JESUS: A MOST SURPRISING MAN
Psalm 118: 19-28; JOHN 12: 12-15
At times, each of us has struggled to decide between two ethics: between right and wrong; between being children of light or children of darkness. The tragedy comes when children of darkness believe that they are children of light. Wars are fought, people are hurt, and ethics get breached when children of darkness think they are right. People struggle with questions like: how should I act in life? Do I tell someone in authority what I know about dishonest actions? In what do I participate, to what activities should I say “no?” The ultimate question becomes: where do my loyalties lie? Ball teams of all ages ask for loyalty to the team; “You don’t sell out the team,” they say. In industry through the years, labor has stuck together and management has stuck together, each trying to protect their jobs—but at what cost? How far does one go to protect a co-worker in the workplace and when is it right to come to the aid of another? Or do you just shrink away quietly, time and time again, until the ethical backbone God intended for you to have crumbles with moral osteoporosis? In school even if you don’t lie or cheat, should you cover for or keep your mouth shut for a friend who hurts someone else or copies off someone’s paper, or steals money from another person’s backpack? Where does friendship end and responsibility respond? Compromise may be a useful negotiating tool, but in many dilemmas it is a useless if not destructive weapon in the cause for right. Sometimes those who try to please everyone end up helping no one. The malaise of our culture is moral relativism. It states that what is right for me may not be right for you. Still, there are some moral certainties in life that, if not followed, lead to anarchy, chaos, and the breakdown of civilized culture. We have been horrified this week to learn that a vetted co-pilot, one entrusted with plane safety by the company for whom he worked, likely brought his plane down deliberately; perhaps with a warped sense of personal glory. What goes through the mind of a man like that? The lessons of the palms and the passion of Jesus show us how tempting it can be to try to please others, and how difficult but necessary it is to say “no” to the whims of others and “yes” to doing the right things.
Jesus gives us the best example of having a moral backbone: an ear turned heavenward, and a heart focused on others. Some of you will remember when we started the journey in Lent on Ash Wednesday. Satan gave Jesus a series of temptations. In Matthew chapter 4 Satan tempts Jesus to perform a miracle. “You have the power,” said Satan. “Turn stones into bread so you can eat!” Our world, which is used to instant gratification, has watched our televisions as super heroes used super powers and genies blinked and got their wish. Jesus was tempted to do all that and more. He had the power to do so. But he did not. Satan also gave him another wonderful offer: “Treat me as the world’s newest star with great power, and I will get you unimaginable pampering: a palace, servants, the best clothes, and the spotlight.” Still Jesus did not give into temptation. He knew, when it came to his last day, he would rather keep the will of his Father …than give in to the jeering voice of friends or fallen angels.
On Palm Sunday, however, there they were. The tempters were all around him. The gathered ones were like those who live in brutal dictatorships in our day that beg America and our allies to meet their needs. But on that Palm Sunday, people lined the pathway on the Mount of Olives begging for Jesus to save them. That’s what “Hosanna” means: “Save us!” They saw Jesus as their liberator from the Romans! They hoped they were cheering on a kind of gladiator; a hero. The one and only time when the Jews were actually free as a nation was during the rule of the Maccabees. The symbol of their nation in those glorious days was … a palm branch. Some Southerners continue to fly the Confederate flag, once the national symbol for Dixie, and some wistfully think: “Ah, if we could only go back to when the South was really the South!” Waving a Palm Branch at Jesus was like waving the Stars and Bars in front of a southern politician running for office. “Help us reclaim our heritage, our statehood, our pride!” the Jews were thinking as palm branches were brought for Jesus’ entry. Palm trees didn’t line all the hillside of Jesus’ path down the Mount of Olives to the Jerusalem Golden Gates of the city. You can’t just yank palm branches of any size off a tree. Someone who knew the history of the Jews had gathered and prepared those palms as one of our congregation members did today for our palm processional. They had the palms ready, trying to incite Jesus’ Jewish blood, appealing to his heritage, and calling on him as a national patriot. Who wouldn’t rise to the occasion for his country; or his race; or his religion? But the man with a backbone as strong as the cross on which he hung said “no” to all those emotional appeals. He chose to be faithful to his Heavenly Father; he trusted that his Father’s plan would ultimately be better than his friends’ plans. I suspect that even Judas didn’t have it in for Jesus; he just hoped to force him into using the cosmic powers of heaven and ride a white horse for national revolt. When he didn’t, Judas got confused; even angry. Jesus chose a humble ride into town; some would call it a humiliating ride: on a donkey- perhaps the very kind of animal that his mother rode to Bethlehem more than thirty years earlier.
- Richard Niebuhr, in his classic book CHRIST AND CULTURE, puts it this way: “Efforts to synthesize Christ and culture have been subject to sharp attacks throughout Christian history. Radicals have protested that these attempts are disguised versions of cultural accommodations of the rigorous gospel, and that they broaden the narrow way of life into an easy highway.”[Harper Torchbooks, 1951, p.149] The “Both-And” group, as he calls them, seek to be both loyal to Christ AND show responsibility to the culture. “But,” Niebuhr mused, “Can such a stand be authentic if standing for Christ is sometimes paradoxically opposed to the culture in which we live?” An earlier book by Richard Niebuhr’s brother, Reinhold, was titled CHILDEN OF LIGHT AND CHILDREN OF DARKNESS. In it he comes to a similar conclusion saying: “Children of darkness are evil because they know no law beyond the self.” (We’ve seen examples of that recently, haven’t we? Going on, he says:) “They are wise, though evil, because they understand the power of self-interest. The children of light are virtuous because they have some conception of a higher law than their own will… [But] they underestimate the peril of anarchy in both the national and international community.” [Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1944, p.10] We have witnessed underestimated destructive mobs and vigilante groups in cities across America over the past six months. It was a mob that convinced Pilate to crucify Jesus; and it was a group of zealous nationalists who tried to move Jesus into power the day we remember as Palm Sunday. Those people made the same mistake that people in our day sometimes make who claim the cross for national causes: they end up with a mortal king, instead on an eternal one.
Jesus, instead, saw the light; the bigger picture. He made a faithful choice; he did not give in to temptation that would dazzle like a sparkler, then fizzle like a damp one. The man who chose to go to the cross could not have accepted the challenge of the palms too. Here no compromise would work. Even in the midst of patriotic fervor, not unlike the kind that has risen and fallen in our country, Jesus chose God … over glory. Sometimes even a nation can be wrong, and Christian prophets point it out. Sometimes corporate managers can be wrong, as corporate scandals have pointed out. Many times we learn that those in the spotlight have made bad choices; often the glittering star falls hard. We all have feet of clay. But true disciples take their stand with Jesus; even, even if it means the cross. The Apostles followed their Lord’s example instead.
This week you also may face choices that cannot be resolved by compromise. As you arrived today, each of you received a little palm cross like the one I showed the children today. You have a decision: will you allow yourself to be bathed in adoration beyond all sensibility; will you do what brings glory to yourself, or what makes you more popular; will you back up the dishonest actions of friends when others are hurt by them? Or instead, are you loyal to Jesus Christ; as a Christian, as a disciple of Jesus Christ? Will you be one who does what is right and so receive an eternal crown of life? Jesus could have accepted the cheers; instead he paid the ransom to set your soul and my soul free from sin and death. Jesus is a king; but not a worldly one. Let us pray:
Dear Lord Jesus: we are amazed and humbled at all the glitter and gold you were offered and yet you said “no.” Saying “no” to your tempters said “yes” to us: you stayed true to Heaven’s plan for earthly reasons. So today we praise you, not for your procession, but for your determination to surprise us with the method of our salvation. Thank you, O Jesus, as we think about you this day, and this entire dreadful week ahead. We love you.
Jeffrey A. Sumner March 29, 2015