For those of us growing up in church, we’d like to think we’d recognize Jesus for who he was if we were there, right? I mean, if we were in the crowds, watching him get baptized, we’d see it–the divine glow, the radiance of the godhead, the words dripping with holy wisdom–we’d never doubt. We’d stand apart, push others aside, let him walk by in his numinous otherness. I mean, how could anybody doubt? It’s just so obvious. He stands out head and shoulders from the crowd.
As R.T. France points out, that’s not necessarily the case. Writing of Jesus’ baptism by John:
There is no indication that anyone other than Jesus himself saw or heard what happened after the baptism (1:10-11), or that the crowd had any reason to identify him with the (mightier one) of John’s prophecy. No one else witnessed the confrontation with Satan and the animals, or saw the angelic intervention. All that people saw was an unknown man from an obscure village joining the many others who responded to John’s call to baptism. It is only Mark’s readers who, as a result of his prologue, are in a position to see more clearly who Jesus is…
For the time being…the coming one is incognito (and will remain so for the actors in the story, since the revelations of vv. 10-13 are not publicly available, but offered only to the privileged insight of the reader). John’s enigmatic words would presumably, in the narrative context, be understood as a prophecy of God’s eschatological coming; only Mark’s readers have been given a hint that there is a human (mightier one) waiting in the wings. –pp. 58, 70, The Gospel of Mark
Yes, eventually he would perform miracles, preach, teach, get crucified, and rise from the dead, but even then, you were making a decision about a man–a very normal-looking man, a Nazarene who’d grown up in a village not much different than yours. You were deciding on a paradox, whether this man, this contemporary of yours, was, in fact, the eternal stepped into time. In a lot of ways, Jesus is the God you’d never notice, and when you had, it was still up for grabs.
This is the kind of point Kierkegaard loved to press in order to puncture that easy sort of “historical” assurance in his works. As he pointed out, after 1,800 years, in the context of Christendom, Jesus looks pretty obvious. I mean, look at his impact on world history, right? He’s got to be truth; it’s so clear. But that’s not how we’re supposed to come to Jesus. At some point we have to make a decision about the Christ who is contemporaneous with us–a Christ whose claims, when taken seriously, are a bit ridiculous–indeed blasphemous, if false. We have to make a decision about a man at whom we might take offense.
Christians ought to be sobered by this thought in two ways.
First, if you’ve never been struck by the offense of the Incarnation, of Jesus’ claims, there’s a good chance you have not processed the Gospel. I’m not saying you’re not a Christian. It’s a silly, romantic idea that everybody has to suffer some intellectual crisis of faith in order for their faith to be authentic or valid. I’m saying that the message of the Gospel, that God himself has come to save us in this man, Jesus, is a bold, brilliant, non-obvious claim which confronts our human sensibilities at every level. It’s kind of like the ontological counterpart to grace: if it’s stopped astonishing you and converting you, or it never has, you may need to do some self-examination and see whether or not you really heard it in the first place.
Second, for those of us looking to teach and preach the Gospel of this Jesus, the paradox, we must be aware of our hearers. For those of us in the Christ-haunted parts of the culture where Jesus’ name still evokes a sort of ill-informed respect, or reverence, it may be profitable to inject a little Kierkegaardian-note into things. Let people hear the offense and decide on Jesus, not simply persist in their vague, pleasant, respect for him. On the flipside, many in the culture no longer have the feeling of 2,000 years of history backing Jesus’ claims, making him more plausible, or obvious to them. For them, Jesus is just another Jew going down to get baptized with the others who happened to have a lot of high-sounding claims made about him. In a lot of ways this is a blessing. We don’t have Kierkegaard’s problem of re-introducing Christianity to people who already think they believe it. We have far more first-time hearers than before. Still, that means the offense is live for them. We need to be conscious of that. If we go about our preaching and teaching as if Jesus was equally obvious to all, we will fail to actually engage our hearers.
May we never forget the offense, the shocking ordinariness of Jesus, the God you’d never notice.
Soli Deo Gloria