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.

Sandy Hook Revisited

It’s hard to believe that three years have passed since Adam Lanza gunned down 20 elementary school children, 6 of their teachers, and his mother. Even harder to fathom is that, three years on, the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School no longer stands as an anomaly of recent history. Since that frightful December day in 2012, the frequency of mass shootings in America has pulled the term “active shooter” from the police scanner into the vernacular, and guns have claimed the lives of some 555 American children.

On Christmas Eve 2012, I published a prayer for Newtown, along with a few reflections. I am re-posting them tonight as a tribute to the memory of the fallen and the grief of the living, and an appeal for faith-filled action in the wake of our prayers. The next three years do not have to repeat the last three years.

Adam Lanza did more than shoot a class of innocent, defenseless first graders. He left a .223 caliber exit wound in the collective consciousness of America.

Part of the sting comes from wanting to do something but not knowing what to do. Some are campaigning for gun control. Others are advocating for more and better mental health care. Still others are sending gifts to Newtown. I recently read that well-wishers from all over the world have flooded this community of 28,000 people has with 60,000 teddy bears. I applaud theses efforts, but none of them will ever be enough – for those giving or those receiving.

What I know to do is pray. At least, that’s the only place I know to begin. Following Christ is not a stationary (and never a sedentary!) activity, even when we are still, seeking to know that the Lord is God. If what we call prayer is more than wishful thinking, it must always draw us up off our knees – either to acts of ministry or to stand ready with straighter posture and sharper vision. Prayer moves us. I do not yet know how to move, exactly; but I continue to pray so that I might continue to be ready.

And so for what it’s worth, I’d like to offer these prayers for Newtown on this Christmas Eve. They were first offered on Sunday, December 16, prior to our church Christmas play. They continue to be prayed – for the victims and for us all, that we may heal and learn to wrestle with the questions surrounding this tragedy without forcing answers:

Lord, today as the candles of Advent glow in our midst, a thick cloud hangs over our hearts. We are struggling to comprehend the slaughter of the innocents that took place in Newtown, Connecticut. Such violence. Such grief. Such pain. We turn to you, O Lord: our Rock, our Redeemer; our Shepherd, our Savior, our Sustainer. We turn to you for comfort, for strength, for relief… for we are weary and heavy laden. Hear our prayers and help us to pray. Create in us clean hearts; renew our spirits, and transform our minds. And as we pray, remind us who we are and whose we are in this holy season of Advent.

As a people blessed to mourn, let us pray for the community of Newtown and all who are grieved – around the country and around the world – by what has happened there. May we be comforted.

As a people called to weep with those who weep, let us pray for the victims of the Newtown tragedy and their loved ones, for whom this Advent must seem devoid of anything resembling hope, peace, joy, or love.

As a people called to pray for our enemies and those who persecute us, let us pray – as hard as it may be – for the gunman, Adam Lanza, and those who loved him.

As a people called to go the extra mile, let us pray a special prayer for Adam’s brother, Ryan, who has not only lost his brother and his mother just before Christmas but who must live with the anguish of knowing that his brother killed his mother before shooting 26 other people – most of them children.

As a people called to make disciples of all nations, let us pray that the hope, peace, joy, and love of this Advent season will not be lost in the wake of this tragedy. Let us be inspired to continue celebrating the promise of Christmas. Let us be inspired to continue singing with the angels – not to deny the deep darkness of these days, but to proclaim that in the darkness there is a light that shines; that the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; and the great light that shines is a light that darkness does not – and cannot – overcome.

Finally, as a people blessed to hunger and thirst for righteousness, let us pray together the prayer our Lord taught us to pray, saying: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory forever. Amen.

Amen.

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