Sunday, June 15, 2008

Was Jesus Bitter?

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Sunday, June 15, 2008
Matthew 9:35—10:20

Generally speaking, when people think about Jesus, what do they feel about Him? He’s nice. He’s loving. He’s a servant. Generally speaking, people think of Jesus as a great person. He was a famous teacher who did a lot of good for this world.

Have you ever known someone who was like this? They were a good person, dedicated to helping others, selfless with their time and kind-hearted. But as time went by they became hardened. Their words and demeanor showed an increasing bitterness. It was sad to see how this person who had been such a positive influence on others now was becoming more and more of an emotional drain on others. You would listen to them and wonder how it was that after so much giving that they could now be so bitter.

Does this describe Jesus? As Christians, we’re probably quick to react against such an assertion. Jesus? Bitter? Of course not! Jesus was, in fact, loving, kind, generous, a force for good in the world. The things He said were positive. There’s a reason so many people think of Him as a nice person—because He was.

But there are two definitions of bitter dictionaries that give a telling story:
• characterized by intense antagonism or hostility: for example, bitter hatred.
• resentful or cynical: for example, bitter words.
Do these apply to Jesus? Can we say that He was bitter? I can think of someone people who would not hesitate to say that Jesus was in fact bitter. The Pharisees, I would think, would characterize much of Jesus’ words to them as bitter words. The relationship between Jesus and the Pharisees was very much antagonistic and hostile. And it wasn’t that the Pharisees were the mean guys and Jesus was always like a dove. It wasn’t even that the Pharisees perceived Him as bitter. Jesus’ words toward the Pharisees were often harsh and judgmental.

So does this mean that Jesus was bitter? Our Gospel reading today paints a picture at the beginning of the Jesus we know and love so well: compassionate and humble. Here to serve and help. No bitterness there, only positive and loving things to offer. But as the Gospel reading goes on, do we see a change toward a darker and bitter Jesus? It’s almost a subtle enough of a change that it might not be noticed at first. He’s talking about reaching out, helping, bringing the Gospel to others. Sending out servants to carry out the good work of the Gospel.

But what about when things turn sour? Does Jesus continue with a positive disposition? Or does His disposition turn sour as well? How are the apostles to react when they are met with resistance? Jesus says that “if the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it, but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town.” What is behind this kind of treatment? Couldn’t the loving and nice Jesus just say to His trusted disciples, “If they don’t listen to you, that’s too bad for them, but just be on your way”? Wouldn’t it be kinder and gentler not to go on about the horrific judgment that will befall them? After all, do these words sound like one who isn’t bitter?: “Truly, I say to you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town.”

Plus, what is all this judgment about anyway? Why does a loving God need to hand down judgment against those who reject Him? Doesn’t it take one who is bitter to bring down upon others such harsh punishment on others? Jesus is God. He is the Creator of humans. Is there some bitterness, then, to Jesus’ prediction about what the apostles will find when they go out? “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for My sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles.” These aren’t very high hopes for those whom He has created.

But it gets even worse. Remember what He ended up saying about these very own apostles: that they would all fall away from Him. Did Jesus become cynical toward the end when He knew it was all about to come crashing down? He did pray three times for His Father to take the cup of suffering from Him. Was He bitter that the cup of God’s wrath had to fall on Him? Was He bitter that He stood before Pontius Pilate, a peon in the scheme of the universe that Jesus Himself had created, when He was humiliated before this peon who thought that he, Pilate himself, was really something as Roman ruler? Is that why Jesus attempted with His words to “put Pilate in his place”?

You and I may think some of these questions as strange. You and I may wonder why they would even be brought up. But there are many in the world who do not see a kinder gentler Jesus. They see a bitter Jesus. They see one who acts out upon the people of this world with undue harshness. In fact, out of bitterness. Pettiness, even. Shouldn’t the God of the universe be above that sort of action? But they also look at Jesus’ followers. They look at you and me. They look at Christians. And make no mistake, they base judgments on Christ and Christianity on you and me and how we act. Bitter Christians reflect poorly on Christ and the Christian Church. They wonder either why Christians would be bitter if God is so great or they would say that it’s expected that Christians would be bitter considering that their Master, Jesus Christ, was bitter.

We have to cut through all of this to get at who the real Jesus is. Was Jesus bitter? We know better. We know He wasn’t. But it is true that Jesus was “characterized by intense antagonism or hostility.” There’s no doubt about this. We’ve already pointed this out in His dealings with the Pharisees. His relationship with them was antagonistic. He was intentionally hostile to them. It’s even more important for us to recognize, though, that Jesus is this way with us. How, you wonder? And maybe why? Well, first it’s important to realize that it’s not in the way of the other definition of bitter that we heard, resentful or cynical. But it is actually in a way that is the opposite of bitter. It’s perhaps best described at the beginning of the Gospel reading, telling us that Jesus was compassionate toward the people. His heart went out to them. His words and His actions followed. Ultimately, His life itself followed. Delivering Himself even up to death. Taking the bitter pill of the Cup of God’s wrath upon sin and sinners.

No, there’s no bitterness in Jesus. There’s nothing in Him that seeks retaliation, revenge, or even hatred. It’s all pure love for us and all of the crown of His creation, the human beings that He created in His very own image. Every once in a while you hear something that goes to the essence of an issue. For me, one of those things was what I heard on Monday: a professor from the Fort Wayne seminary giving an answer to the very troubling question of why people have to go to hell. His response was that everyone—note, everyone—gets better than what they deserve. We might wonder how it is that those who are in hell get better than what they deserve. It’s because God is in fact not a God of bitterness but of mercy. What we all—again, note, all—deserve is eternal damnation. There are any number of twists we can put on this—God is too harsh, God is unfair in this judgment, etc.—but the fact remains that God is just and we deserve nothing—nothing—from Him of His blessings. But blessings are exactly what He gives. Grace and mercy are exactly what He rains down upon us. People don’t deserve life, they deserve eternal damnation. But God doesn’t go around damning everyone, He gives freely and willingly life to people. He provides them with many blessings in this life. But especially, He gives His most precious gift of all: His own Son.

This is not what can be described as bitter. It is what can be described as indescribable. Beyond comprehension. It is pure mercy. It is receiving what we do not deserve. It is being offered freely and without strings attached, eternal life and glorious life beyond compare. It is being handed keys to the eternal mansions of glory in return for no price to you. It is all at the cost of His own Son who was in fact not bitter but joyful in His serving you in this way.

Even though Father’s Day is a day to honor and give thanks for the gift of fathers, for those of us who are fathers, today is a day also to give thanks for the privilege of being a father. But how often do we end up not graciously and lovingly guiding our children but instead being bitter over our frustrations with them? How much can we provoke our children before we end up embittering them? We fathers are to love our children in a patient and gentle way, but so often we let our pent up stress and annoyances get the better of us and our children see in us not God’s grace but fear. Let’s not be bitter but joyful in our loving and disciplining our children, being compassionate with our children as our Heavenly Father is with us.

It’s so very sad when we know of those we love who are Christians who become bitter. It eats away at them inside and spews forth on the outside. It’s sad when we begin to see in ourselves bitterness welling up. Questioning the goodness of God and harboring ill thoughts toward others because they are causing us hurt and harm. It is a tragedy when faithful people of God lose sight of the grace and immeasurable mercy of God and can think only on what is wrong and what might have been and what should be. Who can only count the grudges they have against others and the reasons why they have so many doubts about God.

The world and our own sinful flesh would respond to this by either blaming God or giving up on Him. Thank God He has given us hope. It is in the bitter pill swallowed by Jesus Himself. If He appears to be bitter it is only because His eternal and compassionate love for all of us is driving His every word and action. The only way we can know this is because of what He actually came to do and that is suffer in our place. That is to die the death of eternal damnation so that we may not know the bitterness of eternal separation from God but eternal life with Him. Amen.


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