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Pastor Glenn McDonald: Happy Endings


Every day during this season of Lent we’re looking at the miracles of Jesus – his spectacular displays of supernatural power that are reported in the Gospels.    

 

On a wintry night in 1804, the president of the United States began work on a secret project that had interested him for a long time.

 

All he needed was a straight razor and two Bibles.

 

Thomas Jefferson turned to the four Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – and began to surgically remove and rearrange the familiar stories.  The president was searching for Jesus – the real Jesus – a non-supernatural, non-embarrassing, kept-on-a-modern-leash Jesus whom he could savor and appreciate as a great ethical teacher.

 

Jefferson extracted the “authentic” texts, pasted them into a scrapbook, and called it The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth.    

 

He didn’t share his creation with the general public, but hid it away for 16 years.  He concluded it would be a political misstep to reveal that he had been slicing and dicing what most people regarded as God’s sacred message to humanity. 

 

In 1820, Jefferson went back to work.  The “sage of Monticello” – universally regarded as one of our nation’s brightest chief executives – was now 77 years old and retired from public service.  Delving into French, Latin, and Greek translations of the Gospels, he expanded his project, renaming it The Life and Morals of Jesus Christ.

 

Most people today know it simply as The Jefferson Bible.  America’s third president had crafted, for his own use, a homegrown version of the story of Jesus.

 

Jefferson didn’t think it had been all that challenging.

 

Writing to his old friend and political nemesis John Adams, he noted that the worthy parts of the Gospel were “easily distinguishable from the worthless – as distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill.”  That’s because the New Testament authors were “ignorant, unlettered men” who eagerly passed along “superstitions, fanaticisms, and fabrications.”  In other words, they reported miracles as if they had really happened.

 

For the past six weeks, our Morning Reflections have been singularly focused on the parts of the Bible that Thomas Jefferson removed with his razor.

 

Jefferson was a great admirer of Jesus.  But he wondered what he could really trust.  In several cases he literally slashed verses in half, retaining the portion that he felt was ethically valid, while eliminating any suggestion that God was somehow still loose in the world.  

The most interesting page of the Jefferson Bible is the last one.  Here's how his version of the Jesus story ends:

"Now, in the place where He was crucified, there was a garden; and in the garden a new sepulcher, wherein was never man yet laid. There laid they Jesus. And rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulcher, and departed."

 

That's it.  End of story.  Good Friday is good to go.  But Easter is lying there on the cutting room floor. 

Americans love happy endings.  We have come to expect that the monster will be vanquished, the toad will be changed back into a prince, Beauty's love will transform the Beast into a seriously ripped surfer dude, and everyone will live happily ever after.

In 2008, a number of movie lovers were miffed not only that No Country for Old Men ends with everything planted firmly in thin air, but that it won the Oscar for Best Picture.  

The ancient Greeks, those master storytellers of the classical world, would not have been surprised. There is not a single happy ending in any of their epic literature or mythology.  The Greek notion of "hero" was someone who rose to glorious heights, only to come crashing back to earth through hubris, miscalculation, or betrayal.  

Life is wretched and short, and then you die. 

Historians have suggested that a story that raced rapidly around the Mediterranean world in the first century - that a Jewish miracle-worker named Jesus had come back to life and could supply his followers with love, grace, and power - is the first happy ending in world history.

No wonder myriads of people enthusiastically embraced it.  

Will human history have a happy ending?   

Within the past decade, physicists have confirmed that the cosmos is headed for total entropy. That's a fancy way of saying that all the stars are going to burn out; every particle will exhaust its energy; and all of reality will be dark, cold, and absolutely motionless, with no hope of revival. 

No wonder “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die" sounds like a realistic Plan A for this weekend, and every weekend after that.  

If God doesn't show up, there is no future.  And there are no happy endings. 

If God doesn't show up, all of our lives will echo the last page of The Jefferson Bible.  The people who knew us and loved us will leave us in the cemetery and then walk away, knowing that the same fate awaits them, too.   

But if God does show up, there's real hope for a real future - not only for the cosmos, but for each of our own lives.  

 

For that to happen, we need one more miracle – the supernatural defeat of Death itself.    

 

Spoiler alert: It happens to Jesus on Easter morning. 

 

And it changes everything. 

 

Thanks for joining us for this Lenten journey through many of the greatest events in the life of Jesus.  May God bless you with a truly joyful Easter Sunday!  Glenn

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