Superman vs Jesus
from Isaiah 42:1-9 (& Matthew 3:13-16)
09 January 2011
Super heroes are popular these days. One of my favorite shows on TV is No Ordinary Family -- an ordinary enough family which somehow ends up with extraordinary super-powers -- and how they are struggle to figure out the best way to use their powers for good -- without imploding the family.
NBC is going to debut a new superhero tonight -- a guy called “the cape.”
And I’m sure that he’ll be good -- but no super hero can match up with Superman. All other superheros are really spin-offs of the Superman concept.
So, tell me what we know about Superman. What is his story? [group discussion]
As we turn to our text this morning, Isaiah 42:1-9, we see that the desire for a super hero is not new -- an extraordinary person who will champion justice for the weak and vulnerable.
At first glance it appears that the prophet is predicting a noble royal figure -- the kind of king of which the people of Israel had been deprived.
For the kings of Israel had become corrupt and wanton people.
But as we look closely at the passage we see that the kind of universal justice -- and the deep concern for the hurting -- is way beyond what one might expect of a mere mortal king.
The prophet is looking forward to some kind of superhero -- an extraordinary character.
Now, it is no surprise that we as Christians see Jesus himself as that person -- the god-man -- come into the world to save the world -- and to deliver it from the control of sin and sinful oppression.
And in our Matthew passage this morning, Matthew 3:13-17, as Jesus identifies with the needs of ordinary people through the act of baptism -- something extraordinary happens:
vs. 16 -- “After his baptism, as Jesus came up out of the water, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and settling on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my dearly loved Son, who brings me great joy.’”
This is a divine endorsement from the other two members of the Trinity. The Holy Spirit shows up in the form of a dove. And a voice from God the Father in heaven declares Jesus to be the “dearly loved Son.”
What exactly this means is not totally clear upfront -- but by chapter 12 in Matthew, after Jesus has been healing the sick and experiencing opposition because of his association with the
marginal people of society, the gospel writer says,
15 “But Jesus knew what they were planning. So he left that area, and many people followed him. He healed all the sick among them, 16but he warned them not to reveal who he was. 17 This fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah (our text in Isaiah 42) concerning him:
18 ‘Look at my Servant, whom I have chosen.
He is my Beloved, who pleases me.
I will put my Spirit upon him,
and he will proclaim justice to the nations.
19 He will not fight or shout
or raise his voice in public.
20 He will not crush the weakest reed
or put out a flickering candle.
Finally he will cause justice to be victorious.
21 And his name will be the hope
of all the world.’”
The gospel writers and the prophets are all screaming at the tops of their lungs -- “Look, look at this guy -- he is the superhero that will deliver God’s justice to the world in God’s way.”
This is the key point this morning: Jesus is the superhero who delivers God’s justice to the world in God’s way.
Notice, carefully that last phrase -- God’s justice to the world in God’s way. For Jesus is not exactly the kind of superhero that people were expecting. They were looking for someone more along the lines of a kosher Superman -- but that’s not who God sends.
Let’s take a quick glance at Isaiah 42 to highlight the contrasts.
I want to make five observations from the text:
1. GOD’S JUSTICE IS UNIVERSAL JUSTICE.
Vs. 1 “Look at my servant, whom I strengthen.
He is my chosen one, who pleases me.
I have put my Spirit upon him.
He will bring justice to the nations.”
The thing about Superman is that his justice is pretty limited -- “who disguised as Clark Kent, fights a never ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way.”
Perhaps you’ve noticed that most of the story lines in Superman are America-centered -- which is understandable because he was designed to appeal to an American audience.
He protects America -- and when there are people from other places in the stories they are often villains -- spies -- enemy agents.
The ancient Hebrews were looking for an equivalent for Israel. But the superhero of Isaiah 42 and the gospels has a universal focus & impact.
We see this emphasis again in vss. 4-5
4 “He will not falter or lose heart
until justice prevails throughout the earth.
Even distant lands beyond the sea will wait for his instruction.
5 God, the Lord, created the heavens and stretched them out.
He created the earth and everything in it.
He gives breath to everyone,
life to everyone who walks the earth.”
God is the creator of the world -- and so he is the protector of the world. “Even distant lands beyond the sea...”
vs. 6 -- “And you will be a light to guide the nations.”
The ancient LXX -- Greek translation of this verse renders it slightly differently. It says, “And his name will be the hope of all the world.” And that is how it is quoted in Matthew 12.
This was not an easy pill for ancient Israel to swallow. You can imagine them grumbling,
“Hey God, we’re the one’s hurting here. We’ve got the problems. We need you. But you’re talking about some overseas mission-project. If you’ll just straighten things out here at home -- among your chosen people in the land you promised us -- well once things are better here we would be happy to hear about what you have in mind for those people way over there. Charity has to begin at home.”
You can imagine that such would be there thinking. But it wasn’t the way that God was thinking and it hasn’t been the way that Jesus’ followers think. From the very beginning we have had a global focus. It is a part of the gospel DNA -- “disciples of all nations.”
Globalization isn’t a new issue or challenge for the church. And while many of our neighbors are reacting to the trends abroad -- wanting to lock things down -- tighten things up -- keep out the outsiders.
The outsiders and justice for outsiders has always been a high item on God’s agenda.
#2 -- We can note that GOD’S JUSTICE IS DRIVEN BY A CONCERN FOR THE WEAK AND VULNERABLE.
The American version of justice -- the version defended by Superman -- is driven by a desire for impartiality. Everyone gets what they deserve -- nothing less -- nothing more.
The statue of Lady Justice is blindfolded, suggesting that she dispenses justice impartially. Concern for the weak is there -- but it is somewhat secondary to an impartial ideal.
The American version of justice is good -- as far as it goes. But God’s version of justice is bigger and more radical because it is co-mingled with mercy and grace. There is a driving concern for the vulnerable and the weak.
There are a few passages in scripture which emphasize impartiality in justice but for every one of those there are 100 which talk about justice for the poor -- the orphans, the widows, the aliens, the vulnerable -- the marginalized.
It’s pretty clear that God’s justice is driven by a concern for the weak and vulnerable. That’s his primary justice agenda.
And we see it in the Issiah 42 description of God’s superhero:
(vs. 7) “You will open the eyes of the blind.
You will free the captives from prison,
releasing those who sit in dark dungeons.”
Now, here’s the deal. Sometimes our understanding of American justice gets in the way of carrying out God’s justice. In our system -- our culture -- we are driven by the desire to see that people only get what they deserve -- no less or no more. And many times people are naked or sick or in prison because of their own irresponsibility. They have brought it upon themselves.
And we get kind of stuck at this point.
Now, it’s true that we do not want to enable people to continue living irresponsibly. But that does not mean that we write them off or ignore them -- that we stop helping them.
If someone is in jail because they have burglarized houses that doesn’t mean that we don’t visit them in jail. Nor does it mean that we ignore them until they’ve proven themselves once they get out.
No, we create relationships with boundaries. We exercise care with creativity. We think of ways to justly help people.
#3 -- God’s justice doesn’t have a drop of grandstanding in it -- because GOD’S SUPERHERO IS A SERVANTHERO.
When you think about it, you realize that God could have sent a messiah who looked more like Superman -- who flew through the sky --
blasted bad guys with his x-ray vision.
But when God sent his superhero, he laid aside his flashiest superpowers -- and came as a servant.
Vs. 2 “He will not shout
or raise his voice in public -- or do interviews on Fox News.
3 He will not crush the weakest reed
or put out a flickering candle.
He will bring justice to all who have been wronged.”
Our advocate is not a high profile celebrity lawyer playing all the angles for the camera. He is not flashy or flamboyant. He is not putting on a show. He’s not some kind of cosmic Jerry Springer or Judge Joe Brown.
He doesn’t fly through the sky, leap tall buildings in a single bound, fly faster than a speeding bullet, crash through solid concrete walls.
That’s all designed for the camera -- and show.
Rather, God’s superhero is the suffering servant who himself is unjustly accused and tried -- yet doesn’t raise his voice in protest. He doesn’t leap off the cross or zap his enemies with x-ray vision.
He leads by sacrificial example:
“I, the Lord, have called you to demonstrate my righteousness.
I will take you by the hand and guard you,
and I will give you to my people, Israel,
as a symbol of my covenant with them.
And you will be a light to guide the nations.”
#4 -- GOD’S SUPERHERO HAS A TRUE IDENTITY.
Superman is always trying to hide his identity -- changing in phone booths or dark alleys. Jesus, on the other hand, is trying to reveal his identity in a controlled way.
Superman is always struggling to keep his identity a secret. But his struggle is deeper. He is never quite sure of who he is -- or what he can do. How can he love Lois Lane and let her into his life and at the same time maintain his secret?
Sometimes Superman is conflicted -- not knowing the right thing to do. And the conflict usually has to do with his own personal
God’s superhero, on the other hand, never worries over whether he is doing the right thing, or the extent of his boundaries.
Sometimes Superman gets confused and depressed. But God’s super hero according to vs. 4 “will not falter or lose heart.” For he is uniquely confident in who he is and what he has come to do.
vs. 8 -- “I am the Lord; that is my name!
I will not give my glory to anyone else,
nor share my praise with carved idols.”
#5 -- GOD’S SUPERHERO IS INTO GROUP PROJECTS.
Some of my students hate group projects -- especially those who are over-achievers. They end up doing all the work and the others sit around, watch, and get the credit. The the idea of a group project is troubling. They’d rather be like Superman.
Superman is pretty much a one man show. True, he has friends -- who are always getting into trouble -- but he doesn’t have a Tonto or Robin.
However, when God wants to impact the world he doesn’t send a lone superman. He establishes a covenant relationship with a group of people. Then he sends a superhero to redeem them and to enable them to live out the justice to which he has called them.
vs. 6 -- “I, the Lord, have called you to demonstrate my righteousness.
I will take you by the hand and guard you,
and I will give you to my people, Israel,
as a symbol of my covenant with them.”
The divine superhero of Isaiah 42 sees his mission as redeeming the world by allowing the world, through a covenant relationship, to participate in what he is doing -- in his justice.
That is, he comes in the context of covenant -- a group relationship that he made with the ancient Hebrew people -- and which he extends to all people through what is called the “new covenant” in the new Testament.
Jesus is the embodiment of God’s covenant justice. And as such, he is God’s vision of what a superhero should look like.
Superman fights for justice. Jesus demonstrates justice.
Superman is always trying to figure out the right thing to do. Jesus always knows the right thing to do and say.
Superman’s idea of justice is tied to the American way. Jesus’ idea of justice is tied to God’s way -- which was expressed in the covenant relationship and revealed in the prophets.
There is another big difference between Superman, the greatest of all the superheros, and Jesus. Superman isn’t real.
While he may be inspirational he does not actually exist. He was created in the 1932 by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.
Superman was originally created in the image of Friedrich Nietzsche's idea of Übermensch -- the “above human” or “superman”. Neitzche, the 19th century philosopher, saw the superman as an answer to the “death of God” and the problem of meaninglessness -- Nihilism -- a master being or race -- who was removed, amoral -- above morality, new force to dominate the world.
So, the first Superman character was a distant and dark being.
But Siegel and Shuster quickly figured out that he’d be more popular as a truly good guy who was struggling to be at least sorta’ human and in 1933 they reinvented him into the superhero we know today.
Jesus, on the other hand, was and we’d argue, is, a real man -- fully human and fully divine -- the opposite of Übermensch -- which was removed from gritty inferior human experience.
Jesus lived in real time and experienced the fullness of human experience -- including death. And it was in his death that his sense of justice was most clearly demonstrated. Or perhaps we should say, his inseparable mixture of justice, mercy, and grace.
Do you remember the distinction? Justice is when you get what you deserve. Mercy is when you don’t get what you deserve. Grace is when you get something good that is undeserved.
In an act of justice, mercy, and grace Jesus took to his cross -- upon himself the brunt of our sin. That is, at the apex of his justice in some sense he became the substitute for anything we deserved -- what was rightfully directed at us -- judgment. But in his mercy he took it on himself and in his grace he has given us the new life that we don’t deserve.
This is not just a story from the imaginations of two creative writers -- but an actual act rooted in real history.
And the good news is that the vision for justice, mercy, and grace spelled out in the prophet Isaiah finds it fulfillment in Jesus. And it is an ongoing work on his part to transform the world -- individuals and societies -- to declare his own justice.
That is what his kingdom is about -- his agenda to spread justice, mercy, and grace in a way that transforms lives and cultures -- indeed ultimately the whole of creation.
And we are invited to be a part of what God is doing -- as Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of the prophet’s predictions -- and as his followers -- we get to participate in what he is doing -- we share in his justice, mercy, and grace. We are his agents of such in the world.
In Matthew 6:33 Jesus extends an invitation to anyone who will listen. “Desire first and foremost God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
The word that we translate as “righteousness” in English is “dikaiosyne. “ And in many places that word is also translated as justice. It would be equally correct to translate Matthew 6:33 as “Seek first the kingdom of God and his justice...”
For God’s righteousness is the same as God’s justice. If we say that someone is righteous -- we mean that he does the right thing and is just. If we say that justice is done we are saying that everything is made right -- that righteousness prevails.
The point is, and I know that this feels a little heady, if we are tuned into God and his agenda -- we’re going to be seeking his kind of justice for the world -- and it will be our first priority.
So, how do we define a Christian or follower of Jesus? How do you know if you are a Christian? Is a Christian someone who is a spiritual Superman?
Simply, a Christian is someone who in relationship with him, has embraced Jesus’ justice, and is making it the top priority in life. And that is what God’s superhero is calling you to do.
Let’s read together the Affirmation of Faith from Romans 1 --
“God promised this good news about his Son ahead of time through his prophets in the holy scriptures. His Son was descended from David. He was publicly identified as God’s Son with power through his resurrection from the dead, which was based on the Spirit of holiness. This Son is Jesus Christ our Lord. It is through Jesus that we have received God’s grace.”