Sunday, April 17, 2011

Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday
Matthew 21:1-11; Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 31:9-16
Philippians 2:5-11
Matthew [26:14-27:10] 27:11-54 [55-66]

Have this mind in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: who, existing in the form of God, counted not the being on an equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men; and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, becoming obedient even unto death, yea, the death of the cross.

I have to admit that I haven’t found the college tours that I’ve taken with Zachary very interesting. I have gone, and I’ve listened half-heartedly to the speeches, tuning in to the aspects of his future college life that would impact me and pretty much ignoring the rest. I know that those tours are generally designed to convince prospective students that the college is the only real option. I need to know that he’ll be safe and will get value for my dollars; he needs to know about life on campus and academic opportunities. He needs to hear what they have to say, so we go so that Zachary has the information he needs to make an informed decision. When we go on those tours, I hang around the back of the crowd, leaving room for those more interested in the speeches. I look around and listen without really hearing. I don’t learn very much.

It is much different when I go on a tour at a museum or historic landmark. I stay at the front of the pack so that I can hear every word. I’m ready with questions so that I can learn about the place, people and events associated with the site. I buy any affordable books so that I can continue to learn and to use as a reference for when I share those experiences with others. I listen, not just with my ears, but with my whole being, as one being taught.

There’s a big difference. When we listen half-heartedly, the words have no real impact. We can’t remember what has been said or share any knowledge. We aren’t changed by the words in any real way. We can’t make decisions based on those words or do anything in response to them because they have not become a part of who we are. Listening as one who is taught means that we not only hear the words, but we learn them. The words give knowledge and transform. The words make a difference in the head and heart of the one who hears.

Isaiah says, “He wakeneth morning by morning, He wakeneth mine ear to hear as they that are taught.” God has the attention of those He calls into a relationship. By His Spirit we are given the heart to listen and to learn and to be transformed. Those who hear, like Isaiah, pay attention to God and they do not rebel against Him, even when faced with difficult circumstances. In the Old Testament lesson, Isaiah talks of humiliation. He willingly faces the violence of his enemies and trusts in God to deal with it.

Isaiah writes, “For the Lord Jehovah will help me; therefore have I not been confounded: therefore have I set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame.” All the actions against him are ways people in his day, and into today, shame others. Striking the back, as with a whip, or slapping the face are humiliating to the victim. The same is true of pulling the beard. But Isaiah was not put to shame despite these things happening. The enemy might thought they were shamed, but with God as the vindicator, Isaiah did not feel the shame and humiliation expected by the world.

We know today that these words were also a foretelling of the final moments of Jesus’ life. He was whipped, slapped and they probably pulled His beard. He was humiliated and shamed by the men in charge and the soldiers under their rule. And yet, Jesus did not feel shame. He kept His eyes on God and His Words, knowing that the kingdom of this world would not ultimately win. He stood firm in the circumstances, even though it seemed like His ministry was a failure. The trouble with these images is that it seems like Jesus humbled Himself before the world, since He allowed them to beat and humiliate Him in the Passion. But He humbled Himself before God, fulfilling the prophecies that were made about Him throughout the ages by the forefathers, judges, kings and prophets.

Our stories on Sunday begin with the procession. We call this moment “the Triumphal Entry” because we have this imagery of the new King David entering His city. The people roar and shout “Blessed is he!” I usually look at it from the point of view that Jesus was being honored as the military hero they were expecting to come and restore Israel to her rightful place among the nations. By the end of the week the people are so disappointed that He hasn’t raised an army, so they turn on Him and embrace Barabbas, the rebel. They seek a Kingdom for the Jews rather than the Kingdom of heaven that Jesus has proclaimed.

In the reading of this text, many scholars have discounted Matthew’s version because he makes what seems like an absurd literal understanding of the prophecy found in Zechariah 9:9. Where Mark talks about only a colt which the disciples found and Jesus rode, Matthew emphasizes the words of Zechariah, “Behold, thy King cometh unto thee, Meek, and riding upon an ass, And upon a colt the foal of an ass.” There are even those who use this as an example of inconsistency in the scriptures.

John Dominic Crossan has offered another point of view, however. Instead of taking Matthew literally when he says that Jesus sat on the both, we should look a little more closely at the imagery here. “Matthew wants two animals, a donkey with her little colt beside her, and that Jesus rides ‘them’ in the sense of having them both as part of his demonstration’s highly visible symbolism. In other words, Jesus does not ride a stallion or a mare, a mule or a male donkey, and not even a female donkey. He rides the most unmilitary mount imaginable: a female nursing donkey with her little colt trotting along beside her.”

A nursing donkey and her colt would be inseparable, and as such would be vulnerable. The mother would do anything to protect her colt, but the colt itself would put the mother at greater risk because she could not escape danger. While riding on a donkey did have significance as a representation of a humble servant king, what did this imagery mean to the people who had attended that parade? Did it have an atmosphere of triumph?

The crowd yells, “Hosanna” to this son of David, not a cry of victory but a plea for help. The word Hosanna means “Save” or “Have mercy.” The people were not welcoming a conquering hero but looking to Jesus to be their savior. Of course, they were still thinking in terms of the wrong Kingdom. They wanted Jesus to restore the Kingdom of the Jews, but Jesus was there to bring the Kingdom of Heaven. He came as a servant of God, willingly putting Himself in the most vulnerable positions. He would be whipped and beaten, humiliated and killed. Most of us wouldn’t take it. We would fight back. We would rely on our own strength. We would fight with words and with weapons to stay on top.

Jesus never turned from God. Every word was God’s; every action was God’s. In the words of Isaiah, “The Lord Jehovah hath given me the tongue of them that are taught, that I may know how to sustain with words him that is weary: he wakeneth morning by morning, he wakeneth mine ear to hear as they that are taught.” God gave Jesus the tongue of one who teaches and the ears of one who learns. And then Jesus walked into Jerusalem and accepted the wrath that He never deserved. He took our punishment so that we might be reconciled to God and be like Him.

Paul writes, “Have this mind in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: who, existing in the form of God, counted not the being on an equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men; and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, becoming obedient even unto death, yea, the death of the cross.”

The passage from Paul’s letter to the Philippians is thought to have been based on an early Christian hymn describing Jesus’ kenosis, which is from the Greek word meaning “emptiness.” This hymn tells how Jesus emptied Himself to become one of us, to take on our sin and face once and for all the wrath of God on the cross. God honored His humble obedience by exalting Him above all else. But, it is in our nature to try to come out on top. We work hard for the promotion. We’ll do what it takes to the nicest car, the prettiest house and the best lawn. We compete for the biggest trophies, the fastest times and the best records. Our quest to be number one can easily become the sole focus of our life.

Unfortunately, there comes a time when we can’t do better by our own power and then we face the real test. At some point everyone that temptation to do whatever it takes to win: the athlete that feels the need to use performance enhancing drugs to go one step further is just one example. In business, the temptation might be to steal a co-worker’s ideas or lie on a resume to appear more qualified for a job. In our relationships, we pretend to be someone we aren’t to win the one we desire.

Jesus did not humble Himself so that He would be exalted. He humbled Himself because it was in His nature to be a servant—it was the life to which God had called Him to live and die. He became one with God: He emptied Himself and took on God’s will as His own. He calls us to do the same. We do not empty ourselves so that we might be exalted with Him, but because in Christ we have taken upon ourselves His nature. That nature is one that saves and rescues even when it puts our own life in jeopardy. We are not called to ride on the war horse or even the donkey, but to go with Him on a journey with the weak and vulnerable.

Jesus humbled Himself before God’s word and was obedient. He did not turn from God, but faced the suffering knowing that it was God’s will. He trusted that God would be with him. Though the beating, disrespect, contempt, hatred and disgrace were humiliating, He knew no shame because God was near. His enemies were nothing because their condemnation was meaningless against God’s mercy.

Do you have listen like one who is taught? Do you have experience God’s Word in a way that it transforms you into one like Jesus? Do you keep your eyes on God, looking toward His Kingdom and trusting in Him? Or do you see through worldly eyes, seeking a Kingdom that exalts the winner?

Could you live in the midst of your enemies and share the love and forgiveness of God with them? Or do you run in the opposite direction? Jesus was surrounded by his enemies, trying to share God’s grace but they were unwilling to accept that He was the answer to their cries for mercy. Despite the humiliation, Jesus remained faithful so that we can receive God’s mercy and forgiveness. Like the psalmist, He trusted that God would keep him safe.

Are you like Jesus? Have you been emptied of your desire to be God, trusting in Him for everything? Can you cry out “Hosanna” with the crowds of Jerusalem as they welcomed Jesus and sought His mercy? Can you sing with the psalmist the words of today’s prayer? “My times are in thy hand: Deliver me from the hand of mine enemies, and from them that persecute me. Make thy face to shine upon thy servant: Save me in thy lovingkindness.” Listen with ears of one who is taught, and stand firm in whatever circumstances you face, for Christ has reconciled you to your God and brought you into the Kingdom of Heaven. It is yours, now and forever, thanks to the humble Christ who rode on a donkey with a foal to the cross of humiliation.

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