Lenton Sermon Series: “Restore us, O God!” Sermon title-“Celebrating the Unexpected, Executed Savior” Palm Sunday 2017 Matthew 21:1-11April 19, 2017
Today, Christians around the world are celebrating the first day of “Holy week”. This week commemorates the Final events of Jesus’ life: his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday leading up to his Resurrection one week later on Easter Sunday. For some Sunday church-goers, Holy Week might feel like two big celebrations: one celebrating Jesus entering into the Holy City in victory with shouts of “Hosanna”, and the other being a celebration of Jesus conquering death in resurrected glory, leaving behind an empty tomb.
The fact that Holy Week is sandwiched between these two celebratory Sundays may cause us to lose sight of the fact that, for Jesus’ earliest disciples, these final days before Easter were actually an emotional rollercoaster. And in many ways, the dramatic experience of ups and downs and twists and turns that Jesus’ closest disciples experienced during the first holy week are much like the experience of the Christian life today.
During his final days in Jerusalem, Jesus raised the people’s Messianic expectations: he entered the city gates on a donkey in fulfillment of a prophecy from the book of Zechariah (9:9), we also see him protesting in the Temple and preaching about apocalyptic events on the Mount of Olives. This would have raised his own disciples’ anticipation that Jesus would usher in a new era; an era in which Israel would be redeemed from Roman Occupation and the Kingdom of God would come, bringing peace on earth.
Crowds welcoming him in Jerusalem, and the women and the men who had spent the past few years traveling with Jesus as he preached and performed signs and wonders, would have hinged their hopes on Jesus as the expected and long-awaited Messiah to save them. The people of Judea were looking for a liberator. They laid down their coats on the ground and put palm branches in the street as an expression of solidarity with this man who they hoped would save them.
But these expectations were disrupted. We do not read in the gospels that Jesus triumphantly defeated the Romans, in fact, we find the opposite. We read that within less than one week of being welcomed into Jerusalem as the Savior to emancipate the people, Jesus was defeated by the Romans. He was executed in the most humiliating of ways: He was crucified, hung on a tree, mocked with a crown of thorns on his head, and dismissed as just another failed political zealot against the power of Rome.
It is possible that some of the very same people who shouted “Hosanna!” –which means “Save Us!”–on Palm Sunday, also shouted “Crucify Him!” on Good Friday (Matt. 27:22).
Jesus was a disappointment: Even when Jesus had the opportunity to fight back, Jesus submitted to being arrested. In fact, Jesus even rebuked his closest disciple–Peter–for even attempting to resist (Matthew 26:52). This was not the valiant warrior that the people of Jerusalem had hoped for.
We see the disciples scatter when Jesus is taken away, we see Jesus being betrayed by one of his close followers, we see Jesus flogged, tortured, humiliated and executed. We read about disciples who doubted and a disciple who three different times denied that he knew Jesus at all.
This whole sequence of events resonates with my own experience of the Christian life. Early on, when I first committed my life to Christ, I felt like one of the members of the crowds in Jerusalem eagerly welcoming Jesus in. This was like shouting “Hosanna!” Crying out for salvation and celebrating that I was encountering a Savior.
Soon after, things got even more interesting; just as Jesus was consumed with zeal, overturning tables in the Temple, in my teenage years I wanted to be a radical for Jesus; evangelizing to my peers in high school and getting active in a variety of different causes. But then later, there were times when I felt like my faith was threatened and I could become very defensive of anyone who was critical of Christianity. Then there have been other times when I felt like my own faith has been crushed, where all hope is lost, where I have been ashamed to identify as a follower of Jesus, and I have betrayed, denied, and abandoned him; both in my words and in my actions. During these times: It looks like hope is dead, that it’s been laid to rest and buried in a tomb with a heavy stone to keep hope from ever seeing the light of day again.
This has been my Christian journey: I have experienced the excitement and jubilation of shouting “Hosanna”, but I have also been in the valley of betrayal, doubt, and denial.
I think the gospels present us with a turbulent picture of what it means to be a disciple of Christ. It is easy to shout and sing and celebrate and welcome Jesus into your life before this turbulence hits. But my question for us today is: Can we still shout “Hosanna” when darkness covers our world? Can you still stand in solidarity with the Jesus Movement when you realize that our Savior is not the Savior who you expected, but the Savior who is executed?
In her best-selling book Learning to Walk in the Dark, the Episcopal Priest Barbara Brown Taylor writes about her own struggle to understand darkness. She looks back at her fears of darkness as a child and her later experiences of spiritual darkness when she is older–her dark nights of the soul. She has found that darkness is not something that we should fight, resist, or run away from. Rather, darkness is something we must go through. Learning to walk in the dark is an imperative part of our spiritual formation.
In the Bible we read about Job’s own struggle through darkness. Through suffering and a sense of abandonment, affter losing everything, Job says, “When I hoped for good, evil came; when I looked for light, then came darkness” (Job 30:26). Of course, we can find in the book of Job details about how his story resolves. But when we are going through the dark, we don’t have the benefit of seeing what’s on the other side, or when, if ever, the clouds will lift. We are confronted with the unknown.
Yesterday marks one year since my grandfather died. I had hoped that he would be able to see me graduate from seminary. But that didn’t turn out the way I had planned.
On the night of his funeral, my extended family gathered for a final goodbye at his house. It helps, by the way, when you are going through darkness to not go through it alone. My Uncle Pete, has experienced tremendous loss:the death of both his parents, multiple heart attacks, and the loss of his wife- my Aunt Cathy, to breast cancer. That night one-on-one at my grandfather’s house Uncle Pete told me about all the prayers that had been prayed for my Aunt Cathy to recover. She would show up to chemo-therapy treatments carrying a rosary. He asked his nephew–who wants to be a pastor– why God allowed her to suffer and die despite all the prayers that she and others had prayed. He was open with me about his own shaken faith after the experience of loss. He shared his disappointment with the Church and his own frustration with God. He asked me: why bother praying at all? Why persist in faith?
I could feel the weight of what he was asking. I told him about my own disappointments with unanswered prayers. Even specific prayers that Jaynie and I had prayed when we were anticipating the birth of a child. Nevertheless, despite not finding an answer to prayer, I told him that Jesus had himself asked for “this cup to pass” praying, on the night he was arrested, for God to spare him from the agony of crucifixion. But Jesus’ prayer was not answered the way he would like. We read that while he hung on the cross, he cried out: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).
I told my Uncle Pete that when I was younger I had committed my life to follow Jesus. When I encounter the darkness of unanswered prayer, loss, and disappointment I have to ask myself: Am I willing to follow Jesus even into the dark places where Jesus himself experiences a sense of abandonment from God? To go into those dark places may be part of taking up my cross and following him (Luke 9:23). Can I still stand in solidarity with the Jesus Movement when I realize that my Savior is not the Savior I expected, but the Savior who is executed?
There were times when Jesus’ life was threatened throughout his ministry: his hometown synagogue wanted to push him over a cliff in Luke 4 and some religious authorities picked up stones to kill him in John 8. But most New Testament scholars believe that it was Jesus’ protest in the Temple–his overturning of the tables–that finally led to his arrest and execution.
So, what might it look like to stand in solidarity with the Jesus Movement today? What might it look like to be in solidarity with the controversial Jesus and not just a Jesus who we create in our own image?
Monday of this past week marked 49 years since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” address in Memphis, TN.
[We saw this clip just a few moments ago]
It is eery, the very next day, Dr. King was executed on April 4, 1968. It was as though he knew this would happen.
His words are chilling:
“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
Many people believe that it was Dr. King’s protest of the Vietnam War that led to his death. Afterall, exactly one year before his assassination he spoke out against the War in Vietnam at Riverside Church on April 4, 1967.
Once again, 50 years later, we now live in a time in which current events are animating many people to say that war is necessary. The suggestion is that violence is the only way to stop violence whether this violence is in Syria or elsewhere. It may not be fashionable to question or criticize the decisions of people in power during a time of international crisis, but who is willing—even when it’s not popular– to stand-up and say: “There is no way to peace, rather, peace is the way.”
Staying in solidarity with the executed Savior is risky. It may cost you your life. But it is best not done alone. We read in the gospels, that even before the risen Jesus had appeared to the disciples, that they continued to gather together with one another. Even more courageously, it was the women who followed Jesus who were gathered around Jesus at his death; they were willing to associate with him. Just as families–like my own– gather together after the loss of a loved one, the disciples seemed to have drawn in close to one another to support each other. They continued to be in solidarity with one another, and with their executed savior.
Here at Oxford Circle, we have experienced a loss. Even though I am just passing through here as a pastoral intern, I feel this loss too. The loss of a pastor, although it is not death—can be disorienting for a community. It may seem dark and cloudy, because you don’t know what’s ahead. But just like the disciples continued to gather together in one place, even though they didn’t know how their mission could continue, I believe that Oxford Circle has bright days ahead, and even if you sense the loss right now, it is best to not to go through the darkness alone. It is best to continue to gather together in solidarity.