Jesus just keeps on asking you and me questions.
After telling us the story that we know as The Good Samaritan, Jesus asks us, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” At the beginning of the parable that we call The Lost Sheep, he asks, “If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray?” In a conversation with his disciples that sits in the territory that is somewhere between teaching and argument and diatribe, he asks, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?” (Stop and think about that one before you answer “yes” too fast.) And as he hangs from the cross, fighting to breathe, fighting against exhaustion and agony and dehydration, Jesus quotes Psalm 22 and demands of the one whom he calls Father, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
If we brainstormed together for a few minutes, we could come up with a whole lot more of Jesus’ questions.
I recently finished reading a book called Community: The Structure of Belonging. Community is written by a guy by the name of Peter Block. And while Block’s book isn’t billed as a theological text, while it doesn’t officially have much of anything to do with religion or with church, I kept on thinking about Jesus while I read it. That’s because Peter Block shares Jesus deep interest in questions. Block’s thesis is that a really good question is transformative, that a really good question can sometimes be way more important than a really good answer.
Block argues, however, that many of the questions that you and I pose tend to be limited and limiting. At work, at home, at church, we tend to ask things like:
How can we get more money?
How do we get more people to show up?
How do we hold those people accountable?
Where is the thing that we want to do working and how do we import that knowledge?
And while Block acknowledges that such questions are sometimes necessary, he argues that this style of questioning – a style which directs us into a place in which we engage in analysis, explanation, argument, and defence – holds virtually no power to create something new. Rather, this style of questioning calls us to try harder at what we are already doing.
These questions invite us to create a future that looks like the past.
Block contrasts questions of little power with (no surprise) questions of great power, with what those of us who follow Jesus might call holy questions. He argues that a powerful question has three characteristics. A powerful question:
Is ambiguous. There is no attempt to define precisely what is meant by the question. Each person, in responding to the question, must bring their own meaning.
Is personal. A powerful question is in some way about you. About your passion, about your joy, about your fear, about your yearning and hope and commitment.
And wait for this last one. A powerful question:
Evokes anxiety. Everything that matters to us, Block says, in some way makes us anxious. And then he goes on: “It is our wish to escape our anxiety that steals our aliveness,” that steals our vitality. “If there is no edge to the question,” he says, “there is no power.”
Block gives several examples of powerful questions. He asks you and me to consider, for instance:
What is the crossroads that you face right now?
What is it about you or your team or your group or your neighbourhood or your family that no one knows?
What is your contribution to the very thing that you complain about?
And he suggests that we begin meetings or gatherings by asking everyone assembled:
What are you planning on getting out of our time together?
I’m particularly captivated by that last question. Notice that the question is not, “What do you think you will get out of our time together?” and nor is it, “What do you want to get out of our time together?” It is “What are you planning on getting out of our time together?” Powerful questions insist on the agency, the choice, and the commitment of the one who answers. They are not about the question-asker’s needs or expectations or pre-determined answers.
Block is very clear, by the way, that unpopular answers to powerful questions are not only permitted but are celebrated. If I were to say to you, for instance, “What are you planning on getting out of church tonight on Christmas Eve?” You are 100% allowed to say, “I am planning on getting nothing out of church: my family dragged me here.” But Block argues is that, even if you are planning to get nothing out of this experience, naming that plan means that you have chosen ownership. You are no longer passive, you are no longer a spectator, it is no longer entirely up to me or entirely up to the choir or entirely up to your Mom whether or not being at church tonight will be worthwhile.
Jesus’ questions consistently meet Block’s test for being powerful. They are consistently ambiguous, consistently personal, consistently anxiety provoking. Here again are the questions that we began with this evening:
Which of these three was a neighbour to the man?
Well, if you have been hanging around church for a while, you know that it can’t be the Samaritan: Samaritans are foreigners whom Jesus’ audience doesn’t like and doesn’t trust, they are foreigners whom we need to keep out, against whom we need to build a wall. But then again, the other two guys, the ones who keep on walking, don’t look so great either. What does it say about me that I’m not sure?
If one sheep out of a hundred goes astray, will the shepherd leave the ninety-nine and go search?
Well, I do want to find the one sheep. But wouldn’t it be irresponsible to leave the ninety-nine on their own?
Do you think I have come to bring peace?
Is this a trick question, Jesus? I mean, yes, I think you here bringing peace. You’re the Prince of Peace, right? But then I hear you talking about bringing a sword. And I’m not so sure.
God, why have you forsaken me?
God, why are you allowing this suffering and this injustice to occur? God, why aren’t you doing your job?
This Christmas Eve, Peter Block’s work has got me wondering: if Jesus consistently asks us questions, and if those questions are consistently powerful, then what powerful question is Jesus asking us through his birth?
Now, the child who rests in Mary’s arms won’t learn to talk for another couple of years. So I don’t mean to imply that Jesus’ first miracle is sitting up in his crib and engaging in a Socratic dialogue with the donkey. Rather, what I am wondering about is the question that he poses simply by being born as a human child, simply by being born when and where he is.
Maybe we could phrase the question this way:
Who is God?
What is God like?
Or, following Peter Block’s advice, let’s make the question a little more personal. Let’s borrow a question that Jesus asks of his disciples in the Gospel of Matthew and again in the Gospel of Mark and again in the Gospel of Luke. Given the story of Jesus birth, part of which we just retold together tonight,
Who do you say that Jesus is?
Part of me feels like I should just sit down now. If Peter Block is right and questions are more transformative than answers, then I probably should let the question of who Jesus is stand on its own and not mess it up by venturing a response. But I think that I’m more or less required to say something more. So what I’d like to attempt is not to offer a definitive answer to that question (I’m not sure that a definitive answer would be possible – I suspect that there are at least as many answers to that question as there are people in this room) but, rather, I’d like to offer a few possibilities, a way of priming the pump, a way of inviting you to add your own responses.
Who do you say that Jesus is?
Jesus is the one who chooses total vulnerability. What could be more vulnerable than to become a human child, to become a baby? Jesus is not a God who takes on human form but who holds back from fully participating in the human condition by giving himself super powers. The Gospel is not the story of Hercules or Thor or Superman, who even as toddlers can lift boulders and cars over their heads and catch bullets in their hands. Jesus is utterly dependent on Mary and Joseph for food and shelter and love. To build on a turn of phrase that we sometimes hear in the world of finance, Jesus doesn’t just have some skin in the game: he has all of his skin the game. And the total vulnerability that we see as Jesus rests in the crib will last throughout his life. When he grows up and faces the forces of demons and Empire and death, he is always, always unarmed. And that leads us to:
Jesus is the one who shares in our experience completely. As a child, he will cry with hunger and restlessness and the pain of half-digested milk and several other baby complaints that, no matter how much Mary and Joseph rock him, they cannot quite figure out. He will be born into poverty, born into a refugee family that is on the run from violence. As an adult he will share in the joys and the sorrows of this beautiful hard sad wonderful life. He will like eating and drinking so much that people will accuse him of being a glutton and a drunkard. He will witness a friends’ death and weep outside of his tomb. He will stub his toe and get the flu and get sunburned and trip while going down the stairs. And at the end of his life he will critique the government and the religious authorities long enough and vigorously enough that they will torture him to death. There is no grief and no loss and no pain that we cannot bring to Jesus and say with confidence: Jesus, you know what this is like.
Jesus is the one who embodies hope and healing and possibility and new life. Those of us who are parents will know that, before we had kids, we said, “Having children changes your life.” And then we had a child and we said, “Oh! Having children changes your life!” As Mary and Joseph hold this newborn child in their arms, with his perfect and tiny fingers and his head that smells like possibility, they feel their whole world shift. To hold a newborn, as the expression has it, is to see your heart running around outside of your body. But the amazing love that Mary and Joseph experience in this moment isn’t confined to them, and it is not confined to Jesus’ infancy. This amazing love suffuses Jesus’ life. To be in Jesus’ presence is be safe, it is to feel the horizons of your imagination get bigger, it is to find wholeness and love.
Throughout his life, Jesus will heal.
What else? What other answers might we give? What answer do you give? What do you see as you gaze upon the child in the manger? What does it mean to you to encounter Emanuel or, in English, God with us?
This is the powerful question that Jesus asks as he is born in the poverty of the stable. This is the powerful question that he asks across his life. This is the question that Jesus asks of you and me right now. Tell me, Jesus says. Tell me:
Who do you say I am?