Monday, March 25, 2013

A New World: Where We Cannot Play Alone

Preached on Palm Sunday, March 24, 2013 

Scripture readings: Isaiah 56:3-8: Mark 11:1-19
Two young brothers were fighting. One of them was playing with a video game and his younger brother wanted to play with him, but the older one wanted to play by himself.

The mother heard them yelling at each other and she came into the room to sort things out. Finally she told the older brother that he had to play with his little brother.

Photos around thePalouse and Snake Rivers and in Washtucna
She said, “Always remember, we are here for others.” And her son talked back to her, and said, “Then what are the others here for?”

When Jesus entered the Holy City, a lot of his people welcomed him as their king. They thought Jesus would know how to break up the game they were being forced to play with the Romans, and with the Greeks, and with everyone else who had been trying to break into their game: their game with God.

They knew Jesus was wise. Jesus was very, very smart. He could do the most amazing things: miraculous things. They thought that Jesus’ powers would contribute nicely to breaking them free from the grip of their game with the world.

They broke off the branches of trees and bushes, and they made a carpet on the road with their cloaks. This was the traditional way for welcoming a king: not just anyone’s king but their own king; the king who played just with them and for them.

Jesus did not come to be that kind of king; not a king just for them. He came to be the king for the others also.

His people would not like that. They had effectively forgotten what their calling was in the world. They were the children of Abraham and so they were the inheritors of God’s calling and blessing. We read what this is, back in the Book of Genesis. The Lord said this to Abraham: “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great and you will be a blessing….and all peoples of the earth will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12:2-3)

Jesus’ people had misinterpreted the greatness God had given them. It would be as if the older brother had said to the younger, “You’re just lucky that I let you be in the same room with me, and that I let you watch me play my game.” The people of Jesus had fallen into the habit of thinking that they could be a blessing to others like that.

Jesus had not come to Jerusalem to raise an army and sit on a throne. The only throne he would find in Jerusalem would be the cross. Jesus had come to rule his kingdom by dying and rising from the dead for all people. On the cross, he would be the king for others.

Jesus came to be the sacrifice that takes away the sin of the world. He came to Jerusalem because that is where such sacrifices were to be made. He came to Jerusalem because the Temple was there; the Temple was the place in Jerusalem where such sacrifices were to be made.

The Temple was the place where a new world could come into being, because people could become new there. They could become new there because sin was forgiven there (in the sacrifices).

Through God’s grace, in the forgiveness of their sins, their lives were changed, and healed, and given meaning. Then there could be real worship, real renewal, true thanksgiving and rejoicing. Jesus came to make all things new: starting with human lives and (through them) the world in which they lived.

Jesus entered Jerusalem to inspect the Temple and to judge it, along with the motives of the people who based their lives on that Temple. Jesus entered and, at first, he did nothing. He acted with all the patience of God. He watched and he waited. Then he went off to think about it.

The next day, Jesus acted out two living parables. He cursed the fig tree, and then he drove the merchants who exchanged currency out of the Temple. The fig tree represented Israel, and the Temple represented their misuse of the covenant: their misuse of the blessing, the calling, and the promise of God.

Israel was blessed to be a blessing to all the peoples and nations of the world. The Temple was to be “a house of prayer for all nations,” as Isaiah says. (Isaiah 56:7) The people of the Lord, the people of Jesus, had become ingrown.

They were not robbing the worshippers who came to them and exchanged currency to offer sacrifices for forgiveness and thanks. They had robbed the world. They robbed the world of blessing by refusing to serve as a blessing to others.

They had made a strange substitution of sins. They had learned from the mistakes of their ancestors by making the opposite mistake; by making the mistake in reverse.

Here is how it went. Their ancestors had been unfaithful because they had loved the nations and ignored their God. Now, their descendants had become unfaithful because they had loved their God and ignored the nations.

Either way, God couldn’t do anything with them. He couldn’t love the world the way he wanted to do it through them. They would not play with others, and they would not learn the love and grace with which God wanted them to play.

Some people say that Jesus drove the people called “the moneychangers” from the Temple because they were using religion to make money, or because they were making more money from the service they rendered than it was right for them to make. There have been (and there still are) people who do that. That is a sin, but it is a different sin than Jesus was talking about when he called them robbers.

The Temple was a den of robbers because it was the place where God’s people were robbing the world. They were depriving the world of “a house of prayer for all nations.” They were robbing the world of its blessing: the blessing that the Lord wanted to bring to all people through his people.

When Jesus entered Jerusalem it was not exactly the king’s city, as it claimed. It true that it was being occupied by Roman soldiers, but Jerusalem was, in Jesus’ eyes, a nest of rebellion against the kingdom of God.

When Jesus entered the Temple it was not exactly God’s Temple, as it was claimed. It was in rebel hands, being held against the purposes of the kingdom of God.

The Lord’s people were using the kingdom for their own purposes. They wanted the kingdom of God to be a game they could play alone. But there are some games that you cannot play alone. In Jesus, God has told us this.

First of all, and really first, God is love. John writes, “Beloved let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God; for God is love.” (1 John 4:7-8)

This love comes from seeing others as the objects of God’s love because, in Jesus, God is a king for others. He is not interested in love for the sake of making us into a mutual admiration society. He wants us to love others into a deeper and deeper relationship with God.

If we represent a love that does not love others into deeper relationship with God then we are incapable of giving to God the love that he desires from us. We are even refusing to give God the love he desires from us.

God was in Jesus. God is Jesus, seeing us as though we were those other people and yet reaching out to us by dying for our sins (because we are sinners). God is Jesus rising from the dead as the conqueror of sin and death so that nothing can separate us from his love. (Romans 8:39) God is Jesus dying and rising for us to make us and all things new: to create a new world; a new kind of world with a new way of living, a whole new standard.

God is love, because God is, from before all time and space, the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. God is love, because God is (within himself) cooperation, and togetherness, and praise, and mutual love.

If the Word of God speaks to us, then it warns us of the temptation and the danger of being robbers. We cannot stop being robbers by being passive; letting people give themselves to us before we give ourselves to them. We cannot stop being robbers unless we start being givers.

Foreigners and eunuchs are just two of the many classifications of people who were not allowed into the holy parts of the Temple. They were spiritual outsiders.

In Isaiah, the Lord essentially tells the outsiders that they are not outsiders. We are to give them the same message in our words and actions.

And we are not entitled to give them their chance and then be done with them if they don’t take the chance. We are simply to stop living in a way that tells anyone that they are an outsider, period. There is no more such classification in the new world, the new kind of world that God makes in Jesus.

When you were a child, did you ever pretend that someone was invisible? I don’t mean, “Did you ever have an invisible friend?” I didn’t have one, but I knew kids with invisible friends. If you had an invisible friend, you undoubtedly paid them a lot of attention and gave them a lot of affection.

I mean, did you ever pretend that you couldn’t see or hear your brother, or sister, or a kid at school? Did anyone else ever pretend that you were invisible? It can be funny, at the start. Then it stops being funny. It is a good way to make someone mad really fast.

Making someone invisible can cause lasting hurt, especially if it comes from the genuine intention to hurt. We know that sometimes this game is played with malice and ill will. When this is true, it takes a lot of time and effort, and a lot more time and effort on top of that, to overcome it.

Even if the game is unintentional, if we have allowed someone to become invisible for a long, long time by accident, or just because we were busy and their invisibility took no effort or energy on our part, it establishes a precedent. It wears a groove. It makes a deep rut in the road that keeps pulling you and them in.

You can’t just patch over a real rut. You have to do some kind of serious grading, or blading, or grinding. You have to rebuild the road.

It takes time and effort, and a lot more time and effort on top of that, to overcome the effects of prolonged invisibility. And, if this time and effort makes us mad, then it ought to make us mad only at ourselves. We were far too contented at playing our game alone. Or we were just not very wise.

The people of Jesus were robbers because they saw the world as their enemy instead of as their mission. The Bible talks about our enemies, mostly to say that we should love them. (Matthew 5:44) Of course it also tells us to love our neighbor as ourselves. (Leviticus 19:18; Mark 12:31) I think it was GK Chesterton who said they we are commanded to love both our enemies and our neighbors because they are generally the same people.

We may not like our enemy, but we are to love them. This doesn’t mean that we play along with them, and become their accomplices, and come under their influence. It means that we should seek and pray for God’s good to come to them. And we should gear what we say and do to help that happen. If we do give them this love then we are robbers.

When we see someone in need, we are often afraid of getting close to them. People in hospitals and nursing homes often get avoided as if they have become invisible. I think this happens because other people are afraid of them, or afraid of what they are going through.

Those who have lost loved ones, or who have gone through some huge tragedy, find themselves avoided because people are afraid of them. People rate their fears higher than their calling.

There are people who are needy because they are what we might call dysfunctional. They are hard to relate to. We can see why people avoid them. We want to avoid them ourselves because we get tired of them. But if we do not love them we are robbers.

There are people we have nothing in common with. We still have to love them or be robbers.

God loves them all, and maybe they will never meet the true love of God unless they meet him in our transformation from robbers into givers of the love of God. Otherwise we rob them of the life God wants to give them.

In Jesus, God died for others as well as for us. In Jesus on the cross, God prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34) The people who welcomed Jesus would never have welcomed a king who might pray such a prayer. The discovery that he might be just such a king led them to kill him in the certainty that they knew exactly what they were doing.

Those who welcomed Jesus as their King on Palm Sunday really thought they were doing him a favor by welcoming him. They thought that this favor was to their credit.

Little did they know that Jesus was already their king, and always be their king, whether they welcomed him or not. Jesus had come to rule them in a kingdom that was designed for others as well as for them.

Jesus intended to rule them with a love that they had tried to hold onto for themselves. Jesus died to rule us by offering us a new world that we can only enter if we know that this is a game we cannot play alone.

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