Jim Henson died too young. He was one of my favorite artists. His most notable creation, The Muppets, followed earlier renditions of his rowdy comedy. Back on the farm growing up in the 1950’s, I was not allowed much time to watch TV so I did not know about him and his creations. Later it was the military, then college, followed by seminary.
It was not until the early 1970’s, when our first child began watching Sesame Street, that I took notice. By the time our second child was born, our household rang with the theme of Sesame Street. Then when The Muppets Show hit Primetime it was family movie time.
Jim died in 1990, but his legacy lives on today. He was the master of illusion. Through him, the world learned the art of illusion. One could believe Miss Piggy actually tricked Kermit the Frog, as she so often did.
One of my favorite characters was The Count. I always wondered why he counted everything. I thought it was to teach children to count until I entered my current season of life. Now I tend to count everything, starting with the pills I take every morning and night.
The mystique of the Muppets died for me when I toured the studio and saw how the Muppets show was produced. What the audience saw on the table was only an illusion. The action was actually taking place off screen, below and above the table. The Muppets were never the same for me.
Much of life today, in this world of digital display and artificial intelligence, is like that. What we see and feel, what we respond to is an illusion created by someone to give the appearance of reality. Even when using Zoom for our weekly Bible study, as the host, I can create a background giving the appearance that I am somewhere other than where I am. Remember the weatherman? When he/she points to the map, he/she is pointing to a blank blue wall and viewing the true image on a screen off camera.
As those who believe in the incarnation and sacrificial death of Jesus the Christ, who died for our sins so that we can experience a quality of life in a close personal relationship with the Godhead, the creator and sustainer of the universe, we need to be careful not to confuse illusion with reality. Christianity is not an illusion. It is reality.
For health reasons, and as a testimony to those who are concerned for me, I am still housebound due to the corona virus. I watch excellent Christian messages on TV and on my computer. For the first time in my life, my involvement in corporate worship is limited to what others create for me to see and feel. I am struggling with the lack of emotional involvement that I enjoy when I am harmonizing with other believers in an uplifting hymn or praise chorus, or partaking the elements of the Lord Supper.
Replacing reality with illusion is not a new concept. Plato and other Greek philosophers were debating the subject long before Jesus walked on earth. This is why the Gnostics were quick to pick up elements of the gospel and declared them mystical—another word for illusion. Jesus was a phantom. Or Jesus was only a man, but God came into him at birth and left him on the cross. Etc.
Even as Jesus performed miracles; healing the sick, raising the dead, walking on water, feeding the multitudes, many took them as illusion and a way to gain some personal benefit. Following the feeding of the five thousand and Jesus walking on the water, the multitude followed Jesus and ask Him to explain himself. Jesus’ response was unsettling to them:
Jesus answered them and said, "Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate of the loaves, and were filled. Do not work for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man shall give to you, for on Him the Father, even God, has set His seal."[i]
In the following dialogue, the crowd asked him to perform another sign to validate those he had already performed. They sought illusion instead of reality. To illustrate, they referred to the manna given in the wilderness that sustained Israel throughout the wilderness wanderings. To them that was an illusion performed by Moses. Jesus corrected them:
"Truly, truly, I say to you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread out of heaven, but it is My Father who gives you the true bread out of heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down out of heaven, and gives life to the world."[ii]
Even then, they wanted illusion instead of reality:
They said therefore to Him, "Lord, evermore give us this bread."[iii]
In clear Jewish fashion, Jesus explains reality in figurative language.
Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me shall not hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst. "But I said to you, that you have seen Me, and yet do not believe. "All that the Father gives Me shall come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out. "For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me. "And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day. "For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him, may have eternal life; and I Myself will raise him up on the last day."[iv]
There was no misunderstanding. The distinction between illusion and reality was laid bare. Jesus was and is the Son of Man, Messiah, the deliverer they were waiting for. The One who would die for their sins, who would be raised from the dead, and who would raise up all whom God the Father gave to Him.
This reality was too much to accept. Their response was to grumble and argue against this reality. Even when Jesus attempted to explain further, they argued even more, disrupting the decorum carefully fashioned in the great synagogue in Capernaum.
John records that many disciples struggled with this reality.
Many therefore of His disciples, when they heard this said, "This is a difficult statement; who can listen to it?”...As a result of this many of His disciples withdrew, and were not walking with Him anymore.[v]
Many today are caught up in a delusional Christianity. As long as there is loud music, large crowds, wonderful positive messages that make one feel good, they are disciples (i.e., learners). But when the music stops, the crowd disperses, the hardships come, there are no more illusions, they are left with emptiness.
In these difficult times, the world will continue substituting illusion for reality. But God’s people should not, must not, follow the example of the disciples who walked away. These are indeed “the times that try men’s soul.”
One year in college, I roomed with another Christian man I met through Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. I do not recall his name so I will call him, Ted. I did not know him before that time nor did I know much about him after that year. He was a very quiet, almost introverted, individual.
One week my adopted father came to the Washington State University campus. At the time, he was Dairy Products Commissioner for the State of Washington. WSU, being an agriculture college with a large Ag department, was very attentive to his presence since he was instrumental in setting their annual budget.
The first night we invited him to stay with us in our small, one-room apartment off campus. I slept on the floor while he slept on my bunk. In the morning, without warning, he lit up a cigarette, grabbed an empty egg carton, and used it as an astray. It caught fire. We quickly extinguished the small blaze.
At breakfast, toast was on the menu and we set out our usual spread which included oleomargarine. That was a mistake. ”Where’s the butter, “ he demanded. “Is this spread the only thing you have?” He asked. We immediately knew our mistake. He ate his toast without spread.”
The week seems like an eternity. We were constantly on our guard. He moved into a motel but we kept in touch. Ted watched in wonder at the actions of a man whose personal life did not comport with his social persona. The one thing I knew regarding Ted was that he came from a home without a father. His mother was a devout Christian and raised him to be one also. This was all new to him.
After my father left WSU, I was sitting on my bunk. Ted was sitting at his desk shaking his head. “What’s wrong?” I asked. His response to my question startled me. “You know where you came from.” He replied. “Sometimes I think my faith is a figment of my imagination.”
A Christian does not need to come from a broken or dysfunctional family to experience the reality of eternal life in Christ. However, if someone lives with head knowledge only and never experiences faith in a moment of crisis, if he/she only possesses an illusional faith, then when a critical moment comes, he/she will walk away from The Faith.
One important outcome of the pandemic is that it has and is stripping away many illusions. Without a strong moral compass, it is more difficult to walk openly with the Lord. More of the public is apathetic to the Christian faith and even hostile to it. Christianity is seen as in opposition to the illusions they want to claim as reality.
If you find yourself questioning your faith in Jesus Christ, stop and consider. Is what the world offers a greater reality than Jesus Christ? Peter confronted his generation of believers:
For the time already past is sufficient for you to have carried out the desire of the Gentiles, having pursued a course of sensuality, lusts, drunkenness, carousals, drinking parties and abominable idolatries. And in all this, they are surprised that you do not run with them into the same excess of dissipation, and they malign you;[vi]
Therefore, since Christ has suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same purpose, because he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for the lusts of men, but for the will of God.[vii]
The end of all things is at hand; therefore, be of sound judgment and sober spirit for the purpose of prayer. Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins.[viii]
Only through careful reflection in the Word of God and through the power of the Holy Spirit are we able to sort out illusion from reality and walk the straight line of righteousness in the light of God’s reality.
[i] Jn 6:26-27.
[ii] Jn 6:32-33.
[iii] Jn 6:34.
[iv] Jn 6:35-40.
[v] Jn 6:60, 66.
[vi] 1 Pe 4:3-4.
[vii] 1 Pe 4:1-2.
[viii] 1 Pe 4:7-8.