This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the Third Sunday After the Epiphany [A] (Isaiah 9.1-4, Psalm 27.1, 4-9, 1 Corinthians 1.10-18, Matthew 4.12-23). Teer is one of the pastors serving Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including church insurance, false backgrounds, repeating readings, the great light, fire, prayer, divisions, ecclesial growth, Sinners In The Hands Of A Loving God, the foolishness of the Cross, and podcast reviews. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Best Laid Plans
Tag Archives: Cross
The Obstinance of God
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for the Fourth Sunday of Advent [A] (Isaiah 7.10-16, Psalm 80.1-7, 17-19, Romans 1.1-7, Matthew 1.18-25). Drew is the lead pastor of Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Christmas gifts, The Alabama Shakes, ghosts, signs, weariness, keeping the cross in Christmas, the bread of tears, salvation, epistolary preaching, grace, belonging, Sam Wells, prophecy, and The Mother of God. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Obstinance of God
The Love That Is The Cross
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.
“I’m going to keep this short.”
That’s an incredible way to start a speech, or even a sermon.
And 99% of the time, it isn’t true.
To start with such a declaration puts people at ease because they’ve been duped into thinking they only have to pay attention a little. For, brevity leads to clarity, doesn’t it?
“I’m going to keep this short,” is usually the prelude to a lot of pontificating that often leaves us no wiser than when we began.
It’s usually an indication that whatever follows wasn’t thought through, and is usually off the cuff.
Which, in a place like this, is a bad idea. Who knows what kind of random theological riff-raff might come forth from a short stump speech.
And, to be clear, I’m not railing against the strange promise of a short declaration just because Fred Sistler started his sermon that way last week.
I would never do something like that.
I’m a Christian!
Stump speeches. They are a regular occurrence in the political fabric of our reality. They trace back to the 19th century during which politicians would go about from town to town “stumping” – offering brief highlights on what they planned to do in office should they get elected, usually with key words and phrases that they repeated over and over and over again.
A stump speech is like having one sermon and using it week after week.
And, of course, the “stump” part of “stump speech” comes from the practice of standing on a tree stump to get high enough for better visibility and greater oration.
Other stumpy items from the 19th century included tables, chairs, and even whiskey barrels.
John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, rather famously stood on his father’s gravestone in order to proclaim the gospel since he was no longer welcome to preach in churches.
I, myself, prefer preaching from a ladder.
But even here, right in the middle of the chancel area, slightly elevated, this is somewhat of an ecclesial stump where I, and plenty others, have stumped for Jesus.
We might call it our sanctified stump for salvation.
And stump speeches, though often short and repetitive, really can make all the difference in the world. Sometimes all it takes is one story, one word even, for the skies to open up, and all of God’s grace comes pouring down.
When the Good News actually sounds like good news, it changes everything.
My former professor Stanley Hauerwas is known for his stump speeches. He has these recurring quotes and proclamations that he goes back to over and over again. I remember a classmate asking him why he said the same thing so many times, and he said, “Because they’re true.”
Some years ago, while lecturing in Scotland, using those same stumpy proclamations, Dr. Hauerwas was asked to preach at the cathedral of Edinburgh. Massive building with a huge pulpit, hardly a stump. The pulpit there is so large, in fact, that it has its own staircase that the preacher has to ascend in order to preach. And, when the appointed time arrived, Hauerwas marched up the stairs but right before he made it to the top, he heard a small door close behind him as well as a key turning in the lock.
Hauerwas, bewildered by the turn of events, demanded to know what was happening, when someone on the other side of the pulpit door said, “It’s a tradition in this church, dating back to the days of the Reformation. We lock the preacher in the pulpit, and we keep the preacher there until they give us the Gospel.”
Stumping for Jesus.
And yet, a stump is no glorious thing.
A stump, after all, is only possible if a tree has been chopped down. Stumps are signs of death.
By the time the prophet Isaiah rolls around, the Davidic kingdom is nothing but a stump. All the promise, all the hope, all the dreams had fizzled out. The holy city was sacked again and again, people were sent to live in exile. There was no bright hope for tomorrow.
And Isaiah says, “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots!”
How strange. It’s as if the prophet has lost his ever-loving mind. He looks out on failed promises, idolatry, ruin, and yet he sees something more.
Feeling stumped is, sadly, all too familiar for God’s people even today, particularly during Advent. We might rejoice in memories from years ago, but we know that things can never really be like they once were. We might sit comfortably in these pews, but there’s a better than good chance that we’re also feeling the anxiety that is all to common during this season. We might sing the songs, and purchase the presents, and drive around looking at lights, but that doesn’t automatically make this the most wonderful time of the year.
We know what it means to be stumped, to feel as if nothing good is left.
And what do we do when we’re stumped? To whom do we turn? What relief can we find?
Netflix with the never ending assortment of holiday movies that follow the exact predictable formula over and over? Discounts at the ABC store? Scrolling through instagram seeing perfect people with their perfect lives?
Kurt Vonnegut once opined that no one should read beauty magazines because they will only make us feel ugly.
The same could be said of Instagram.
And yet, when Isaiah sees the stump, he sees hope! The roots are still pulling nutrients from the soil, a new shoot will sprout forth bringing life and life abundant. The new shoot from Jesse’s stump is the promise that God isn’t done with God’s people.
That’s what happens when you worship the God of impossible possibility, even stumps can bring about something new.
And that something new is a person.
Listen – the Spirit will rest upon him and he will know the fear of the Lord. He will even delight in his fear! He will come with judgment and righteousness and he will make all things right.
Sounds pretty good. This new shoot will be the difference maker, a warrior. But what strange weapons! He shall slay the enemy with the Word, not with swords. He will destroy all opponents with the Spirit, not by slaying. He will wear a belt of righteousness for the battle, not Batman’s belt with gadgets and gizmos aplenty.
And with the victory comes even stranger results! The wolf will live with the lamb, the calf and the lion and the fatling together. The cow and bear shall graze. And a little child shall lead them.
Everything about this proclamation is unexpected. The line of David is nothing but a stump, forsaken and dead. And yet, from it the ruler of the cosmos will come. Animals that have no business being together shall live in peace. And a child shall lead them.
It sounds so good and so perfect. And yet, 700 years after Isaiah’s announcement, John the Baptist arrives on the scene, preparing the way of the Lord, announcing a baptism for the repentance of sins. He calls the religious elite broods of vipers because they have lost sight of Isaiah’s vision.
John says, “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees!”
The stump of Jesse, the ax at the roots. John and Isaiah together see a reality that no one else does. They see the sign of the time. “On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples.”
What is the sign?
Have you ever wondered what became of the tree that was chopped down in order to make the stump? Have you ever seen the connection between Isaiah’s proclamation and John’s declaration?
The stump is only possible because a tree was brought down. And do you know what we did with the tree? We nailed Jesus to it.
The root of Jesse is the cross. It stands on a hill far away, the emblem of suffering and shame. And it is glorious.
Some will say, this time of year, that we need to keep Christ is Christmas. Sure. That’s fine. But if we’re going to keep Christ in Christmas, we should also consider what it might mean to keep the Cross in Christmas.
It’s Advent. This is the time of year when we hear the most difficult, demanding, bad news to ever be called good – The Cross. Every Advent we have our worlds’ rocked, tables turned, foundations shaken, demons put to rot, and dead dreams brought back to life.
All things are possible in Advent because we worship the God of impossible possibly. The God who delights in upending all of our expectations of how the world is supposed to work.
Jesus really is the reason for the season, as is his cross. And lest we domesticate the Lord to mere flannel graphs and perfectly manicured manger scenes, Jesus was and is still so provocative that the powers and principalities are forever trying to shut him up. But nothing can stop Jesus. He’s going to say and do things that change everything.
Not even the cross can stop him.
In fact, the cross is our salvation. It’s a stump that brings forth new life. That’s why we can call it glorious.
Therefore, whenever someone stands in this place and stumps for Jesus, we are called to do exactly that – We point to Jesus Christ, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, the shoot from the stump of Jesse, the one who makes a way where there is no way.
The promise of Advent is that no matter what stumps us in this life, God is going to get what God wants. Predator and prey will dwell together. Peace will reign. And a child will lead us.
The promise of Advent is that Jesus is the shoot, the branch that grows into a cruciform tree bearing the fruit that is salvation because Jesus is always stumping on our behalf, even when it costs him his life.
The promise of Advent is that new life always starts in the dark, whether in the womb or the tomb, whether underground or the lost being found; new life starts in the dark.
Therefore, the next time you encounter a stump, take a good look at it, because you may be looking at your salvation. Amen.
The First Word
When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals who were handed there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you the not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned just, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
“Jesus for President.”
That’s what the sign said. I saw it when I was going for a run during a particularly contentious election season (aren’t they all?). In just about every yard there was a red sign or a blue sign, with one name or the other.
I’ve always found political yard signs to be problematic.
I mean, why do we put them up? Do we honestly think anyone has ever changed their vote because of a yard sign?
I think we put those signs up in our yards, and attach them to our bumpers, and post them on Facebook, not because we want to change anyone, but because we want everyone to know where we stand.
We want everyone to know what side we’re on.
And so seeing yard signs is fairly normative. In fact, its the houses without signs that seem strange. Until I saw, “Jesus for President.”
It was so shocking I remember stumbling over my feet and nearly wiping out on the sidewalk.
Jesus for President?
Perhaps someone thought it fitting to cut through the political paraphernalia that year with some sort of prophetic pronouncement. Maybe they really thought Jesus presiding in the Oval Office would be a good idea.
Except, “take up your cross” doesn’t poll well. Turn the other cheek is a strange campaign slogan. And that’s not even mentioning the first will be last, and the last will be first. That doesn’t sound like a milk toast soundbite from a politician, it sounds like a threat.
Jesus for President. It could never work. Particularly since Jesus is already our King – Jesus is Lord.
Today is Christ the King Sunday. A remarkable offering on the liturgical calendar. With Advent hovering on the horizon, churches across the globe gather today with proclamations about the Lordship of Christ. And yet, this is a recent addition to our liturgical observances, as far as those things are concerned. We’ve celebrated Christmas for centuries and marked Easter for millennia, but Christ The King only started in 1925.
Why? Nearly 100 years ago, Pope Pius XI looked out at a world in which Mussolini had been in charge of Italy for 3 years, Hitler had just published his autobiographical manifesto Mein Kampf, and the economic frivolity the led to the Great Depression was in full effect. And bearing witness to the world at that moment led the Pope to announce a new liturgical holiday – Christ the King Sunday would round out the year to remind Christians across the globe that we have our own King, and it is to him alone we owe our allegiance.
Over the last year we’ve read from Genesis to Revelation, we’ve encountered the living God who encounters us, we’ve been transformed by the Lord who transforms bread and cup, and all of it, all of the Sundays all of the studies all of the sacraments, they all pointed to one thing: Jesus Christ is Lord.
That’s the thing about us Christians, everything starts and ends with Jesus. He is the first word and the last word.
And yet, we do well to remember that this King of ours is strange…
Listen, there was a man named Jesus who hailed from the town of Nazareth. He was poor and had no real standing in the world but he preached about the kingdom of God, and he usually drew a pretty good crowd. For centuries the people Israel had suffered hardship after hardship, persecution after persecution, and they waited for the One who was promised. And Jesus said, “I am he.”
Many signs and wonders were done, healings happened, bellies were filled, and the crowds grew until they didn’t. The more he talked the more he was rejected. The more he did the more people grumbled. And he was betrayed, arrested, and condemned to death.
Those two words are tough to admit, or even fathom. But they’re true. At the heart of the Christian witness is the fact that, when push comes to shove, we nail the Son of God to the cross. And, incidentally, it’s why we sing, every Good Friday, “I crucified thee.” The strange new world of the Bible refuses to let us walk away with our hands clean.
The soldiers place a purple robe on his shoulders, a crown of thorns upon his head, a cross on his back, and they force him to march to The Skull.
Jesus is painfully quiet in this moment. The gifted preacher and parable teller has no words left to share. The crowds, of course, are loud. Sick with anticipation. Hungry for blood.
And he’s nailed to the cross.
Only here, hung high for all to see, does Jesus speak his first words as king. Make no mistake, this is when Jesus is crowned our king and Lord. And what is his first decree?
Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.
How odd of God.
With all the possible words of recrimination, condemnation, accusation, the first thing Jesus says is, “Father, forgive.”
Earlier he commanded us to forgive our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Easy to preach, hard to practice.
On the cross, Jesus dares to pray for his worst enemies. Us.
It’s rather strange that God units ignorance with forgiveness. We usually act and behave as if ignorance is the enemy of forgiveness. We want people to know they’re wrong before we forgive them. We want repentance before mercy.
And yet, for God in Christ, it is always preemptive forgiveness. Forgiveness is the first word.
Jesus doesn’t hang up on the cross until we realize we made a mistake. He doesn’t wait until someone from the crowds shouts, “Um, maybe we went a little too far this time. Sorry Jesus.” Jesus doesn’t forgive after we come to our senses, but right in the thick of our badness, Jesus’ offers his goodness.
Oddly enough, forgiveness is what it costs God to be with people like us who, every time God reaches out in love, beat God away.
Perfection in the Garden – We reject it for the taste of a little knowledge dangling from a tree.
Unified Community – We reject for selfish desires of power.
Covenanted Relationship – We reject it in favor of other hopes and dreams.
The story of the Bible is the story of our rebellion and foolishness. We worship at the altars of other gods, moving from one bit of idolatry to the next, over and over and over again.
And then, in the midst of our muck and mire, God arrives in the flesh.
Jesus Christ, the incarnate One, fully God and fully human, comes to make all things new, with promises of hope and peace and grace and mercy.
God looks at our miserable estate and condescends to our pitiful existence, God’s attaches God’s self to us sinners, and what happens? We nail God to the cross!
And look at us, with all the means at our disposal, with power and prestige, with sin and selfishness, what happens? We are forgiven.
The first word from the cross, from the throne, is forgiveness.
It’s strange! But then again, it should come as no surprise even though its the most surprising thing in the history of the cosmos. Jesus was forever walking up to people and, without warning, saying to those whom he met, “Your sins are forgiven.”
Have you ever noticed that almost none of them ever asked to be forgiven?
I’ve heard it said, and perhaps you have too, that this moment, when Jesus hangs on the cross, is when God is in total solidarity with humanity. The suffering crucified God.
And yet, that forgiveness is the first word is completely contrary to us. For us, if we forgive, it is almost always with conditions.
We wait around for an apology, we wait for amends to be made, and then (and only then) will we forgive.
Forgiveness is the currency of God’s kingdom. Forgiveness, as Dolly Parton notes, is all there is.
And it’s also the the hardest thing to do.
St. Augustine, theologian and preacher from the 4th century, once preached a sermon on forgiveness, and in the sermon he admonished his congregation because some of them, if not all of them, were omitting the phrase from the Lord’s prayer that said, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespasses us.”
They would let those words remain silent every time they came around, and they would just skip to the next phrase. They refused to say those words, according to Augustine, because they knew they’d be lying if they said them out loud.
Forgiveness is hard, and it always has been.
Perhaps that’s why Jesus preached about it so much, told so many stories about grace, and tossed around forgiveness every where he went. Even on the cross! With nails in his hands, with thieves at his sides, abandoned by his closest friends and disciples, before asking anything for himself, he asks something for us, Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.
Our King rules not with an iron fist, but with an open hand. The first word of the kingdom is forgiveness.
And if that were all, it would be enough to pop every circuit breaker in our minds, it would leave us scratching our heads bewildered at the outcome. We don’t deserve it one bit. Frankly, we deserve nothing. And instead we get everything.
But the story isn’t over!
The first word is forgiveness, a prayer within the Trinity, and then Jesus speaks to the criminal on his side.
The One who was forever accused of consorting with sinners now hangs next to one. The One who ate with sinners now dies with them.
One of the criminals looks at Jesus and says, “C’mon King of the Jews, it’s miracle time! Save yourself and us!”
But the other replies, “Are you not afraid? We deserve what we’re getting, but this guy has done nothing wrong.” And then he looks over to Jesus and says, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Is the thief confessing his sin? Perhaps. At the very least, he owns up to getting what he deserves. But confession has nothing to do with getting forgiven. It is not a transaction, it is not a negotiation. Confession is nothing more than the after-the-last gasp we offer when we know the truth of who we are and whose we are.
We don’t confess to get forgiven. We confess because we are forgiven.
Forgiveness surrounds us, beats upon our lives constantly. Preachers proclaim it. We sing about it. We pray for it. And, miracle of miracles, we receive it.
When we confess, we confess only to wake ourselves up to what we already have.
Perhaps the thief is bold to ask Jesus to remember him because he was the first person to hear Jesus’ first word from the cross, “Father, forgive.”
It was almost 100 years ago when Christians across the globe needed the first Christ the King Sunday. They needed a day set apart to reflect on how the Lordship of Christ outshines even the most powerful of dictators and the most devastating of depressions.
Today, we need it just as much. We need Christ the King Sunday because it reminds us, beats upon us, that Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world. It forces us to confront the strange reality that our King rules from a cross. It compels us to hear the Good News, the very best news, the strangest news of all: Christ died for us while we were yet sinners; that proves God’s love toward us. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven! Amen.
A Dangerous Adventure
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.
“Christians are people who tell the truth. And, if we cannot tell the truth, then at least we should not lie.” I have those sentences scratched in a notebook that I carried with me during seminary. And, if my notes are correct, I heard those words from a professor named Stanley Hauerwas during a hallway conversation after morning prayer.
His conviction about our truthfulness is nothing new. Martin Luther famously said that a theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil whereas a theologian of the cross calls a thing what it is.
Translation: tell the truth.
But telling the truth is no easy endeavor, particularly because we live in a world that runs on lies. Every ad we consume presents a false vision of reality so long as we purchase a particular product. The nightly news is designed to terrify us so that we will keep watching until we know what side we are supposed to be on for every subject. And even in our domestic dramas we often lie because we are trying to be good: we don’t want to tell our spouses how we really feel, we don’t want to upset the applecart at a family get together, we’d rather brush something under the rug than bring it to the surface.
All the while, as Christians, we worship the one who not only tells the truth, but is, himself, truth incarnate.
When Pontius Pilate was told that Jesus was the one who had come into the world to testify to the truth, he asked, “What is truth?” Jesus gave no response because Pilate was literally looking at the answer to his question. Therefore, should we truly desire to be a community of the truth and by the truth then we need not look further than Jesus Christ and him crucified.
The “and him crucified” is crucial. For, truth-telling is a dangerous adventure. But without an example of a truth telling community, the world has no alternative but to continue to run by lies.
Jesus leaves peace with his disciples and the peace Jesus leaves runs counter to the peace of the world. The peace of the world is achieved, kept, and maintained by violence. Whereas the peace of Jesus comes through vulnerability, sacrifice, and even suffering.
Part of the hard truth that the church has to speak into the world today is this: we have a problem with violence.
Mass shootings have become so commonplace that it’s hard to keep track of what happened and where. And yet we, as Christians, can advocate for a new peace, a peace given to us by Jesus, a peace that means we have to fundamentally reshape how we understand what it means to be in the world. Or, we can simply avoid going to churches, malls, supermarkets, concerts, cinemas, parks, pre-schools, elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, college campuses, mass transportations, and any other place where a mass shooting has taken place.
We’ve become so accustomed to the war torn images of Ukraine (and war in general) that it leaves us feeling apathetic. And yet we, as Christians, can advocate for a new peace, a peace given to us by Jesus, a peace that means we have to fundamentally reshape how we understand what it means to be in the world. Or, we can let things continue on their merry way while more and more people are displaced, separated, and killed.
Speaking truth to power is no easy thing. But until we’re willing to call a thing what it is, we are doomed to call evil good and good evil. Or, put simply, the beginning of a faithful imagination comes with telling the truth.
Who’s In Charge Here?
John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen. “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.
There’s a moment that happens every single Sunday without fail. It doesn’t matter what the context is, or what music is offered, or even what scripture is read.
It happens right before I stand right here.
There’s a silence.
An eerie silence.
Perhaps it sounds different to me than it does to all of you. Your experience of the strange silence might be born out of discomfort or awkwardness.
But as far as I can tell that moment happens every week and its special; there is true attention and silence. And in that silence there is hope.
People like you and me hope, even for but a moment, that this time we will hear an answer to the question: Is it true?
Sadly, more often than not, that hoped for question isn’t even addressed. And if it is, it is only done so indirectly. There’s an assumption that, just by being here, we all assume all of it to be true.
But that’s not right. I think we’re all here, the tall and the small, the first and the last, the believer, half-believers, and unbelievers, because we want to have our question answered.
Is it true?
Today is the second Sunday of the season we call Eastertide. It stretches all the way from Easter Sunday up to Pentecost Sunday, its the great 50 days. Every Sunday in this season is a little Easter in which we re-celebrate the most amazing thing ever to take place in the cosmos.
And let me tell you: you all are a special bunch. There is something remarkable about those in worship for the second Sunday of Easter. You’re here because you know that following the Lord is more than just being present for the big moments. You’re clued in to what takes place behind the curtain of the cosmos. You’ve experienced the Lord in such a way that you can’t imagine being anywhere else doing anything else.
But, we must confess, we of the second Sunday of Easter crowd, that the promises of Easter are not yet fully realized.
We need only turn on the television, or scroll through Twitter, to be reminded that not all is as it should be.
I, myself, riding the incredible wave of Palm Sunday worship was deeply grieved to receive a phonemail the Monday of Holy Week that my oldest friend in the world took his own life the night before.
We sang some good old gospel hymns down in Memorial Hall on Maundy Thursday, we shared the body and the blood of our Lord, and my family and I had to jump in the car to drive up to Alexandria so that I could speak at my friend’s service of death and resurrection the next day.
Not all is as it should be.
Easter Sunday, exactly one week ago, it was remarkable! First sunrise service in 100 years, the First Light Band had the whole sanctuary clapping, even our children shouted out the Good News in song and shakers.
All told we had more than 300 people in worship last Sunday! Truly remarkable.
And, I’m no mathematician, but I don’t see 300 today.
Why is that? Why are there those who only darken the doors of the church twice a year?
Much has been made of the so-called Chreasters, the C and E crowd. They come because of familial obligation, or guilt, or tradition. There’s a hope, even if people like me refuse to admit it, that one year they will actually all return the next Sunday.
But the longer I do this, the more I understand that the church swells at Christmas and Easter because those who don’t normally attend know they have a better than good chance of hearing nothing but Good News: “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight,” and “Christ the Lord is risen today!”
Part of the challenge is that we always proclaim the joy of the resurrection, in song, sacrament, and sermon, to people who, admittedly, feel like those two on the road to Emmaus. We know something has happened, but life beckons us elsewhere.
It is true?
John the Revelator certainly seems to think so.
I don’t know what you know of John of Patmos and his epistle of Revelation. It is, perhaps, the most misunderstood book in the Bible and yet, at the same time, the most important. It, like the concluding chapter of any good book, ties everything together. But to drop in at the very end, without knowing the beginning or the middle is a recipe for disaster.
There are some wild bits to this book, some that we will encounter over the next few weeks, but, as GK Chesterton noted, “John saw many strange monsters in his vision, but he never saw a creature so wild as those who try to explain it all.”
John, whoever John was, wrote for a people living in a time in-between. They were stuck squarely between the already but the not yet, planted in the time before the end time.
You know, people just like us.
Easter people, while all is not as it should be.
Oddly enough, even with its bizarre images and confounding cassations, Revelation is an odyssey of encouragement. It tells us who we are, who God is, and what is the world is going on in the world.
To put it simply, it tells us the truth.
John begins, rather abruptly, with the decisive declaration that Jesus is Lord and King of the cosmos. He was, he is, and he will be.
Jesus Christ is the faithful witness, the one who remains steadfast even when we don’t, he points to the real things that matter in this life, and he is committed to doing so no matter what.
Jesus Christ is the firstborn of the dead, he is the one who, by death and resurrection, makes possible an impossibility, that in our deaths we are raised to new life.
Jesus Christ is the ruler of the kings of the earth, he is the one in charge.
I wonder though, if we actually believe that, or if we trust that to be true. I think, all things considered, it’s not difficult to affirm that Jesus is faithful, and that Jesus is risen. If it looks like Good News and it sounds like Good News. But Jesus being the ruler of the kings of the earth?
Its like a church meeting I remember attending long ago, certainly not something that would ever happen here, where we gathered for an important conversation, debate, decision making, and as we gathered voices were raised, accusations were made, and when finally came to the end of our appointed time, fists clenched, no wiser than we were when we stared, someone present had the audacity to ask if we might end our time in prayer.
I thought, “What for? We certainly didn’t behave like God was in the room, why invite the Lord in now?”
You see, when Jesus is in charge everything changes. And that doesn’t necessarily mean that it gets better. Have you read about the stuff he got up to the in the backwater towns of Galilee?
Are we sure we want Jesus to be in charge?
From the very beginning he predicted that those in power would reject him, and they did. I would say that’s strike one. Jesus has the gall to call all kinds of people who have no business being in the kingdom business. I mean, fishermen for disciples? Tax collectors for apostles? What’s next, bankers for Sunday school teachers? Lawyers on the mission committee?
Jesus is risky and foolish, spending all of his time among the last, least, lost, little, and dead. If we ever want to make the world a better place, we need a leader who’s going to spend time with the first, the best, the found, the big, and the lively.
What kind of leader forgives betrayers? What kind of ruler leaves ninety-nine behind to find the one who is lost? What kind of king hosts a banquet and invites everybody to attend?
John reminds us, across the centuries, through the power of words that Jesus is the one in charge, and in his infinite and confounding wisdom, he loves us, he has freed us from our very worst mistakes, and he has made us into a new people who will always feel like strangers in a stranger land.
And, to be clear, being in charge doesn’t mean being in control. If God in Christ is the author of every war, cancer diagnosis, and car crash then God isn’t worthy of our worship. But as the one in charge it means that God in Christ is the one we follow. He leads the way.
It is to Jesus, John says, that we owe our allegiance because he does for us what we cannot do for ourselves – he makes a way where there is no way. He, himself, is Easter for us.
The key according to the Revelator, the important truth that will be brought up again and again, is that it’s all up to Jesus. We can absolutely respond to what Jesus has done, we can even take up our crosses to follow, but he’s the one in charge, he gets all the good verbs. He, to put it plainly, is the Alpha and the Omega, the A and the Z.
Jesus came to raise the dead. He did not come to reward the rewardable, or improve the improvable, or correct the correctable; he came simply to be the resurrection and the life for people like you and me, the good and the bad and the ugly.
The message of Revelation, of the one who is, and was, and is to come, is that it isn’t over yet. Easter is still happening. Until we all feast at the Supper of the Lamb, we will live in the in-between – the place where we vacillate between mourning and dancing, crying and laughing.
Every Easter we make the same declaration – Christ is risen! But that’s a little deceptive. It is true, but we have more to say: Christ is risen, and he’s in charge. Amen.
Psalm 118.1-2, 19-29
O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever! Let Israel say, “His steadfast love endures forever.” Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord. 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! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. We bless you from the house of the Lord. The Lord is God, and he has given us light. Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar. You are my God, and I will give thanks to you; you are my God, I will extol you. O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.
Every pastor has a favorite Palm Sunday story.
Like the year when the palm branches were delivered way too early and dried out so much that when the gathered congregation shook them over their heads in worship, palm branch particles went flying in every direction resulting in sneezing and 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 that carried Jesus into Jerusalem, to which the pastor received perhaps the greatest Sunday morning comment of all time: “You know, you’re not the first donkey we’ve had in that pulpit.”
Only they used a different word for donkey.
Or the time when the children of the church processed in waving their palm branches and lifting up their hosannas only to begin smacking one another in the face with their aforementioned palms until a nearby parent had to jump in to break up the melee and mutter, a little too loudly, “Lord, save me from these kids!”
And I think the reason preachers like me like to tell a cute or funny little story about Palm Sunday is because the actual story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem is rather confounding.
Put another way: Palm Sunday is perhaps the strangest Sunday of the year.
For, it begins in celebration and ends in catastrophe. It starts with “Hosanna” but it finishes with “Crucify.” It begins with life and it ends with death.
At they are approaching Jerusalem Jesus sends two of his disciples to procure a colt for his entry into the holy city. He rides in a cartoonish way, with his feet nearly dragging on the ground on either side of the animal, and the people of Jerusalem comes out in droves to see the would-be Messiah. They are overcome with reverence, so much so that they begin to take their own clothing, and spread it on on the road only to be trampled upon by the colt. They make a royal carpet as they worship the King of kings.
They take leafy branches from the fields and they wave them to and fro and they shout, “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!”
Hosanna. I’ve always loved that word. It’s such a churchy word. It makes me think of my own childhood and parading around the sanctuary. It makes me things of the musical masterpiece Jesus Christ Superstar and the crowds singing, “Hey sanna Hosanna, sanna sanna Hey, sanna ho sanna hey sanna.”
Hosanna is a wonderful word. And, every Palm Sunday, we reach into the vault of churchy words, we dust off this old familiar declaration, and we proudly put it on display. We shout it in our hymns, we put the word on the lips of our children, we hear it read in the scriptures. And then, at the conclusion of worship, we wrap it up and place it back into the church vault with our other special words only to come back one year from now.
We are familiar with this word. It conjures memories and songs. Churches everywhere will join us in our shouts of Hosanna today.
But do we know what it means?
It is a declaratory pleading. It is an emphatic demand.
Save us. Now!
That’s a word you don’t hear much in churches like ours. We’re Methodists. We sing and we eat and we sing some more. We try to love each other. Really, we do.
Love, peace, grace, mercy, forgiveness. Those are our words.
How many got saved on Sunday? We don’t talk like that.
We might make fun of those other types of church that talk in such a way.
I remember someone once asking me if I was saved, and I said something like, I suppose so, and he said he’d been saved no less than 9 times.
Hosanna! Save us!
Well, perhaps we should go look in the Bible for this word, where else does it appear besides Jesus’ triumphal entry into the city that will kill him?
There’s a woman, suffering from a hemorrhage for 7 years. She’s among the crowd one day and she says to herself, “If I but touch the hem of his garment I will be saved.”
Well, in our Bible’s it says, “made well.”
But it’s the same word for saved. The same word the crowds cry out as Jesus’ enters Jerusalem.
And she suffers from more than just her bleeding. She’s isolated, outcast, thrown away by the likes of her family and her friends. She is a nobody with no hope in the world. Until the hope of the world walks past one day and she reaches out. She’s got nothing until she gets saved.
There’s a blind beggar sitting by the roadside. Like the woman he is unseen by all because of his inability to see. Forgotten and abandoned. And when the Lord walks by he shouts out, “Son of David have mercy on me.” The disciples are quick to shut him up. The Lord has more important things to do than to waste his time on you.
But the Lord comes anyway and says, “What do you want me to do?”
I want to see.
And Jesus says, “You faith has saved you.”
He has nothing to show for anything. He’s desperate. And in a moments notice, he is in the parade of the faith. Dancing and shouting for joy.
There’s a rich man, well to do, Mr. Z they call him behind his back. While his fellows get poorer and poorer he gets wealthier and wealthier. He’s a tax collector. One day he climbs a tree to see Jesus. And the Lord calls him down and says, “Got any plans for lunch?”
They go to Zacchaeus’ house and the crowds are incensed. How dare the Lord go to eat with that sinner! What do they talk about over lunch? We don’t know. We only know that as they leave the house the tax collector is changed. He says, “I will give back everything that I have taken with interest.”
“Salvation” Jesus says, “has come to this house.”
It’s no wonder the crowds grew and grew and grew. It’s no wonder the strange new world of the Bible talks of people leaves their plows in the field and their bread in the oven when the Messiah shows up.
Because the Messiah is the one who saves.
And there’s no such things as being a little bit saved, or partially saved. It means a total and complete salvation.
So when they wave their palm branches, when they place their cloaks on the road, they scream for salvation from the only one who can bring it.
Hosanna! Save us Jesus!
Save us, from what?
Jerusalem is occupied, the Roman garrison enters the holy city on the other side. Pontius Pilate comes riding in on a war course while Jesus enters on a donkey. The people of God, therefore, are living as strangers in a strange land in the very land God had promised. Their way of life is fracturing, their faith is under scrutiny, they have no bright hope for tomorrow.
And here comes the Messiah! The one who makes everything right! He’s saved others and now he’s going to save us. He’s going to give us our city back. He’s going to bring back our way of life. He’s the new king!
The crowds grow and grow, and the shouts of Hosanna echo through the city streets, until they see the cross.
It is strange and not so strange to know that those same people who shouted Hosanna at the beginning of the week were shouting crucify by the end.
It’s all too easy for us to cast Jesus into role of our own choosing.
It’s all too easy for us to put words, our words, into Jesus’ mouth.
We would still like to see him parade around into the madness of our circumstances to champion our hopes and dreams, to disrupt and frustrate the plans of our enemies.
But Jesus doesn’t come to bring us more of the same.
Jesus comes to save us.
He doesn’t enter the holy city to establish yet another political machine that result in one group lording it over everyone else.
He doesn’t pass out swords and shields to storm the temple walls.
He doesn’t even offer programs of personal morality that will make the world a better place.
One of the craziest parts of Palm Sunday is that, according to the strange new world of the Bible, Jesus doesn’t say anything.
He merely rides into the city that will kill him.
But it’s Palm Sunday. We don’t want to have to think about Friday yet. We like the images and the sounds of our children waving palm branches high in the air. But there is no jumping from today to Easter Sunday.
Put another way, we do well to remember there is no resurrection without crucifixion.
It’s in our hymns and in our creeds and even in our prayers, but we try to stay away from the crucifixion as much as possible. And for good reason – it is the sign of our total and utmost depravity. But it’s also the heart of God.
God, the creator of the cosmos, lays aside almightiness to come and dwell among us in the muck and mire of life, to be one of us.
God becomes vulnerable for us.
And how do we return the favor?
Why? Because we want salvation on our own terms. We want to take matters into our own hands. We want to save ourselves.
We don’t want to be saved in our sins, we’d rather lord it over other sinners who are worse than us. The only problem with that is, according to the kingdom of God, none of us is righteous, no, not one.
You see, we crucified Jesus not because he was God, but because he was God and then failed to come up to our standards in doing so. It’s not that we weren’t looking for the Messiah; it’s just that he wasn’t the one we were looking for.
We’re fine with being saved only so long as it fits neatly into our expectations of what it means to be saved.
The crowds wave their branches and they shout their hosannas. Save us Jesus, save us! And, by the end of the week, that’s exactly what he does, whether we deserve it or not, whether we like it or not.
O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.
Even on the cross.
Jesus saves. Amen.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Alan Combs about the readings for Palm Sunday [C] (Psalm 118.1-2, 19-29, Luke 19.28-40). Alan is the lead pastor of First UMC in Salem, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including intergenerational trauma, the whole story, Holy Week, difficult hymns, The Wesley Bros comic, responsibility, the elected reject, singing stones, choices (or the lack thereof), and the not normed norm. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Passionate Palms
Who In The World Is Jesus?
I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death.
Years ago, on one particular Good Friday, I took a large cross, lifted it onto my shoulder, and I walked around town for a few hours. It has been a habit of mine ever since I entered the ministry and it is part of my desire to bring the Lord to the people outside the church. I want people to see the sign that we see every Sunday morning in order to be reminded about what we did, and what the Lord has done for us.
Anyway, on that Good Friday I set out for my cross carrying venture and I received a variety of reactions. Some people honked their horns as they drove past. There was a man who offered me water because it was a particularly hot spring day. I even had someone spit at my feet. But mostly, people just stared at the strange sight of a man in all black carrying a cross around town.
I had almost finished my loop when I spotted a woman on the other side of the road with a perplexed look on her face. She was glaring at the cross and then she inexplicably crossed the street and demanded to know what in the world I was doing.
I calmly explained that I was carrying the cross because that’s exactly what Jesus did on Good Friday before he was crucified. And then she said something I, sadly, was completely unprepared to hear: “Who in the world is Jesus?”
I know that I, for one, take for granted the ubiquity of Christianity. That is, I assume that even people who never step foot in a church have, at least, some semblance of an idea about Jesus. But there, on that Good Friday, I encountered someone who knew nothing of the Lord.
Paul wrote to the church in Philippi, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.” Even on the other side of his Damascus experience, his desire to know the Lord was at the forefront of the apostle’s heart and mind. Even for as much as I know the Lord, from encountering God in the strange new world of the Bible, in the sacraments, in the still small silences, I too desire to know the Lord and the power of Christ’s resurrection. At the heart of the church’s gathering is a willingness to proclaim the wonders of God so that all of us come to know who Christ is and who we are in relation to Christ.
But what about those outside the church?
Or, to put it another way, how would you respond to someone who said, “Who in the world is Jesus?”
Faith is an exciting adventure not because it provides all the answers to our questions, but because it encourages us to ask questions in the first place. Here, at the tail end of Lent, with the cross hovering on the horizon, we are compelled to confront the incarnate truth. That truth has a name: Jesus. Jesus cannot be explained from a pulpit or from a book. Jesus defies all of our expectations and often leaves us scratching our heads.
But that’s the point. God is God and we are not. The best we can do is tell the story of Christ’s death and resurrection that we’ve been telling throughout the centuries. The rest is up to God.
The Devil Is In The Details
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
It is a long standing tradition in the church to begin the forty days of Lent with Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness. We, in a sense, mirror the journey Jesus faced with our own attempts at wrestling with temptation while abstaining from certain items, behaviors, and practices.
It’s not the easiest section of the church calendar.
The hymns are all a little too on the nose, the sermons call to question all of our wandering hearts, and even the scriptures reject our desire to look at anything but the cross.
We, then, can do lots of things as a church during this particular liturgical season, but at some point or another we will all raise the question we’ve had since the very beginning of the church: “Who, exactly, is this Jesus?”
It was just a few weeks ago that we were worshipping the baby born King in the manger, with little angels and shepherds wandering around the sanctuary. It’s easy to worship that Jesus because in infancy there isn’t much for us to come to grips with. We can confess the wonder of the incarnation, but we’re not entirely sure what that has to do with you or me.
But then, here in Lent, it’s like the Spirit wants to smack us over the head with the truth of the Truth incarnate.
And we start with Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness.
This vignette in the strange new world of the Bible tells us exactly who this Jesus is, and who he will be.
Oddly enough, it offers us a glimpse behind the curtain of the cosmos – it helps us see that the story of Christ will end just as it begins.
Jesus is baptized by his cousin John in the Jordan and then he is led by the spirit into the wilderness where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.
“Hey JC!” The devil begins, “If you are who you say you are, I’m gonna need to see some ID. No pockets in your robe? That’s fine. I’ll take your word for it, if you really are the Word. But, let me tell you, you look awful. I’m sure you’re hungry. Not a lot to eat out here in the wilderness. Why don’t you rustle up some bread from these stones. Who knows? That little parlor trick could come in handy down the road… what could be more holy than having mercy on the hungry and filling their bellies?”
And Jesus says, “It is written, we cannot and shall not live by bread alone.”
“So you know your scriptures!” The Devil says, “I’m impressed! And, frankly, I’m with you Son of Man. You can’t just give hungry people food for nothing. They’ll become dependent. No handouts in the Kingdom of God! But how about this? Would you like a little taste of power? And I mean, real power. Political power. Here’s the deal – I’ll give you the keys to the kingdoms here on earth, all of them. The only thing you have to do, and it’s really nothing when you think about it, I just need you to bow down and worship me.”
And Jesus says, “It is written, we shall only worship one God.”
“Okay, okay,” the Devil continues, “Don’t be such a buzzkill. So you won’t show compassion to the needy, even yourself, and you won’t go ahead and make the world a better place through political machinations. That’s fine with me. For what it’s worth, I can play the scripture game too, you know. So I’ll give you one more chance. Why don’t you leap from the top of the temple, give the people a sign of God’s power and might, for, doesn’t it say in the Psalms, ‘He will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ Just think about the kind of faith people will finally have if you show them one big miracle!”
And Jesus says, “It is written, you shall not put the Lord you God to the test.”
And then the devil leaves only to return at an opportune time.
That’s rather an ominous ending to a passage of scripture. But, no spoilers. Let stick with what we’ve got for now.
As I said at the beginning, we often use this story to give a little encouragement in resisting our own temptations. This is the time for someone like me to make a big pitch to people like you about whatever bad habit you need to drop. The time has come to shape up or ship out.
And, clearly, we’ve got plenty to work on. There are far too many people who fall asleep hungry at night, far too many children to have no bright hope for tomorrow, far too many communities that are falling prey to the devastating powers of loneliness.
But, if that’s all this story is supposed to do, if it merely exists as a weapon to wield against sleepy and dozing congregations about being better, then Jesus certainly could’ve been a little clear about what we should or shouldn’t be going.
Put another way: If Jesus’ temptations are really about our temptations, then it would’ve been better for him to have more lines in this passage than the devil.
Scripture is always primarily about God and only secondarily about us.
But we are vain and selfish little creatures and we assume everything is always about us, and only ever about us.
Jesus’ temptations are exactly that – Jesus’ temptations.
This isn’t a story about how we deal with our own temptations. It’s actually a story about how Jesus deals with the world – how Jesus deals with us.
Notice: the things the devil offers to the Lord, they’re all objectively good things – bread, political power, miracles.
And yet, Jesus refused them. And he even used scripture to defend his refusals!
Perhaps if the devil offered Jesus an unending buffet at the golden corral, or the nuclear codes, or David Copperfield’s assortment of illusions, we could sympathize with Jesus’ dismissals. But the devil offered Jesus possibilities for transformation and Jesus said, “No, thank you.”
But here’s the real kicker, the truly wild part of this story: by the end of the Gospel Jesus will, in fact, do all of the things that the devil suggests.
Instead of turning some rocks into a nice loaf of sourdough, Jesus will feed the 5,000 with nothing more than a few slices of day old bread a handful of fresh fish.
Instead of getting caught up in all the political procedures to Make Jerusalem Great Again, Jesus reigns from the arms of the cross and eventually ascends to the right hand of the father as King of kings and Lord of lords.
Instead of pulling off a primetime Law Vegas magic special, Jesus dies, and refuses to stay dead.
For a long, long, time we’ve understood Jesus and the Devil to be figures on opposite ends of the spectrum – one good and the other bad. It even slips into out culture whenever you see a figure with an angel whispering in one ear and a red figure with a bifurcated tail whispering in the other.
And yet, at least according to this moment in scripture, the difference between the devil and Jesus isn’t the temptations themselves, but in the methods upon which those acts of power come to fruition.
And, though it might pain us to admit, the devil has some pretty decent suggestions for the Messiah – Why starve yourself Lord, when you can easily set a meal here in the wilderness? Why let these fools destroy themselves when I can give you control over everything and everyone? Why let the world continue in fear and doubt when you can prove your worth right now?
The devil, frighteningly, sounds a lot like, well, us. The devil’s ideas are some that we regularly discuss and champion.
What our community needs is another food pantry! What we need to do is make sure that we have Christians running for political offices! If only God would show us a miracle, then everyone would finally get in line and the world will finally be a better place.
But Jesus, for as much as Jesus is like us, Jesus is completely unlike us. For, in his non-answer answers he declares to the devil, and therefore to all of us, that power as we understand it doesn’t actually transform much of anything.
We can create a feeding program, but sooner or later we will introduce requirements for those who receive the food.
We can get Christians elected into the government, but at some point they will be more concerned with maintaining their power than pointing to the one from whom all things move and have their being.
We can witness miracle after miracle after miracle, but we will never be quite satisfied with what we receive.
We’ve convinced ourselves, since that fateful day with a certain fruit in a certain tree, that it’s up to us to make things come out right in the end. That, by amassing power, we can make the world a better place.
In the early days of the church, we got so cozy with the powers and the principalities that individuals were forced to be baptized in order to becomes citizens in the empire.
In the Middle Ages, the church required more and more of the resources of God’s people in order to get their loved ones out of purgatory all while cathedrals got bigger, as did the waistlines of the clergy.
And even today, our lust for power (political, theological, economic), has led to violence, familiar strife, and ecclesial schisms.
We believe, more than anything else, that if we just had a little more control, if we just won one more debate, if we could just get everyone else to be like us, that it would finally turn out for the best.
But it never does.
If we could’ve fixed the world with our goodness, we would’ve done it by now.
Or, conversely, some of the most horrific moments of history were done in the name of progress.
The devil wants to give Jesus a short cut straight to the ends that Jesus will, inevitably, bring about in his own life, death, and resurrection.
The devil wants Jesus to do what we want Jesus to do.
Or, perhaps better put: The devil wants Jesus to do what WE want to do.
But here’s the Good News, the really Good News, Jesus rejects the temptations of the devil, and our own, and instead does for us what we would not, and could not, do for ourselves.
Even at the very end, with his arms stretched out not he cross, we still tempt the Lord just as the devil did: “If you really are who you say you are, save yourself!”
And, at the end, Jesus doesn’t bother with quotes from the scriptures, nor does he provide us with a plan on how to make the world a better place, he simply dies.
Instead of saving himself, Jesus saves us. Amen.