Monday, March 29, 2010

The King: The Rule of Laughter and Tears

Preached Palm Sunday, March 28

Scripture Readings: Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29; Matthew 21:1-11 (22-27)

The hills of Judea, where Jerusalem stands, rise more than 2,000 feet above sea level, and perhaps the wild grasses were still green on that spring Passover long ago. Some time in the spring, the groves that cover the Mount of Olives bloomed with their small white flowers among the thick green leaves that never fall. Their sweetness is almost overwhelming.

Jesus and his disciples came from the east, up from Jericho, and there was a good, stone, Roman road that would have taken them to Jerusalem. But the villages of Bethany and Bethphage were south of the Roman road. So we don’t know the exact route they took to the crest of the Mount of Olives; or from the Mount into the City.

On the crest, where they looked across the Kidron Valley to the Holy City, they stood more than 200 feet higher than the Temple Mount that rose opposite them. The parapet or cornice at the top of the outer walls that surrounded the Temple rose 400 feet above the floor of the Kidron, but they were still high enough to see over the top of those walls. They could see the worshippers in the courtyards beyond.

The pale, stone-built city stretched before them like the angled facets of the white crown of the top of a giant molar. The city rippled up to the western wall, at the far end of the molar, where the shapely towers of Herod’s palace gleamed, white in the sun.

Nearest them in the city, the Temple also rose like a mountain of marble and gold within its courtyards. The white smoke of incense and the dark smoke of sacrifice surrounded the holy mountain like a veil.

They would plunge down the big stone road, or the little dirt road, down the steep slope through the sweet olives. Stone fences and palm trees lined the way.

The groves sheltered vast huddles of tents. Hundreds of thousands (perhaps more than a million) people came from all over the world to share the feast of Passover in Jerusalem. Every spare room of the city, and every square yard of it (and the fields around it), was rented to strangers; or reserved for family and friends for the holy days.

Jesus and his disciples were being followed by their own families, friends, neighbors, and the other followers of Jesus. They had all walked together from the towns and villages of Galilee almost a hundred miles to the north as the crow flies. And the crowd had grown as people in all the places in between had decided that they, too, wanted to go up to Jerusalem with Jesus.

And crowd merged with crowd. They passed their time and they fed their inspiration by singing as they walked. They sang long songs they all knew by heart, from the book of Psalms.

At the crest of the Mount of Olives, they saw the Holy City. They saw their goal. The singing grew louder. Most of the talking stopped.

They remembered that the King was with them, and the King was coming to his true City. He was coming to cleanse the City of its corruption. The King was coming to restore true repentance and faith to his people. The King was coming to overwhelm the Romans and bring his people a new freedom and peace that could never be taken away. The King was coming to establish the Kingdom of God on earth.

Jesus was the King of the Kingdom of God. Jesus came to do all these things. They were sure of it. They smelled glory. They tasted victory. They were excited. They were thrilled. They were also a little scared.

They never felt so alive in their lives. Even the presence of the Roman soldiers guarding the gates of the city, and the presence of the Temple guards atop the Eastern Gate of the Temple didn’t phase them, or just barely.

They broke off palm fronds and small branches of olive and myrtle. They waved them in the air like flags, and laid them on the road in front of Jesus. They spread their own cloaks on the road in front of him, as well.

This might seem dangerous. Wouldn’t all those branches and cloaks trip the donkey that was carrying Jesus?

But they were careful how they did it. And donkeys are sure-footed. And their work made the road bright. It made the road before them like a flag; like a banner for the King who was coming into his own.

That was such a full day. There was so much going on that it had to be a confusing day for the disciples, no matter how wonderful it was. There were so many emotions in the people who were present, and so many emotions crossed the face and filled the voice of Jesus.

There was joyful laughter around him, and singing. And surely Jesus wanted that joy around him. Jesus set that parade up himself. He arranged for the donkey himself. He must have smiled and joined in the songs.

There was anger too. There was anger in the authorities of the Temple, when Jesus drove out the Temple franchisers who exchanged the worshipper’s secular money for the holy money required for use in the Temple. There was anger against Jesus when he overturned the tables of the dove franchisers, from whom the poor people bought their doves for sacrifice.

Doves were the least expensive of the animal sacrifices that could be made in the temple. With the dove tables gone, poor people couldn’t offer sacrifices in the Temple. It was an outrage.

Jesus knew he would create anger, but he was angry too. The presence of the money changers and the dove sellers made worship into a business and a routine.

Essentially, worship was being bought and sold. A way for a person to come to God with repentance and thanksgiving was being turned into a business deal.

It became a way to pay something and get something in return. You bought your holy money, you paid for your holy sacrifice, and you gave God what you owed him. Then, naturally, God would give what he owed you.

If God is our Father, and if we are God’s children, this relationship of making deals cannot work. There is no love, no wonder, no thanks, and no change of heart or life in the worship of the deal. Both the sellers and the buyers were robbers alike.

How could any of them come to know God that way? Jesus let his anger out. Jesus took the business deal out of faith in God.

Then there was peace, at least in Jesus’ heart, and the blind and the lame came to him for healing. And children were shouting and singing around him the words of the song from the Psalm: “Hosanna!” “O Lord, save us (“hosanna” in Hebrew); O Lord, grant us success. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Hosanna to the Son of David!” (Psalm 118:25-26; Matthew 21:15)

And there we find joy again: children were shouting and singing around Jesus. This is very important. You don’t find children acting like that in the presence of someone who is angry or weeping.

Jesus saw the praise in those children and it gave him joy. The children saw what many of the grownups could not see. The children could see God at work in the things that Jesus did. This made Jesus happy.

There were tears in the story too. You can read that detail in Luke’s gospel.
Look at what Jesus brought to Jerusalem. Jesus brought his joy, his tears, his anger, and his joy. Jesus’ coming to Jerusalem serves as a picture for his coming to us, coming to our church, coming to our neighbors, coming to our world.

It shows the wealth of what his love contains for us in his becoming human on our behalf: in his life, and his sacrifice and death on the cross, and in his resurrection. It shows us who God is because Jesus is God made flesh; God made human, God taking humanity up into himself.

What impressed me most this past week, as I was studying, was the joy of Palm Sunday. Jesus was angry with his own people for their thick-headedness. Jesus knew that he was going to die for them and for us, to set us all free from sin and death. He did not enjoy the prospect of the suffering and the dying that were ahead of him; but coming to Jerusalem and coming to us, with that intention, also gave him joy.
It is easy for us to grieve God. It is easy for us to hold close to ourselves the things that make God so mad. And yet he loves us, and his love for us gives him joy. Is this hard to understand?

Following Jesus is serious business. Nothing is more serious, yet we owe it to him to rejoice and laugh and give thanks. That is why children made Jesus happy.

Children are versatile. Children can be awfully serious, and it is easy for them to be angry and to cry; but it is just as easy for them to forget it and laugh.

When we have the life of Jesus in us, as we trust in his dying and his rising, then we have a new life in us where we have this great wealth of love; so that we can be joyful, and cry, and be mad, and forget it and laugh all over again.

The reason for this is that (most of all) this love has to do with salvation (which is not just about going to heaven but about being new and free in Christ). Salvation is like relief, and rescue, and healing, all rolled up in one. It is what students feel when the teacher cancels a test they haven’t studied for. It is like a scary medical test that turns out in your favor. It is like having done something that could have made someone you love awfully angry, and yet they smile at you and laugh it off.

That is just a taste of the love of God in Christ. And when you know the joy of that saving grace you try to give the same kind of saving grace to those around you.

There is power in the way that Jesus comes to us, as he came to Jerusalem that Sunday of the Palms, with the freedom to be joyful even in the face of anger and sorrow. Jesus rules within us to give us the power to bring to that joy to others.

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