“Derailing” is a powerful metaphor.
You are going down one track and suddenly something happens to throw you completely off. Catastrophic.
Maybe bereavement works like that. Or divorce. Or any crisis that throws you off a way of living or thinking that you thought would go on indefinitely.
Our thoughts do have a way of settling into grooves and we plod our repeated way down that track until it becomes worn into a rut. I like J.B.Phillip’s paraphrase of Romans 12 in this regard: “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God re-mould your minds from within.”
Sometimes we are so moulded into the world’s way of thinking that it requires a derailment.
Think of Nicodemus, that tired old intellectual, trying to figure Jesus out, based on an old rut of thinking ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.’ (John 3)
Do you see the stretch of thinking? Jesus is first a rabbi, then a teacher, then someone “who has come from God” and then a miracle worker. The train of thought is rattling against the confines of the track!
And when Jesus answers, it’s not to explain himself but to address the issue of required derailment. “No one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” And, as we know, that latter phrase can also be translated “Born from above.” That is to say, you need a totally new perspective to see this properly.
Have you ever wondered why Jesus frequently asked people to keep quiet about his miracles and told the grateful recipients to “Tell no one“? It was much more than a fetching modesty – it was a considered determination not to be squeezed into his world’s way of thinking. The miracles were “signs” of the kingdom but they were not the kingdom itself.
Jesus refused -and refuses- to be defined by the limitations suggested by the words “Miracleworker” any more than he did (and does) by the word “rabbi” or “teacher.” There’s a familiar quote from C.S.Lewis which is helpful here:
“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”
And that’s the derailing that Jesus was interested in. Away with your old ways of thinking! Derail it all and start again, completely new, from a different perspective.
Even John the Baptist, who might have been expected to be fully aware of what was going on, expressed doubts about who Jesus was and was doing. Languishing in prison, he sent his disciples to ask “Are you the one?”
So even the category of “Messiah” was a rut of thinking that Jesus had to derail. When Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem (Luke 19) there’s something of a mixed message. Is he reflecting the Zechariah prophecy (the gentle king on a donkey) or the triumphant conqueror of the Daniel prophecy? Is he living up to peoples’ expectations or challenging them?
Remember the Robin Williams film Dead Poet’s Society? It’s set at Welton Academy, an elite prep school, whose ethos is defined as “tradition, honor, discipline and excellence”. Robin Williams is a first year English teacher who upsets the expectations of Welton’s leadership. There’s a wonderful, anarchic scene when his students finally break through the mould of their received thinking and grasp something of the new perspective that the teacher is offering.
And the headmaster looks on, balefully. He represents tradition and excellence and prejudice etc and all the world’s customary ways of thinking. And, understandably, eventually, the teacher is fired. He upset the status quo. It’s a parable of how much Jesus upset the religious leaders of His day. Jesus derailed every notion of relligious tradition, honour, excellence and defied all of their expectations of a spiritual leader. In the end, the religious leadership just didn’t fire Jesus, they executed Him.
Yet, Jesus rose from the dead. He’s alive and He’s still defying our religious expectations. If you look closely enough at Jesus, the derailment process goes on, wherever Jesus is truly enountered.
This morning, I was reading Luke 5:27-39. It begins with such an encounter. Jesus comes into the life of Matthew and cheerfully derails it. “Come follow me.” The encounter makes no bones about it. Take it or leave it. It’s where most of us start. There’s no account made of Matthew’s dodgy past (and present) as a tax collector, as a collaborator (with the Romans), as a crook (with his fellow-countrymen). There is no time to consider that he is unclean and a “stranger to the covenant of Israel.” All of these old categories of thinking are simply irrelevant. You must be born again. Born with a completely new perspective. “Come follow me.”
“And he left everything behind, and got up and began to follow Him.”
“Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God…”