Imaginary Jesus

Parables of Jesus Christ Church Website BannerHave you ever seen the movie Talladega nights? A comedy featuring Will Farrell and John C. Riley who portray two fictitious NASCAR drivers, Ricky Bobby and Cal Naughton, Jr.?
In one of the my favorite comedy scenes of all time, we come in on Ricky and Cal at the dinner table along with Ricky’s trophy wife, his two feral sons, and his elderly father in law, Chip. Before they begin their feast on fast food provided by his NASCAR sponsor, Ricky prays a prayer over the food in an effort to secure God’s blessing in the upcoming race.
During the prayer, he repeatedly prays to “Baby Jesus.” When his wife asks him why he keeps saying that, he exclaims that he like’s Christmas Jesus the best and proceeds to continue saying grace to “8lb. 6 oz. baby Jesus”. Chip then feels compelled to chime in that Jesus grew to be a man with a beard, Ricky says, “You can pray to whatever Jesus you want,” but that he likes Christmas Jesus the best. Cal then chips in that he likes to imagine Jesus wearing a tuxedo T-shirt because, in his words, “It says I want to be formal, but I’m here to party, and I like my Jesus to party.”
The two boys then join and say they like to imagine their Jesus as a samurai warrior fighting off evil ninjas. The added inspiration causes Cal to declare that he likes to imagine his Jesus singing lead vocals for Lynyrd Skynyrd with an Angel Band while he’s in the front row, hammered drunk (I would have linked the clip but there is way too much profanity for me to do justify doing so).
As silly as the scene seems, most of us sort of do that with Jesus, although probably not to that extent. We haven’t met Jesus in the flesh, so we create in our minds an imaginary Jesus who may or may not be anything like the real Jesus. We do it with the way Jesus looks, since if you were to Google Jesus, you’d find dozens of different depictions, and around the world and throughout time, he’s been portrayed differently.
Cultures have often tended to create imagery of Jesus in their own image, like them. Swedish Jesus (blonde hair, blue eyes), generic European Jesus, black Jesus, even Chinese Jesus. Few seem to be a middle-eastern Jewish Jesus. Since we don’t know, we imagine he was like us, which in a way is a good thing, but also has its pitfalls. The challenge is that it doesn’t stop with how Jesus looks. It extends to how he acted.
I think we’d be surprised if we met him face to face. I think we’d probably be surprised with his actions as well, because in the same way our pictures of Jesus don’t really capture who he was, neither do many of the portrayals of Jesus that exist in our popular culture.
For some, there is the claim that Jesus never even existed, so our question doesn’t matter. This is the minority opinion though, held by fewer than 10% of American adults and even fewer serious scholars, since we know that there is more historical evidence even outside the Bible for Jesus life, ministry, death, and purported resurrection than for Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo.
The other 90% of American adults agree that Jesus was an actual historical person, but still, they disagree on who he was. Some say he was a revolutionary who was seeking to bring reform to Palestine by a counter-cultural revolution of love and peace, which ended up getting him killed by the Roman Government. Still others claim that Jesus was simply a great moral and spiritual teacher, who like Buddha, Muhammed, and other religious leaders gave people a better way to live, showing how to live a good life and perhaps get to God—if they believe in such a person.
But for millions of Christians over the last 2000 years, there has been quite a different claim: That this man was in fact human like you and I, but was at the same time God, and that he didn’t come back to show the way to God, but to make a way, that he was “the way” Before they were called Christians they were called followers of “The Way.”
If you were around for December’s Dinner Church, you know that in the beginning of the New Testament book of John—an account of Jesus life, ministry, death and resurrection from one of Jesus’ followers named John—he makes this very claim. He then proceeded to recount 7 miraculous signs Jesus performed and 7 discourses he gave as signs so, as John wrote toward the end of the book, “you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31).
Throughout history, there have been many amazing people who lived extraordinary lives, but what you think about them won’t make too much difference in you day to day dealings. If you think Winston Churchill was a hero or a jerk doesn’t matter all that much. But we are told that what you believe about this man will. It will change every hour of every day of the rest of your life.
As we end, I’d like to invite you on a journey, a journey to replace the imaginary Jesus of our minds with a fuller picture of who Jesus really was by going to the accounts of those who knew him best. You can start with the Gospel of John. There are 21 chapters, so reading one chapter a day (about 10 minutes) you can finish the whole account in 3 weeks. As you read, ask yourself, “Who is Jesus?”  You’ll hear who John believed he was, who others who encountered him said he was, and especially who he said he was.
Will you join me?