(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on April 9, 2017)
We all have good days, and we all have bad days.
Sometimes what looks like a good day on the outside, by the circumstances, by what people see…sometimes what looks like a good day is more difficult than might be imagined unless you get the inside story.
Today is Palm Sunday, the day we remember Jesus entering Jerusalem and getting the first century version of a ticker tape parade. It looks like a very good day! The crowds wave palm branches, they spread their cloaks on the road to make it sort of like a red carpet entrance, as they shout words of blessing and praise from Psalm 118.
But Jesus knew, even as he rode in on a donkey as the man of the hour…Jesus knew there was great difficulty coming. He had announced to his best friends what was ahead of him just a little before this grand entrance, on his way up to Jerusalem, the city on the hill. Turn with me to Mark 10:32.
They were on their way up to Jerusalem, with Jesus leading the way, and the disciples were astonished, while those who followed were afraid. Again he took the Twelve aside and told them what was going to happen to him. ‘We are going up to Jerusalem,’ he said, ‘and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.’ (Mark 10:32-34, TNIV)
Jesus knew what was coming.
And he went anyway. It’s the kind of person I want to be. I want to be obedient to what God has asked of me. I want to hold to God’s call even when positive things like a Palm Sunday type crowd want to sway me in a different direction. I want to hold to God’s call when things get difficult.
Because that’s what it means to follow Jesus. It’s not ultimately about getting your best life now, as one best selling book describes the Christian faith. It’s not ultimately about beliefs or practices or activities or growing a church. Ultimately, what Jesus asks of us is to follow him in obedience no matter if that gets us a Palm Sunday crowd or a cross on Golgotha.
If you push back a little earlier in Mark chapter 10, Jesus makes the cost of following him very clear. He’s responding to someone who asks him how to gain eternal life: [10:21] “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
The man he’s talking to, as well as all the disciples, are crushed by this news. “Who then can be saved?” his friends ask. Who could possibly have that level of determined obedience that won’t be swayed or distracted by people or things? Jesus gives his answer in verse 27: “With human beings this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”
Whether it’s Palm Sunday or Good Friday for you and me, or anywhere in between…it is God’s call and God’s equipping that direct us and give us strength.
This has always been the difficult way of faith; to respond to God’s call and find God at work in us, faithfully equipping us.
In the book of Hebrews, we read a roll call of some of the most faithful people in Israel’s history. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph…Moses, Rahab, Gideon, David, Samuel. Turn with me to Hebrews 11, verse 36.
Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated– the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. (Hebrews 11:36-38, TNIV)
These are famous examples of people who prove that God does make things possible that seem IMpossible to us. And the letter to these Hebrew Christians, these Jews who knew both the famous saints of Israel as well as Jesus Christ…the letter to the Hebrews points us to our way forward.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. (Hebrews 12:1-3, TNIV)
These words are a reminder to me that it isn’t only gritted teeth and resignation to suffering that is the way of faith. Look at those words! Look at the reminder! “For the joy set before him.”
Joy! The joy of mind-blowing redemption, the joy of resurrection when everything you hoped has literally died. Joy!
I’ll be the first one to admit that “joy” is not the first word in my mind when I think about this season for our church. And I think that’s exactly why I was drawn to this text for us today. I will fix my eyes on Jesus. We can fix our eyes on Jesus, the one who knew what was ahead of him even before he got the temporary royal welcome in Jerusalem.
We can fix our eyes on Jesus, the one who, “for the joy set before him…endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
Not happiness, not pleasure necessarily. Happiness can come from things. Pleasure can come from experiences. But joy is something that comes from God! Joy is the utter contentment and fulfillment that things are made right. Jesus, in facing both the cheers and the jeers of Jerusalem in the last week of his earthly life, Jesus had in his mind the joy that he believed God would bring…the joy which God DID bring.
When we find ourselves overwhelmed, either by praising voices that seem to distract us from God’s call, or by attacking voices that cause us to doubt…when we find ourselves overwhelmed, we fix our eyes on Jesus. Jesus kept his eye on the joy that God would bring as Jesus followed the path of obedience. The joy of resurrection, of redemption, of remaking, of safety in God’s presence.
“Consider him,” Hebrews says, “who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”
This is what we need!
We need strength from our God, who can do what is impossible in human eyes. We need endurance like Jesus, who could keep God’s plan in focus whether crowds cheered or jeered.
But maybe what we need most…ok, maybe what I need most…is the reminder of joy. Jesus has shown us that there is life after death; there is sitting in God’s presence after the via dolorosa, the way of the cross. There is eternity in the loving presence of God, as our connection to Jesus Christ ushers us into the same love relationship with God that the three persons of the trinity have experienced from before time began!
It’s not just suffering. It’s not just the slog. There is joy from God to come! Whether people distract, cheer, or attack.
When we fix our eyes on Jesus, we are reminded that there is another, more important audience than a cheering or jeering crowd of people. We run toward Jesus, scorning opposition and shame thrown at us, because we anticipate a deeper joy to come. There is God’s welcoming, saving, strengthening and loving presence.
God’s presence is the goal AND the means to get there. Jesus is simply God’s very presence in human form, joining our world and pioneering the way for us. God’s presence is with us right now through the Holy Spirit. For the joy set before us, we will fix our eyes on Jesus in hope.
In this disagreement in our church right now, how will we live in obedience? How will God’s presence and power show through us?
What we want to see evident in us and to the world truly is God’s redemptive work, rather than our own wisdom.
As I get closer to the end of June and the end of my time as pastor here at NFC, I find myself looking back to the beginning of my time here. It doesn’t take much to do get me to look back-my family will tell you I’m a nostalgic person. In fact, I feel like Facebook’s memories, those reminders that show you what you did on the same day in previous years…it’s like it was made for nostalgic me!
Ten years ago on Palm Sunday, I said this:
“Somehow, in the mystery and the love of God, Jesus’ death and resurrection make a new way of living possible, a kind of living for you and me where God’s Spirit truly lives in us.
But the new life comes after a death. The miracle of rebirth comes after the bones. The power of God comes not on the celebration of Palm Sunday, but after the obedience of Good Friday.”
The joy set before us is that God’s treasure is what lasts, what remains. God’s power is not defeated by our own failure, by brokenness, by pain and suffering. God will be active, and God will be visible…sometimes because of our actions, and sometimes in spite of our actions. This is the joy set before us; God’s power is not overwhelmed by our failures.
If there is one thing I am responsible to do as a pastor, it is to remind us all, myself included, of this: Joy is coming! And following Jesus is the only way to get there.
Following Jesus can be hard. It means not being distracted by the people who shout praise in our direction, or being deterred by people who want to crush us. Yet the joy and power that sustained Jesus and brought him to the right hand of the throne of God, that very same joy and power is the presence of God’s Holy Spirit that is available to you and to me.
That doesn’t make the suffering right. It’s not a “blessing” of our failure. No, it’s simply a reminder that it is God, not us, who does the impossible. It is God, not us, who brings rebirth and resurrection. It is God in whom we place our trust to bring joy.
Joy is coming! Because God is a redeeming God. God cannot be stopped by human mess-ups. Human arrogance crucified Jesus, but even death could not stop our God who resurrects!
Joy is leaking through the sorrowful fabric of this universe because of the faithfulness of Jesus!
Joy is set before you and me as our hope to endure and not lose heart as we strive to live in faithfulness to God.
Even on Palm Sunday, even in the suffering of Holy Week, we live today after God’s definitive act in the cosmos. We live now as the followers of a resurrected Lord. God’s joy is set before us, it is woven in and around us, shining through our faults and failures and flaws like cracks in jars of clay.
It’s our reminder that no matter what the circumstances, we can actually celebrate and worship with greater exuberance than that first century palm-waving crowd. For the joy set before us! For the joy that is coming! For the joy that Christ made possible by his faithful endurance.
May we fix our eyes on Jesus.
May we follow his example, and set our eyes on the joy God sets before us, the joy God brings, the redemption God works over and over again in the face of our failures as individuals and as the church.
Today for open worship, we invite you to speak out your praise to God. To celebrate the joy set before us. To honor the God who does what is impossible in our eyes. On this Palm Sunday, may we offer true expressions of praise as our worship.