by Jason Micheli
Psalm 110, Matthew 22.41-46 (click to see Scripture text)
I had a woman in my last church. She stuck out in a Methodist congregation because she always brought a Bible with her to worship.
She was from Texas, and she dressed like she was in real estate, which I suppose is a tautology. She always came to the eleven o’clock service by herself.
One weeknight I bumped into her along with her husband at the Safeway.“Oh, I didn’t realize you were married,” I said, shaking his reluctant, sweaty hand.
The next Sunday she lingered until everyone had cleared out for brunch. “My husband— he’s a believer but he doesn’t come to church.”
I was prepared to give her husband an excused absence on behalf of the Un-offended Almighty.
But she kept on talking and, frankly, what followed got my blood up. “My husband— He says, God’s too big to be put in a box. God’s too mysterious for mortals like us to know much about God. On Sunday mornings, my husband prefers to connect with God on the golf course. You know, in nature.”
And that’s when I took back the excused absence I’d filled out in triplicate for the Un-offended Almighty, threw it in the trash, and said (in love), “He finds God on the golf course, does he? Well, isn’t it delightful the Lord is so accommodating. He really is a gracious God, isn’t he?”
And because she was from Texas, she took me literally and smiled, “He really is a gracious God.”
“Do me a favor,” I said, “Remind your husband for me— point out to him that the God with whom he allegedly connects out there in “nature” would have to be the same God who supposedly sends down droughts, forest fires, enlarged prostates, Glenn Beck, and every other thing that makes life feel fragile and the world like chaos.”
And, again, because she was from Texas, she said, “Okay. But I might not remember all that word for word. Unless you want to write it down for me?”
I didn’t and, evidently, she didn’t either because after that Sunday morning exchange, her husband took to emailing me. For years, he’d email me questions.
His first question:
“What if we discover intelligent life on other planets— what does that do to your faith?”
“What do you believe about reincarnation?” he asked me in 2009.
“If there’s an afterlife, then will we still be married in it?” he emailed me a few months later, “I mean, I love my wife and all, but eternity’s an awful long time. Don’t tell her I asked you this question. If she finds out I asked you, heaven’s going to be a place on earth, if you know what I mean.”
He sent me that question the week of Valentine’s Day.
“What do you think God thinks about Obama killing Osama Bin Laden? I know Jesus said some stuff about loving your enemies and putting away the sword, but if Jesus was still alive, don’t you think Jesus would think that God would make an exception for someone like Osama Bin Laden.”
If Jesus was still alive…what would Jesus think God would think— that was the question that prompted me to follow up with the missus the following Sunday in 2011.
She was standing in a group of women in the lobby. “You tell your husband,” I hollered, and the line of women all turned and stared at me, unsure to whom I was speaking.
“I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten your name. You,” I pointed, “the realtor.”
“What makes you think I’m a realtor?”
“Oh, never mind,” I said, “Look, tell that husband of yours he’s wrong. It’s not that God’s too big to be put in a box. It’s that God has chosen the smallest of all possible boxes— Mary’s womb— to place himself. Tell him until we can answer Jesus’s question (“Who do you say that I am?”) none of the questions we ask can answer what God wants us to know.”
And because she was from Texas, she nodded and said, “Okay, I will.”
And she promptly took a pen and notepad out of her Bible, “Can you say all that again?”
“Hang on,” Jesus says to us in today’s Gospel, “I’ve got a question for you. What do you think about the Messiah? Who’s son is he?”
Here in Matthew’s Gospel, we’re in the temple— we’re at church— with Jesus, and for some thirty verses we’ve been assaulting poor Jesus with the kinds of questions imaginative sinners like us ask.
How do you feel about the current administration, Jesus? We didn’t vote for him. Should we pay taxes to that lying, conniving grifter?
How about heaven, Jesus— what’s it like beyond those pearly gates? Let’s say I married my brother’s widow. Who’s wife is she going to be in the kingdom?
Give us some homework, Jesus, some marching orders. Of all the oughts and shoulds in scripture, Jesus, what do you think is the greatest?
And Jesus answers so hastily it’s almost as though he’s bored by us or he thinks the things we think are important are beside the point.
“Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and render unto God what is God’s!”
“Why are you bothering to speculate about heaven? God is the God of the living not the dead.”
“And why are you asking me about the most important ought? It’s already in your Bible, people. Deuteronomy 6: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart…”
And then Jesus goes on the offensive before we have a chance to make a break for the coffee hour, “Now, let me ask a question of you.”
“What do you think about the Christ? Who’s son is he?”
And we all stare down at the sanctuary carpet unsure if this is a trick question or just a stupid one.
“Uh, that’s an easy one, Jesus. Don’t you remember the palm branches from the other day? ‘Hosanna to the son of David.’”
“Really?” Jesus replies, “You think so? Is that your final answer?”
And we all look across the pews to check with each other before we nod our agreement.
“Well then, you tell me,” Jesus says, hopping up and pulling a pew Bible out of the rack, “How is it that David, when he’s caught up in the Holy Spirit, calls the messiah, Lord?”
“Yahweh says to my Adonai,” says the psalm, “The Lord says to my Lord, sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.”
“If the messiah is just another ordinary mortal like David, then why the heck did David call him Lord? And what’s he doing sitting in glory at the right hand of the Lord— a place, scripture’s clear, no creature can sit?
“I am the Lord, that is my name;” God says to the prophet Isaiah, “my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols.”
“Remember Moses,” Jesus adds, “Moses came closer than anyone to the glory of God, up on Mt. Sinai, and it so marred him— transfigured him— that Moses had to wear a veil over his face for the rest of his life.”
Only God can abide in the glory of God and by it be not consumed.
“Jesus Christ is the name of God,” says Karl Barth, “Otherwise, do we really have anything to talk about other than ourselves when we claim to be talking about God?”
Jesus Christ, the one who lived briefly, died violently, and rose unexpectedly is God.
That’s the claim Christians make about the world, and today Jesus tells us that that claim is more important and far more interesting than any of the questions we like to bring to God.
“How can a son be lord of father?” St. Augustine asked, preaching on today’s text in the fourth century.
Augustine’s answer— “Jesus is great David’s greater Son: David’s lord always; David’s son in time.”
“David’s Lord, born of the substance of his Father, David’s son, born of the Virgin Mary, conceived by the Holy Ghost. Let us hold fast to both…He was made that which He made…Very Man, Very God; God and Man, whole Christ. This is the Christian faith.”
And this is why, though it’s doubtful Psalm 110, is your favorite psalm, it is the New Testament’s favorite psalm, quoted thirty-seven times.
It’s the only psalm to make it into the creeds. Charles Wesley had Psalm 110 in mind when he wrote his Christmas carol, “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see, Hail th’ incarnate Deity! Pleased as man with man to dwell, Jesus our Emmanuel.”
“So tell me again,” Jesus says to us, “What do you think about the messiah? Who’s son is he? Who do you say that I am?”
And Matthew reports not one of us had the chutzpah to “answer him a word nor from that day forward did anyone dare to ask Jesus any more questions.”
I wonder if they’re afraid because Jesus has just said, “I’m not just David’s son; I’m David’s God.
Or, are they afraid because Jesus has just told them that God has not come among them to answer their questions but to put his enemies under his footstool.
Hang on, Jesus— enemies? I thought Jesus loved everybody, even Ted Cruz, so who are Jesus’s enemies? I thought Jesus was the friend of sinners, a first century Mr. Rogers, a Jewish Joel Osteen without the private jet.
The Apostle Paul writes that Jesus Christ died in order to justify the ungodly— that includes even the former president. If Jesus Christ is for the ungodly— so much so that he forsakes his own life— then who is Jesus Christ against?
Just like Jesus does today, “Hark, the Herald Angels” continues in the final verse to speak of Christ’s enemies, “Come, Desire of nations, come! Rise, the woman’s conqu’ring seed, Bruise in us the serpent’s head.”
The Apostle Paul seldom refers to the enemy by name. He prefers to use terms like the principalities and powers, the rulers of this age, Sin and Death, and the prince of the power of the air.
But Jesus calls his enemy Satan, Lucifer, the Devil— a Strongman, Jesus says, who’s taken possession of our home until a stronger one comes along.
Contrary to what Atlantic magazine-reading, respectably anodyne preachers like myself may have led you to suppose, there are not merely two actors in the salvation narrative— God and Humanity.
No, the Gospel drama has three actors on the stage: God and God’s Enemy and Humanity caught betwixt and between.
Mark begins his Gospel with the brief announcement, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
And then Mark skips past any kind of nativity story. Mark doesn’t start his Gospel by giving you the cute baby Jesus in his golden fleece diapers. Mark gives you a Ghostbuster Jesus in his proton pack. “Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit,” Mark reports, “and the spirit cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”
And Mark says that Jesus rebuked the demon, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.”
“The Lord says to my Lord, sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.”
When Jesus Christ entered our world he arrived in occupied territory, and he will come again, scripture says, to “trample Satan underfoot.”
We are all— always— within the grasp of an unseen, malevolent force that possesses the power to lead us astray and in the darkness bind us.
Look, I went to Princeton, people. I’m one of you.
I know as liberal, sophisticated Americans we are supposed to dispense with all this mythology about the Prince of Darkness.
I realize the Enlightenment has conditioned us to look for the timeless truths that lie behind premodern, supernatural stories like the one with which Mark kicks off his Gospel.
I mean, it’s too bad because the best explanation for how an innocent social networking site that Mark Zuckerberg created in his Harvard dorm room in 2004 led to the violent insurrection on January 6, 202…the best explanation for the situation we’re all in just might be the Devil we’re not permitted to believe anymore
I know, I know—
We’re modern, science-first Westerners.
Not even Georgians represented by Marjorie Taylor Green are supposed to believe anymore in the Powers that Jesus calls his Enemy.
I get it.
As a product of the United Methodist Church, I used to scoff at this stuff too, but then— typical of Jesus’s sense of humor— Jesus sent me to be a preacher at a maximum security prison and there I discovered perhaps I was the one not living in reality.
I was preaching one Sunday morning at Trenton State Penitentiary.
The text assigned to me that day was from the Gospel of Mark, chapter nine.
A crowd has surrounded Jesus, and out of the crowd this worried father shouts, ‘Jesus, I brought you my son; he’s possessed by a spirit that makes him unable to speak…”
“Bring him to me,” Jesus says.
And they bring the boy to Jesus.
And when the spirit saw Jesus, Mark says, it threw the boy into convulsions.
“If you’re able to do anything, have pity on us and help us,” the boy’s father pleads with Jesus.
“There’s no if about it,” Jesus replies, “All things can be done for the one who believes.”
And Mark says, “Immediately the father of the child cried out, ‘I believe; Lord, help my unbelief!’”
And then rebuked the demon, saying to it, “You spirit that keep this boy from speaking and hearing, I command you, come out of him, and never enter him again!’
Being seminary educated and a faithful listener of NPR, I took that wild, ghost-busting story and I preached a placid, G-rated sermon about faith as a gift, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.”
After the sermon, as we were preparing the table for the eucharist, one of the inmates, Malcolm, raised his hand and said, “Preacher, what the hell was that? We deserve better.”
“Uh, I’m not sure what you mean. And I’m a Methodist, we’re not used to this being a dialogue so maybe we should just on to communion.”
“You didn’t say nothin’ about the demon that possessed that boy. You didn’t preach a single word about the power of Jesus over that evil spirit.”
“Uh,” I stammered, “If you had the benefit of a seminary education you too would understand that stories like that— the devil and possession and all— are metaphors.”
“Metaphors?” Malcom shot back, “Man, I don’t know what a metaphor is but I do know you skipped right over one of the few things that gives hope to guys like us.”
“This passage gives you hope?”
“How do you think most of us ended up inside, preacher? Most of us here— we were taken captive by something long before we ended up behind bars. That Jesus Christ has the power to exorcize that from us— that’s one of the few things that gives people like me hope.”
“You said, ‘One of the things,’ What else gives you hope?”
“That no matter what any of us have done to land in here, Jesus Christ is Lord and he says we’re all getting into his Kingdom ahead of people like you, preacher.”
And I pointed and I said to him, “Demon, I command you, come out of him, and never enter him again!”
If you’ve made it this far, then maybe you’ve already sussed it out.
I’ve got some good news for you today and I’ve got some bad news.
The good news is: Jesus Christ is Lord, and he alone has the power to exorcise the unseen, malevolent forces at work in the world.
The bad news is: The Church— unimpressive folks like you and me— is now the bodily form Jesus Christ has elected to assume in this world.
I’m sorry if you thought Jesus was here to solve your problems or soothe your anxieties, provide your life meaning or make your everyday more uplifting.
No, Jesus has come to enlist exorcists, to conscript you onto a battlefield.
The 1928 Book of Common Prayer includes a prayer for the opening of a church meeting. “We beseech thee so to direct, sanctify, and govern us in our work by the mighty power of the Holy Ghost,” the prayerbook says, “so that the comfortable Gospel of Christ may be truly preached, truly received, and truly followed…to the breaking of down of the Kingdom of Sin and Satan…”
That’s for a church council meeting!
It’s amazing how trivial so many of our disputes in the Church appear once we’ve heard Jesus say to us that our mission is to make his enemies his footstool.
Who has time to argue about liturgical styles or sexual fulfillment when our marching orders, as we say at baptism, are “to resist the spiritual forces of wickedness and the evil powers of this world?”
When I was in high school, I worked as a volunteer for Sam Nixon, a Southside Richmond Republican who was running in the twenty-seventh district for the General Assembly.
A woman I knew only as Mrs. Smith was the district operative who told me where to post signs, stuff mailboxes, knock on doors, and— on election eve— take down the other candidate’s signs.
Mrs. Smith was the mother of a classmate I vaguely knew.
For each one of my campaign endeavors, she drove me, along with a van load of other volunteers, from place to place in Chesterfield County.
And every outing, with some AM squawker on the radio, she’d turn away from the steering wheel to proselytize us in her latest conspiracy theory.
“Did you know,” she told me as I rode shotgun into some planned community, “President Clinton is responsible for the murder of several witnesses in the Whitewater scandal?”
“Uh, no I hadn’t heard that,” I said, and, by way of explanation added, “We don’t have cable.”
“Well, I read about it on the INTERNET,” she said, “do you have it? It’s an INFORMATION SUPERHIGHWAY!”
I shook my head.
“Honestly,” she said, turning away from the wheel and towards me in violation of everything I was learning in Driver’s Education.
“Honestly, what would you say, if I told you Vince Foster didn’t really commit suicide? What would you say if I told you Bill and Hillary were behind his murder being faked for political purposes? It’s a coverup!”
“Honestly, what would you say?” she asked me.
And because I was a recent convert to Christianity who thought Jesus expected us to tell the truth (even if the President did), I told her the truth.
“Honestly?” I asked, “Honestly, I’d say you sound like an insane person.”
After that day, I didn’t quit the campaign, but I did have to find my own rides.
A few years later, I was home on break from college, and I went to church— just an ordinary, suburban, praise hand and polo shirt type of shirt.
And I was surprised to find Mrs. Smith in the row ahead of me. Even though I knew Mrs. Smith to be somewhere to the right of the Ayatollah, a Shiite pro-lifer, I also knew that— back in the day at least— she wasn’t a Christian.
“Mrs. Smith,” I said, “What are you doing here?”
And she frowned.
And then she smiled.
“Something took ahold of me,” she said, “Back then. What’s Jesus call him? The Prince of Lies? Anyways, these folks here— the fellowship, the prayers, the preaching and teaching— I’ve been set free.”
Is it any wonder why Jesus is so cavalier about forgiving sinners?
It’s because his mission is about more than forgiving your sins.
Jesus Christ is gracious towards sinners because sinners are all he’s got to work with and there’s a battle raging.
He doesn’t have the luxury of being picky.
We’re in occupied territory.
Jesus doesn’t have time to score your resume or scrutinize your rap sheet.
He’s after drafting anyone he can get.
There’s an Enemy afoot.
And the Bible promises that, armed with nothing but his word, you too can fell him— exorcists all!
No wonder we so often retreat into the trivial.
The alternative is not only terrifying it’s hard to believe.
Lucky for us—
Jesus Christ is not dead; therefore we too can plead, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.”
The Lord says to my lord,
‘Sit at my right hand
until I make your enemies your footstool.’
The Lord sends out from Zion
your mighty sceptre.
Rule in the midst of your foes.
Your people will offer themselves willingly
on the day you lead your forces
on the holy mountains.*
From the womb of the morning,
like dew, your youth* will come to you.
The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind,
‘You are a priest for ever according to the order of Melchizedek.’*
The Lord is at your right hand;
he will shatter kings on the day of his wrath.
He will execute judgement among the nations,
filling them with corpses;
he will shatter heads
over the wide earth.
He will drink from the stream by the path;
therefore he will lift up his head.
Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: 42‘What do you think of the Messiah?* Whose son is he?’ They said to him, ‘The son of David.’ 43He said to them, ‘How is it then that David by the Spirit* calls him Lord, saying,
44 “The Lord said to my Lord,
‘Sit at my right hand,
until I put your enemies under your feet’ ”?
45If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?’ 46No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.
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