Sunday, March 24, 2013

(Palm Sunday) Silencing the stones

Luke 19:28-40, Isaiah 50:4-9a, Philippians 2:5-11

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This past summer I walked on an ancient road
leading from the Mount of Olives,
up to the old walled city of Jerusalem, and the Temple Mount.
It was narrow, it climbed sharply,
and it was carved into a steep rocky hillside,
just outside the city walls.
It was an ancient road, and really the only route to the city,
coming from Bethany and the Mount of Olives.
It was not the original paving stones, of course,
and now, to make it safe for walking,
it was mostly stone steps, like a very long stairway,
with a handrail.
But if Jesus ever did travel
from Bethany to the Mount of Olives to Jerusalem,
and if he was in some sort of procession,
this is the path it would have taken.

It was nothing like that at all in my Sunday School picture books,
or children’s Bible story books my parents read to me.
I always imagined the approach to Jerusalem
being in a wide open area, with room for huge crowds,
and for some reason, kind of looking down on
the city scape of Jerusalem, from afar.

That was not the only distorted picture of this Triumphal Entry,
I’ve had to confront over the years,
and change my mind about.

I not only got the geography wrong.
I got the politics wrong, too.
As did most of us, I imagine.

I used to think these crowds shouting hosanna on Palm Sunday,
who . . . before the week was up would be shouting “crucify him,”
were victims of political and religious manipulation.
I used to think that later in the week they turned on Jesus,
because the jealous authorities—
Jesus’ enemies, the scribes and Pharisees,
as well as the Roman authorities—
fed the people propaganda, twisted their thinking,
encouraged a mob mentality,
and somehow, through lies and manipulation,
got them to change their minds about Jesus.
I used to think that Jesus got crucified
only because the powers-that-be were threatened
by this peace-loving, donkey-riding, gentle Messiah.

It’s easier on us to think that way.
Because then we, the common people, are off the hook.
We’re not them.
We’re not those threatened, controlling, authoritarian leaders
lording it over the masses.
We would not have actually wanted Jesus dead.
At the most, maybe we would have fallen victim to brainwashing,
like everyone else did.
But we would not have been responsible.
_____________________

But let’s look again.
Remember, the Jewish people in first-century Palestine
were a brutally oppressed people, under occupation.
Herod was not just a dictator, he was a mass murderer.
The people longed for freedom.
They had no army strong enough to defeat
the powers of Rome, and of Herod.
They longed for a Messiah who would,
by the miraculous hand of God,
do something more amazing than parting the Red Sea.
They prayed for and expected a Savior
to tear Herod off his throne,
to restore the throne to someone in King David’s line,
to remove this disgrace from the land forever.

That is exactly who they believed Jesus was.
He had done the miracles.
This proved he was from God,
This proved he had the power to save them from Herod’s sword.

This march into Jerusalem,
was a political march,
it was a revolution.
I truly believe, that they truly believed,
that they were not just shouting praises to a great healer,
to a spiritual guru.
They were storming the walls and gates of Jerusalem.
They were following someone who would soon speak the word,
and Herod would be history.

Now that I have seen the geography,
it makes it all the more vivid to me.
On that narrow road going up the side of the mountain,
the walls of Jerusalem were not some quaint city-scape
off in the distance,
they were looming overhead,
and the ramparts (the castle-like tops of the wall),
would have been under heavy guard by Roman soldiers.
I imagine the procession was practically in the shadow of those walls.

Maybe that’s why the donkey, instead of a white horse.
Maybe Jesus was sending a signal to the soldiers
not to be threatened,
not to start attacking.
I don’t know. I’m speculating.

But clearly, the people were anticipating an grand act of God,
to overthrow their oppressors
and restore their independent state.
They were watching history unfold.

But when they entered the city,
Jesus had no showdown with Herod at the palace.
He had a showdown in their own place of worship, the temple.
Jesus started cleansing it of the money-changers,
starting throwing his own Jewish people out into the streets.

I don’t think it took these common people long to realize.
Jesus was not the kind of Savior
they thought they were following into Jerusalem.
They had joined a movement,
spending the last days and weeks rejoicing,
proclaiming the beginning of the end.
They were following a king,
who peacefully, without weapons,
would unseat the most powerful and brutal king
they had ever known.

But as it turned out,
Jesus targeted his own people.
If Jesus was a king,
he was not the king they imagined.
They had Jesus all wrong.
Jesus was the worst kind of messianic pretender.
He led them on.
Only to turn the tables on them, and humiliate them.

I really doubt at this point,
that the religious establishment had any trouble
convincing the crowds
of what they, the leaders, had been saying all along:
Jesus was a fraud.
They didn’t have to try hard to get the chant going,
later that week—“Crucify him, crucify him!”

So no, I don’t think the people were brainwashed into turning on Jesus.
I think these people
really meant it when they shouted “Hosanna!”
on the way to Jerusalem,
and really meant it when they shouted “Crucify him!”
only a short while later.
Jesus utterly let them down.
And he was so blatant about it,
I think they were enraged.

Jesus seemed to disappointment everyone.
Including his disciples.
Later in the week,
after Jesus’ time with them at the Last Supper,
they still didn’t understand.
I think their confusion and disappointment was a big factor,
in the fact they deserted Jesus
and ran away when he was arrested.
I think they ran, not just because they were cowards,
and didn’t want to get hurt.
I think they felt betrayed by Jesus.
I think they ran away,
because they were suddenly full of doubts,
about who they were really following.
They weren’t sure anymore, if it was worth their lives.

Why did Jesus do this?
Why did he make so many enemies by attacking the temple system?
when a foreign, pagan dictator
was oppressing his own people with the sword?
Weigh those two things in the balance—
the violent atrocities coming out of Herod’s palace,
and people selling doves in the temple courtyard,
so that worshipers would have something to sacrifice.
But Jesus confronted the temple, not the palace.
_____________________

You know,
I think this moment, when the crowds and disciples
were most confused, most disappointed,
this may have been the moment of Jesus’ greatest clarity.
It says earlier in Luke that he “set his face toward Jerusalem.”
He knew what needed to happen.
He needed to remind the people of God who they were called to be.

No, I’m not saying Jesus didn’t care about the atrocities
of Herod and Caesar.
I’m sure he hated the Roman oppression.
I’m sure he wanted his people to be free.
But he had an even deeper concern.
His own people had lost their way.
It wasn’t Rome that kept them from living fully.
They did it to themselves.
They forgot what it meant to love and serve God
with their whole heart, soul, mind, and strength.
They forgot how to love and serve each other.
Their faith and identity could survive
even the most brutal oppression.
But it wouldn’t stand a chance if they destroyed it themselves.

They were not treating each other with God’s justice and compassion.
The wealthy were taking advantage of the poor.
The widows and orphans were not being cared for.
Those who had power reveled in it.
Those without got stepped on.

Jesus looked at the city of Jerusalem, and wept,
wept at the lost people without a shepherd,
who no longer knew who they were,
or knew of God’s love and longing for them.
They had no idea their biggest problem was not Rome.
The spiritual, ethical, and communal ground
had eroded under their own feet.

But all the people could see in Jesus, was,
Here is the One who will rescue us from our awful situation.
Here is our savior.
The Blessed One comes.

_____________________

On that narrow road climbing toward Jerusalem,
shouting hosannas to the son of David,
they were worshiping God,
and they were worshiping their Savior.

The Pharisees tried to get Jesus to silence the people.
For good reason.
Perhaps the soldiers were looking down on them
from atop the city walls.
They knew a big loud parade of people
all shouting that Jesus was going to save them,
would only be trouble for everyone.
But Jesus answered them,
“If they are silent, the stones would cry out.”
And once stones get to shoutin’, it’s all over with.
Because if silencing the people is hard . . . 
silencing the stones is even harder.
This was a metaphor, of course.
I think Jesus was saying,
“The people are speaking the truth—more than they even know.”
And you cannot ultimately, silence the truth.
It will be spoken, even if by that which cannot speak.

Jesus accepted the worship of the people.
It was sincere.
It was from the depths of their being.
It was true worship.
It just happened to be true in a way they could never expect.

So it wasn’t the Pharisees that quieted the people.
It was what Jesus did, once he got inside Jerusalem.
Then the worship stopped,
because the object of their worship—Jesus—
went in a direction they were not prepared for.

That’s the whole thing about worship, see?
Worship is risky. Always.
It’s risky to bow yourself in worship
to One you have no control over.
It’s risky to publicly align yourself,
publicly declare your loyalty and affection and adoration,
to One you don’t really know, and can’t predict or manage.
Whenever we worship,
there is always the possibility of a “Whoa!”
“What have we gotten ourselves into?”

Every time we walk into this sanctuary
and join our hearts and voices in worship,
we take a risk.
Because we declare our loyalty and undying devotion
to a God who is beyond our control,
a God who we know only in part.
We throw in our lot with God,
even though we don’t know what God’s next move will be.

We are tempted to only worship the part of God that we know.
But that worship never moves us or changes us.
We only recite what we’re already convinced of.
True worship lays down our agenda
before the great mystery of God.
True worship declares our loyalty
even to that truth of God that is beyond our grasp.
True worship transforms us.
Because when we lay down self,
then God is free to move us to a new place.
God will change us.

Worship is an act of radical submission.
When we sing songs of praise to God Almighty,
when we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord . . .
are we prepared to face the implications of that worship?
are we ready if God throws us a curve?
like going to the temple, instead of the palace?
are we ready to sing “Jesus is Lord”
if Jesus leads us down a path we don’t want to go?
are we ready to keep praising God
if God asks us for something difficult if not impossible?

This, brothers and sisters,
is the worship of Palm Sunday.
It is worship that starts us down on the road to the cross.

The hosannas will still be ringing in our ears later this week . . . 
when we arrive at Thursday, and that foreboding supper,
and Friday, with the agony of Jesus’ execution on the cross,
and Saturday, with it’s utter emptiness and darkness.

Yes, next Sunday is on its way. We know that now.
But right now, it is ours to journey with Jesus,
down this road of un-knowing,
this road of un-expected suffering.

The scriptures today help prepare us for that.
So far we only heard the texts of triumph—
Psalm 118 and Luke 19.
Let us now listen to the texts that turn us toward the cross.
First the words of Isaiah,
from chapter 50, verses 4 to 9a.
Here the word of the Lord, from the prophet Isaiah.

4 The Sovereign Lord has given me a well-instructed tongue,
   to know the word that sustains the weary.
He wakens me morning by morning,
   wakens my ear to listen like one being instructed.
5 The Lord GOD has opened my ear,
    and I was not rebellious,
    I did not turn backward.
6 I gave my back to those who struck me,
    and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
 I did not hide my face
    from insult and spitting.
7 The Lord GOD helps me;
    therefore I have not been disgraced;
 therefore I have set my face like flint,
    and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
      8 he who vindicates me is near.
   Who then will bring charges against me?
   Let us face each other!
Who is my accuser?
   Let him confront me!
9 It is the Sovereign Lord who helps me.
   Who will condemn me?

This was the mindset of Jesus,
when he made his entry into Jerusalem.
His face set like flint.
He knew what he was called to do.
He knew who he was called to be.
He was the servant of God.
And his job was to serve God’s purposes in the world,
without regard to the powers working against him.
It did not come easy.
He prayed to be spared from it.
But he knew what needed to be done,
and asked for the strength to do it.

That is also our calling.

Now hear the word of the Lord,
as expressed by the apostle Paul in Philippians 2:5-11.

5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
 And being found in human form,
    8 he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death —
    even death on a cross.
9 Therefore God also highly exalted him
    and gave him the name
    that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
    every knee should bend,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
    that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.



Let the same mind be in us, that was in Christ Jesus.

The same mind. Or, more literally, the same attitude.
The same leaning.

To lean in the same direction Christ leaned,
to lean toward emptying oneself,
is a awesome responsibility and calling . . .
at which we often fail.
May God have mercy on us, today and in this coming week.

—Phil Kniss, March 24, 2013


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