Hitting the Road

A version of this sermon was preached on March 20, 2016 (Palm Sunday) at the First Baptist Church of Hyattsville. The Scripture readings were Psalm 118.1-2, 19-29 and Luke 19.28-40.

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Last September, Kristen and I took the girls to Colonial Williamsburg. They were studying the American Revolution in school, and we wanted them to see one of the main stages on which that history unfolded. Plus, there would be horses – so even if Mary and Emma were completely underwhelmed by the history of the place, we couldn’t really go wrong.

We drove down on a Saturday morning to meet friends we hadn’t seen in awhile, and see the sights. The College of William and Mary was playing a home game, so the roads were crowded. Green and gold flags fluttered on passing cars and you could smell the first traces of Fall in the breeze.

Bruce Springsteen wafted through the open window of a pickup truck. I am pretty sure it was “Dancing in the Dark.” I know it was Springsteen, though, because I remember thinking the tune was both apropos and ironic: one American icon being played on the streets of another, both espousing the spirit of our nation – but telling very different stories.

We walked down the Main Street, peaked in the shops, ran on the green; put the girls in the stocks; bought food and souvenirs and pack of AA batteries. We snapped pictures and, yes, petted every horse between the parking deck and the capitol building. And everyone around us was doing pretty much the same – milling about at their own pace, seeing what they wanted to see as it suited their fancy.

Until 1:00 p.m. At one o’clock, the streets cleared, and the sidewalks filled up. Everyone could hear the rumble in the distance and we half walked, half jogged down the sidewalk to find a good spot. The fife band was coming and everyone wanted to see them march.

Their flutes and drums filled the air with 18th century patriotic music. You heard them whether you wanted to or not. Even some of the costumed workers, who must have seen this spectacle dozens if not hundreds of times, stepped out of their shops to catch a glimpse of the parade.

Steadily and in perfect time to the beat, they made their way from the capitol toward the palace green. A few tourists kept pace with them as they went but many, like us, stood still and watched them go, following them with our eyes and our iPhones rather than our feet. Then, as quickly as they had come, they had gone – and we ambled back into the street to resume our strolling and browsing. Like the sea absorbing the wake of a passing ship, there was soon little evidence that they had passed through – other than the distant echo of their drums.

I imagine a similar scene must have unfolded just outside Jerusalem as Jesus made His way into the city – though the home team wasn’t just playing any game that week. Passover was coming, and the streets of Jerusalem would have been teaming with pilgrims from all over Mediterranean and the Near East, along with military reinforcements from Rome sent to keep order in a city swelling both with people and nationalist zeal.

Many travelers would have been welcomed as they entered Jerusalem. According to some rabbinical writings, priests read the words from Psalm 118 as a blessing over the caravans of pilgrims as the passed through the gates of the city in advance of the major festivals of the Jewish calendar.

But then, just prior to this one particular Passover celebration, this one particular pilgrim and His disciples arrive. And their caravan is different.

People have heard of this Jesus: His teachings, His healings, His deeds of power. And they flock to see Him. In Luke’s telling, a crowd of disciples begins shouting – but they aren’t shouting, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” They are proclaiming, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.”

As they make their way, people begin  cutting branches from the trees and waving them in celebration. Others spread their cloaks on the ground in front of Him. Yet, this king is riding on the humble colt of a donkey rather than a noble horse.

Something interesting is going on here. And it must have been quite a spectacle indeed.

The religious authorities are quite put out by what they are seeing, and hearing. To the Pharisees’ eyes and ears, the behavior of Jesus’ disciples is blasphemous, not to mention vulgar. We might wonder if the patrolling soldiers heard chants that bordered on the treasonous. And so a group of Pharisees decide to say something. They tell Jesus to tell these people to pipe down, be quiet. Be more respectful of the occasion for which you are making your pilgrimage

But Jesus is having none of it. Not only does He tell them He will say no such thing, He declares it wouldn’t do any good even if He did. “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out” (v. 40). So, as He makes His way into Jerusalem, Jesus and His followers are already turning Passover on its head. And the Pharisees ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

But as we sit here today, and recall this story; as we hear Jesus’ words of reproach to those stuffy, mean ol’ Pharisees we shouldn’t be too quick to wave our palm branches in their face.

Because, just like a Bruce Springsteen song, the upbeat rhythms and melodies of Palm Sunday carry a lament for an uncomfortable reality. If we’re not careful, we can get so caught up in the tune that the beat masks the message.

Christ isn’t coming to Jerusalem just to silence the Pharisees. He isn’t coming as a conqueror already victorious. He’s coming to die: to be crucified on orders of an imperial magistrate, based on the recommendations of a kangaroo court, convened to preserve the status quo under the guise of upholding the law.

And Jesus is coming to die on that cross because Pharisees and Roman magistrates are hardly the only ones who have gone astray, who have missed the mark; who don’t get what’s going on, who don’t understand what all this spectacle is really about. The people chanting psalms and waving palms all around Jesus don’t fully understand, either – and neither do we. Not really. Not if we’re honest. And to a degree, we can’t understand – no matter how hard we try. Because what God is up to defies all earthly understanding and precedent. Luke says as much, albeit subtly.

Embedded within the words the disciples are chanting is an allusion to the song sung by the angel choir over the fields of Bethlehem at Jesus’ birth: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will toward men” (Luke 2.14).

Here the chorus is similar – but notice earth no longer figures into the equation. “Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” (Luke 19.38)

Christmas is about heaven and earth colliding, as God came to Bethlehem in the person of Jesus Christ. But on Palm Sunday, heading toward Good Friday and onward to Easter, earth is being caught up fully in the arms heaven. There is no earthly reference point for what God in Christ has arrived in Jerusalem to accomplish.

And regrettably, whenever God does something new, God’s people tend to miss it, either because we fail to see or refuse to see. Sometimes  we even actively resist it, along with those whom God sends to speak and act in God’s name.

And so, immediately after Jesus rebuts the Pharisees, He weeps over Jerusalem. He weeps over the entire city, not just the religious establishment or their political overlords.

41 As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, 42 saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes (Luke 19.41).

No doubt He is weeping over us, too, as we sing our Hosannas and wave our palm branches. Because just like the disciples of long ago, who came out to celebrate Jesus when He rode into Jerusalem, too many of us will simply return to our strolling and browsing after He passes through.

But if we are disciples, that’s not why we should come out and the side of the road isn’t where we should stand. Even if we do not and cannot fully understand, just like Peter and Andrew and James and John before us, we can follow.  That’s what Jesus calls us to do: follow Him. And to follow, we have to hit the road with Him, walking where He walks and going where He goes.

And Jesus is going all the way to Golgotha – not just to the Cross, but through it. That’s where we have to go, too, denying ourselves and taking up our own crosses with the willingness to lose our lives for the sake of the gospel (Mark 8.34-35).

That’s why Palm Sunday isn’t (or shouldn’t be) a stand alone observance. It’s only the beginning of something bigger, deeper, and more profound. It’s the beginning of a journey – the journey that will transform us into new creations in Christ. And we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

So, as Jesus passes by in front of us, let’s not stand still, looking on proudly and snapping a picture or two.  Let’s join the parade. Let’s hit the road with Jesus. Let’s follow Him this Holy Week all the way  to the Cross, and even through the Cross. Because that is why Jesus rides into Jerusalem today: that we might share in His death, so that we might share in His divine, abundant, and eternal life.

Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord. Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!

Amen.

Making Peace

A version of this sermon was preached at the First Baptist Church of Hyattsville on Sunday, December 6, 2015.  The Scripture texts were Malachi 3.1-4 and Luke 1.67-79.  Accompanying the biblical texts was a reading of Langston Hughes’ 1930 poem, “Merry Christmas.”

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As December begins, and our thoughts turn earnestly toward Christmas, this is how we like to think of Jesus.

nativity stained glass

But sadly, in too much of the world, too many people are seeing Jesus the way these Egyptian women see Jesus in the photograph below: splattered and stained just like everyone and everything else, covered in the violence that has become all too common – so common, in fact, that some commentators have begun referring to it as “the new normal.”

Egyptian Christians touch a blood-splattered image of Jesus Christ, inside the Coptic Orthodox church in Alexandria, January 2, 2011. A bomb killed at least 21 people outside the church early on New Year's Day and the Interior Ministry said a foreign-backed suicide bomber may have been responsible. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh (EGYPT - Tags: CIVIL UNREST RELIGION IMAGES OF THE DAY)

This photograph was taken in Egypt a few years ago, but it easily could have been taken in America a few days ago. We no longer have to look overseas to grieve senseless acts of violence or contemplate the theological questions associated with them. 2015 is the year in which the phrase “active shooter” entered our vocabulary, and this is the context in which we come to church on this second Sunday of Advent to light the Candle of Peace.

This context is why we need to hear Langston Hughes’ ironically titled poem, “Merry Christmas,” alongside “Silver Bells,” “White Christmas,” “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire,” and the other seasonal standards this year. It’s challenging to hear, I know. You might have even found it offensive. But that’s precisely why we need to hear it. These challenging words from a poet of the Harlem Renaissance call us closer to what the gospel story of Christmas has to say to us.

Now, you may be thinking to yourself: hang on a second, preacher. Angels and shepherds and a star and a manger – this is the gospel story of Christmas. That’s what we read about in the Bible. That’s what Linus tells Charlie Brown Christmas is all about. And you’d be right – it is. But it’s not all we read about in Luke, much less the Bible.

Linus begins his story with Luke 2. However, as the people of Jesus, we have to begin with Luke 1. And Luke 1 doesn’t begin the story of Christmas with angels or shepherds or stars or mangers. Luke doesn’t even begin with Jesus. Luke 1 begins with John the Baptist. The presence of John the Baptist is how you know you’re dealing with the full gospel version of Christmas, because John the Baptist is the context for the angels and the shepherds and the star and the manger.

Funny how you never see a John the Baptist lawn ornament, now, isn’t it?

Actually, the lack of inflatable, light-up John the Baptists is completely understandable because the truth is we don’t like to start with him, either. Not only is John the Baptist a freaky dude who walks around wearing camel’s skin and snacking on locusts, he’s a freaky dude who comes, in the words of Malachi, to prepare the way of the Lord – which means he comes like a refiner’s fire, like fuller’s soap – to proclaim the need for cleansing and purifying as he goes. He comes to preach repentance. And he comes to Judea – to God’s people. He’s not strolling the streets of Rome, or Damascus, or Baghdad. He’s not coming to get in the face of “those people.” He’s coming to get into our face – in much the same way Langston Hughes gets in our face, pointing out things we don’t want to hear, much less see.

One of the most uncomfortable aspects of this poem is that, even though it was first published 85 years ago, it hardly reads like a relic of the past. Too much of this of this poem is all too familiar, because this is hardly the first year in America we’ve lit the Candle of Peace in the shadow of violence and terror – and not only violence done to us, but violence done by us. That’s the uncomfortable truth Langston Hughes is pointing out – the same kind of truth John the Baptist comes to point out – because that’s the kind of truth we have to confront if we are to repent.

It’s the kind of truth we’ll hear from Jesus, too.

So, if this poem offends you, or makes you squirm, and you don’t want to squirm or be offended, then I suggest you stick with “the holly jolly” commercial version of Christmas – because if Langston Hughes ruffles your feathers, then John the Baptist is liable to make ‘em fall out completely. In fact, you might want to consider heading over to the mall next Sunday morning, because we’re going to be reading more about J.B. next week, too. (FYI – The Mall at Prince George’s Plaza opens at 8:00 a.m., and I promise they’ll go out of their way not to offend you).  Just know that if you decide to come to church, and if you look deep into the full gospel version of Christmas within the pages of Scripture, and if truly have ears to hear and you hear, then chances are you’ll be offended. And you’ll be offended because God’s in the business of being offensive.

It was offensive for God to lower a sheet filled with unclean animals before Peter – animals he had never touched in his entire life – and say, “Kill and eat.”

It was offensive for the Spirit to tell Phillip to get in the carriage with the Ethiopian eunuch, an unclean Gentile of the first order.

It was offensive for the prophets of old to declare to the tribes and kings of Israel how the smell of their burnt offerings turned God’s stomach.

It was offensive for Jesus to tell the rich young ruler to give away all that he had.

It was offensive when Jesus to tell Martha, you know what, it’s okay that Mary is taking a break from her chores to sit and listen. In fact, she’s made a better choice than you have.

It was offensive when Jesus told the Pharisees it’s was okay to pick grain on the Sabbath because the Sabbath was created for people, people weren’t created for the Sabbath.

It was offensive when Jesus, the King of kings, the long-expected Messiah, deigned to wash His disciples’ feet – and to declare that they had no share in Him if they refused.

It was offensive when this same Messiah secured our salvation by being crucified like runaway slave. That’s why Paul declares that Christ crucified is a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.

The gospel is offensive, plain and simple. It has to be offensive if it’s to do us any good. Offending our sensibilities for the sake of grace, defying decorum in the interest of justice – this is how God reminds us that He is God and we are NOT. It’s how God in Christ points out to us those jagged, cumbersome, unsightly logs that jut out of our own eyes when what we’d rather do is obsess over the speck we notice in our neighbor’s eye. Being offensive is how God confronts us in order to transform us. It’s the only way, really, that He can heal the world – by forcing us to acknowledge our wounds, as well as the wounds we inflict on others.

In fact, acknowledging those wounds is the only way we can light the Candle of Peace with any integrity today. For, if we fail to acknowledge our wounding and our woundedness, then we light this candle as false prophets – declaring peace, peace where there is no peace.

But if we approach the Advent Wreath, if we look toward the manger, with contrite and repentant hearts, then it becomes a powerful symbol indeed.  If we approach the Advent Wreath with contrite and repentant hearts, then  we light this Candle of Peace not in delusional ignorance of the violence and the division and the injustice of the world but in defiance of it.

With contrite and repentant hearts, we light this candle as people ready to shoulder our crosses and follow where Jesus will lead.

With contrite and repentant hearts, we light this candle as people who remember that when Jesus scandalously got down on His hands and knees to wash His disciples’ feet, He set an example for us. And when we remember the example Jesus has set for us, we position ourselves to proclaim that Jesus really is “the reason for the season” in ways that don’t ring hollow in the ears of observant people like Langston Hughes, who see the world plainly and who aren’t fooled by window dressing.

Proclaiming Jesus with integrity is what we must do, because the world needs what the full gospel version of Christmas has to offer.  The world needs to see and experience the glory of this holy season, to know that in Christ God is coming to His temple. Heaven is coming to earth. God is coming to walk in our shoes and live in our flesh, because God is willing to be splattered and stained by all the muck and the mire, the blood and the gore that the machines of worldly power spew out. He’s willing to wade directly into the cycles of violence that wreack havoc on our bodies and our souls and in our communities so that all of creation might yet be redeemed. And if we are His people, then Jesus calls us to wade right in there with Him, to be instruments and agents of His peace – the peace that surpasses all understanding, because it won’t let us settle for the false comfort of social conventions, preconceived notions, and self-righteous piety.

Joining Christ in that work is how God will ultimately “guide our feet into the way of peace,”  because peace is more than a feature of life.  It is a way of life.  Peace is a work to be fashioned rather than a present to be received.  Blessed are the peacemakers, Jesus said, not blessed are the peaceful.

So, in the interest of “the way of peace,” let me leave you today with some provocative, if not offensive, questions:

What would the world look like if we, the people of Jesus, recruited for peace with the same intensity that ISIS recruits for terror?

What would the world look like if we, the people of Jesus, prepared for ministry with the purpose and intentionality of the “active shooters” who prepare so meticulously for their heinous acts of violence?

What would the world look like if we, the people of Jesus, waged peace as earnestly and systematically as the world’s armies wage war?

I think we would find it to be a world in which Christmas, and all the seasons before and all the seasons after, would be very merry indeed.

May we have faith and courage to shoulder our crosses and follow Jesus into the way of peace.  Amen.

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