The Unvarnished Jesus: A Lenten Journey

The Unvarnished Jesus: A Lenten Journey
Brian Zahnd

I have a new book release! The Unvarnished Jesus: A Lenten Journey. This is a book of daily devotions taking the reader on a journey with Jesus from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday. I know we’re still in Advent, but I wanted to give you enough time to have The Unvarnished Jesus for the beginning of Lent on February 26. Let me tell you how this book came about…

In February of 2006 I was in New Delhi, India staying in the Imperial Hotel. I had just concluded a conference for a thousand pastors in Orissa and I had a couple of days to relax in my favorite hotel in one of my favorite cities before the long journey home. During my two days at the Imperial Hotel I was working on a new sermon series. At this point I was two years into a very significant spiritual and theological transition. After nearly twenty-five years of pastoral ministry I was encountering Jesus in new ways that posed profound challenges to many of the assumptions I had grown comfortable with. The Jesus I was discovering in midlife was a challenge to the consumerism, Americanism, militarism, and individualism that had come to characterize so much of the Christianity I knew.

This period of my life is what some describe as deconstruction, but I never thought of it that way or used that term. I tended to talk about what I was experiencing as having new eyes. I told my church repeatedly that with my new eyes the Bible I had been reading for decades had become a new book. Or with a more brazen rhetorical flourish I would say I was moving beyond easy-cheesy-cotton-candy-Christianity. Eventually I settled on Jesus turning water to wine at Cana as my preferred metaphor. A re-engagement with Jesus caused a weak, watery, diluted Christianity to be transformed into something rich, robust, and intoxicating. In midlife, instead of the party being over, it was just getting started. It was like being born again again.

I was thrilled with the discoveries I was making, but I also wanted to bring people along with me on this exciting new journey, because that’s the vocation of a pastor. And so I was outlining a series of sermons where I would try to present Jesus in an non-domesticated way. I called the series “The Unvarnished Jesus” because in those sermons I was attempting to remove the layers of lacquer comprised of the cultural assumptions that prevent us from seeing just how challenging and compelling Jesus really is.

On my second day at the Imperial working on these sermons I was suddenly overwhelmed by a wave of anxiety. I knew the sermons would be good, but they would also be dangerous. Presenting Jesus without a certain amount of mitigating varnish to an American church is not safe. I was plagued with thoughts like: How will this go over? How will the congregation react? Who’s going to get mad and leave the church over this? I had to decide what I was going to do, so I left the hotel and went for a long walk through the streets of New Delhi, praying and trying to recover my nerve.

When I returned to the hotel I had made up my mind — I would preach the unvarnished Jesus as honestly as I could, come what may. I knew it was a pivotal moment. I even took a picture of my Bible, notes, and laptop sitting on the desk to memorialize the decision I’d made to preach Jesus without varnish. I often look at that picture, and when I do I feel the thrill and anxiety all over again. Those two days in the Imperial Hotel were a crucial turning point for me and our church.

On the long flight home I read Step Across This Line — a collection of essays by the Indian-born writer Salman Rushdie. In his essay on the Taj Mahal I came across this paragraph.

“The problem with the Taj Mahal is that it has become so overlaid with accumulated meanings as to be almost impossible to see. When you arrive at the outer walls of the gardens in which the Taj is set, it’s as if every hustler and hawker in Agra is waiting for you to make the familiarity-breeds-contempt problem worse, peddling imitation Mahals of every size and price. This leads to a certain amount of shoulder-shrugging disenchantment. Recently, a British friend who was about to make his first visit to India told me that he had decided to leave the Taj off his itinerary because of its over-exposure. If I urged him not to, it’s because of my own vivid memory of pushing my way for the first time through the jostling crowd of imitation-vendors, past all the myriad hawkers of meaning and interpretation, and into the presence of the thing itself, which utterly overwhelmed me, and made all my notions about its devaluation feel totally and completely redundant. The building itself left my skepticism in shreds. Announcing itself as itself, insisting with absolute force on its sovereign authority, it simply obliterated the million million counterfeits of it and glowingly filled, once and forever, the place in the mind previously occupied by its simulacra.”

That was it! That was exactly what I wanted to do with “The Unvarnished Jesus.” I wanted a Jesus who had been overlaid with so many accumulated meanings as to be impossible to see to once again announce himself as himself with the absolute force of sovereign authority and obliterate the million million counterfeits!

Over the next two months I preached “The Unvarnished Jesus” sermons and wrote an Unvarnished Jesus blog post every day for sixty-one days. It was a turning point for our church. We were headed in the right direction, but it would be a difficult road; as Jesus said, “the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life.”

We lost a lot of people over the next few years because an unvarnished Jesus who refuses to be a spokesperson for the assumed cultural values of Americanism is deeply unsettling for many American Christians. But the water turned to wine and we eventually arrived at a beautiful place. And if I had it to do all over again I wouldn’t change a thing.

This book of daily Lenten reflections is not a replication of those sermons and blogs from fourteen years ago, but they are written in the same spirit.

Lent is a forty-six day period prior to Easter (forty days of some kind of fasting with six Sunday feasts) during which we follow Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem where he establishes the kingdom of God through his death, burial, and resurrection. To help you make the most of the season of Lent I’ve provided a Gospel reading and a brief reflection on Jesus for each day. The Sunday selections are taken from one of the Gospel readings in the three-year cycle of the Revised Common Lectionary. The other forty readings are my own selections, all taken from the second half of Jesus’ ministry — first from Mark, followed by Matthew, Luke, and John. Then there is a two-week journey through the fourteen Scriptural Stations of the Cross. Our Lenten journey concludes with daily readings and reflections through the events of Holy Week. Each Lenten reflection concludes with a brief prayer addressed to our Lord.

I invite you to join me on a pilgrimage — a forty-six day journey from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday in a quest to encounter The Unvarnished Jesus.


(Here’s the picture I took in my hotel room when The Unvarnished Jesus was conceived.)