Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Sermon: Hard to Celebrate

Matthew 21:1-11

There is a part of me that loves Palm Sunday.

It is a story of a hero’s welcome, with Palm branches waving as a king comes riding into town. There are the shouts of hope as people pray for change in their lives, and the amazing promise that this king is one who can actually deliver them. It is like a parade, and a party, and a word of hope all in one, so the scriptures of the day have all of the elements of a huge celebration.

And yet, in the back of our minds, we can’t really celebrate with “unbridled joy”[1] because we know what is about to happen. We know that the crowds of today become the crowds of Friday, and their words are very different. From Hosanna, people’s cries change to crucify. So it is hard to celebrate this palm branch welcome because it feels so temporary, with the people in it so fickle.

Some people have trouble believing this change.

There are those who say that people don’t change their minds this quickly. That it couldn’t have happened this way. That there is no way that crowds welcomed Jesus so happily early in the week, and then demanded his crucifixion later in the week.  Even the gospels struggle with that a little bit, saying that the people were stirred up by those who opposed Jesus to cry out for his death. You could go so far as suggesting that the leaders played on mob mentality and with a few carefully placed people in the crowd riled them up. At least that is probably what people would claim today when a crowd gets angry.

But here is the thing, I don’t think we are supposed to hear the story that way. I don’t think you are supposed to read it as a great conspiracy against Jesus. Rather, this is a story of human infidelity to God. One minute we love God, the next we turn our back on God. It is a story about how temporary our commitments are.

You see, many of us live in this fickleness of life. One day everything is fantastic, one day we are celebrating, and the next is tragedy. One day hope seems to shine eternal, and the next it looks like hope is dead. As one person said, “Even though nearly 2000 years have passed since the events recounted on this day, for many the story is as real and as present as if it were being reported in real time. On the one hand, these are historic events, but on the other hand, in a very real way they are a description of the life we live each day.”[2] That’s true.

Look at the news this last week. Children struck by chemical weapons, bombings in Egyptian churches. In one moment, those people's lives changed.

Ruth Johnson tells how, in five minutes her life was turned upside-down when her schizophrenic adult son killed her mother as she was eating breakfast. Never before had he raised a hand in violence, but a hallucination that his grandmother had tried to kill him brought a drastic change in him.[3] Life and people can be fickle.

It can happen when a person we love violates our marriage vows, or when alcohol or drug addiction changes a person’s personality. It can happen when a community gets caught up in blame and targets a person or family to turn into a scapegoat for their problems. For some people, they have no problem believing the crowd changed without calling it a conspiracy. It seems far too familiar to their daily life.

It makes me wonder what Jesus thought that day

as he rode into town. He knew what was coming, he had foretold his death in Jerusalem many times. Yet on this day the people cheered him. He knew that there was a change of tone yet to come, and that their loyalties would not hold.

Father Henri Nouwen found a sculpture of Jesus on a donkey in the Augustiner Museum in Frieburg. He says, it “is one of the most moving Christ figures I know. I have sent many postcards of it to my friends, and I keep one in my prayer book . . . The fourteenth-century sculpture originally comes from Niederrotweil, a small town close to Breisach on the Rhine. It was made to be pulled on a cart in the Palm Sunday procession.”

“Christ’s long, slender face with a high forehead, inward looking eyes, long hair, and a small forked beard expresses the mystery of his suffering in a way that holds me spellbound. As he rides into Jerusalem surrounded by people shouting “hosanna,” “cutting branches from the trees and spreading them in his path” (Matthew 21:8), Jesus appears completely concentrated on something else. He does not look at the excited crowd. He does not look at the excited crowd. He does not wave. He sees beyond all the noise and movement to what is ahead of him: an agonizing journey of betrayal, torture, crucifixion, and death. His unfocused eyes see what nobody around him can see; his high forehead reflects a knowledge of things to come far beyond anyone’s understanding.”

"There is melancholy, but also peaceful acceptance. There is insight into the fickleness of the human heart, but also immense compassion. There is a deep awareness of the unspeakable pain to be suffered, but also a strong determination to do God's will. Above all, there is love, an endless, deep and far-reaching love born from an unbreakable intimacy with God and reaching out to all people, wherever they are, were, or will be. There is nothing that he does not fully know. There is nobody whom he does not fully love."[4]

As wonderful as Nouwen’s reflection is:

He forgets to mention that Jesus also knew that his death would not be the end of the story. Not only does Jesus predict his death, he also predicts his resurrection. Although his death would be awful and painful, he knew that Easter Sunday would follow. So add that additional emotion to the face of Christ, and it is no wonder his face is so reflective.

And it is also no wonder that on a day like today we experience a weird contrast of emotions. What should we do? Should we celebrate the coming of a king? Should we mourn what is about to happen? Should we look forward to next week? Or should we simply stand in awe at the unfolding events and how God used them to rescue us from the pit of despair, and the finality of death? Should our face look like that image from one artist who caught a moment of reflection, or should we think and feel something else?

I for one, think we should take the time to celebrate the true king – even if the events to come will bring sadness—today is a day to recognize Christ as the ruler of heaven and earth. It is a day to welcome him into our presence, and giving thanks for his saving work done on our behalf. Today we should cheer. But if we do, we cannot skip the rest of the week. We cannot skip the pain of a Thursday betrayal by Judas, and a denial by Peter. We cannot forget the Friday crucifixion. We must shed tears for these things when it is their time, otherwise our celebration today fails to recognize the fickleness of life that we often face. This week we must allow our hearts to be rushed through the emotional whiplash of a hero’s welcome, a touching meal with friends, a horrible death, and ultimately the hope filled resurrection.

So celebrate today. Remember that Jesus is a king that brings hope, shout to him for his saving grace and power, wave a branch of a palm to honor him. Recognize his leadership and lordship. But I understand if it is hard to throw yourself completely into it, because it is hard for me as well. Just as Jesus knew, we know what the future holds for him, and it can make today hard to celebrate.

[1] Seasons of the Spirit, 2017
[2] Seasons of the Spirit, 2017
[3] http://www.treatmentadvocacycenter.org/fixing-the-system/features-and-news/2285
[4] A Road to Daybreak: A Spiritual Journey, by Henri Nouwen. Entry Saturday February 8 – The Compassionate Eyes of Christ.

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