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Jesus Christ Superstar?

As you probably know, Jesus Christ Superstar is a rock opera with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice. The album appeared first in 1970, followed by a live musical performed on Broadway in 1971, and a film version in 1973. It was very much a work of the times, building off the enthusiasm of the hippie and Jesus movements. I can remember my brother playing the album in his room; the catchy tunes and lyrics were hard to resist.

In the title song, Judas sings:

Every time I look at you I don’t understand
Why you let the things you did get so out of hand
You’d have managed better if you’d had it planned
Why’d you choose such a backward time and such a strange land?
If you’d come today you would have reached a whole nation
Israel in 4 BC had no mass communication
Don’t you get me wrong - I only wanna know

Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ
Who are you? What have you sacrificed?
Jesus Christ Superstar
Do you think you’re what they say you are?

The song has some great questions. Was Jesus a superstar, or did he intend to be something else? Let’s look at our text for today from Mark 3:7-12 and see what answers it provides. Listen for God’s word to you….

Jesus withdrew with his disciples to the lake, and a large crowd from Galilee followed. When they heard about all he was doing, many people came to him from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, and the regions across the Jordan and around Tyre and Sidon. Because of the crowd he told his disciples to have a small boat ready for him, to keep the people from crowding him. For he had healed many, so that those with diseases were pushing forward to touch him. Whenever the impure spirits saw him, they fell down before him and cried out, “You are the Son of God.” But he gave them strict orders not to tell others about him.

Was Jesus a superstar? In this passage, we actually see Jesus doing some things that are opposite to what superstars do today. First, we read that Jesus withdrew.

From what or whom did Jesus withdraw?

For one thing, he withdrew from the inevitable confrontations he kept facing with the scribes and Pharisees in the synagogue. How unlike the superstars of our day! These days the way to achieve notoriety is to face conflict head-on. If you want to be “trending” then you have to engage in the yelling-fest with the other talking heads on CNN or Fox News.

However, Jesus was not interested in that. He had a mission of preaching and healing, not arguing. Therefore, he went to the place where he felt he could do that best—the open air.

However, in another sense, Jesus withdrew because he wanted to get away from the crowds. As we have seen before, Jesus knew when he and his disciples needed to get away from the crowd and rest, get away from the crowd and pray, get away from the crowd and just be.

We live in a society that does not encourage withdrawal. Rather, we live in a culture that is constantly inviting us to engage, through the Internet, television, radio, movies, sports, mass events, and so much more. Sometimes, while living in such a society, it is hard to even realize that we need to withdraw, that we need to get quiet, let alone do it.

In an article carried by Reuters news service a few years ago, Lynn Parramore talked about why medieval peasants got more vacation days than most of us do today. She wrote…

Life for a medieval peasant was no picnic. His life was shadowed by fear of famine, disease, and bursts of warfare. But you might envy him for one thing: his vacation time. The Church often enforced mandatory holidays for weddings, wakes, and births. And then when wandering jugglers or sporting events came to town, peasants got more time off for quaffing beer and celebrating. In fact, economist Juliet Shor found that during periods of particularly high wages, such as 14th century England, peasants might get half the year off. Shor writes, “The tempo of life was slow, even leisurely; the pace of work relaxed. Our ancestors may not have been rich, but they had an abundance of leisure.”

In contrast, life in 21st century America doesn’t look near as relaxed or leisurely. The United States is the only advanced country with no national vacation policy whatsoever. Many American workers must keep on working through public holidays, and vacation days often go unused. On average, U.S. workers end up with roughly 16 paid holiday and vacation days in a year, but that number wouldn’t meet the legal minimum in most other developed countries around the world.[1]

That sounds to me like medieval Europe better understood the human need for withdrawal than we do today in 21st century America.

However, the second thing we see in this passage is that no matter how hard he tried Jesus simply could not get away from the crowds for long. In verse 7 we read, “and a large crowd from Galilee followed.”

People were now coming from far away to see Jesus and to hear him. Some made the hundred-mile trip from Jerusalem and Judea. Others came even further. Idumea was the ancient realm of Edom, populated by the descendants of Jacob’s brother Esau; it was south of Judea and the Dead Sea. Still others came from across the Jordan in the east and from Tyre and Sidon in the north, an 85-mile trip at least. This tells us that Jesus was like the superstars of our day in at least one sense: he was able to draw a crowd.

We do not often think of religious leaders drawing a crowd, but it does happen in modern times. Think of Pope Francis drawing a crowd of over a million people in Rio de Janeiro a few years ago, or Billy Graham speaking to over one million people face to face in Seoul, South Korea in 1973. Usually we think of crowds like this being reserved for rock concerts, but only a few rock concerts have ever had more than a million people in attendance.

Certainly, Jesus was not drawing millions, but for his place and time, he certainly was drawing a significant crowd, sometimes numbering in the thousands. The question is: What drew them?

One answer is: healing. Tom Wright has written about this passage:

In a world where medical skill was, by our standards, extremely primitive, someone who appeared to be able to heal almost anyone of almost anything caused a stampede. Word went round from village to village and region to region. They didn’t have radio, television or newspapers [let alone the Internet]; but their bush telegraph was pretty effective. Suddenly the little town on the sea of Galilee was overrun with eager folk coming to be cured, or to bring sick relatives.

It makes one wonder: what would today’s churches have to do to bring people out on the streets as they would come out for a rock concert?

Jesus tells us what will draw many people to himself. In John 12:32 he says, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:32) Jesus’ most sacrificial act was what drew, and still draws, the most people to him. I believe that the more we live like Jesus, the more we too will draw people to him.

On this one particular day, Jesus had to preach from a boat to keep the crowds from crushing him. This is a picture we are familiar with from the lives of superstars in our day. Sometimes celebrities in our time are hounded by the crowds, and by the paparazzi, even to the point of death. Jesus would have identified with them.

However, unlike many superstars in our time, Jesus did not allow potential fear of the crowd to draw him away from meeting their needs. He told his disciples to have a boat ready so that he could teach the crowds from a safe location out in the water. The Gospels reveal that Jesus taught the crowds in this way on more than one occasion. (See Mark 4:1 and Luke 5:3.)

What a vivid picture this presents. Jesus must have had good balance to be able to stand firm in a boat, rocking in the gentle waves of the Sea of Galilee, and still focus on teaching a crowd of people. He must have been good at it since he did it more than once. What a spectacle it must have been! How creative! I wonder if any other teachers ever did this, either before or after Jesus? I have never read of one. I imagine that the sight of someone preaching to a crowd from a boat in the water must have drawn even more people to hear what Jesus had to say.

In 1992, I went on a mission trip to Latvia, one of the Baltic Republics that used to be part of the Soviet Union. I trained a group of Latvian young people in street evangelism and we went around as a team to various cities and did open-air teaching just as Jesus did.

In one of these towns, there was a large crowd gathered in the open air at a farmer’s market in the town square. I wondered how we could possibly grab people’s attention. Then I noticed a large truck that looked like a former army vehicle. I asked my interpreter to ask the owner if I could stand on top of the truck and preach from there. Amazingly, he said “yes” and so my interpreter and I climbed on top of the truck and I preached as loud as I could, and waved my arms so that at least some folks would be drawn closer to hear my interpreter who was softer spoken. Amazingly, we drew a reasonable size crowd, including some soldiers, to hear us. And not only that, many of those people committed their lives to follow Jesus Christ right there in the town square, and others came to a meeting that night at the local church where even more people committed their lives to follow Christ.

Now, I am not suggesting that open-air preaching is the way to attract people to Christ in Stowe. What I am saying is that sometimes we simply have to think creatively about how we can reach more people with the life-saving message that Jesus offers.

In Jesus’ case we see that he had to preach from a boat because he had people with diseases and demons pushing forward to touch him.

We have read about Jesus healing others, like the leper, with a touch. Jesus must have healed people in this manner so many times that people figured, “Power must come out of Jesus when he touches people. Maybe it will work the same way if we touch him.” In Mark 5, we are going to read about an elderly woman who “stole” a healing from Jesus in this way, and it worked! She must not have been the only one to think of doing this, to think of grabbing healing power from Jesus just by touching him.

This text presents us with quite a dramatic picture of crowds of people surging forward simply to touch Jesus and receive from him whatever healing power he had to give. It makes me wonder: are we pressing forward to receive more from Jesus than we ever have before?

On one occasion Jesus said, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” (Matthew 11:12) Jesus praised those who were pressing forward to receive more of his healing, more of his kingdom power. Are we doing that? Are we pressing forward to receive more from him or are we content to hang back, to put growth on hold, and just coast into heaven? I think I know which way Jesus would want us to live.

Notice, it was not just those who needed physical healing who were pressing forward to touch Jesus, even the impure spirits fell down before him and cried out: “You are the Son of God!”

Is it not ironic that the demons so readily recognized and even vocalized who Jesus was, and yet the scribes and the Pharisees either could not or would not do this?

If even the demons were falling down before Jesus and confessing who he was, this begs the question: are we doing the same? Are we falling down before him in worship? Are we confessing Jesus as Son of God before the world?

Intriguingly, Jesus told the demons to be silent. Therefore, you may well ask: “Why did he do that?”

I think it is all a matter of timing. Jesus knows that as soon as word gets out that people think he is the Son of God, the Messiah, there will be confrontation, not only with the scribes and Pharisees, but also with political leaders like Herod Antipas.

Why? The Messiah, the anointed one, is expected to be the king. If there is a Messiah walking around first century Palestine, Herod does not want that. He does not want anyone to take his place.

The Pharisees do not want it either. They do not want any would-be Messiahs agitating for the overthrow of Rome because if things get out of hand, Rome might come in and take away what little power the Jewish Sanhedrin already has.

Furthermore, Jesus knows that the people’s idea of the Messiah and his idea are two different things. The people want a political Messiah to deliver them from Rome. Jesus knows that he has come to deliver the people from something more. In short, the people think of the Messiah in terms of political power; but Jesus thinks of his Messiahship in terms of service, sacrifice, and love, with a cross at the end. Thus, for multiple reasons, Jesus knows it is not time for people or demons to start shouting that he is the Messiah. There will be a time for that, but it is not yet.
This too is so different from the way a superstar would act in our day. To become a superstar in our time you have to have a lot of hype in the media. However, Jesus was not about hype. Rather, he was about healing, and wholeness, and being who the Father called him to be.

Thus, we are left wondering: was Jesus really a superstar or something else?

A Chicago Tribune article in early 2008 began: “For nearly 40 years, Ted Neeley has been Jesus. He’s lived Him. He’s breathed Him. He’s spent nearly his entire lifetime researching Him.” Though the opening words sound a little odd, they’re actually true. Since the 1970s, Ted Neeley has played the part of Jesus 1700 times in the popular musical Jesus Christ Superstar, including the 1973 movie version. Neely is now 74 years old—some 40 years older than Jesus when he was crucified.

In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, Neeley said something interesting—something we should reflect on as Christians…. “I’m only playing Jesus,” Neely told the interviewer. “He got it right the first time. I’m still working on it, you see. The key word there is ‘playing.’ I’m a performer. I’m pretending to be something which I am not.”[2]

That says it all, does it not? An actor playing any other part would not feel compelled to say that. However, Neeley, having been brought up in the Church, realizes that Jesus is something more than a superstar. The question is: do we? And are we willing to let Jesus live his life in and through us to the benefit of others and the honor of God?

[1] Adapted from Lynn Parramore, “Why a medieval peasant got more vacation time than you,” Reuters (8-29-13)
[2] Lee Eclov, Vernon Hills, Illinois; source: Kelley L. Carter, “After 40 years, Neeley says ‘Jesus’ is Work in Progress,” Chicago Tribune (2-15-08)


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