Carla J. Bailey, Pastor
A sermon given at
The Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
A congregation of the United Church of Christ
Last week, a small group of us gathered for the last of three sessions together wondering about Jesus, who he was, how we think of him as an historical person and how we imagine him in our lives now. We looked at artists’ depictions and we wrote down words – what are his characteristics? How would we introduce him to someone who has never met him? It began as a simple exercise, but it didn’t take long for a more serious mood to settle in the room. We were trying to understand one another as we tried to articulate those aspects of Jesus especially important to each one of us. What does that mean, what you just said? Do you think he knew what he was doing all the time – did he know the consequences of his actions? This last question was more in my mind, as it always is. In particular as we begin Holy Week, when he turned his face for Jerusalem, did he know that he was turning his face toward certain and fairly imminent death? There is that powerful reference to Jesus’ determination in a sermon by Howard Thurman. (The Temptations of Jesus, Friends United Press, 1962).
“As they were walking together on the road that leads out of Jericho, Jesus and his disciples approached the fork. One road went north to Galilee and Nazareth, the other went south to Jerusalem. As they neared, something strange apparently took place in Jesus’ face and his whole body. He strode ahead of his disciples and when they looked into his face, they were frightened. This is the only place in the Gospels in which it is written that when the disciples looked into the face of the master, they were frightened. They were frightened by what they saw as he moved ahead of them and then made a sharp turn south – to Jerusalem. Any reading of Jesus’ life would indicate that this was one of the critical moments when he had to say, What shall I do if I am to be true to the One who sent me forth? I could go back to my home in Nazareth or I can go to Jerusalem where the powers and principalities thrive.”
Of course, we know he chose to go to Jerusalem. It is that choice we celebrate today with sweet hosannas and palm branches, vaguely aware of the terrible repercussions of that choice.
Jerusalem was a large city. There is little likelihood that Jesus’ entry caused much of a stir as far as the city was concerned. Of course there were his devoted followers, a few new converts and the regular bystanders who are always drawn to the edges of drama. Matthew made a point of describing the colts on which Jesus rode to reinforce his purpose in telling story. This was the fulfillment of the prophetic words of Zechariah, pronounced at Jesus’ birth. This is the Messiah. This is the One sent from God – David’s heir, God’s anointed, the Savior of Israel and of the world. Matthew wanted to be sure Jews, many years after Jesus’ death, would understand that this Savior was indeed Jewish. He really was the Messiah.
Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem raised the stakes of his ministry considerably. It made his life as much a social and political revolution as an individually life-changing experience. The gospel writers tell us what he did there - he visited the temple and enraged by its desecration, he turned over tables, chased the money-changers into the streets, shaming those who had failed in their responsibility to protect its sacredness. He challenged the Jewish leaders – shamed them actually – for their acquiescence to the Romans, to their “can’t we all just get along” way of thinking. He told stories in which the bad guys were the Jewish leaders. In general, he cast a bright light on the failures of the leaders of his own beloved faith, revealing all their self-serving flaws. There were the scribes, jealous of his influence and resentful of his independent interpretation of the Scriptures. There were the Pharisees, stung by his relentless exposure of their weaknesses. There was Herod Antipas, suspicious of his possible connection with John the Baptist. There were the Sadducees, embarrassed to fury by his interference with temple worship. And over all these factions within Judaism, there were the Romans, enforcing peace through oppressive, military security. Jesus revealed it all - the hypocrisy, the weaknesses, the compliance with the military rule of the oppressive Romans. I am in considerable sympathy with his disciples who followed and watched and had to be growing increasingly worried, terrified actually, at their Savior’s surprisingly adversarial conduct. Good grief, they must have thought to themselves – doesn’t he know what he’s doing?
Well, yes, I think he did know what he was doing. The turmoil that resulted from Jesus’ presence in Jerusalem and his actions began with a critical critique of the way things were – a searching and fearless moral inventory, so to speak. It grew into a religious crisis of values. Then, it was subjugated by a governmental course of action intended to quell the chaos. Then the death penalty was imposed, then Jesus was tried, so to speak, and executed, and Jerusalem settled down again. This day signals the beginning of the public chain of events that resulted in betrayal, abandonment, and murder. It all began when Jesus decided to confront it head on, the acquiescence to Roman rule, the distorted activities of his religious heritage, the rituals of jurisprudence that had gone so terribly awry, the financial exploitation of the poor. This week begins with a decision.
I chose the passage from Philippians to read today, as we begin the observances of this week, and as I pondered the meaning of the parade that brought Jesus into the heart of Jerusalem. In particular, I was caught by the phrase “let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus”. Whew. Maybe not - because the same mind that was in Christ Jesus was the determination to face, head on, the cultural decay that had gripped Israel, especially obvious in Jerusalem. If the same mind were to be in me as was in Christ Jesus, which issues would I confront, do you think? Which twisted policies, moral desecrations, and exploitations would be the ones that should be brought to light? The list is long. All of us need to choose. We cannot celebrate Jesus’ big moment today without accepting the responsibility thrust upon us when we assumed the name Christian. I hope, of course, our dedication to his path does not lead us to certain execution. Fortunately, our U.S. citizenship protects most of us from misapplied justice. But our U.S. citizenship does not protect us from recognizing the conflicts inherent between loyalty to our nation and loyalty to our Savior. And they are in conflict, my dear hearts. No less than Jesus saw when he entered Jerusalem, we see all around us decay, demoralization, dishonest public discourse, abandonment of the poor, over-extended militarization of international policy, and on and on and on.
My sassy daughter, when approaching big Christian holidays, sends me emails asking things about Jesus’ status. In early December she wrote, “Has Mary felt the baby moving yet?” Mid Lent, “Is Jesus still in the wilderness?” This past week, “Isn’t Jesus about due in Jerusalem?” I love these emails – they always make me laugh. She knows the events better than she admits. This past week I wrote back that I was interested in the fact that Jesus escalated the conflict in Jerusalem – that he intentionally and publicly confronted the leaders, the poobahs, and all the head guys. “Well yeah”, she wrote back. “Why else would you bother with him?” Why else indeed?
Do you think Christians should commit ourselves to public, noisy, confrontation of the leaders, poobahs and head guys who exploit the poor, carry out twisted and dishonest jurisprudence, lie publicly about everything from President Obama’s birth to how cutting funds to care for the mentally ill and disabled, women’s health care, and retirement savings is no big deal. If we were in that same crowd of the welcoming faithful, would we still cheer after Jesus threw tables around the sanctuary, broke Sabbath laws by healing the sick and the lame, cursed a fig tree in a fit of anger, slapped against Caesar’s face on a coin and taxes that could be described as unevenly applied, and told the story about separating sheep from goats with the words that have come to exemplify Christianity at its very best – “when I was hungry you fed me, when I was thirsty you gave me drink, when I was in prison you visited me.” Did you know he told that story between Palm Sunday and Good Friday? Did you know it was one of the many parables he told that led, directly to his arrest and crucifixion – not because of his description of how we all should act, but because of the accompanying judgment upon those who did not act in this most holy way – they will be cast into eternal damnation.
“(Jesus) did not count equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself… he humbled himself and became obedient, even to his death on a cross.” Yes, he did. Of that there is no doubt. But it would be a serious mistake for us to think that humbling himself meant that Jesus came into Jerusalem with the quiet intent of one who walked, head bowed, straight to Calvary. Between today and Friday, Jesus did some incredibly bold, antagonistic things. Between today and Friday, Jesus turned the world on its head.
Well, there you go. Tonight when I send my email to Matrika, I’ll tell her that Jesus made it to Jerusalem this morning in fine form. Tomorrow, he’ll turn over the tables in the temple. On Tuesday, he’ll heal people of their many sins and heartbreaks and tell some great stories with the priests as the bad guys. On Wednesday, well, you get the picture. Jesus will do all these things, knowing, I’m convinced of it, that the inevitable outcome would be bad. Knowing what lies ahead, will I follow him with joy into the City? Will you? We want to say yes. We do, but will we? Can we?