Breaking Up with the Barren Deities

by Jason Micheli

Length: 25:24

Psalm 118, Luke 19  (click to see Scripture text)

March 14, 2021

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At the same time I was finishing up at Princeton seminary, my best friend was winding up his studies at Harvard Law. 

When I was starting out at my first church, he was beginning his legal career. 

After clerking for an appeals court judge for a year, he got chosen to clerk for the Supreme Court, for Justice Antonin Scalia, a job which first required he pass an extensive FBI background check. 

Because I was his best friend and because we’d been roommates together at the University of Virginia— and because we’d known each other a long while— the FBI requested to interview me about Ben’s character and convictions. 

So one spring afternoon— I remember, it was during Holy Week—  a fifty-something FBI agent came to my parish to interview me about my friend. 

The FBI man was tall and balding and was wearing a dark wrinkled suit. When my secretary showed him into my office, the first thing he said to me was “you don’t look much like a reverend.” 

Whether he was talking about my age or my appearance wasn’t clear, but the dismissive contempt in his voice was as thick as cold crank case oil. 

And because, I admit it, I am chief among sinners, I decided right then and there to yank his chain. 

He offered me his business card— but not his hand— and sat down across from my desk. 

He glanced around my office looking bemused. 

Then, with a derisive tone, he said: “The file says you went to a good school? Why in the world are you doing this with your life? You probably could’ve done anything, right? What, law school not admit you too?”

It wasn’t really the sort of question I was expecting to have to answer from him. 

Bless your heart, I thought. 

“No, I got in alright,” I said, “but I decided not to go. Well, no, that’s wrong, it was decided for me. Just before I went to college, Jesus Christ revealed himself to me, as real as you are across my desk, and I became a Christian. 

At the end of college, I was headed to law school— I thought about Teach for America too— but then Jesus showed up to me again and called me to preach.”

And he chuckled. 

Like there must be some angle. 

Like I was one of those grifters you see on late night television. 

Or in the House of Representatives. 

“I used to be like you,” I said to this man with Just for Men hiding the gray at his temples. 

“Like me? How so?” 

“Unimaginative,” I said, and he narrowed his eyes on me. 

He nodded towards my diplomas on the wall by the stained glass window.  

“You didn’t really have to go to school for this did you?” 

“To be a preacher? No, I didn’t have to go to school for that,” I said, “but they don’t let you perform circumcisions without a little bit of medical training.” 

“Makes sense,” he said.

He opened up a leather portfolio, took out a pen from his pocket, and said: “Let’s get to it.”

I’m sure he had all the answers already, but he asked me how I knew Ben, how long I’d known him, how well I knew him. 

Those sorts of questions, verifying dates and addresses. 

Then he asked me if I knew whether or not he belonged to any international organizations whose beliefs or interests might conflict with those of the United States government. 

And because I’d already decided to jerk this agent’s chain and because he clearly had no sense of humor, I decided a question like that was just too good to pass up. 

So I responded by saying: “Yes, yes, of course, Ben belongs to an international organization whose beliefs and interests conflict with those of the United States government.

He stopped writing and looked up from his pad. 

“Care to explain that?” he mumbled. 

And with my voice oozing sincerity I said, “Well, he’s a baptized, committed Christian. He belongs to the Body of Christ, the True Vine— that’s an ancient, international organization that demands complete and primary allegiance and has gotten crosswise with every government it’s ever encountered.”  

The agent sighed as if to wonder what he’d done to deserve this errand,  listening to a crazy preacher in the Blue Ridge mountains. 

He scribbled something in his notepad— religious nut-job, probably, and he muttered, “I’m not religious or anything, but I always thought Christianity is personal— you know, private, spiritual stuff— it’s not political.” 

And because he’d rubbed me the wrong way, and because sarcasm is both my love language and my particular cross to bear, I decided to mess with him a bit more.

“Well, of course, that’s what you think,” I replied with all the deadpan sincerity I could muster, “It’s not your fault, FBI man. You think that way because that’s what every Caesar since 33 AD has wanted you to think.”

He stared down at his pad like he was struggling to paraphrase this for his report. 

I leaned in, “Use your noggin, agent. Do you really think the martyrs of the ancient Church were tortured and executed because they were raised in their consciousness or felt forgiven or liberated or experienced some ineffable spiritual epiphany? Of course not, only a fool would believe such nonsense. They were executed because they worshipped a jealous God, Jesus Christ, who refused to join the pantheon of the nation’s gods. It took centuries of conditioning by Caesars and Kings and Presidents for you not to know what’s as plain as the badge in your wallet.”

“So you’re saying Christianity is political not personal?” 

I put a concerned look on my face and in my best conspiratorial tone of voice I whispered to him: “The problem is that Christians don’t see a difference between the two.”

And I noted with delight his bald scalp starting to flush red. 

“Everything in the Gospels is about personal transformation,” I whispered, “but everything in the Gospels is also a dangerous political statement.”

He set his pen down. He looked really irritated with me and I was loving every moment of it. “Alright,” he said, “what do you mean exactly?”

“Think about it,” I said, “As soon as Jesus is born the government tries to kill him. When he’s fasting in the wilderness he implies the governments of this world already belong to the Devil. For his first sermon, he advocates across the board forgiveness of debts, redistribution of wealth to the poor, and convicts to be set free. He never gives a straight answer about whether his followers should be paying taxes or not. When he enters the capital the week before he dies, he does so by mocking military parades with donkeys, coats and palm leaves.” 

And then I lowered my voice to a whisper and said, “Even though he refuses to resort to violence, he’s executed. And he’s not killed by religious types. If he was, he would’ve been stoned. No, he’s executed by the government. He’s crucified, which means he was as an enemy of the state, a revolutionary, an insurrectionist. And we call him King.”

“King?”

“Yeah, Christ— it’s not his last name. It’s a title.”

“I’d never heard that before,” he said. 

“Well, it gets even worse, I’m afraid. We pledge allegiance to this King every Sunday with something called the Apostles’ Creed.” 

When I finished, he waited a moment, not saying anything, trying, I think, to get a read on me. Then he narrowed his eyes at me and said, “You think you’re pretty smart don’t you?”

And I feigned innocence and replied, “And just think— I didn’t even have to go to school.” 

———————-

Every year during Passover week Jerusalem would be filled with approximately 200,000 Jewish pilgrims. 

Nearly all of them, like Jesus’s friends and family, would’ve been poor. 

Throughout that Holy Week these thousands of pilgrims would remember how they’d once suffered under a different empire and how God had heard their cries and sent someone to save them. 

“Hosanna!” they’d shout for Messiah, quoting Psalm 118, “Save us!”

Every Passover therefore was a possible inflection point. Flexing his political muscle,  every year at the beginning of Passover week, Pontius Pilate would journey from his seaport home in the west to Jerusalem, escorted by a military triumph, a parade of horses and chariots and armed troops and bound prisoners, all led by imperial banners that declared “Caesar is Lord.”

A gaudy but unmistakeable display of power. 

Only one year, at the beginning of that same week, Jesus comes from the east. 

His “parade” starts at the Mt of Olives, two miles outside the city, the place where the prophet Zechariah had promised God’s Messiah would one day usher in a victory of God’s People over their enemies and establish peace. 

The procession begins at the Mt of Olives, but, really, Jesus’s journey to Jerusalem began all the way back in Luke 9. 

For ten chapters, Jesus has journeyed from one town to another, teaching his way to Jerusalem. 

From Luke 9 to Luke 19, as Jesus has made his way to Jerusalem, it’s all been about teaching, his teaching, teaching about the Kingdom. 

It hasn’t been healing after healing after healing. 

It hasn’t been miracle after miracle after miracle. 

Jesus has taught his way to Jerusalem, taught about the Kingdom here and now, and the lives it summons forth from all who encounter it. 

But when they get to the Mt of Olives, this place that’s charged with prophetic meaning, it’s not his teaching we want to acclaim. 

It’s his deeds.
The mighty deeds.
The deeds of the power.
The healings and the miracles.
As if to say, If Jesus can do that just imagine what he can do to our enemies. 

There are no palm branches in Luke’s Palm Sunday scene, no shouts of “Hosanna.” 

Not even any crowds. 

It’s just the disciples and some naysaying Pharisees and this King who’s riding a ridiculous little colt instead of a chariot. 

The disciples lay their clothes on the road in front him. 

They sing about “peace” just as the angels had at his birth. 

And then they proclaim excitedly about his mighty deeds. 

And just as the disciples begin voicing their expectations of defeating their enemies and retaking power and changing the world, the city comes into view. 

Jesus falls down and weeps, “If you, even you, had only recognized the things that make for peace.” 

He’s looking at the city but he’s speaking to his disciples.
And he’s talking about the Kingdom, his teaching about the Kingdom. 

He’s talking about: 

Good news being brought to the poor 

and the hungry being filled 

Embracing society’s untouchables 

Eating and drinking with outcasts 

Refusing to judge lest you be judge 

And forgiving trespasses so you might be forgiven 

Greatness redefined as service to the least 

Love of God expressed as love of Neighbor 

Hospitality so extravagant it’s like a Father who’s always ready to welcome a wayward home 

A community of the called who are committed to being like light and salt and seed to a dark, bland, farrow world 

He’s talking about the Kingdom.

Our life bearing witness to the Kingdom in the here and now. 

With the city in view and excited shouts of mighty deeds ringing in the air, Jesus falls down and he cries. 

He weeps. 

Because after every sermon, every beatitude and parable and teaching moment his disciples still don’t get it. 

So much so, Luke reports that on Good Friday Peter brings a sword with him to Gethsemane. 

After all the hot air the Word made flesh has expended on loving enemies and turning the other cheek and putting away the sword, on the eve of his passion, his disciples are nonetheless packing. 

They still don’t get it. 

We don’t get it. 

Don’t get how his teaching about the Kingdom and his work to save us connect. 

Don’t get that the good news of the Gospel is more than a salve for weary souls. 

More than comfort for sinners. 

More than faith-based, time-tested principles for our own politics or personal projects. 

It’s a summons. 

———————-

We spend a lot of time in the Church attempting to clarify the answer to the question, “What is the Gospel?” 

And at a time and in a denomination where the answer to that question is increasingly confused, it’s an appropriate question to ponder. 

But the answer to the question, “What is the Gospel?” will always only be incomplete if we cannot also answer a corollary question, “What is the Gospel supposed to do to its hearers?” 

What is the Gospel meant to do on its hearers?

In Luke’s sequel, the Book of Acts, Paul and Barnabas perform a healing in the pagan city of Lystra. 

Immediately, those who witness the healing miracle take Paul and Barnabas to be the latest incarnations of Zeus and Hermes. 

Never a mannered, delicate guest, Paul rejects the honorific bestowed on them and instead goes for the jugular. 

“We are here to speak the Gospel to you,” Paul says, “so that you may turn from such barren deities to the living God.” 

The Gospel is meant to persuade you to break up with your barren deities. 

We forget—

For Jews who confess Jesus is Lord and are baptized, conversion to Christianity does not require a break with his or her gods in order to draw near to the true God; he or she was already with the true and living God all along. 

But for everyone else, pagans (which is most people you encounter day to day, including us if we’re just nominal, cultural Christians) the Gospel is a summons to break up with the barren deities to whom you’re surely if invisibly enthralled, and it is a summons ino the commonwealth of the true God. 

The author of Ephesians admonishes us gentile believers never to forget that prior to our baptism we were “alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenant of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” 

In other words, we were all like Pharaoh, with hard hearts and misplaced devotion, until God sent us a messenger to upend our world , give us permission to break up with our barren deities, and to serve the living and true God. 

. As my teacher, Robert Jenson, puts it:

“For us gentiles, the blessing of the Gospel is that it unexpectedly and wonderfully identifies who the true God is, and that it newly and amazingly permits us to worship him and even explains how that is possible. Neither Paul nor his converts needed to deny that worship of the gods may bestow all manner of good things; they simply renounced such worship as wrong because misdirected…What the Gospel does for those to whom we speak it, is exactly that it frees us from serving the false gods of our cultures to serve the true God of Israel. Such things as forgiveness or liberation or empowerment or new creation or inclusion or peace are merely what happens on the way of this conversion. So, for example, the worship of the false gods is sin, and therefore my conversion to the true God is forgiveness and in its unsought and undeserved happening is forgiveness by grace alone. Or again, the worship of the false gods is bondage. Therefore baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is liberation. The worship of the false gods is death. Therefore faith in the gospel is new life. Etc.”

In other words, Christ’s teaching on the Kingdom and Christ’s salvific work for you— the personal and the political dimensions of the Gospel, faith and works— they only seem incompatible with one another if you mistakenly believe that Christ has come to save you as you are but also to leave you where you are. 

Of course you can’t worship the gods of our national pantheon while also loving your enemies or treating the poor with first class regard. 

This kingdom isn’t set up that way. 

The way of Jesus Christ only makes sense if he’s come to the kingdoms of this world not only to save you from your sins but to deliver you into another Kingdom altogether. 

Forgiving those who trespass against you, turning the other cheek, blessing those who curse you— this is the constitution of a different Kingdom. 

It’s how we are able to behave once we’ve broken up with the barren deities and joined a whole new family. 

And again, as my teacher notes, it’s not that the barren deities aren’t attractive or, even, that they don’t work. 

The god of nationalism seems to be working for a great many people at present. 

So too the gods of politics, partisanship, and party affiliation just as the gods of wealth and materialism, success or beauty have long bestowed power and satisfaction. 

As was true in the Old Testament, it’s not that such barren deities don’t work. 

It’s that they are not true. 

———————-

I was still talking with him about the Apostles’ Creed. 

“And with every affirmation we make to his lordship,” I said, “we make a correlative renunciation to any other god that might claim our loyalty.”

“Enough with the Sunday School lesson,” the FBI agent said to me. 

His bald head was a deep shade of red and I was gleeful for it. 

“You don’t have any reason to believe Ben has subversive ideas about the government do you?” 

Did I mention I was feeling cranky? Well I was. 

So I replied, “Like I said, he’s a Christian. I should hope he as some subversive ideas.”

The agent threw up his arms and pointed his finger at me: “This is about your friend’s job,” he said, “so tell me straight what you’re saying.”

I nodded my head in concession. 

“Christians,” I said, “we don’t believe governments or empires or militaries really have the power to change the world. Christians have a different definition of Power. We believe it’s Jesus, his way of life, that makes for peace.”

“That’s not the way the world works,” he said, “No one can live like that in the United States.”

“That’s what I was trying to tell you,” I said, “Christians are those who belong to a different Kingdom. The Gospel comes to us where we are. The Gospel saves us as we are. But the Gospel consequently summons us to a different fidelity and gives us a peculiar identity.”

“Is your friend as odd as you?”

“Oh no,” I answered, “He’s a better Christian than me. He’s much odder.”

The interview didn’t last much longer. 

Looking back, if I’m honest, I think I couched my presentation of the Gospel to him in the safety of sarcasm and ironic distance because I lacked the courage of my convictions. 

It’s a bold thing to tell anyone, even a stranger, that the true and living God wants them to break up with their lovers. 

———————-

In all four of the Gospels, there’s only two places where Jesus weeps.

The first is over the grave of his friend Lazarus.The second time Jesus weeps it is over us.

It’s like he knew. It’s like Jesus knew we’d never get it, never break up with the barren deities that work so well for us.  

It’s like he knew we’d require more persuasive proof than the words of the Word made flesh. 

A demonstration, like Elijah versus the prophets of Baal. 

A demonstration, like letting us cancel him on a cross and trusting the true and living God to raise him up from the dead. 

19 Open to me the gates of righteousness,
that I may enter through them
and give thanks to the Lord.


20 This is the gate of the Lord;
the righteous shall enter through it.


21 I thank you that you have answered me
and have become my salvation.
22 The stone that the builders rejected
has become the chief cornerstone.
23 This is the Lord’s doing;
it is marvellous in our eyes.
24 This is the day that the Lord has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it.*
25 Save us, we beseech you, O Lord!
Lord, we beseech you, give us success!


26 Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.

28 After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.

29 When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, 30saying, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31If anyone asks you, “Why are you untying it?” just say this: “The Lord needs it.” ’ 32So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. 33As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, ‘Why are you untying the colt?’34They said, ‘The Lord needs it.’ 35Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. 37As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, 38saying,
‘Blessed is the king
who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
and glory in the highest heaven!’
39Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, order your disciples to stop.’ 40He answered, ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.’

41 As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, 42saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. 44They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.’*

45 Then he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling things there; 46and he said, ‘It is written,
“My house shall be a house of prayer”;
but you have made it a den of robbers.’

47 Every day he was teaching in the temple. The chief priests, the scribes, and the leaders of the people kept looking for a way to kill him;48but they did not find anything they could do, for all the people were spellbound by what they heard.

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