Good Questions: Why does Jesus Matter?

Reflections from Dr. Howell

I’ve been a pastor a long time now, and I realize I disappoint people sometimes because I don’t preach or even warm up to the simple catch-phrases we see cross-stitched or on posters: “Just Give Me Jesus.” “Jesus is the Answer.” “Jesus is the Reason for the Season.” I think these are true in a thin way, but for me they’re just too skinny to carry the weight – or answer our hard questions. However much we love memorable, digestible slogans, I resonate to the wisdom of the Irish poet Pádraig ÓTuama: “Whatever Jesus means, it doesn’t mean something that can be written on a fridge magnet.”

Jesus was a complicated guy. His closest friends and his own mother were confused about and by him. “Jesus is the Answer”? He raises way more questions than he answers! He was a teacher, but he asked questions more than he rolled out answers; he told stories that lacked an obvious point, and mystified listeners. I’m okay with declaring him the Greatest Teacher Ever – but his words annihilate my pet notions of goodness and touch off a wildfire that consume the pretty meadow of my neatly arranged life. Love your enemies? Turn the other cheek? Sell all you possess? Lose your life to save it? Blessed are the poor? Take up your cross? Don’t lay up treasure on earth?

Jesus’ words, if you’ve really read and pondered them, are wonderful, but brutally counter-cultural and subversive. People who’ve actually done the things he said wound up dead or the butt of jokes. Besides, the Bible never says (oddly enough!) Do what Jesus said, follow his teachings, and that’s all. It would be fantastic, and God would be tickled pink. But your friends and family might intervene to institutionalize you – and you might discover that, at the end of the day, even doing all the right things, even implementing all the Jesus things, isn’t enough.

At the opening of Jesus Christ Superstar, Judas chides Jesus, saying “You’ve begun to matter more than the things you say.” The New Testament obviously admires and advocates for the things Jesus taught. But it’s not as if he’s the top-ranked teacher of all-time, and that’s why he matters. It’s his identity, his origin, his nature, and his destiny that give his words their revolutionary punch, and cause us to pause and ask if we believe in him, if we will follow him, attach ourselves to him, and even count on him every moment and especially when we suffer and in the hour of death.

The New Testament, echoed by the centuries-long sweep of Christian theology, has been eager to tell us that Jesus, somehow, mysteriously, confusingly yet hopefully, is God, or is our clearest window into the heart of God. Hours before the crucifixion, Philip asked Jesus “Show us God, and we will be satisfied.” So he walked out of that Upper Room, prayed in agony to God to spare his life, but then surrendered to wicked men, charged unjustly, mocked and scourged, then executed in the most gruesome, shameful way imaginable. One of the Romans, watching his breathe his last, said “Surely this was the Son of God.”

Jesus’ crucifixion raises a zillion Good Questions with No Easy Answers – which may be why God arranged for this to be the revealing, the exposure of God’s own heart. Why did he die? We might answer “for our sins” – but how does a horrible death 2,000 years ago dig into my gut today and right what’s wrong? Why did they kill him? Why didn’t he fight back? Why didn’t God swoop down and rescue him? The crucifixion of Jesus isn’t the big answer to all questions, because Jesus, hanging there, didn’t answer those who questioned him, but asked a whopper himself: “My God, why have you forsaken me?”

Early in our series, we asked What is God like? Maybe the whole point of the Gospels and the New Testament and even bothering with Church today is for us to ponder that sequence of awful events, Jesus’ love for his friends, his willingness to sacrifice, his bearing the brunt of evil, his rejection, his enduring what we all will one day endure, even his questioning of God – and not to draw neat conclusions, but simply to ponder, to let ourselves be moved, to let it do whatever it will do in our souls, to let all the questions fly up to God, to see ourselves in him and in those standing around who were perplexed and sorrowful. No bullet points, no 7 simple tasks, no fridge magnet sayings. Just this Jesus, refusing to judge anybody, loving his mother, a random thief he just met, and the soldiers too stupid to realize what they’d done. “When I survey the wondrous cross.” We just survey the thing. This is salvation, forgiveness, hope.

And then we ask Who was he? Who is he? Is this God’s way? Is he the way? The best questions ever, the only ones that matter, are about the identity of this vulnerable, sad man loving but crying out to God – which somehow made his followers say all of history pivoted that day. More in our next email – and maybe for the rest of our lives!