Monday, April 18, 2011

Christ: The King of Happiness

Preached on April 17, Palm Sunday

Scripture readings:
Psalm 118:8-29; Mark 11:1-11

I know nothing of the Holy Land, or of Jerusalem, except for what I have seen in pictures, and maps, and histories. The first century Jewish historian, known by his Roman name as Flavius Josephus, and others of that century have given us detailed descriptions of Jerusalem and its surroundings.

I haven’t read those lately, but I will share with you a bit of the picture I have in my mind. What goes into the picture of Jerusalem on the day when Jesus entered the city for the great Jewish liberation feast of the Passover?

Imagine the coulee in which our towns are built. The Kidron Valley, on the east side (the Temple side) of Jerusalem, is a long, narrow steep-sided valley like ours.

On the east side of the Kidron, the slopes of the Mount of Olives rose several hundred feet. The Mount was blanketed by miles of silvery-grey leaves of the olive groves. Dark lines of date palm trees marched beside the narrow stone roads that ran up and down the slopes. White clusters of stone villages huddled among these trees and orchards.

The west side of the valley (the city side) also rose hundreds of feet above the valley bottom. It was not quite so high as the Mount of Olives (which overlooked it); but the city side of the Kidron rose like a cliff. It was a man made cliff. This was the eastern wall of Jerusalem, and the platform and walls of the Temple.

These were built by Herod the Great and his family. They ruled by fear, and they lived in fear of their own people. So they were master-designers of protective walls and fortresses. At the west side of the valley the ground rose upward toward the wall. The road became a series of steps that led up to the Fountain Gate. Then the wall soared above the slope; but the Temple Mount took its part of those walls far higher.

It was a two hundred foot straight drop from the roof of the Royal Portico to the ground at the base of the wall. Josephus reported how standing on the cornice of the roof and looking down made him dizzy and sick to his stomach.

The stone work of the wall was smoothly cut and tightly set; pale gray and creamy white limestone. The buildings above the Temple platform were pure white marble, like snow, rising stories above that.

Jerusalem stood like a mountain of polished stone. There was nothing like it in the world, though it stood for less than a hundred years before the Roman army destroyed it.

Jerusalem was growing and overflowing its walls. It had a population of between eighty thousand and a hundred thousand. Flavius Josephus gives evidence for a normal attendance of at least three million visitors, from all over the world, for the Passover. Everyone wanted to celebrate Passover in Jerusalem, but not everyone could fit, so the city limits were temporarily expanded every year, just for the feast, so that it included the tent cities pitched around the Holy City. The groves upon the Mount of Olives served as a camp ground for almost a million people.

The villages and towns of Galilee stuck together on the road with Jesus. They streamed together over the summit of the Mount of Olives. They paused on the summit and shivered with awe at the sight of the holy mountain of polished stone, shining in the sun. They prayed for the good of Jerusalem, and they all began the Passover songs.

We have the words of one of the songs they sang, and we have just read them. Psalm 118 was one of those songs the crowd sang when Jesus passed by.

The words were written hundreds of years before his coming, but they fit him like a glove. “I will not die, but live, and will proclaim what the Lord has done.” (Psalm 118:17) “The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes.” (Psalm 118:22-23) “With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession.” (118:27)

The people sang this song for Jesus. They broke boughs or fronds from the rows of date-palms along the road.

One did not wave these branches for just anyone. This was not an act of celebrity worship. This was the custom for greeting a king. This was royal protocol.

They were welcoming Jesus as their king. They expected him to be a warrior like David. They expected him to defeat their enemies (the Romans) and perhaps rule over the Romans or receive tribute payments from them.

The end of the occupation, the end of their brutal taxation, the end of their humiliation was at hand. Jesus would lead their army. And he would draw to that army the power of the Lord of hosts, the Lord of the angel armies.

Those who welcomed Jesus threw their cloaks on the road. These were not dirt roads. These were the entrance roads to a city that was both holy and royal. They were stone roads and regularly cleaned. Still, donkeys and horses were ridden and driven on those roads every day, and there would be stink on that road, and that stink would stick to their cloaks and stain them.

A person’s cloak was their most expensive piece of clothing. Cloaks were made from strong, heavy woolen thread woven to last most of a lifetime. How white it was bleached, and how white it was kept, and the color of the stripe, and the size of the tassels at the corners showed your station in life. It was insulation from the cold of the desert high country, in the winter, and it was insulation from the desert heat in summer.

A cloak was collateral for the poor when they were in need of a loan. The lender would keep their cloak during the day. But they had to return it at night, because it was against the law for a lender to deprive the poor of the only blanket for their beds.

Most of those who lay their cloaks on the road were poor, for most of the people were poor. They lay their greatest treasure at Jesus’ feet (or at the feet of his borrowed donkey); because he was the king.

They were prepared to give him everything; to lay down their lives for him in battle. They were sure that battle would come. And they were glad for it! “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!” (Mark 11:10)

Even the twelve disciples (the ones who were closest to Jesus, and knew his mind better than anyone else) had trouble on this point. Even they wanted Jesus to be a king like the Old Testament King David. But Jesus seemed not to care about what they wanted. Jesus seemed to be planning something that was just plain crazy. Jesus had been telling them that he was not coming to rule at the head of an army; but to be condemned, and crucified, and killed, and then to rise from the dead.

They could understand the dying part of the plan. They feared Jesus dying. It was sure to happen if he did not listen to them, and take up arms in time.

About his rising, they had no idea what that could mean. It did not fit what they had been taught about the Messiah or about the resurrection. They preferred not to think about this. But their avoidance did not protect them from fear.

This is part of the picture I hold in my head of that day. This is what I think was there to see and hear. And this is part of my picture of the inside of things. This is how I see the thoughts and feelings of those who followed Jesus, and those who welcomed him.

The story of Palm Sunday has a lot to teach us about following and welcoming Jesus. The way all those people were reaching out to Jesus teaches us.

When they laid their cloaks on the road, they were sacrificing something precious. Cloaks were expensive, and they were possessions of lasting value. You didn’t want to lose a cloak, or damage it. By giving Jesus their cloak they offered him their lives.

The person who has not met Jesus cannot understand this. But, when you do meet Jesus (when Jesus shows himself to you, and you see him as he is; when you see what he has done for you, and what he promises you)…when you see all this, you want to give him your life. This is a way of describing the nature of the Christian life: you receive Christ and you give your life to Christ.

The truth is that these things blend into each other so completely that you can’t separate them: giving and receiving, receiving and giving, giving and receiving. You can’t keep track of it.

Well, through the grace of God, you belong to Christ. Your life belongs to Jesus and he belongs to you.

The funny thing about connecting this gift with what the people gave, when they lay their cloaks at Jesus’ feet, is that (even though you have given your life to Jesus) it turns out that there seem to be a lot of things more precious to you than your life. You find that you want to hold other things back, even though your life is a gift to him. Isn’t that funny?

I mean, we will give him our life, but not give him our plans. We will give him our life, but we won’t give him our self-control. We will give him our life, but not our ambitions, or our loves, or our time, or our service to his world and to our neighbors. We will give him our life, but not our way of behaving in our family, or with our friends, or with our enemies. Isn’t it funny, that in our relationship with the Lord (giving him our life) there are things that must be more precious to us than our life, because we don’t give them to him?

And yet Jesus is our life. There is no life outside of him.

Another thing we have in common with those who followed Jesus, and with those who welcomed him, is that we often don’t understand what kind of king Jesus is. He is a savior-king, but we don’t understand what that means. Hosanna means “save us now”. The crowd wanted Jesus to save them from the world out there, not from the world within.

In his vision of heaven, in the Book of Revelation, the disciple John sees Jesus as “a lamb looking as if it had been slain, standing in the midst of the throne.” (Revelation 4:6) The sacrifice and death of Jesus on the cross are part of his kingship on the throne of all time and space.

The crowd wanted Jesus to be a hero-King like David, by defeating their enemies “out there”. They wanted Jesus to wage war on the Romans and crush them.

We want a similar thing: not with an enemy state or power, but we want Jesus to fight the world outside us. We want Jesus fighting for us more than we want him fighting within us.

It was the nature of God to come in Christ to be one of us for the purpose of being a substitute for us. He came for the sake of being our stand-in.

In Jesus, God became us; living the life we could not live, dying under the weight of sins that would have, otherwise, been the death of us, rising to give us life through his victory.

In Christ, we die to sin and rise to life. The Apostle Paul says (in Romans 6:8), “Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.”

We have trouble, just as the first disciples did, with believing that we need a king who will die for us. We mostly ignore what the good news tells us about how radical our need is.

Our need goes much deeper than we care to admit. Our enemies are not on the outside, but in our heart, and mind. Our enemies are ingrained much deeper than our deepest habits.

The news of this world tells us the same message that we ought to be able to see when we look in the mirror. The meaning of “sin” is that the human race is not merely broken and in need of repair, but that it has gone wrong in heart, and mind, and in its very nature. It needs to be saved by dying and rising. And that is what happens to us with Jesus.

This is serious stuff. But it is the seriousness that leads to the happiness of God.

The essence of what happened on Palm Sunday was that Jesus staged a parade. It was fun; really fun. There was singing, and dancing, and waving palm branches, and laughing; at least for those who liked Jesus.

Jesus designed it this way. Jesus wanted his path to the cross to include joy, because the cross is about grace, and grace means a beautiful gift freely given. Grace is about joy. The two words share the same linguistic root.

There is nothing more joyful (and there is nothing more joyfully motivating) than grace. The road to the cross is the road to grace and joy. The Letter to the Hebrews (12:2) says this. “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross….”

If part of our life seems like a cross; even if our whole life seems like a cross; when we belong to Jesus, then our cross is his. His cross is ours. This means we can find joy even there. Even on the cross Jesus was not without joy.

I knew someone who, if you were to listen to her, had had everything possible go wrong with her life. Her childhood had been horrible. Her marriage had been horrible. The way her children had turned out was horrible. She would talk about this in detail, as if she wanted to bare the unhappiness that filled her soul.

Alongside this great unhappiness was an odd fact. I knew that this person had way too many dogs and cats; beyond anything that someone in her financial position ought to have had.

In the middle of telling me about her unhappiness, she would start telling me about her animals and she would start laughing. Without her realizing it, and without being able to stop herself, she would become happy.

Sometimes she needed help getting places, so I would drive her, and she would see every hawk or owl roosting on a power pole, and she would laugh. This seems petty, but I began to suspect that however badly wrong her life had gone. She was wrong to think that her life was unhappy. At least she was not unhappy all the time.

She wanted to get my sympathy. This was how she related to everyone who might be able to help her. But she couldn’t completely pull off the act.

Sometimes we convince ourselves that we have to be unhappy all the time. It becomes our calling in life, even though it makes us the source of all kinds of trouble for others. A continual unhappiness becomes our solemn duty; and some of us become terribly successful at it. But this systematic unhappiness is not really possible, in this life, and we should not try to achieve it. We should not fool ourselves about the holiness of unhappiness.

Unhappiness is the law of hell. It is a great temptation. It is a great drama. But there are other dramas we could play in. The gospel gives us a much better drama to play in.

Jesus, if we let him, will save us here. Jesus will call us to find happiness; somehow, somewhere, sometime. It will appear under our very noses.

Jesus is the master-stager of happiness. Sooner or later, we will be unable to stop something beautiful from occurring to us. We will be unable to stop something worthy of thanks from coming to us.

Those who followed Jesus and those who welcomed him were so wrong about him, and what he cared about, and what he came to do, that they didn’t deserve that parade. They didn’t deserve the happiness that Jesus created for them and set before them.

And maybe that is where we find the most important lesson of all. Jesus set his parade up for those who did not deserve it.

Here again the joy and happiness of Jesus are his grace to us. Maybe our most holy seriousness is a temptation that we have to give up and lay down at Jesus’ feet. We have to die to our seriousness above all.

Maybe this dying to sin will not be the sacrifice we think it is, once we have completed it and it is behind us. Maybe happiness is the most serious business of the kingdom of God and heaven. Except that happiness can only be found in very different places than we have looked for it so far.

We even think this dying stuff is a serious thing. Well it is a serious thing. Jesus wept in the face of death when he stood at the tomb of his friend Lazarus. (John 11:35) Jesus must have wept when he was a boy just a little older than twelve, standing by the tomb of his step-father Joseph.

But Jesus also gave thanks at the tomb of Lazarus, after he wept; because death was not the final word. Jesus knew that he was the one to have the final word.

Good Friday and Easter are coming. They are days of dying. They are days of rising in heaven and the resurrection.

These days are our way of living out, every year, the history of the good news, the history of the gospel. There is dying in these days, but life has the final word because Jesus has the final word. Happiness has the final word, because Jesus is the king of happiness.

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