through life as a bitter, grumpy, person is not just what you deserve, it’s what others deserve when they meet you. You need to meet the Jesus who says you cannot box in the number of times you are supposed to forgive.

Maybe you’re in a box of addiction – that bottle, or pill, or that sick relationship that you thought was going to set you free has become your prison, and you need to meet the Jesus of recovery. Call that friend who goes to AA and ask for help; reach out to that person you know has also battled those demons; take a step onto a path that leads to a treatment program – so you can experience what freedom is really all about.

Maybe you’ve boxed yourself in with guilt, or are burdened and so afraid of letting go of the past, or facing the future that you are wracked with worry. You need to let Jesus meet you on that road. And that Jesus wants to walk with you – to open your eyes so that you can find a priest, a pastor, a believer who might pray with you and help point the way to the one who can wipe away all angst, all fear, all guilt.

Whatever holds you back or boxes you in, push back against those enclosed places. Open your ears, your heart, to the one who is present everywhere and anywhere – in the horror of the Cross, the glory of the empty tomb, the complexity of the galaxies, the simplicity of broken bread and shared wine.

Don’t try to box him in by boxing yourself in – let Jesus be Jesus; not the Jesus you make up, but the Jesus who cannot be held, even by death itself. Some of you have probably read J.B. Phillips’ wonderful little book, Your God Is Too Small. In it, he simply reminds us that if you box God in, what you get is a very small God, a God who really has nothing to offer the pains of life. That’s frankly an impotent understanding of who God is; instead, Phillips coaches us to let God be God – and no telling what he’ll do because, well, he’s God.

How long has it been since you experienced the burning presence of Jesus in your heart? If it has been a while, you’ve probably boxed God in. If you have a small view of Jesus, then life will overwhelm you. If your Jesus can be boxed up, or put on a dashboard, or kept in a political opinion, or retained only in a church building or a specific denomination… if your Jesus can be controlled, and packaged, and pocketed, then that Jesus has no say over those crushing realities of life – disappointment, betrayal, guilt, sickness, death, and grief.

But if your view of Jesus Christ is great, is large, is something not of your own making but his, then your view of anyone or anything else that may seem insurmountable will become small, will shrink, dry up, and fly away in the presence of God’s greatness.

There’s a great scene in the second installment of the Chronicles of Narnia, Prince Caspian, the child Lucy sees the Christ figure Aslan the lion for the first time after a long absence. And upon seeing him, she says, “Aslan, you are bigger.” And he says, “Oh, that’s because you are older, little one.” And she says, “It’s not because you are?” He says, “No, you see, every year you grow, you will find me bigger.”

It's not that Jesus gets bigger, it’s just that our understanding gets bigger As we grow in Christ, we simply see more of him than we had ever seen before. So, as we allow him to free us from the boxes we might have built around ourselves, we will actually meet Jesus – not a buried, boxed-in, dead Jesus, but a live, free, Lord and Savior.

I close by sticking with Aslan for a few moments. If you have read The Chronicles of Narnia, you will recall that Aslan is the Christ figure, and the series begins with the unveiling of the great divide there is between good and evil, personified in the person of a White Witch and her followers. Aslan calls alongside him his followers, in particular four children, to battle against the tide of the evil witch; but for a moment evil has its say, and the White Witch tortures and kills the mighty Aslan. But, like our story, death does not have the last word and Aslan rises from death, renewed and full of life, and he appears to two of the children, Lucy and Susan. Now, let me let the story speak from this point…

They looked around. There, shining in the sunrise and larger than they had seen him before, shaking his mane, stood Aslan himself.… “Oh, Aslan!” cried both the children, staring up at him, almost as much frightened as they were glad. “Aren’t you dead then, dear Aslan?” said Lucy. “Not now,” said Aslan.

“You’re not – a…” asked Susan in a shaky voice. She couldn’t bring herself to say the word ghost. Aslan stooped his golden head and licked her forehead. The warmth of his breath and rich sort of smell that seemed to hang about his hair came all over her. “Do I look it?” he said. “Oh, you’re real!”

“…Oh, Aslan!” cried Lucy, and both girls flung themselves upon him and covered him with kisses. “But what does this all mean?” asked Susan… “It means,” said Aslan, “when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead… _Death itself would start working backward.”

“…And now…” “Oh yes. Now?” said Lucy jumping up and clapping her hands. “Oh children,” said the Lion, “I feel my strength coming back to me… _I feel I am going to roar… _You had better put your fingers in your ears.” And they did.

And Aslan stood up, and when he opened his mouth to roar, his face became so terrible that they did not dare look at it. And they saw all the trees in front of him bend before the blast of his roaring as grass bends in a meadow before the wind. And then he said, “We have a long journey to go. You must ride on me.” [The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, pp. 130-134.]

You and I, friends, have the journey of life to live. We can try and live it in a box, we can try and box Jesus in – but there’s no life there. Let Jesus out of whatever box you have tried to put him in; that’s not where you will find him, and that’s not how you will find your way out of whatever tomb you may be in right now.

God is so much bigger than you and I could ever imagine. Don’t believe me? Give him your boxes. Take hold of Jesus. Ride on him, take his hand, let him help you out of those boxes. Hold on to Jesus. It will be a ride of a lifetime and a life beyond this life that lasts for all eternity.

Hold on to Jesus, and you will - as those disciples did - you will feel your hearts burning within you.

Let us pray.

Heavenly Father, whose loving grace and mercy surround us on every side, I bid you to be with us this day. Free us from the boxes that enclose us. Help us to give our lives to you in the person of Christ, to hold fast to him and know the life that is above all life – life here and life eternal offered in your son, our Savior, Christ. Amen.