Our God is loquacious – that is, God creates through speech. And we call the Good News Good News because its’ something that is received from someone else.
Preaching, then, is a uniquely wonderful task because it is always evangelical, it is always sharing the Good News with those living in a world drowning in bad news.
Easter is a challenge to preachers because it is not natural, it is not expected, and there are no good analogies from human experience that can adequately convey it. Easter is not like the butterfly emerging from the cocoon, it is not the return of the deeply buried daffodils in the ground. Easter is about a man who was tortured to death by the powers and principalities, church and state working together, who died, and then 3 days later he came back!
How can preaching ever adequately reflect the enormity of Easter?
And yet, Easter Sunday is the day that makes all of our other Sundays intelligible. For, without Jesus’ resurrection, the whole of Christianity becomes a fool’s errand – unless Jesus is raised from the dead, then we shouldn’t teach our children to turn the other cheek, or go the extra mile for our neighbors, or pray for our enemies.
Therefore, as difficult as it may be to say something about Easter, we must say something on Easter.
And perhaps that’s the actual beauty of it all.
Some of us have no doubt seen/experienced miracles – we know someone who dropped a bad habit, or perhaps we’re aware of an unexplainable change in a diagnosis. But none of us have ever seen someone dead in the grave for three days resurrected, let alone God in the flesh.
But someone did.
All of our faith, this whole thing we call church, is predicated on a handful of people from long ago who saw and experienced something so unexpected that it radically re-narrated everything in existence.
And all it took were three words: “He is Risen!”
Easter is world shattering, it is deeply disruptive, and it changes everything now and forever. Easter is the totality of the Good News. And without it, we have nothing to say at all.
Here are some instrumental tunes that can help get us ready for the unexpected Good News of Easter. I encourage you to sit back and let the music wash over you and, hopefully, you’ll discover something about who you are, and whose you are, along the way:
Explosions In The Sky is an instrumental post-rock band from Austin, Texas. All of their music explores textures and sounds rather than following typical song structures like verse, chorus, verse, chorus, chorus. To me, “The Birth And The Death Of A Day” sounds like Easter.
Sufjan Steven’ incredibly long titled instrumental track from his album “Come On Feel The Illinoise” is a short and evocative track ripe with recorders, flutes, harmonizing chorus, and various percussive rat-a-ma-tats; it’s one of those songs where you are not the same having listened to it.
White Denim’s “Back At The Farm” is a blistering and raucous instrumental psychedelic rock song. I don’t know if I’ve ever been able to listen to it without bashing my hands around in feeble attempts to “air-drum” along. If Easter really is a day of celebration, then White Denim is the kind of music I’ll be blaring after church!
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for Easter Sunday [B] (Isaiah 25.6-9, Psalm 118.1-2, 14-24, 1 Corinthians 15.1-11, John 20.1-18). Drew is the lead pastor of Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including preparation, in-person worship, champagne, the already-but-not-yet, righteousness, the radical nature of belief, salvific hindsight, liturgical anxieties, Fleming Rutledge, and resurrected recognition. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Exhausted By Easter
Palm Sunday is a strange Sunday. It begins in celebration and ends in catastrophe. It begins with “Hosanna” and ends with “Crucify.” It begins with life and ends with death.
Contrary to how we’ve (often) watered down the Gospel message in church, Jesus wasn’t killed for telling people to love one another. He was killed because we don’t have imaginations capable of understanding what love actually looks like.
But now we do know what love looks like because we know Jesus and him crucified. For the cross reveals to us the very heart of God. The cross is not just some symbol to explain suffering in the world, rather it is the witness to the lengths God chose to go in order to rectify our wrongs. Jesus’ cross makes a people possible who see, know, and believe that the only true response to suffering in this world is love.
And yet, Holy Week isn’t about us. If it is, it is only about what Jesus went through because of us. In the end, as we sit in the shadow of the cross, we are given a task made possible as well as demanded by the cross to be present to one another when there is quite literally nothing we can do to save ourselves.
Jesus enters the holy city under occupation and, in the end, occupies our place on the cross.
The crowds demand their salvation and, in the end, Jesus gives it to them by giving himself.
“This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.” (Psalm 118.24)
Here are a few tunes that can put us in a decisively strange mood for Holy Week:
I am convinced that Robert Farrar Capon would’ve been a fan of Tyson Motsenbocker’s “Sunday Morning.” The song opens with a sweet guitar riff and then launches into lyrics that reflect on leading worship: “I chose all the right songs, I played all the right chords / ‘Till the kids who still weren’t singing, praised the Lord / And the pastor yelled about faith and hell / And I soundtracked his words for affect / And everyone cried and cried and cried / everyone cried and cried and cried / And then we played kickball.” The juxtaposition of what the church often sells on Sunday morning (Do this and that to get saved) with the Gospel message that Jesus, in fact, is the one who saves us, is delightfully reflected in this song.
Caamp’s “Fall, Fall, Fall” is a soft and tender anthem about change and I can’t help but hear the refrain “I want my kids to swim in the creek” as a reflection on the desire to swim in the waters of baptism.
Kevin Morby’s “Parade” is a somber reflection on death, identity, and ambiguity. The sporadic piano keys overtop his strumming guitar rhythms actually feels like walking through a city in a parade. But, above all, I love how Morby portrays the strange realities of what it’s like having compassion for a city hell-bent on chewing him up. Sound familiar?
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Dane Womack about the readings for Palm Sunday [B] (Psalm 118.1-2, 19-29, Mark 11.1-11). Dane serves at First UMC in Paragould, Arkansas. Our conversation covers a range of topics including church costumes, rejected stones, hosannas on repeat, political parodies, stretched imaginations, simple obedience, and meta-narratives. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: A Hoped For Hope
Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord rescues them from them all. He keeps all their bones; not one of them will be broken. Evil brings death to the wicked, and those who hate the righteous will be condemned. The Lord redeems the life of his servants; none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.
Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity. So they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed. Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who had been crucified with him. But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out. (He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth.) These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled, “None of his bones shall be broken.” And again another passage of scripture says, “They will look on the one whom they have pierced.”
I stood before the gathered church and began, “The Lord be with you.”
“And also with you.”
“Lift up your hearts.”
“We lift them up to the Lord.”
“Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.”
“It is right to give our thanks and praise.”
Countless times had I uttered the words. Innumerable Sundays marked by the words recalling the mighty acts of God’s salvation.
“On the night in which he gave himself up for us, he took bread, gave thanks to you, broke the bread, gave it to his friends and said: ‘Take, eat; this is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ When the supper was over, he took the cup, gave thanks to you, gave it to his friends, and said: ‘Drink from this, all of you; this is my blood of the new covenant, poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’”
I prayed for the Holy Spirit to be poured out on all of us, and on the gifts of the bread and the cup, that they might be the body and blood of Christ for us, and they we might be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood.
I broke the bread.
I lifted the cup.
I invited the people of God to feast.
One by one they came with hands outstretched recognizing the gift being given. One by one they received the bread, they dipped it in the cup, and they put God in their mouths.
Until the final person in line stepped forward.
He was probably 12 years old, I had never seen him before, and his parents were nowhere to be found.
He said, “Can I ask you a question?”
“Of course,” I replied.
“Did you really say that we get to eat his body and drink his blood?”
“That’s the idea.”
“Wow,” he said, “Church is way more rad than I thought it would be.”
And with that he feasted on the Lord.
Sometimes it takes a 12 year-old boy’s question to knock us out of our comfort with familiarity. How many times had I presided over the meal without thinking about what it might sound like to someone unfamiliar with church? How many times had I shared the bread and the cup with people who saw it merely as a routine? How many times had I myself feasted on the Lord without thinking about actually feasting on the Lord?
There’s a physicality to all of this. And by this I mean the church.
We stand, we sing, we bring our hands together. We eat, we breathe, we laugh, we cry.
It is good and right for us to experience the physicality of it all because God’s love has a physicality to it. It is not as obscure or as intangible as we might think.
God’s love can be felt, and seen, and tasted, and heard, and (probably even) smelled.
Throughout the strange new world of the Bible, God’s love for God’s people shows up as manna, a voice, through blood, a pillar of smoke, a raging fire.
And in its fullest expression, God’s love shows up as an actual person: Jesus.
Jesus is the Lord made flesh – God emptied God’s self, took the form of a slave being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross, as Paul puts it in the letter to the church in Philippi.
And yet, more often than not, church becomes some sort of ethereal, spiritual, or merely mystical manifestation. We spend time thinking about how, whatever we do in here, it connects with us only in ways that are intangible.
But Jesus is the Lord made fleshand skin and bone.
Christianity, despite claims to the contrary, is inherently materialistic because God becomes material in Jesus.
God, to put it bluntly, becomes us.
We find Jesus in our scripture today on the other side of crucifixion. Arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, put on trial before Pilate and the religious authorities, stripped, beaten, marched to Golgotha, nailed to the cross, left to die.
And then John tells us that, because it was the day of Preparation, that is the day before Passover, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the sabbath. In Deuteronomy the people of God are specifically commanded to not allow a corpse to remain all night upon a tree (Deuteronomy 21.23) and the conflation with the day of Preparation made the hanging bodies even worse. Therefore they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and their bodies removed.
Crucifixion was an explicitly horrific way to die. Not only were individuals hung for all to see, a reminder about what happens when you challenge the powers that be, but they eventually died because they could no longer support their bodies enough to breathe. Breaking legs was, strangely, an act of kindness that would bring death faster rather than letting it run its natural course.
The soldiers then came to break the legs of the crucified men but when they saw that Jesus was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers took a spear and ran it through Jesus’ rib cage and blood and water came spilling out.
Strange. The synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) don’t include these details shortly after Jesus’ death. And yet John lifts them up for those who wish to follow Jesus.
These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled, “None of his bones shall be broken.” And again another passage of scripture says, “They will look on the one whom they have pierced.”
In some way, John wants us to see that all of it, even the very death of Jesus and the treatment of his dead body, is part of God’s great salvific narrative. There are connections drawn from the cross back to the book of Exodus and to the Prayer Book of God’s people, the Psalms.
Jesus suffered and died on a cross because the cross is the way Rome made an example of those who asked too many questions, pushed too many buttons, and instilled too many fears.
And yet, if we were asked why Jesus suffered an died on a cross, we’re likely to say something like, “He died to make us right with God” or “It was Jesus’ way of forgiving us” or “He died so we could go heaven.”
Which, to be clear, aren’t necessarily wrong. The cross is a moment of reconciliation, Jesus does forgive all of us from the cross, and it is part and parcel with what salvation means.
But one of the things we often gloss over, something John really wants us to see and remember, is that Jesus died on the day of Preparation for Passover.
And Passover isn’t about being right with God. The Lord didn’t look upon the misdeeds of the Hebrews in Egypt and say, “Okay, time to let bygones be bygones. I will wash away your sin.”
God says, “I’m getting you out of Egypt! Let’s go!”
Passover is about freedom.
Back in Egypt God’s people were given specific instructions to follow in terms of their Exodus, their deliverance from oppression, and the connections with Jesus’ life and death are rampant:
Jesus is without sin and innocent of the charges lobbed again him, just like the Passover lamb is supposed to be perfect and without blemish.
Jesus is beaten to the point of death and pierced in the side, just like the Passover lamb is supposed to be bled before being hung to roast.
Jesus was hung high and though beaten his bones were not broken, just like the Passover lamb’s bones were to remain intact.
Perhaps we’ve always seen the connections, maybe John’s words are already obvious to us, but in case our vision has been on something else, the Bible is begging us to see that the cross is our exodus – it is our delivery out of captivity into something new.
The Psalms and the Exodus story contain these particular details about unbroken bones not as throwaway lines about God’s strange obsession with anatomy and rule-following, but because the transfiguration of the cosmos is something physical and tangible. They help us to see how even the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is part of the great sweeping narrative of how far God was willing to go for God’s people.
How far God was willing to go for you and for me.
“Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord rescues them from them all. He keeps all their bones; not one of them will be broken.”
We are, to use the language of the Psalm, rescued by the Lord on the cross, it is our exodus from death to resurrection. In the end of all things, in the resurrection of the dead, God keeps our bones and, as Ezekiel so vividly conveys it, will reknit us to be who we will be in the New Heaven and in the New Earth.
John the Baptist proclaims toward the beginning of the Gospel that Jesus was the Lamb of God. And John the Evangelist takes that proclamation to its beautiful conclusion: Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
This story, as strange and tangible and difficult as it is, is like God saying to us, “You want to know what I’m like? You want to know what I’m up to? Look no further than the One hanging on the cross! You cannot break my bones! I am the Passover Lamb who comes to bring you the exodus you need more than you know!”
In many ways, even though it’s perplexing, this is an easy text to preach. For, all of us are all well aware of the innocent suffering that takes place in this world.
A man walked into three massage parlors in Atlanta this week and murdered eight people because, as the law enforcement put it, he was having a bad day.
We just hit the one year no in-person worship because of the Coronavirus, a virus that has now been contracted by more than 121 million people across the globe, and is responsible for more than half a million deaths just here in the United States.
It doesn’t take that long to scroll through the likes of Twitter and Facebook, or to turn on the evening news so see exactly why God had to send his Son into the world.
Jesus is the only hope we have.
And when he came to teach about the kingdom of God, and to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and lift up the last, least, lost, little, and dead, how did we respond? We hung him in a tree to die.
But that’s not the end of the story.
God did not leave God’s people in chains in Egypt, and God does not leave us stuck under the terrible tyranny of sin and death.
Jesus Christ, with bones unbroken, is our Passover Lamb and reminds us that God is in the business of deliverance.
Because Jesus did what Jesus did, because he mounted the hard wood of the cross, offered a decree of forgiveness, died, and was resurrected, we are no longer bound or defined by our mistakes or our sins or our shames.
Jesus became sin who knew no sin, nailed them all to the cross, and left them there forever.
The Good News of Jesus Christ is that we have already been forgiven, and we’ve been set free.
What was done to us does not define us.
What we’ve done, and failed to do, is no longer kept in a ledger of God’s design.
Our scars and our wounds and our sins and our shames may be real, but so is our rescue.
Jesus doesn’t say, “This is my body and this is my blood” so that we’ll stay stuck exactly where we are doing to the same things over and over again.
Jesus says, “This is my body and this is my blood” so that all of us will walk in the light of grace knowing that just as God broke the chains in Egypt, our chains to sin and death are broken right here and right now.
Which is all just another way of saying, “Church is way more rad than we often think it is.” Amen.
We think the Law can save and fix our messed up and broken lives.
From infancy we’re spoon-fed a narrative of righteous self-determination, that if you do all the right things, and go to the right school, and marry the right partner, then everything will be as it should be.
Until it isn’t.
And then the Law refuses to let us go.
So we adopt new habits: we buy a Peloton, we go on a new diet, we stay up late into the evening looking at Zillow for the next perfect house, we “Marie Kondo” our lives in order to get things under control.
And, even if some things change, perhaps we get that nice dopamine hit from imagining ourselves in a new place or we can fit into clothes we haven’t worn since college, we can’t actually fix ourselves with the “law.”
At some point the new house becomes the hold house, a few weeks away from the gym brings our waistline back, and on and on.
Jesus came to bring us something better than another law, something better than another set of things we must do in order to get God to do something for us. Sure, we’re called to love God and neighbor, turn the other cheek, pray for our enemies, but those are never prerequisites for the Kingdom.
Remember: The Kingdom is already among us. Our sins were nailed to the cross and left there forever.
The Law (from scripture and from life) is good, but it kills us. It exists to accuse us and it shows us, over and over again, who we really are. For, to borrow an expression from Paul, no one is righteous, no, not one.
Even our subtle exercises in self-denial during Lent help to remind us of the condition of our condition: Lent isn’t about participating in spiritual olympics in which we compete with one another to see who can be the most holy – instead it’s about confronting the fact that our desires will always get the better of us.
But the Law, and its ability to deaden us, is Good News and exactly what we need. It’s only in death (read: Baptism) that we begin to know the One who came to give us grace.
Contrary to how we often water down the Gospel, we worship a rather odd God. Our God who, among other things, speaks from a burning bush, promises offspring to a wandering octogenarian, and saves the cosmos through death on a cross.
And for Christians, we know who this odd God is because we know Jesus Christ.
Therefore, Jesus is not a new Moses who displaces the old law with a new one. Instead, Jesus is the New Adam who inaugurates an entirely new cosmos.
Jesus is not a new Moses because, as the Gospel of John reminds us, the Word was God before the foundation of the world.
Jesus is not a new Moses who offers a set of guidelines to save ourselves and the world. Instead Jesus comes to be our salvation in himself.
Here’s the Good News: On any given Sunday (even in the midst of a global pandemic) the people of God called church gather together to hear the most important word we will ever hear: Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, and that proves God’s love toward us – In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.
Notice – Christ died for us while we were sinners, not before and not after. Christ chooses to die for us right in the midst of the worst mistake we’ve ever made or will ever make.
In the end, that’s what it’s all about.
We don’t follow the Law in order to get God to save us.
We are already saved which then frees us to follow the Law – we do the things Christ calls us to do not because it earns us anything, but simply because it makes life a whole lot more fun.
Jesus isn’t a new Moses – Jesus is God. And that’s the difference that makes all the difference.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Dane Womack about the readings for the 5th Sunday of Lent [B] (Jeremiah 31.31-34, Psalm 51.1-12, Hebrews 5.5-10, John 12.20-33). Dane serves at First UMC in Paragould, Arkansas. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the ministry of running, new covenants, flipping questions, wedding rings, Christology, W. David O. Taylor, the judged Judge, clergy collars, the American Dream, and dirty liturgy. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Sinning Like A Christian
This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it. I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation. The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. Save us, we beseech you, O Lord! O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!
Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.
Every pastor has a favorite Palm Sunday story.
Like the year when the palm branches were delivered too early and dried out so much that when the gathered congregation shook them over their heads on Sunday morning, palm branch particles went flying in every direction resulting in coughing fits among the people of God.
Or, the time when the pastor thought it would be a great idea to dress up like a donkey and preach the sermon from the perspective of the animal who carried Jesus into Jerusalem, to which the pastor received the best comment of all time: “You’re not the first donkey we’ve had in that pulpit.” Only the person used a different word for donkey…
Or, there was the one Palm Sunday when the children of the church processed in waving their palm branches singing their “hosannas” only to begin smacking each other in the faces until a nearby parent had to jump in to break up the melee and then muttered a little too loudly, “Lord, save me from these children.”
And I think preachers like me enjoy re-telling those stories because the actual story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem is rather perplexing.
To put it another way: It’s easier to tell a cute or funny little story than it is to come to grips with the Lord of lords entering into the city that will ultimately hang him on a cross.
Or still yet, to put it another way: We’d rather hear something about ourselves when Jesus crosses the threshold to the seat of empire instead of admitting that this story has little, if anything, to do with us.
Of course, it’s only natural to present Christianity as a way to help people obtain whatever it is they think that need to have in order to make their lives more livable.
Feeling afraid? Come to our church and listen to our sermon series on handling anxiety.
Lonely? You’ll discover that we’re just the friendliest church in town.
Hurt by the church? Don’t worry, we practice open hearts, minds, and doors here!
All of that centers around attraction and it’s how we advertise the church. Just scroll through Facebook, or drive around town, and you are liable to see those very slogans adorning what we call God’s holy church.
And, to be clear, they are true.
There is something about the church that is designed to comfort the afflicted, to give us the words and phrases and images to make sense of so many senseless things.
There is something about the church that is designed to rid the world of the insipid disease of loneliness – we are a community of people who share one thing in common, namely Jesus Christ.
There is something about the church that is designed to rectify the wrongs of the past while casting visions of a new and a different future.
Those things are all true, but they’re only true to a point.
Because, when all is said and done, friendliness, peace, hospitality, they are not the chief reasons for the church.
The church is the body of Christ in motion. The Church is Jesus’ presence in the world. And Jesus belongs to himself, not to us.
Let me put it this way: We don’t lead the church – we follow Jesus.
Now, I don’t know what you know about Jesus, or how he’s met you along the road of life and opened your eyes to things you never saw before, or how he found you when you needed him most. But I do hope you know how much Jesus delights in calling losers and failures to be the instruments of his mercy and grace.
The great gift of the church is that God in Christ makes our lives far more interesting than they deserve to be.
You see, Christianity is neither a religion nor a club nor a civic organization – Christianity is an adventure.
It gives us a story when we had no story, it breaks us free from the monotony of life, and, perhaps most importantly, it proclaims to us the truth:
At the right time, Christ died for the ungodly – while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.
Which in the end, is what makes church so exciting. Like with Jesus, we never know what’s going to happen next. The Holy Spirit blows where it wants, directing our attention toward that which we usually miss, kicking us into gear when the appointed time arrives.
We are given a gift, the greatest gift in the history of the cosmos, completely and utterly for free – we have been freed from the chains of sin and death and we didn’t do anything to deserve it.
The God we worship, the One who brings life to the dead and calls into existence things that do no exist, is very loquacious – God creates and God reveals God’s self through speech.
And, notably in our text for today, Jesus (God in the flesh) says, well, nothing.
Put that on a banner and see how many people log-in for the online worship service!
Two of Jesus’ craftiest disciples procure a donkey for their Lord and he mounts the dirty animal in order to enter the holy city.
The closer the crew get to Jerusalem, the larger the crowds become with people rushing forward to catch a glimpse of the Messiah, the Promised One, in the flesh.
On either side, both in front and behind, the people are shouting and singing, “Save us! Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Save us here and now!”
Then Jesus, riding on the donkey, crosses into Jerusalem proper and goes to the temple. He takes a good gander at everything within his frame of vision, but, noticing the lateness of the hour, he departs for Bethany with his twelve disciples.
What started in Galilee is now coming to fruition in Jerusalem.
A carpenter turned rabbi fished out some fishermen and conscripted them for kingdom work. He went about from town to town, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, all while telling the more bizarre and perplexing stories about scattered seeds, wayward sons, and never ending wedding feasts.
At first, Jesus didn’t look or sound much like a Messiah. Sure, he could do some incredible things and told some wonderful stories, but the predominant question among the crowds was, “Where did he get this authority?”
You see, there were messianic expectations. The Messiah was supposed to say and do certain things. And Jesus did and said some of them, even entering into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey was part of what had been prophesied.
But there will always be a profound difference between what we expect of Jesus and what Jesus does for us.
By the time he hits the holy city with his parade of palm branch wavers, he’s become quite popular. Tell a bunch of people stuck on the bottom rung of the socio-political ladder that they will be first in the new kingdom and you’re liable to have a pretty sizable crowd show up.
But, perhaps part of Jesus popularity also came from being, shall we say, misunderstood.
After all, the last being first sounds nice, but who willingly signs up to turn the other cheek, and go the extra mile, and pray for their enemies?
Who wants to hate their mother and father for the sake of God’s glory?
Who jumps on the bandwagon of carrying their own crosses, the very method used to murder enemies of the state?
People had, and people still have, their expectations of Jesus.
On that day by the outskirts of Jerusalem so long ago, the people with their palm branches had their own idea about who this Messiah was and what he was going to do. Consider: What are they shouting along the road? Hosanna! Which, if we’re not careful, just becomes another word muttered by Christian-types without proper reflection.
Hosanna literally means “save us.”
Save us from what?
Jerusalem was occupied, the Roman garrison was entering the holy city on the other side, displaying their power, force, and empiric rule. The people of God were living as strangers in a strange land in the very land that God promised to them long ago. Forced to adopt customs and even use currency that ran counter to their faith. Forced to provide economic security for the very powers and principalities that threatened their lives.
And then comes Jesus, a new David, come to take back the power and give it to the people! No wonder the crowds called their “Hosannas!” when they saw him entering on a donkey! Jesus was going to put them back on top!
The crowds take from Psalm 118 the cry for deliverance, “Save us!” and they put that expectation squarely on Jesus.
Perhaps, then, we should call Palm Sunday, Psalm Sunday…
But what happens when this Messiah doesn’t arm the common people with weapons to prepare for insurrection? What happens when this Messiah doesn’t even stop to address the people when he enters the city?
Well, by the end of the week, the people who started with “Hosannas” move to “Crucify.”
It’s all too easy for us to cast Jesus into roles of our own choosing.
It’s like second nature to put words, our words, into Jesus’ mouth.
We still would like to see him parade into the madness of our circumstances to champion our hopes and our dreams and to disrupt and frustrate the designs of our enemies.
But Jesus doesn’t come to bring us more of the same.
He doesn’t enter Jerusalem to establish yet another political machine that results in one group lording it over everyone else.
Jesus comes to do for us and for the world what we could never do on our own.
Jesus, knowing full and well that we put our own expectations on him, still chooses to die and rise for us in spite of us.
Jesus, fully God and fully human, mounts the hard wood of the cross and pronounces a decree of forgiveness for people who deserve no mercy.
That is the central affirmation of the adventure we call Christianity. God, creator of all things, lays aside almightiness to comes to us, to dwell among us in the muck and the mire of life, to be one of us.
God chooses to take on vulnerability and human frailty just to rectify all of our wrongs.
It’s one of the great ironies that despite the cross resting at the center of this adventure, we have such an aversion to it. Did you know that in some of the fastest growing churches in the country there are no crosses whatsoever?
The cross doesn’t sell. It’s a sign of death. Even though we hang them up in our living rooms and wear them around our necks – we often forget that a cross is something you die on.
Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, much like his ministry, is a parable. Parables, after all, are stories about who God is, and they are only secondarily about us. The palm waving crowds remind us of the wonderful foolishness by which God does what God does. The people that day play no role other than showing how they haven’t quite seen the whole picture. They shout, as we would, for Jesus to save them.
And, here’s the Good News, that’s exactly what Jesus will do by the end of the week. Thanks be to God. Amen.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Heather and Daniel Wray about the readings for the 4th Sunday of Lent [B] (Numbers 21.4-9, Psalm 107.1-3, 17-22, Ephesians 2.1-10, John 3.14-21). Heather serves as the Director of Connect Ministries at Leesburg UMC in Leesburg, VA and Daniel serves as the pastor at Round Hill UMC in Round Hill, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including good books, shortsightedness, Raiders of the Lost Ark, instant gratification, divine subversion, geographic gathering, deadly trespasses, Nicodemus, and living in grace. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Sola Gratia
This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it. I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation. The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.
Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
They were walking along the road when suddenly the Lord stopped.
The disciples look around as if a message is about to descend from the heavens or, at the very least, maybe some manna will come floating down.
But instead, Jesus just stands there with a slightly furrowed brow.
“Hey,” he begins, “let me ask ya’ll a question: Who do people say that I am?”
“Well, I heard someone in the crowd yesterday whisper about you being the best thing to come out of Nazareth since on-call carpentry.”
“Yeah, and when we left your home synagogue, they kept calling you Mary and Joseph’s boy.”
“I’ve got one J, and you’re gonna love this because he’s your cousin, but some people are calling you John the Baptist.”
“I can top that – I was talking with one of the Pharisees last week and he kept referring to you as the prophet Elijah!”
“Fine,” Jesus replies, “That’s all fine. But who do you say that I am?”
Until Peter, ever eager Peter, nonchalantly replies, “You’re the Messiah.”
“And that’s why you’re the rock!” Jesus high-fives the first called disciple, and they continue on their merry way to the villages of Caesarea Philippi.
However, right before walking into a large gathered crowd, Jesus pulls his followers in close in a huddle. “Hey, remember that stuff about me being the Messiah? Don’t tell anyone okay? They all have their own notions about what the Messiah is supposed to say and do, and if you go around telling them the truth, they’re going to try and fit me into their boxes which simply won’t do in the Kingdom. Understand? Good.”
Then Jesus walks smack dab into the middle of the people and he begins teaching them the Gospel: “The Son of Man, that’s me, must undergo great suffering, I will be rejected by the people in power, the elders, chief priests, and even the scribes won’t go along with what I’ve got to offer. And then they’re gonna kill me, hang me up on a cross for everyone to see. But guess what? Three days later, I’m going to rise again!”
And Peter, who shortly before was the only disciple to get the right answer, grabs his Lord by the arm and yanks him away from the crowds. “What do you think you’re doing? You can’t die! You’re the Messiah! You are the Christ! You’re the one whose going to set everything right, put us back in charge, make Jerusalem great again and all that! You can’t be the Messiah and be rejected. That doesn’t make any sense.”
But Jesus pulls his arm back from Peter, looks back out over the crowd and screams: “Get behind me Satan! You’ve got you mind stuck on earthly matters, but I’ve come to overcome the world!”
Peter gets it right and Peter gets it wrong.
Along the road he provides a straight answer about Jesus’ identity (a welcome reprieve from all the hop-stepping we usually do when asked a question). But then later, when the Christ, the Messiah whom he just confessed, starts making ominous references to suffering and shame and even crucifixion, Peter gets it wrong.
And in the blink of an eye he goes from Peter the rock to Peter the block head, from the first called disciple to being called Satan.
I don’t know about you, but I love Peter. I love his eagerness and his faithfulness and I really love how much of a failure he is. Peter, in our passage from the strange new world of the Bible today, joins a long line of biblical failures:
Noah, the only good soul the Lord could find, delivers the survivors of the flood to dry land only to plant some grape vines and proceeds to get good and drunk.
Judah, son of Jacob, accidentally sleeps with his own daughter-in-law who pulled one over on his by dressing up as a harlot. And when Judah finds out that she got knocked up while a lady of the night, he orders her to be burned at the stake and he only relents when he discovers that he, himself, fathered the child in her.
And David? David rapes a woman and then has her husband murdered in order to cover up his transgression.
When you take in the great swath of characters from scripture, both the Old Testament and the New Testaments, they’re mostly a bunch of losers who keep messing up over and over again.
What wonderfully Good News!
Their failures of faith are in fact Good News because they help rid us of the suffocating notion that we have to be perfectly and squeakily clean in order to follow Jesus.
They remind us over and over again that only when we let go of the facade of our never-ending niceness and our righteous certainty and our perennial self-improvement projects, that the splendor of grace can hit us squarely in the chest.
Or, to put it another way, it’s hard to receive Christ’s mercy if we don’t think we need it.
The life of faith is one in which we come to grips with the condition of our condition only then to be bombarded with the Good News that God in Christ has transformed all things for a bunch of people undeserving!
Do you see? Peter here, in his failure, helps us see that our failure (whether big or small, intentional or unintentional) none of that excludes us from God.
Consider: Peter is called Satan, by Jesus!
Can you imagine anything worse?
Called by the Lord while fishing, witness to miracles and healings and feedings and teachings, the confessor of the truth of Jesus’s identity, the rock upon which Jesus says he will building his church!
And then he gets it wrong.
But that’s not the end of his wrongness.
On their final evening together Jesus tells Peter that before the morning Peter will deny knowing him. To which, of course, Peter scoffs. And yet, it’s true. Made all the worse by the fact that this first disciple joins the rest in abandoning the Lord to die on the cross. Alone.
Jesus quite literally does what he says he will do, the very things Peter can’t get on board with, and then three days later he rises to find his first disciple by the sea, shares some bread and broiled fish, and gives him a job to do.
In the church, we call this grace.
It is the unmerited, undeserved, gift of God in Christ Jesus.
It’s wild stuff.
Made all the more wild considering how often we squander the gift.
We, like Peter, build up these ideas for ourselves about who Jesus is and what Jesus stands for and those ideas, more often than not, crumble under our feet. We convince ourselves that Jesus is on our side (which, of course means Jesus is against the people we’re against) when in fact Jesus has not come to bring us more of the same, whatever it may be.
Jesus has overcome the world and all of its machinations.
Let’s say we believe, as Peter did, that Jesus comes to overthrow the current reigning political proclivities. Sure, fine, but what happens when the people in power stay in power? Does that mean Jesus failed?
Jesus is not an instrument of either side of partisan politics. Jesus is God! And God has come to dwell among us, to rectify our wrongs, to save us from ourselves, and to turn the cosmos upside down.
Put simply, our notions of Jesus are, more often than not, too limited.
We’re like Peter. Perhaps we’ve caught a glimpse behind the curtain of the cosmos, we’ve experienced something we can’t explain, we’ve had a taste of the holy food, and yet we still want Jesus to fit into whatever box we’ve construed in our minds.
But Peter came to know the truth of Jesus in a way that we do well to remember whenever we can: Jesus was rejected.
And not just by the chief priests and the scribes and the elders.
Jesus was rejected by his own disciples!
Jesus was rejected by Peter!
The Elect Son of Man and Son of God, born for us and among us, is ultimately rejected by us.
Jesus is regaled by the crowds with their cries of “Hosanna” when he enters Jerusalem and, by the end of Holy Week, those same crowds lift up clenched fists with shouts of “Crucify!”
The Lord comes to deliver the last, least, lost, little, and dead only to, in the end, hang on the cross and becomes the very thing he came to deliver.
But this is the Good News: while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.
He has taken the cleanup of the cosmos entirely into his own hands, hands with holes in them. He does not hang from the cross until we confess our sins, he doesn’t wait in the grave until we get our lives together. He does what he does without us having to do anything – which makes the Gospel the most radical thing in history.
He does what he does for Peter knowing precisely that he would fail.
He does what he does for us knowing precisely that we will fail.
At the end of all things, the only thing we can really do is rest and trust in the knowledge that Jesus has come to do something for us that we couldn’t and wouldn’t do on our own.
Couldn’t, because none of us can atone for our sins, let alone for the sins of the world.
And wouldn’t, because Jesus insists on letting in all the riff riff that we would otherwise ignore.
The casket was set up by the altar and the family was in the narthex waiting for the funeral to begin. I, meanwhile, was pacing back and forth in the parking lot, feeling sorry for the family because no one else showed up for the funeral.
There’s something terribly sad about a sparsely attended service for the dead.
But, frankly, I couldn’t blame people for not showing up. The man now dead, the one whose body was shut up in the coffin, was one of the meanest and most awful people I’d ever known. He belittled people, he was terribly racist, and he spoke his mind without caring at all about how much it could hurt. He would shout at people during church meetings, he would stick his finger into people’s faces during fellowship, and would loudly complain about everything even when people weren’t around to listen.
Two minutes before the funeral was scheduled to begin, while I was making my way across the parking lot to the narthex, cars started streaming in.
One by one I watched people from the church community step out of the cars and across the parking lot, and with each passing one I replayed moments in my mind of how horrible the dead man had been to each of the people walking in.
The last person to step across the threshold of the sanctuary was an older woman with whom the dead man had been particularly horrible. I motioned for her to come close and I whispered in her ear, “What are you doing here? I thought you hated him!”
To which she replied, “Well preacher, didn’t you say last Sunday that even the worst stinker in the world is someone for whom Christ died?”
The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it! Amen.