(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on March 29, 2015)
For those of you who’ve given up chocolate, or coffee, or Diet Coke for Lent…your long suffering is almost at an end!
Today is Palm Sunday, when we remember the celebration as Jesus entered Jerusalem, before being killed on what we now call Good Friday. Next Sunday, we celebrate Easter, the resurrection-the ending of Lent, and the beginning of new life for all of us.
Palm Sunday is doubly ironic…ironic first, in that the very crowds shouting “Hosanna!” and honoring Jesus as King will be calling for his death before the week is out. And ironic second, because although the crowd celebrated for the wrong reason, the truth is Jesus should be celebrated and honored by all!
How does our theme through Lent, this theme of suffering and sacrifice, this theme of taking up the cross…how does it fit with Palm Sunday? That’s the journey we will explore today. We’ll begin by looking at Isaiah 50, before moving to Matthew’s account of Palm Sunday.
Isaiah 50:4-9 is in many ways a perfect expression of what it looks like to live the theme of suffering and sacrifice. Over the years, many people see Jesus as the one who perfectly lived this out. There are some who see it applying first to a person in the period of Israel’s exile and return, perhaps someone like Zerubbabel, a descendant of Judah’s last king in David’s line.
Without a doubt, it describes the life we have been holding up as a model for our lives through this season of Lent. Isaiah 50:4-9 describes someone who listens to and obeys God, who holds firm to that path even through suffering and attack, and all with an unshakeable confidence in God’s ultimate redemption and vindication. Turn with me to Isaiah 50, and let’s read and examine these words.
The Sovereign LORD has given me an instructed tongue,
to know the word that sustains the weary.
He wakens me morning by morning,
wakens my ear to listen like one being taught.
The Sovereign LORD has opened my ears;
I have not been rebellious,
I have not turned away. (Isaiah 50:4-5, TNIV)
This life of following God, this life of discipleship to Jesus, begins with seeking God and committing to obey.
I love the dependence here: “The Sovereign Lord has opened my ears.” The key is a desire to listen and obey. God honors that desire! God wakens us morning by morning, God opens our ears.
Are you looking for a place to begin or to start fresh in your life with God? Step one is making a commitment to listen and obey, to say, “God, this is the life I want, a life where you teach and I listen and obey. Help me with that!”
We don’t have to begin with huge leaps of faith, or with gigantic sacrifices. It begins with a commitment to listen and obey. That’s why the second line of our vision statement as a church is “listening to Christ.” We want to have that commitment front and center. We trust and believe and teach that God still today does what is described here in Isaiah: God gives our tongues words to speak, wakens us day after day with direction, and opens our ears to hear God’s teaching.
It’s God’s job to change and equip us. That’s what we see here in Isaiah 50, and that’s what’s celebrated in the third line of our vision statement, “changing in the Spirit”. We believe God transforms us!
I offered my back to those who beat me,
my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard;
I did not hide my face
from mocking and spitting. (Isaiah 50:6, TNIV)
“I have not been rebellious. I have not turned away. I offered my back to those who beat me…”
Here is where the sacrifice and suffering and the cross come. Not as the end goal. Not as the thing we seek out. As God speaks, we obey…and in our actions and will to obey, we are willing to endure whatever suffering and attack may come.
Our obedience may at times be like Christ’s journey of obedience. It may be costly and painful. Our part is to be willing to put up with anything, as we make obedience our primary goal.
Because the Sovereign LORD helps me,
I will not be disgraced.
Therefore have I set my face like flint,
and I know I will not be put to shame.
He who vindicates me is near.
Who then will bring charges against me?
Let us face each other!
Who are my accusers?
Let them confront me!
It is the Sovereign LORD who helps me.
Who will condemn me. (Isaiah 50:7-9a, TNIV)
This actually is what I have been looking forward to all through Lent!
I need the hope and determination that are expressed here. I need the hope and determination and courage that I see Jesus demonstrate in the journey to the cross.
There is a total trust that God will help. Total trust that whatever suffering or mocking or struggle occurs as we obey…it isn’t the end of the story. “I have set my face like flint…” I love that! I picture a strong close up at a pivotal point in the movie, a tear-streaked and bloody face, but with eyes of confidence and determination. “…and I know I will not be put to shame.”
Confidence! Confidence that God is faithful, that God won’t abandon. Bring it! Bring the accusers, bring the mockers, do whatever you want. Bring it! I will walk the path. I will be obedient. And God will not let me down!
I’ve had this at times in my life.
It is one of the safest feelings in the world, the utter confidence that you have heard from God, and you know the path before you, and you will follow it no matter what obstacles come, with absolute trust that God will see you through. I’ve thought of several examples, but the simple one I want to share is from 8 years ago.
Josh Reid was leading a trip to India to explore ministries we at Newberg Friends might partner with. As I thought and prayed about it, I knew I wanted to go. And, much to my surprise and I think to the surprise of many others, I was sure that our ten year old daughter Hayley was supposed to go with us.
I had people look at me funny after she said yes and we all planned to go. I had people question our wisdom taking someone that young. Elaine and I were nervous, Hayley was nervous, because at that time of her life Hayley had many fears, fears that she would have to face to go on a trip overseas.
But I was confident it was obedience. Somehow, she was sure too. That trip was a turning point for her in facing fear. It was a turning point in her learning to hear from God. At one point on the trip when our group was pretty divided, she was the one who spoke the word that helped our group move forward. The step of obedience was a turning point that affects her right now at this very minute, as she is living in India as an exchange student for this, her senior year in high school. For us, the obedience long ago has led to some pain of separation this year.
But we’ve gone far enough to see God’s work in this, to see God’s vindication. And this year’s exchange, as well as the next steps for Hayley, are more opportunities to look for God’s continued direction, to follow in obedience, and to trust how God will lead through many obstacles that we see.
This is the good news part of the hard message of sacrifice!
Our life of discipleship is based on the trust that God “who vindicates me is near”! The obstacles and struggles and ridicule we can face on our path of obedience are not enough to stop God’s power. Not even death could stop God’s resurrection power!
Lent asks us to be willing to face any suffering, and still stay on the path of obedience. May we follow the example of Jesus and “set our faces like flint”…be determined, courageous and confident as we obey!
Palm Sunday, though, brings another test. Turn with me to Matthew 21.
The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,
‘Hosanna to the Son of David!’
‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’
‘Hosanna in the highest heaven!’ (Matthew 21:6-9, TNIV)
Jesus has taken the difficult path. He’s been obedient to follow God’s leading to Jerusalem, the center of power, the power center of those who are opposed to his mission. He’s gone directly to the place where those who want to kill him are in control. He’s living the courage and confidence of Isaiah 50, ready for any struggle and beatings that may come.
But what’s this? The crowds welcome him as king! As Messiah! He’s popular! Can Jesus stay true to obedience when everything is going well?
This is Jesus living out in real life the temptation that he faced in the wilderness before his public ministry began. The devil tried to tempt him with a deal–jump from the temple, let God’s power save you, and then all the people will believe in you! You can have the power of the crowd!
And now, Jesus HAS the power of the crowd, in real life. Rather than the persecution everyone was expecting, he has influence and power and accolades.
In some ways, this is a more difficult test.
Think of examples of power and accolades destroying a life of obedience. Think of people you know who have been changed by success, by wealth, by power.
Once you have the power of people, it’s difficult to do anything to risk it. But this life of radical obedience requires us to risk even influence and power. Obedience must come first, and Jesus passes the test.
Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. ‘It is written,’ he said to them, ” My house will be called a house of prayer, ‘ but you are making it’ a den of robbers. ” (Matthew 21:12-13, TNIV)
Jesus places God’s values higher than the value of keeping those in power on his side.
He goes right after the power brokers. His actions provoke, rather than woo, the ones who can destroy him. His actions here are not just spiritual, not just about making worship activities correct. Jesus is making an economic statement and a justice statement, wiping away a very lucrative business for many of the religious leaders and stopping the way they were taking advantage of the poor and those from far away.
If he would have consulted a polling guru, this wouldn’t have polled well. If he were trying to build political coalitions, if he were determined to keep the fickle crowd on his side, this would not have been the way to go. No, this immediate step to turn tables and make things right shows that Jesus is fiercely committed to obedience to God’s way, no matter what the cost.
How about us?
When does power, or position, or the rush of popularity change or shift our focus on obedience?
I remember reading that Quakers held many political positions in the original American Colonies in the years right before the Declaration of Independence. As more and more people began calling for independence and the signs became clearer and clearer that the Revolutionary War was coming, Quakers had a dilemma.
Those early generations of Quakers were deeply committed to the belief that Jesus took away the reason for all war. Jesus was the reconciler, and his teaching to love our enemies was one that Quakers interpreted to mean that war was incompatible with following Christ.
What do you do if you have political power, you have the position of representing the people, and your position is not at all popular? In those decades before the Revolutionary War began, Quakers resigned en masse from their governmental positions, believing that they could not both faithfully represent the people they were to serve, and at the same time be faithful to following Christ.
I have never studied that carefully, but I remember thinking at times in the past: “Why did they do that? Couldn’t they have done more good by staying in government and advocating for peaceful solutions?” But this week, in thinking about Palm Sunday, I had a different thought. How rare it is that people are willing to not be swayed by political power and popularity. How often we see people changing when they experience power and popularity, shifting their efforts to maintain power, because they can’t give it up.
Maybe those early Quakers had it right.
Maybe they were following the example of Jesus, who so fixed his eyes and mind on obedience, that neither suffering nor success could turn him from it.
May we follow Christ’s example! In our time of open worship, invite God to make you aware of your temptation to let go of obedience to God right now. Is your struggle in being willing to suffer, to take up the cross? Or is your struggle the Palm Sunday struggle…to not be distracted from the path of obedience by a desire to maintain position or power or the cheering of the crowds?