The Jesus of Suburbia: Have We Tamed the Son of God to Fit Our Lifestyle?by Mike Erre
Like the first-century Pharisees, we've reduced Christianity to a set of propositional beliefs. Truth is, we've gotten away from what it really means to be a Christian. In The Jesus of Suburbia, Mike Erre reveals that we've created a Jesus in our own image. In a fresh, startling manner, Erre helps us understand that the real Jesus is calling us to live, act,/b>
Like the first-century Pharisees, we've reduced Christianity to a set of propositional beliefs. Truth is, we've gotten away from what it really means to be a Christian. In The Jesus of Suburbia, Mike Erre reveals that we've created a Jesus in our own image. In a fresh, startling manner, Erre helps us understand that the real Jesus is calling us to live, act, and think in ways that overturn the status quo.
"Expect no sugar-coated sweetness about 'felt needs' and in-church coffee bars from Erre, pastor of teaching at Rock Harbor Church in Costa Mesa, Calif. Expect instead compelling discussion of how the Christian church has lost sight of the revolutionary teaching and love of Jesus. 'Much of the message of American Christianity presents Jesus as the purveyor of the American Dream,' he says. American Christians, he claims, have reduced Jesus to a study of risk management; we want him to be 'predictable and safe.' Erre also uses the adjectives 'insecure, threatened, naive, simplistic, mean and shortsighted' to describe many of today's churches. He lambastes our love of theology instead of Jesus, our contentment with 'simply knowing about him instead of knowing him.' While this protest continues in the vein of other recent books that take a hard look at Jesus and the church (Jesus Mean and Wild; Out of Your Comfort Zone), it offers a fresh look at how the American church must begin 'demonstrating the message of Christ,' not merely explaining it. After all, says Erre, 'if you follow Jesus, you follow the most radical man who ever existed.'"Publishers Weekly
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The Jesus of SuburbiaHAVE WE TAMED THE SON OF GOD TO FIT OUR LIFESTYLE?
By Mike Erre
W Publishing GroupCopyright © 2007 Mike Erre
All right reserved.
My two-and-a-half-year-old son loves animals. He loves to see them, make their sounds, and watch them in action. Seeing his interest and enjoyment, my wife and I decided to take him to the Wild Animal Park near San Diego. The Wild Animal Park isn't a zoo, exactly; it's more about wide-open spaces. Instead of a maze of fenced cages, the park is sectioned off into representative regions of the world, in which most of the animals roam freely. Can you see why we thought this would captivate our little boy?
Right near the park entrance sits a gift shop. All glassy and shiny, it lured our boy right in. We spent what seemed like forever in the gift shop watching Nathan play with plastic elephants, lions, and giraffes. We kept reminding him that real elephants, lions, and giraffes awaited inside the park, but he was content to play in the gift shop. As my frustration with my son grew (Didn't he know we paid twenty-five dollars a head and drove an hour and a half on my day off for him to see the real animals?), I realized I have often done the very thing my son was doing.
I grew up in the Midwest. For summer break each year, my stepfather and mother would take my brother and me around the West in a forty-foot RV for several weeks at a time. We would see the most incredible sights: Yosemite, Yellowstone, Glacier National Park, and the Grand Canyon. But to my brother and me, the most important thing about each stop along the way was whether or not the campground had a swimming pool. Seriously. We were traveling the country looking at some of the most beautiful stuff in the world, and all we worried about was whether or not we could go for a swim. My folks couldn't believe it. They would have to force us out of the pool to go see the Grand Canyon; we would have been content without seeing it all.
As I stood there looking at my little boy and being reminded of my own childhood, a quote from C. S. Lewis came to mind: "It would seem our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak.... We are far too easily pleased." This is so true of my little boy and me. There is nothing wrong with gift shops and campground swimming pools, but in light of what we were missing by choosing those things, our desires were weak and myopic. My son settled for the gift shop animals instead of the real ones; I was content with the swimming pool rather than the Grand Canyon.
The spiritual parallels are obvious, and this is what C. S. Lewis was getting at. Far too many of us settle for the gift shop/swimming pool Jesus than the real thing. We are drawn to the Jesus of Suburbia-the tame, whitewashed, milquetoast Jesus who is primarily interested in our security and comfort-and oblivious to the dangerous and wild Jesus of Nazareth who beckons us beyond the safety of our small lives.
We must constantly guard against the counterfeit Jesus who pervades our culture and churches. The real one is far bigger and more dangerous than we realize. We must consciously resist the temptation to tone him down or soften his teachings, or we may miss him altogether.
Nowhere does the Christian community succumb to the gift shop Jesus more than during the Christmas season. Sure, we tell the manger narrative and defend our rights to say "Merry Christmas," but on the whole, the story we tell is pretty toned down. It is so familiar that it has lost its power. We have heard it so much that the idea of God in a manger no longer inspires awe and humility. We don't talk much about Jesus being such a threat to King Herod that he slaughtered innocent children. We don't talk much about the scandal surrounding Jesus's birth because Mary and Joseph weren't married. We don't talk much about the threat the birth of Jesus posed to the political order of things. These are not part of the eggnog, mistletoe, Frosty-the-Snowman Christmas story we have come to know.
Jesus's birth was revolution. It changed everything. There is no better place to begin our war against the counterfeit Jesus of Suburbia than with the birth of the real one.
This is the first sentence in Luke's account of the birth of Jesus: "In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world" (Luke 2:1). I have always read this as a passing, incidental reference to Caesar that sets up the reason Joseph and Mary had to travel to Bethlehem. That's all I thought it was. But a closer look reveals that this information is far from incidental: Luke is revealing a backdrop that brings the birth of Jesus into sharp relief.
As most of us learned in high school (and many of us forgot very shortly thereafter), Julius Caesar was murdered in 44 BC because in the eyes of many in the Roman Senate he had become too powerful. Before his death, Julius adopted his grandnephew Octavian and named him heir. After the murder of Julius Caesar, Octavian did three things. First, he adopted his father's family name, Caesar. Second, he determined to kill his father's murderers, setting the stage for the decade-long civil war that would engulf the Roman Empire. And third, he staged elaborate public games in honor of his adopted father. During the course of these games, a comet appeared-an event that was viewed by the people of that time as a fortuitous sign. Octavian pointed to the comet as proof of his adopted father's divinity; this was the sign that Julius ascended after his death into heaven to sit at the right hand of the god Zeus. Octavian used this against his political enemies; if his father was a god, what did that make him? A son of god. We have records of coins and inscriptions that Octavian used to call himself "son of the deified one."
For over a decade, civil war waged as Octavian and his allies warred against his enemies. Civil war engulfed Rome and the rest of the known world with it. When Octavian defeated his main rival, Mark Antony, in the battle of Actium in 31 BC, peace was restored to the Empire. Octavian rose to power, hailed as the "bringer of peace." Priests were instructed to include his name in all prayers and vows, and his birthday and the date of his victory became national holidays.
Soon after this, Octavian received the honorific title Augustus ("the illustrious one"), naming him as unique among all Romans. He came to be known as the "Savior" of the empire, bringing "peace" and "salvation." He was called the "Lord" and came to be worshiped as a god on earth. Roman citizens were commanded to pray to him and offer sacrifices. Temples and shrines were built in his name. Monuments all over the empire listed his accomplishments. Games were held in his honor. His birth was called "good news" and was celebrated by a twelve-day holiday called "advent." Among his titles were: "Cosmic Savior," "Atonement for Rome's Past Sins," and "Inaugurator of the Golden Age of Peace and Security."
He was savior, and his kingdom was salvation. The propaganda spilling forth from Rome announced the "good news" of Augustus's birth and that the blessing of Caesar's kingdom was peace. This peace, of course, came at the point of a sword and was most definitely not good news for Rome's enemies. An inscription dated 9 BC gives us a glimpse of the honor and worship that was accorded Caesar Augustus by the people of Rome:
The most divine Caesar ... we should consider equal to the Beginning of all things ... for when everything was falling [into disorder] and tending toward dissolution, he restored it once more and gave to the whole world a new aura; Caesar ... the common good Fortune of all ... The beginning of life and vitality ... All the cities unanimously adopt the birthday of the divine Caesar as the new beginning of the year ... Whereas Providence, which has regulated our whole existence ... has brought our life to the climax of perfection in giving to us [the emperor] Augustus, whom it [Providence] filled with strength for the welfare of men, and who being sent to us and our descendants as Savior, has put an end to war and has set all things in order; and having become god manifest, Caesar has fulfilled all the hopes of earlier times ... in surpassing all the benefactors who preceded him ... and whereas, finally, the birthday of the god [Augustus] has been for the whole world the beginning of good news (euangelion) concerning him [therefore let a new era begin from his birth].
Many had to take oaths to Caesar and his children and defend his interests even at the cost of their own lives. We have an inscription of such an oath from the region of Galatia:
At the command of Caesar Augustus, the son of God, I swear by Zeus, the Earth, the Sun, and by all the gods and goddesses including Augustus himself, to be favorable to Caesar Augustus, his sons and descendants forever in speech, in actions, and in thoughts, considering as friends those he considers so, and regarding as enemies those he judges so, and to defend their interests I will spare neither body, nor soul, nor life, nor my children.
Allegiance to Caesar was both political and religious for the people of the Roman Empire. It was not enough to honor him as Emperor; he demanded to be worshiped as "god" also.
Luke's mention of Caesar Augustus isn't incidental or minor. It sets the whole backdrop for the Christmas story. The census ordered by Augustus was one of the ways he controlled the Roman Empire. By demanding taxes (or tribute, more specifically), Caesar could provide for his far-flung armies as well as humiliate the peoples under Roman "peace" by reminding them they lived at the will of Rome.
Luke wants us to know that there is a bigger stage than we realize for the birth of Jesus Christ. In one corner of this massive empire, Luke recorded for us the birth of a new king, ushering in a new and revolutionary kind of kingdom. The world lived under the rule of Caesar Augustus, yet Luke wanted us to know that hundreds of miles away, something so significant was happening that it would shake every empire and affect every life from that day to today. With this historical background in mind, the announcement by the angels made to the shepherds becomes stunning:
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord." ... Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests." (Luke 2:8-11, 13-14)
This is simply amazing. It was said that Caesar was Savior, Lord, and bringer of peace. His birthday was good news, and his empire was salvation. And here, in a corner of the most powerful kingdom the world had ever seen, shepherds (not priests, not rulers, not the elite) were the first to hear the good news that will be for all people (not just the wealthy and the powerful). A different Savior, Lord, and King will usher in a real peace and lasting salvation.
The announcement in Luke's gospel is the announcement of a king born in direct opposition to the rule and reign of Caesar. It is almost as if all the titles applied to Caesar were applied to Jesus in order to force people to choose between them. If Jesus had been called one thing and Caesar another, people would have been tempted to believe they could worship both. But when Savior, Lord, King, gospel, peace and salvation are specific descriptions applied to both rulers, the Christmas story forces us to choose: Who is our Lord? Who is our Savior?
The differences between these two saviors could not be overstated. Augustus's rule was defined by the sword, the shield, and the banners of his legions. The kingdom of Jesus of Nazareth was marked by a manger, a cross, and a tomb. No greater contrast could be imagined. The birth of Jesus Christ was simply revolution: the birth of a different king, ushering in a differing kingdom, and threatening the kingdoms of this world.
Two different empires were established on the day of Jesus's birth. One built on power, the other on love. One built on control, the other on freedom. One built on oppression and bondage, the other on liberation. Augustus was the embodiment of the best the world in all its ambition and lust can offer, a ruler who sat at the apex of a world-wide system of worship and domination. Jesus, on the other hand, was destined to humble himself on a tree, sacrificing himself out of love. Jesus represents the dangerous alternative to the power of this world: a different power, a different glory, a different peace, and a different salvation. The Christmas story ceases to be an idyllic myth: it becomes clear these two empires are destined to collide. The birth of Jesus is divine insurrection and outright revolution.
The Christmas story forces us to choose between these two kingdoms. Do we bow before the Caesars of our time, or dare we embrace the kingdom of Jesus?
Matthew records for us the other king mentioned in the Christmas story: Herod the Great. Herod was called the "king of the Jews" and was a puppet king of Rome. He was half Jewish and came from the region of Idumaea. The Senate installed Herod as king in 40 BC, but it took him three years (and several Roman legions) to subdue his subjects. The Jews hated Herod-not only because he was aligned with Rome (and built many monuments, buildings, and even cities dedicated to Caesar Augustus), but also because they saw him as an illegitimate Jewish king.
Herod was cruel even beyond ancient standards. He was suspicious of everyone and went to great lengths to hold on to power. He inaugurated a secret police made up of informants and torturers who would put down any insurgencies. He began the systematic extermination of any who would threaten his power. He had ten wives and had his favorite wife, Mariamme, murdered when he became jealous of her. He murdered three of his sons (all were in line for the throne at the time of his murder) and drowned the high priest of Israel (and one of his brothers-in-law) in the family pool on vacation. He impoverished the Jewish people in order to build massive, extravagant fortresses, cities, and palaces for himself and even financed celebrations and festivals in foreign cities in honor of Augustus. King Herod ruled with such cruelty and ambition that, when he was dying, he ordered many elite Jews be held captive in Jericho and murdered upon his death so that there would be mourning in Israel that day, even if it wasn't for him. This was King Herod: monumentally ambitious and capable, yet cruel and tyrannical.
We read in Matthew 2 that "Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, 'Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.' When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him" (Matt. 2:1-3).
"Disturbed" must have been an understatement. No wonder Herod was disturbed. This was not a man who would take a threat to his kingship lightly-particularly another king called "the king of the Jews." Because Herod was an Idumaean, he would have been particularly sensitive to news of the promised king the Jews were expecting. Further background helps us better understand Herod's concern.
In Genesis 25, Rachel (Isaac's wife) is told that the two sons in her womb will turn into two nations, that those nations will be in conflict with each other, and that the older will serve the younger. Esau was born first and was given his name because he was hairy. Elsewhere in the Bible, Esau is called "Edom," which means "red," because he was born with thick red hair. Jacob was the youngest and later in the Scriptures is renamed Israel. Esau became the father of the Edomites, and Jacob the father of the Israelites.
When the word "Edom" is translated into Greek, it becomes the word "Idumaea," so the Idumaeans were descendants of Esau. This is important because, as I have said, Herod was an Idumaean, which means he was an Edomite.
Excerpted from The Jesus of Suburbia by Mike Erre Copyright © 2007 by Mike Erre. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Mike Erre is pastor of teaching at Rock Harbor Church in Costa Mesa, California, where 4,000 people gather each week for worship, community, and instruction. Mike holds an M.A. in Philosophy of Religion and Ethics from Talbot School of Theology in California. He is the proud husband of Justina and father of Nathaniel Carl.
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