What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? We all have “unclean spirits” that hold us in fear and compel us to ask this question: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” This question is rich with fear-filled meaning. The question itself exercises authority over us.
What have you to do with us? The question could be genuine. We may really not know what the point of Jesus’ ministry was.
What have you to do with us? The question could be about the judgment of Christ in God. When God looks at our lives and evil we’ve done and the good we’ve failed to do, will God reject us when we stand before the throne? Have we already been rejected?
What have you to do with us? The question could be about our self-doubts. When we receive grace and forgiveness, we may not feel worthy of it. We may feel that our realities of poverty, anger, injustice, or apathy are too great to be overcome by Jesus of Nazareth.
That final emphasis is particularly haunting to me. We can say with our lips that we believe that Jesus has more authority than any evils in our lives or our world, but it is another thing to believe it when we are in the midst of feeling the great pain that the evils cause.
I can say that Christ has authority over the rulers of the world. I can call him King of kings and Lord of lords, but does my heart doubt this when I see Republicans and Democrats refuse to even listen to each other’s ideas and refuse to pass legislation that addresses the great needs of families, immigrants, prisoners, and the hungry? Does my heart doubt Christ’s authority over the rulers of this world when I listen to stories about the cruel injustice of North Korea where the few are incredibly wealthy while hundreds of thousands are malnourished? The question finds its way to my lips, “What have you do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?”
I can say that Christ has authority over knowledge and wisdom. I can call him Rabbi or teacher, but does my heart doubt this when I hear messages from supposed leaders of the church who teach that those who are happy, healthy, and wealthy are divinely favored by God while those who are sad, ill, poor, or hurt are justly receiving God’s wrath? We hear it in all sorts of ways. Most famously I remember when Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson discussed why the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center occurred. They believed that certain Americans had incurred God’s wrath for acting contrary to what they believed to be God’s will. They claimed that thousands of innocent people were murdered in accordance with the will of God because of the actions of, “the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle…” This very anti-Gospel message proclaims that God is not “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” as we read in Exodus, but that God is quick to anger and severely lacking in steadfast love.
This distorting message of hate and self-righteousness was proclaimed by many people when a minor tornado hit the building where the ELCA held its Churchwide Assembly in 2009. At that assembly, the church voted in favor of ordaining gay and lesbian clergy who were in active relationships. Some opponents of the result of this vote concluded that God was sending a message of disapproval and wrath to the ELCA. When I hear such clamor praised as knowledge and wisdom, do I doubt that Jesus of Nazareth has authority over the truth of God’s steadfast love and grace? The question finds its way to my lips, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?”
I can say that Christ has authority over death itself. I can call him The Risen One or The Bread of Life, but does my heart doubt this when I am confronted with the apparent authority of death? When I read of yet another murder in Trenton? When I hear about another mosque bombing like the one in Pakistan last Friday that killed 55 people? Or about the Palestinians and Israelis who kill each other on a regular basis? Or the loved one who whose life was snuffed out by the unfeeling killer of cancer, a stroke, or a heart attack? When I see these many apparent victories of death over life, do I doubt that Jesus of Nazareth has authority over death itself? The question finds its way to my lips, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?”
When we look around us, it looks like there are a whole host of powers that have authority over our lives and world and it does not look like Jesus of Nazareth. Unjust rulers, fear-mongering false prophets, and death itself seem to win at the end of the day.
But it doesn’t. In the presence of injustice and suffering, the love of God is born. It is precisely when the powers of sin, death, and the devil seem to be in control that it is revealedthat God is really in control.
Emmanuel Jal was a child soldier in Sudan. He was only 8 years old when he was recruited by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. His childhood was destroyed by his government who murdered his family and burned his village, and in this fragile state, he joined a rebel army. Instead of playing games, dancing, and singing songs, Emmanuel learned how to handle an assault rifle and use it to end the lives of others. He described his experience as a child soldier, “It’s hell. Seeing 6-, 7-year-olds dead. Nobody going to give them [answers] when they begin to ask questions: ‘Why are we here, where is our mommy?’”
Emmanuel attempted to escape along with 200-400 other children, but only 16 survived. He arrived at town called Waat and met a British aid worker named Emma McCune who smuggled him into Kenya.
Emmanuel is now an accomplished hip-hop artist who has released six albums in the past 10 years. His first single was entitled, “All We Need is Jesus,” and it was a hit in Kenya. Most recently he starred with Reese Witherspoon in the film, “The Good Lie,” but his true passion remains with music. He describes music as “the place where I [am] able to see heaven… through music I was able to dance, I was able to become a child again.”
Emmanuel Jal lived through hell, but now he can see heaven. We see hell all around us every day. We see it in the newspapers and on the internet. We see it on the faces of our loved ones. We see it in the mirror. We are all captive by an “unclean spirit” that moves us to despair and to ask, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” Christ, however, enters into all the hells on earth. Right from the beginning of his ministry, Jesus goes head-to-head with an unclean spirit. He doesn’t shy away from the confrontation with the brokenness and evil of our world. He confronts it directly and he destroys it. The people who witness this first exorcism are amazed and ask each other, “What is this? A new teaching- with authority!” This teaching is that the forces of sin, death, and the devil are on their way out. They have exercised their authority for long enough and Christ is taking it away from them. No longer will these spirits bring the doubts and fears of the question, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?”
Sin and death thought they had won the day. They thought they had absolute authority over this world when they held this man in the synagogue captive. They thought they had absolute authority when they convinced our leaders to look out for their own interests long before they look out for their people’s needs. They thought they had absolute authority when they convince us to hide God’s grace behind the veil of intolerance and anger. They thought they had absolute authority over this world when they convince us to kill without remorse and that this world will never have peace. They thought they had absolute authority over this world when they convince us that death is absolute. They thought they had absolute authority when the Holy One of God, Jesus of Nazareth, was crucified, died, and sealed away in a tomb.
They were wrong. They are wrong. Christ stepped into sin and death, so he could banish them and destroy them. Christ steps into the sin and death that surrounds you and me and that delivers the doubting question to our lips, “What are you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” Through his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus himself answers that question. He tells us in the healing of the man in the synagogue, his company of outcasts- prostitutes, tax-collectors, and the poor, and his giving of his own life for our sake. Our question is, “What are you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” His answer is, “To give you freedom and abundant life. And nothing is going to stop me.” Amen.