Two summers ago, our family was on vacation at Lake Okaboji in northwest Iowa. We had this tiny little house rented and with six adults and two kids and a baby, we needed to be out and about as much as we could!
One of the days we were there, we went to Arnold’s Park – this lovely little amusement park right on the shores of the lake. As we walked into the main area of the park, we climbed through a tilted house. I remember being inside buildings like this as a child, but something about walking crooked with the ceilings shrinking above you feels very odd and disconcerting as an adult!
And then, the first thing we found inside of the park was the house of mirrors.
My niece grabbed my hand and dragged me to the entrance. As we stood in front of the skinny mirrors and the fat mirrors and the wavy mirrors, she giggled and pointed as the images of each of us transformed into creatures we didn’t recognize. I had mile long legs one minute and a neck as tall as a giraffe the next. We laughed as we told stories about what it would be like to live lives with really tall tummies and itty bitty heads.
However, as an adult I have to admit, these mirrors are a lot less amusing. The distortion of these mirrors brings into greater focus small and insignificant parts of ourselves. They either expand them out of proportion or they reduce them to nothing. Our noses grow fat and wide. Our stomachs suddenly look thin. Or vice versa.
And in doing so – the truth of our bodies comes out. Our thighs might be a little larger than we would like. Our shoulders might be narrower than we assumed. That little gap between your teeth has a spotlight shown on it.
This morning, we are going to explore how Jesus helps us to see the truth in our distorted views of reality.
Charles Campbell is a preaching professor at Duke University and he tells this story about how Jesus would like to shake up our perceptions. Campbell was watching and interview on television with Dr. Phil, the famous tv psychologist. Dr. Phil was asked, “If you could interview anyone in the world, past or present, who would it be?” And immediately, he responded: “Jesus Christ. I would really like to interview Jesus Christ. I would like to have a conversation with him about the meaning of life.”
Well, Campbell was watching this on television and tells of the inner dialogue he was having at the moment. He wanted to shout out at the television and to Dr. Phil: “Oh no, you wouldn’t! You would not want to sit down with Jesus, treat him like an interviewee, and ask him about the meaning of life. You would be crazy to do that. He would turn you upside down and inside out. He would confound all your questions and probably end up telling you to sell everything you own, give the money to the poor, and come, follow me. No, Dr. Phil, you do not really want to interview Jesus, and I do not want to either. It would not go well.”
Jesus sounds like a nice and simple guy… a gentle soul… a friend to walk beside you and share your thoughts with… but in reality, Jesus turns our worlds upside down and inside out. He does the unexpected, he shows up in places we try to stay away from, he loves the unloveable, he calls the unworthy, and he brings us life through his death. And sometimes in doing so, he reveals the most difficult truths about our hearts.
His ways are not our ways – and as we walk with him, we have to be willing to let our distorted views of the world fall by the wayside so that we can see the reality of God’s love.
The main distortion that we encounter when we meet Christ is the false belief that we are good enough, that we have the answers, and that we fully understand God. This is the mirror that makes us look tall and big and fat and grand. It puffs us up, it fills us out, and we start to believe we are more important and more knowledgeable than we really are.
You see, this false understanding of faith, of religion, and of themselves is what got the priests and elders into so much trouble in our gospel reading this morning.
To put this story into context, Jesus had just come into Jerusalem the day before. The long list of things he accomplished that day included: riding into the city on a donkey and in righteous anger overturning the tables of the money changers in the temple. He was literally turning things upside down!
And so when he comes back to the temple the next morning, the religious leaders are in a grumpy mood. They want to know who this guy thinks he is and so they approach him and say very bluntly: Show us your credentials – Who authorized you to teach here?
Oh, those poor leaders. They had no idea what they were about to get themselves into. Jesus may have looked like a country bumpkin rabbi just in from the hills, but they were dealing with the Son of God. And when you ask Jesus questions… you never get the answers you expect.
Instead of giving them an answer – Jesus himself asked them a question. Jesus shed light on the true nature of their question.
Who has it? And where does it come from?
These religious leaders had been trained. They had studied long and hard. They spent their days in the temple. They have the full weight of their culture and the institution behind them. They firmly believe that they speak for God.
And if they speak for God, then this man, this ruffian, this Jesus of Nazareth clearly does not. They want to keep things in good order, according to the traditions and the way things have always been.
But Jesus is ready to turn the world upside down.
And so he asks them a question in return: Was the baptism of John from God or from man?
He trapped them.
If they said John’s baptism was from God – then they were legitimizing his movement and in doing so, legitimizing Jesus who stood right before them.
But if they said that it was only from man – then they might have had a riot of the people on their hands… all around them were faithful people who had traveled out to the Jordan river to repent of their sins.
The distortion of their mirrors fell away. They came face to face with the truth. This Jesus did not fit in a box. Their privilege and power were more important to them than the right answer and so they responded simply – we don’t know… hoping it is the end of the story and they can return quickly to the way things were.
But Jesus doesn’t stop talking.
Instead, he tells them a story. The story of two children sent by their father into the vineyard to work. One of them refuses, but goes to work anyway later. One of them says they are going to, but never actually ends up working.
Everyone knows it was the first son who did the father’s will. No questions there.
But Jesus looks the priests and leaders straight in the eye and all false distortions fall away:
“ Yes, and I tell you that crooks and whores are going to preced you into God’s kingdom. John came to you showing the right road. You turned your noses at him, but the crooks and whores believed him. Even when you saw their changed lives, you didn’t care enough to change and believe him.” (The Message 32)
Staring into the funhouse mirror, these leaders thought they were being faithful by saying the right words and going through the right motions. But they were so busy looking at the faults of others that they never took the time to see themselves as they truly were. They never took the time to actually live out God’s will. They never stepped away from the mirror to see their own sin and to repent.
As Christians today, that is often our greatest failing. We get so wrapped up in being a part of the church, in wearing the name of Christian, in spouting off moral precepts, that we forget to look at ourselves.
When we let Jesus show us who we truly are… a hard and difficult process… may we have the courage to look away from the mirror and into the eyes of our Savior. May we have the courage to follow him.
But while we are talking about distortions, I think it is also important to look at the flip side of the distortion… the one that makes you look smaller than you really are. That shrinks your head and whittles your body away to nothing and makes you small like a child.
In the story of those two sons, there was the one who said he would obey his father but never did.
And then there is the story of the one who said he wouldn’t.
I always wonder about what makes him say no.
Did he have other things to do? Kids to take to soccer practice, maybe?
Was he planning on other less than noble deeds like going out and getting drunk with his friends?
Did he doubt his ability to actually perform the work?
Was he just being stubborn?
Whatever was going through the first son’s mind… he refused to do the will of his father.
Just as there are many of us who have been in the church from the beginning of our lives, there are many here this morning who took a long time to get here. We had other things to keep us busy, distractions, feelings of unworthiness, and the pride of wanting to do things our own way.
But our false images of ourselves can fall away too. Like the tax collectors and the prostitutes, we can turn around, repent, and say yes… even if we have spent our whole lives up to this point saying no. We can see our true selves, and then lay our lives at the feet of Jesus and follow him.
When we really engage with Jesus, our carnival mirror distortions come into focus. And every single time we find out that he has very little care for what our lives have been in the past but really wants to know if we are going to let go of those funhouse mirrors, take off our false perceptions and see his reality instead. Jesus does not want our distorted image of ourselves… Jesus was us. He wants us to believe in him and to follow him.
As Paul wrote in Philippians, Jesus laid aside his glory to become one of us. He humbled himself even to the point of death on the cross so that each one of us could see the truth – that Jesus is Lord and that he is our reality.
Everything that we do, everything that we have, everything that we are comes from God. That is the truth we find when we look him face to face. He turns our lives upside down and yet does not leave us on unsteady ground.
No, he invites us to join in the heavenly parade of the crooks and the prostitutes, the gamblers and the addicts, the self-righteous and the stubborn… Jesus invites us to take our place among all of those who have said goodbye to their old ways and are now marching joyfully toward heaven.
Amen and Amen.