Beauty and the Beast - Matthew 27:19-31
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Have you ever wondered what would have happened to the beast had the beauty not arrived? We all know the story. There was a time when his face was handsome and his palace pleasant. When he was a prince with a glorious future. But that was before the curse, before the shadows fell across his castle and his heart. And when the darkness fell, that is when the prince hid and acted more like a pauper. Secluded in his castle, afraid to look at his reflection in the mirror, he became a skulking monster with glistening snout, curled tusks and a very bad attitude.
Of course all of that was to change when the girl came along. But what would have happened had she not appeared. More to the point, what would have happened had she simply not cared. No one would have blamed her if she hadnt. After all, he was such a - beast! A constant bad hair day, foul tempered, with a breath so pungent that no amount of listerine would clear it up. This is not the sort of guy who would have made it through to the finals of Blind Date. And she could not have been more different- stunning, caring, sweet natured- a real peach. If ever two people lived up to their names it was the Beauty and the Beast. It would be obvious even to Cilla Black that the two were quite incompatible. So ,who would have held it against her if she hadnt cared? But she did care. And because the Beauty loved the Beast, the Beast himself gradually became beautiful.
It is a wonderful story. But like most fairy stories it does tap into something deep about ourselves. We may not always like to admit it ,but there is something of the beast within each one of us. This of course was something Robert Louis Stevenson was trying to explore in his novel Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and the celebrated statement, Man is not truly one but truly two. As a result of his experiments Dr Jekyll says this, I have learned to recognise the thorough and primitive duality of man. Two motives contend in the field of my consciousness. Even if I could rightly be said to be neither, it is only because I am radically both. It is the curse of mankind that these incongruous faggots are thus bound together. In the agonised womb of existence, these polar twins are continuously struggling. That is our experience isnt it? We all have a Mr Hyde lurking inside of us. And the Bible being the realistic book it is, would agree.
But the Bible tells us something else, that this wasnt always so. There was a time according to the Book of Genesis when humanitys face was beautiful and the palace pleasant. A time when man - Adam -was truly one, both with himself and his Maker. But that was before the curse, before the shadow of sin fell across the garden giving rise to the dual personality with which we are now born -wanting to do right and yet invariably drawn towards the wrong-what the Bible calls sin. Ever since the curse we have been different- beastly, arrogant, defiant. We do things we know we shouldnt do and then we are at a loss to explain as to what possessed us to do them. Dont misunderstand me. I am not saying that we dont do good, but I am saying that we cant help but do wrong. Worse still we find ourselves in the bazaar position of both detesting it and approving of it at the same time.
You know, one of the darkest mysteries of the 20th century was the holocaust. If you were to go to Auschwitz today you would immediately approach the main gate which has written above it, Work makes You Free. The place is full of vicious ironies. In one little courtyard between buildings where tens of thousands of people were lined up and shot you would see a place for torturing people. In one stone cell there is a figure of Christ on the cross which has been etched into the stone by fingernails. You can still see piles of human hair waiting to be shipped east into Germany to be made into fibre, as well as childrens shoes and clothes ready to be recycled. Now what continues to perplex people about the holocaust is that it was done by Germans. Not because Germans are worse than anyone else, but because everyone in the Western world thought they were the best. They had the best universities, the best technology and were the leading lights in many ways. But what we see at Auschwitz is the outworking of the philosophy which doesnt so much deny the beast in man but allows it free reign. And we are no better as is evidenced by the increased selfishness and cruelty we are willing to unleash in our society in the name of freedom..
But where does Auschwitz begin? It begins in our hearts. What is more, it begins when we are young. Let me tell you something. One of the most shameful and painful memories I have, is of when I was seven years old at Primary School. There was a brother and a sister in our class who were from a very poor family. This was shown up by the type of clothes they wore and to top it all- horror of horrors- they stank. And just because of this a group of us boys waited for them one day in the school yard to beat them. And I was one of the boys. I wasnt egged on. I chose to do it. It breaks my heart to think of it now-that I could have done such an appalling thing. But I had no compunction about doing it then. It was the beast in me you see. Now you may not think that much of me after hearing that story, and I dont think that much of myself to be honest, but I would be willing to bet, if I were a betting man, that you could relate similar stories about things that you have done of which you are hardly proud. Am I right?
Now I am sure that many of you will be aware of the storm of controversy which surrounds the new film by Mel Gibson called The Passion of Christ. In America it is being described as excessively violent -which is a bit rich coming from a society whose film industry thrives on the stuff- as well as being anti-Semitic, giving the impression that the Jews of the day were largely responsible for Jesus death. I would have thought that was a historical question which must be decided on historical, not politically correct, grounds. But when you look at the Bibles own accounts of the death of Jesus you find that it is in fact a story of the Beauty and the Beast which both explains the violence and who was really responsible for Christs death. So lets take a look at Matthews account of it in chapter 27.
You see, this was the day when all the beasts were out in force.
First, there was the political beast, the Roman Governor Pilate. Just take a look at what happens in v22 "What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called Christ?" Pilate asked. They all answered, "Crucify him!" "Why? What crime has he committed?" asked Pilate. But they shouted all the louder, "Crucify him!" When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. "I am innocent of this man's blood," he said. "It is your responsibility!"
Pilate was a seasoned political operator. He was what we today would call a pragmatist. As long as something works then who cares about principle? He had heard what Jesus had to say. He concluded that he was innocent and yet he caved in to the voices which drowned out his verdict and so he washes his hands of the whole sorry business- Nothing to do with me he says although it had every thing to do with him, after all he was governor. That is pretty beastly isnt it? Not giving a man a fair trial. But you know people still do that with Jesus. Without listening to the claims he made for himself that he was divine, without taking a careful look at his wonderful life and the overwhelming evidence for his resurrection-again all pointing to his divine nature- he is still dismissed as just another religious leader, a good moral teacher or a deluded political activist. I dont know about you, but I would not want people saying things about me without having first checked out the facts. So, what about checking out the facts about Jesus before passing judgement on him?
But it involves more than that doesnt it? Pilate had heard Jesus own testimony that he was in some sense king, that he was innocent, but didnt have the courage to act on it. No ,you see, he wanted the quiet life, no hassle. And it could well be that the reason why you are afraid to take Jesus seriously is that it will mean you having to face hassle: The taunt of family and friends that if you became a Christian you will have got religion. That some things you are doing now will have to be given up because they dont fit with following him. That you will have to go against the flow of a society which thinks little of Christ except as a swear word, and to be frank that will take guts. It is sometimes easier to wash your hands of responsibility and walk away from the truth rather than face up to the truth. But that is the challenge Jesus presents us with- to go with the truth rather than give in to the crowd.
Then there are the religious beasts- v 19, While Pilate was sitting on the judge's seat, his wife sent him this message: "Don't have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him." But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed. Pilate thought that he could get out of the fix by making the crowd an offer they couldnt refuse- releasing a prisoner, and as far as he was concerned it was a forgone conclusion who it would be given the choice between Barabbas a vicious murderer- a beast if ever there was one - and Jesus, who gave life rather than took it. It was bound to be Jesus. When you think about it a very clever and convenient way out of a nasty dilemma. And the ploy might have worked had it not been for the priests and senior clergy- the elders. They knew how to work a crowd and for all their religion and piety they wanted blood- Jesus blood. And it has to be admitted that a fair amount of evil in this world has been committed in the name of religion. But then again, a fair amount of evil has been committed in the name of politics but that doesnt mean we should get rid of politics. You have to assess each religion and each person in their own right rather than damning them all. But all this goes to show is that religious people, like non-religious people, can be pretty beastly at times and that religion in terms of ritual and deeds can no more tame the beast within than a political philosophy can, you need something more. And let me say that even today there are leaders in the church who are doing their best to get rid of Jesus-the Jesus of the Bible. For whatever reason they are not too keen on the Jesus presented here who speaks of heaven and hell, of the need to turn around in life and follow him, who presents himself as the only way to God - the way the truth and the life. So in order to make him more acceptable, he is killed off and a Christ of their own imagination is put in his place, one who wouldnt say boo to a goose. It is still pretty beastly though isnt it? How would you like your life history to be re-written because people didnt like you, making you out to be something you are not, dumbing you down? Religious people can be beasts too.
But then we have the military beasts -27 Then the governor's soldiers took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered the whole company of soldiers around him. They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head. They put a staff in his right hand and knelt in front of him and mocked him. "Hail, king of the Jews!" they said. They spat on him, and took the staff and struck him on the head again and again. After they had mocked him, they took off the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him. Now the soldiers assignment was straight forward: take Jesus to a hill and crucify him. But they wanted to have fun first. Burley, battle hardened soldiers surrounded an exhausted, nearly dead Galilean carpenter lie a hungry pack of wolves and beat him up. The flogging itself had almost killed him. He was going to be put to death by the most painful method ever devised by man, so what could spitting achieve? It couldnt hurt him and it wasnt meant to. It was meant to degrade him. His face was so battered he hardly looked human anyway, now that same face was spat upon like you might spit upon a dead dog. It was a sign that you were no longer human, you were little more than a beast. I guess that is where taking Christs name on our lips as a swear word comes in. By using his name as a means of cursing is to demean him- he no longer is a person to be worshipped, he is merely a blasphemy to be used. And which one of us hasnt done that in thought or deed? But the result is just the same- Jesus is made to look small. How beastly can you get?
You may say, But I dont like to hear this, Melvin, it is a bit heavy isnt it? Well, believe me I am not to keen on thinking about it either. But it is like a doctor having to inform his patient that there is something seriously wrong before he will seek out the treatment. All these symptoms which are so disturbing are but an indication of the more disturbing disease which is the underlying cause of our problems in the world today. Our actions are ugly. Our words are harsh. Our deeds can be despicable and our consciences accuse us and worse of all we cant change. And if you dont believe me try living the next 24 hours perfectly. No sin for one day. Do you think you can manage that? No, I thought not and neither can I. What about the next five minutes? Maybe you can manage that? Pure thoughts , wholly focused upon pleasing God and helping others. And if you have accepted that challenge you have already failed because you would be doing it just to prove me wrong which is pride and that is the root of all sin. We cant win. The beast in us drags us down and cuts us off from the one for whom we were originally made- God. And the more we drift away from him, the more beastly we become. Our situation is pretty serious isnt it? And it would remain hopeless had it not been for one thing- the beauty.
The Gospels give us an account of a man who can only be described as pure beauty-the Lord Jesus Christ. There is not a trace of cynicism, prejudice or arrogance in his person. He was gentle with the weak and patient with the strong. He was not afraid to challenge the hypocrites and offer hope to the marginalised. Tennyson said: His character was more perfect than the greatest miracle. And it was, even his opponents couldnt find fault with him and accuse him of sin. Whatever charges were brought against him at his trail were fabricated. So why did the Son of God come into the world, willing to be treated this way? Well, because the beauty came to save the beast. Thats why.
In the fable, the beauty kisses the beast and all is well. In reality the beauty became the beast so that the beast can become the beauty. Let me explain.
Some 600 years before Christ was born, an OT prophet called Isaiah had a vision which he didnt fully understand. It was a vision of a crucifixion long before it was even invented. Just listen to what he says and tell me who you think he is describing: He grew up before him (God) like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised ( his face so badly beaten he looked like a beast), and we esteemed him not. Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.
This is just what we have been reading about-the death of Jesus together with an explanation of what he was doing when he died. He was taking our place, dying the death of a sinner, although he hadnt sinned, killing the beast by becoming the beast so taking our punishment in our place that we might be forgiven. Here is the answer to the question which is causing so much trouble for Mel Gibson- who killed Jesus? It wasnt so much the Jews or the Romans, it was each one of us, our sin put him there on the cross. I gather that in the film you see the hands of Mel Gibson hammering the nails into Jesus -that symbolism is absolutely right, they could be our hands too. What is more, God the Father willed for his Son to die so that we could live. This beauty doesnt just kiss the beast, he dies for the beast so that as we come to him who is now alive and is in heaven as the rightful ruler of the world ,we are not only put right with God, we become part of his family and slowly begin to take on the family characteristics of Jesus himself, until one day, as the apostle John puts it, when we die and go to be with him, we shall become like him-that is when the transformation will be complete-that is when the beast will no longer exist and we shall be all beauty.
This is true. There are many people here this morning who though far from perfect are certainly not what they once were because of Jesus. He sees the beast in you and in me and he does not shrink back in horror, he stoops forward in love. So why not come clean, admit your need and come to him- I promise that he wont turn you away.
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