GOOD AND PLEASANT

Preacher — Jeff Davidson

Scripture Readings — Psalm 133, John 20:19-31, Acts 4:32-35, 1 John 1:1-2:2

How many of you watched the live performance of Jesus Christ Superstar on NBC last Sunday night?  I didn’t see it live, but I have seen a lot of the clips on YouTube and the whole show is on NBC.com and I’m planning to watch it there.  A lot of critics said that Jesus Christ Superstar was the best of the live musicals that NBC has produced in the last five years or so, and based on what I’ve seen I agree.

I don’t think it’s too hard to figure out why.  It’s not because of the star.  Yes, John Legend is a popular singer, but some of the earlier live shows have had popular singers like Carrie Underwood or bigger stars like Christopher Walken or Matthew Broderick.  Yes, Jesus Christ Superstar is a classic show, but so was The Sound of Music, and Peter PanHairspray was a Broadway hit not long ago, and A Christmas Story is one of the most popular holiday movies of all time, and they weren’t nearly as good.

I think the reason is that Jesus Christ Superstar is the first of the NBC live theatrical productions to be produced in a theater and in front of a live audience.  The others were all live, but they were on a sound stage, like a regular TV show, and there was no audience to laugh or cheer or boo or cry.

Superstar had an audience, and that’s a big thing.  Actors learn how to play to their audience, how to coax a response.  The audience provides feedback that they actors respond to.  The audience provides energy that the actors feed off of.  For an actor, the audience can be a colleague almost as much as their fellow actors on stage with them.  Other people being there make a huge difference in the energy and in the life of a performance.  Hold on to that thought for a few minutes.

I have many friends who don’t go to church very often, or who don’t even go at all.  It’s not necessarily about whether they are Christians or not, but a number of them have expressed a similar thought to me.  A lot of my friends who don’t go to church say that they believe that they can worship God just as well when they are out in the woods, surrounded by the beauty of nature.  They say they can worship God just as well when they are alone in the midst of silence in their home or apartment.  They say that they can worship God on the golf course, and you know what?  Maybe they can.  A golf course is a beautiful place.  There are trees and hills and manicured grasses.  It’s often quiet, with only birdsong to accompany you.

I do wonder sometimes how many people are worshiping God when they’re out on the golf course, or when they’re alone in their apartment, or when they’re camping or hiking amidst the beauty of creation.  I’m not there, I can’t judge, and if they tell me they’re worshiping God then I have no reason not to believe them.  Now hold on to that thought for a moment as well.

The theme of our scripture readings today is obvious.  All of them deal with community.  All of them deal with believers in relationship with other believers.  Our Psalm, which we used as our Call to Worship, starts out “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity.”  The passage from Acts is specifically about how the early Christians were so close that they shared all of their goods, all of their income, and each received from the common purse as they needed.  A lot of people believe that the phrase “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” was written by Karl Marx.  It definitely wasn’t Marx – that phrase had been around for a long time before he was born.  The idea behind the phrase is exactly how the early church lived.  It’s not Marxism – it’s Christianity.

1 John 1:3 talks about what it is that will make John’s joy complete: the fellowship of believers along with God and Jesus.  1 John is believed to be written by the John the Evangelist, who is also believed to have written the Gospel of John.

And in the Gospel of John we read the story of doubting Thomas.  In doing research for this sermon I ran across an idea that was new to me.  It was on a blog called “Left Behind and Loving It” and the blogger is a Greek scholar named D. Mark Davis.  Let me just say before I go on that I didn’t study Greek in seminary.  Davis talks about the use of the aorist tense and the imperfect tense in the original Greek, and each of those tenses imply different meanings for words when they are used..  I don’t have much of a gift for languages, and so I can’t evaluate the pros and cons of what Davis suggests, but I think it’s interesting and worth thinking about.

We’re all familiar with the good ole doubting Thomas, who wasn’t there for some reason when Jesus appeared to the disciples and so didn’t believe them when they told him that Jesus had appeared to them.  His words are famous:  “”Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”  And later on, when Thomas did happen to be with the other disciples, Jesus did appear and Thomas did believe.

Verse 24 says, “But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.”  Davis says that the choice of words in the original language suggests something different than we usually think it does.  We usually think that verse 24 says that Thomas wasn’t there for a moment.  Maybe he had stepped out to get food.  Maybe he had gone to visit someone.  Maybe he was taking a nap.  For whatever reason, Thomas wasn’t there at that particular moment.

Let me quote what Davis suggests as an alternate reading.

Just to be clear, Mary had already told the disciples “I have seen the  Lord” but they are overjoyed when they see the hands and side.  In this story, the disciples say “We have seen the Lord,” but Thomas cannot accept it until he, too, sees the hands and side.  To me, the point of this story is not that Thomas is the disbelieving holdout because he needs to see evidence before he believes.  I think there is more to Thomas’ “doubt” than a lack of evidence.

…John may be saying that Thomas was no longer with them when Jesus came the first time, as if he had given up on following Christ with them after the crucifixion.  Likewise, if they had only said to Thomas, “While you were out getting bagels one day, Jesus came,” the aorist tense would suffice.  But, the imperfect (tense)… implies ongoing past action.  Perhaps they were trying over and over to convince Thomas to return.  Finally, Thomas threw down the gauntlet, “I’ll come back, but unless I see and touch, etc., I won’t believe it.”  I guess I’m seeing the possibility that this was an extended conversation about Thomas’ participation in the community, and not just that Thomas happened to miss out on the first visit.   (http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.ca/)

I don’t know about you, but that’s a much different way than I have thought about Thomas before.  Because he had cut himself off from the community, he was not able, at first, to see Jesus.  Because Thomas was not part of the body, he was not able to truly and fully believe.

I truly don’t doubt the sincerity of people who tell me that they can worship God just as well on their own as they can in church.  But I think they are cutting themselves off from the full blessings of the body of Christ.  They are cutting themselves off from support.  They are cutting themselves off from care.  They are cutting themselves off from accountability.

They are cutting themselves off from a community of friendships based on their faith, based on the thing that is truly the most essential thing in any Christian’s life.  We have friends because of our jobs or our schools or our geographic communities or our ethnic communities or any number of other things.  None of those are a replacement for friendships that are grounded in our faith in Jesus Christ.  None of those are a replacement for friends who are a part of the body of Christ, the church.

Those folks are also cutting themselves off from the energy that you get when you experience something with other people.  I could sing hymns and songs on my own if I wanted to.  But I hardly ever want to.  Why?  Because it’s more fun to me to sing them with someone else.  It’s more fun for me to be part of a group that is singing, whether it’s a choir or here in church or in a play or whatever.

Which do you think would be more exciting – to watch Jesus Christ Superstar alone at home on your television or to watch it in person with hundreds of other people?  For most folks, not everyone, but for the vast majority it would be more exciting to watch it live and in person.  It would be better to draw energy from the crowd around you and reflect that energy up to the performers on stage and let them bathe their performances in that energy than to watch it alone at home.

And even if you were at home alone watching, or watching clips on a computer like I was, that energy comes through the screen.  The difference in energy between a live performance with an audience and a live performance without one is something that you can feel when you watch it at home.

The Spirit’s presence in each of our lives as individuals is magnified when we gather as a group.  Our worship of God is magnified as well, because there are more ways we can worship and more ways we can minister to and with one another than when we are by ourselves in the woods or in our apartment or in our car.  This is the church.  This is the body of Christ in the world today.  When we cut ourselves off from the church, as Thomas may have, we cut ourselves off from God’s presence in so many ways.  It doesn’t mean that we cut ourselves off from God’s presence completely; we all have an individual relationship with Christ.  But we limit the possibilities to experience that presence in all of its fullness.  We minimize the opportunities to learn, to grow, to be encouraged, to be held accountable, to minister, and to be ministered to.

Almost every time I begin a worship service during the Welcome and Announcements I say that I am glad to see you here this morning.  That’s true.  I am glad to see you here this morning.  I’m glad because you’re here, and I’m glad because the fact that I can see you means that I’m here as well.  I am glad to be a part of the body of Christ in this place.  I am glad to be able to worship, and sing, and pray, and minister with each of you.  With the Psalmist, I find that it is good and it is pleasant when brothers and sisters can dwell together in unity.  I hope that you do too, and that you will invite others to learn and share and grow and minister with us in the days to come.  Amen.

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I HAVE SEEN THE LORD!

Preacher — Micah Bales

Scripture Readings – Isaiah 25:6-9, Acts 10:34-43, and John 20:1-18

He is risen! Hallelujah! Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. (Can I get an amen?)

God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. And how did this world repay him? How did we respond to the love and prophetic challenge of Emanuel, God-with-us? This dark and fallen world put Jesus to death by hanging him on a tree. Blinded by fear and violence, they crucified the Lord of glory.

The forces of death, chaos, and confusion thought that they had won. The evil spirits were laughing in delight. They had defeated truth and love once again. The rulers of this world were breathing a sigh of relief; they were finally rid of this trouble-maker, Jesus. Like so many prophets before and since, Jesus paid for his faithfulness with his life.

But we are here this morning, because we know that this was not the end of the story. Can I get an amen? I want to hear you this morning. This is our victory celebration!

The cross was not an end, but a beginning. Not a wall, but a window. Not defeat, but triumph. The kind of death that leads to new life, like a seed that falls on the ground and dies, so that it may grow into something new, and bear fruit, thirty, sixty, a hundred fold!

On the third day after Golgotha, God raised Jesus from the dead! Early that first Easter morning, Jesus appeared to Mary, the first apostle.

Mary had come to anoint Jesus’ body for burial – there hadn’t been time on Friday. She came to give Jesus’ the loving care that no one else had the courage to give. She came to care for the body of Christ.

But the body wasn’t there. The tomb was empty. Not knowing what to do, Mary ran and found Peter and another disciple. She told them what she had seen: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”

The men went off running to the tomb. The leaned down inside and saw that the body was missing. And then they returned to their homes.

But Mary wasn’t ready to return home just yet. Mary was in shock. Where was the body of her lord, her teacher, her friend? She lingered outside the tomb and wept.

Through her eyes, blurry with tears, Mary Magdalene saw what the men disciples did not. As she waited, present with her grief, she witnessed the angels of God sitting in the tomb. And then, something even more amazing. Mary was waiting for Jesus, and he also was waiting for her. Just outside the tomb. In the garden. Calling her by name.

Have you heard him call you by name?

This is how Mary became the original apostle. Apostle to the apostles, to the ones who we now call the Twelve. Mary proclaimed the word of God, the light of the resurrection, to men who didn’t understand yet, didn’t believe yet, but would soon be transformed into leaders that Jesus would use to gather his church and proclaim his gospel from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth.

Jesus didn’t appear to all the people, but he chose some to be eye-witnesses to the resurrection. Mary was first. Then Peter, then to the Twelve, and to others who especially needed his presence. Remember our brother Stephen, the first Christian martyr; he saw a vision of the Lord Jesus as he was being stoned to death for his faith. Brother Paul the apostle, who had been a notorious persecutor of the church; his life was transformed when met Jesus on the road to Damascus. To this very day, Jesus continues to appear to those who need him. Along with Mary, we can also say, “We have seen the Lord!”

John writes in his first epistle:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us.

For those of us who have seen, or heard, or tasted, smelled, touched with our hands the presence of Jesus – for those of us who have become his friends through the power of the resurrection – he has commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that Jesus is ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him. Everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins in his name. The kingdom of God is within us and among us. Hallelujah!

Have you heard the voice of Jesus in your life? Have you seen with your eyes and touched with your hands? Have you experienced in your own body this Word of life, the resurrected Jesus?

Eleven Easters ago, I was in my first year of seminary at Earlham School of Religion and Bethany Theological Seminary out in Richmond, Indiana. When I had arrived the previous fall, I didn’t consider myself a Christian. I knew I liked Jesus a lot, but I wasn’t sure that I was ready to identify myself with the Christian tradition.

But by the time Easter rolled around, I had gotten to the place where I felt like I could take that step. I had begun calling myself a Christian. I got to that place after reading Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 12:3, where he says that no one can say, “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit. I thought a lot about those words, “Jesus is Lord.” What did it mean to me, for Jesus to be Lord in my life?

By Easter that year, I knew that Jesus was my Lord. He was my friend, my teacher, my guide, and my example. He was master and commander of my life; where he led, I wanted to follow. I didn’t know what I believed about all the deep theological questions that great thinkers have been debating for the past two thousand years, but I knew that I wanted to follow Jesus wherever he would lead, to surrender my life to him. That was good enough for me.

That Easter, my first Easter as a Christian, I attended Sunday morning worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting. It was a really strange experience. It’s an atmosphere of celebration. Everyone is saying, “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!” And here I am, the new Christian in his first year of seminary, and I have no idea what they’re talking about.

Of course, I knew the story of the resurrection. I was actively studying the New Testament at that time; I knew what the texts said. But reading stories is one thing. These people were talking like these things actually happened. I had been reading the resurrection story as metaphor, but these people seemed to be taking it literally!

I didn’t want to seem too sacrilegious, so I asked my questions quietly. But I did ask. “Do you really believe this? You think that Jesus really, literally, physically rose from the dead? What’s your basis for that? And if you don’t think that, isn’t it a little weird to go running around proclaiming “he is risen!”?

I can’t remember exactly what kind of answers I got in response to my questions. On the one hand, I suspect that the people I was asking wrestled with the same kind of doubts as me. When you really examine some of the stuff that we believe as Christians, it’s a little ridiculous. Bodily resurrection? Ascension into heaven? We’d never take these kinds of claims literally if any other religion made them.

And yet… And yet. Despite the doubt, in spite of the preposterous nature of the Christian faith, I didn’t walk away from that worship service disillusioned. I was intrigued. I still didn’t know if I could believe this whole story. I didn’t know if I could really accept the idea that Jesus rose from the dead. But some part of me wanted to. Even if my rational mind couldn’t readily accept it, my heart wanted to believe.

Why? What would make me want to believe in this kind of fairy tale?

Joy. In these fully-grown men and women celebrating the resurrection of Jesus, I sensed the joy of children. If you ask a young child why they love their parents, they’re not going to give you some kind of coherent philosophical answer. At best, you’re going to get something along the lines of, “because they’re my mommy and my daddy!” The love of children for parents is rooted in the established reality joy and trust.

The resurrection is like that. It’s not a set of facts to be known, but a relationship to experience. This is what Mary discovered in the pre-dawn light that first Easter morning. She was distraught; her love for Jesus was so strong, and she thought she had lost him forever. She was so upset, and the reality of the situation was so unexpected, that she didn’t even recognize Jesus when he was standing in front of her.

Then he said her name. “Mary.”

Then she knew who she was talking to. Jesus. Friend. Lord. Brother. Teacher. Her heart was filled with astonishment and joy to overflowing. “Rabbouni!” She couldn’t believe what was happening, but her heart and her spirit told her that it was the most real thing she would ever experience. Jesus is here. “I have seen the Lord.”

Like Mary, we don’t have a relationship with Jesus because we believe in the resurrection. We believe in the resurrection because of our lived experience of Jesus. The resurrection is not just a story that we tell one another once a year. It is a lived daily reality. Jesus shows up. Even when we don’t recognize him. He calls us by name.

We don’t all have to have spectacular visions of Jesus to know him. Through Jesus, all things on heaven and earth were created, and we can experience him in all things. He’s with us when the trees sway and the leaves move in the wind – because Jesus is like that. We experience the resurrection when the truth is spoken and love is shared – because Jesus is like that. We know that Jesus is alive and well and active in the world when we see people caring for one another, sacrificing for each other, even when they’ve got nothing to gain – because Jesus is like that.

We have seen the Lord. Can you say it with me? We have seen the Lord. Hallelujah.

I know that some of us probably feel just like I did eleven years ago. Let’s be honest: This whole resurrection story sounds totally insane. It defies everything we know about the way the universe works. Dead men don’t come back to life after three days. Angels don’t show up in tombs. People executed by the state don’t get the last word.

But what if our conception of how the world works is the problem? What if the resurrection – our faith that God raised Jesus Christ from the dead – reveals the way God’s universe really operates? We worship a God of impossible things, and we live in a mystery.

This world says, “money makes the world go round” – but the resurrected Jesus says, “the last shall be first and the first shall be last.” Our culture says, “might makes right,” but Jesus says, “blessed are the peacemakers.” The world never tires of telling us that we need to be afraid, be prepared, be on guard, or we’ll get left behind. But the God of Jesus is the loving creator who has his eye on the birds of the air and the flowers of the field. In the face of fear, he has commanded us not to worry. In a world where nothing seems secure, Jesus teaches us to live in trust.

Maybe the resurrection of Jesus isn’t crazy after all. Maybe it’s of one piece with everything that God is teaching us in Jesus.

The power of the resurrection is here this morning. Don’t just believe it. Live it.

We welcome you, Lord Jesus. We welcome you, Holy Spirit. We welcome you, God and Father of all. We see you.

We have seen the Lord.

Let me hear the church say, “amen!” Hallelujah!

DELIVER US

Jennifer Hosler — Preacher

Psalm 118: 1-2, 19-29; Mt 21:1-11

I didn’t think I needed a trigger warning for a superhero movie. The week after it came out, Nate and I went to go see Black Panther, which is rated PG-13 for “prolonged sequences of action violence and a brief rude gesture.” Who knew that we needed warnings for rude gestures in 2018? I went in expecting the usual: loud noises, probably some shooting, comic book violence, and probably people dying in a not-very-gory or gratuitous way. I did not expect one of the first scenes would depict a very real place and very real, horrific events that are faced by people that I love.

Subtitles indicate that the setting is Sambisa Forest, Nigeria. We see a truck full of kidnapped young women, in hijabs typical of northern Nigerian style, speaking in Hausa. Sitting in an Imax theatre at the Air and Space Museum, I wasn’t expecting to be confronted with the horror of Boko Haram on a 52-foot high screen. I wasn’t expecting to see depictions of real people that I know and love, a real place where I have lived and worked. I just couldn’t help but be overcome, with silent tears pouring down my face—at the beginning of a Marvel movie. Caught completely off-guard, I think there was an added layer of pain and loss because Black Panther couldn’t just go and free the Chibok girls. I found myself wishing that there were superheroes like Nakia or T’Challa to free the remaining Chibok girls or the Dapchi girls or the hundreds of other women, men, and children whom Boko Haram has kidnapped. I want a superhero to deliver us from terror and violence and injustice.

The yearning for a superhero, for a victorious warrior, is not just a modern comic book-based yearning. It’s a universal, human yearning, an ancient, thousands-year old yearning that we see present in scripture.

Today is Palm Sunday, as we have already seen and heard and waved our palm branches. In Matthew, we see palm branches waving and being tossed, coats flying, and people shouting, “Hosanna!” which means “Save us!” or, “Deliver us!” These words are found in this morning’s psalm, Psalm 118: “Save us, we beseech you, O LORD!”

Palm Sunday is more than a fun excuse to order palm branches and wave them around in celebration. It’s a time to recognize our own and our world’s longing for a victorious warrior and to focus our hearts on the Deliverer whom the LORD sent—the One who is the opposite of what we want, but who is exactly what we need.

Triumphal Entries

Our gospel reading is a familiar passage, yet one that is thick with cultural meanings that aren’t immediately apparent to a 21st century audience. Jesus comes into Jerusalem riding on a donkey. The crowds around him say, “Hosanna,” and throw their coats and palm branches. When we’re familiar with scripture passages, it can be difficult to step back and acknowledge how puzzling and foreign and curious they are to our 21st century ears.

To start unpacking the cultural layers in this passage (which is in all four gospels), it’s helpful to focus on its name. “The Triumphal Entry” is the name used to refer to this scene, which is always read on the Sunday preceding Good Friday, or Holy Week.  Triumph means victory, glory, overcoming, winning. A “Triumphal Entry”, then, isn’t just any old entrance. It’s not casually walking into a room or strolling into town on a whim. A triumphal entry is a victor’s entrance, marked by glory.

People in Jesus’ times were familiar with triumphal entries of leaders.  In fact, there was a typical format that each entry took. First, it required a victory: the victor rode into the city on a steed and with an entourage and the crowds welcomed and rejoiced. Second, the victor moved toward a temple or religious site, and then gave a sacrificial offering to a deity (Losie, 1992, pp. 854-855).  In Jesus’ day, small heroes and large entered cities in this triumphant fashion after military conquests, including renowned warriors like Alexander the Great and Judas Maccabeus.

For Jewish people in first century Roman times, triumphal entries had historic and cultural implications but they also had eschatological or end time significance. Since the end of the prophetic period (when prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, and others preached to Israel), the Jewish people had been oppressed by Greek and Roman occupation. The prophets had spoken of a Messiah, a person sent from God to deliver the nation of Israel, to restore its faith, and to usher in God’s kingdom and reign over the whole earth. As the oppression continued year after year, the hope and longing for a Messiah grew and grew. Various people claimed to be messiahs and Jewish political revolts rose up and were crushed down. The people yearned for a hero. Some yearned for freedom from foreign occupation, some for yearned political domination and a Jewish empire, some yearned for the presence of YHWH to once again dwell in the temple.

When we meet Jesus in Matthew 21, Jerusalem is teeming with people. Thousands and thousands are making their way into the city from all over the country, to head to the temple for Passover.  Can you picture the thousands? We have the strange fortune of being a church in a city where we can picture what those crowds look like. The Temple was the center of the Jewish faith and Passover was the holiday most central to the peoples’ existence: Passover celebrates when LORD delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.

I be the Messianic fervor was at its yearly peak at Passover. After all, this is the time of year when YHWH had sent a deliverer before, when God used Moses to strike down the Egyptians! I imagine that “Hosanna! Save us! Deliver us!” was silently on the tongues of many pilgrims as they walked past Roman guards, with their extra reinforcements on high alert to keep the “peace” in case the Messianic fervor got out of control.

We enter the scene in Matthew amidst the throngs of pilgrims. Jesus pulls aside and sends his disciples in search of a donkey, in a specific location.  Jesus’ request of his disciples seems strange to us. “Go and get me a donkey, please.”  Jesus isn’t tired of walking (but he probably should be, since they’ve come from 80 miles north in Galilee over many days). This donkey riding is “a deliberate act, meant to be noticed” (France, 1994, p. 931). Jesus knows his scriptures and chooses to finally present himself and claim the role that the LORD God has bestowed upon him. The colt is brought with its mother, the disciples place their coats on its back, and Jesus begins to ride to Jerusalem on a young donkey.

The crowds around Jesus—probably pilgrims and disciples, interested people and hangers-on—recognize what this means and embrace his act.  They throw their coats on the ground for Jesus to pass on, just as people did for King Jehu in 2 Kings 9. People grab palm branches and other tree branches and spread them out on the road and wave them in exaltation, shouting praises from Psalm 118: “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heavens!”

The prophet Zechariah had spoken long before that the future King of Israel would come riding on a young donkey. In that passage, the LORD proclaims that he will rescue Israel from warring and violence and that the LORD would reign through the Messianic King (Zech 9:9-17).

“Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Should aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth” (vv. 9-10).

By riding into town on a donkey—and by coming into Jerusalem through the Mount of Olives, a place linked in Zechariah to YHWH’s deliverance—Jesus is symbolically claiming to be the King of his people, the promised heir of David, the Son of David. He’s claiming to be the Victorious One, sent by God to redeem a people wracked by sin and violence and war.

The Triumphal Entry is theologically important because Jesus claims his role as the Davidic King.  The Triumphal entry is also crucial because it shows us what type of King Jesus is—not an oppressive king, not a violent king, but a servant king. Jesus comes into Jerusalem, not on a mighty steed or warhorse like other victors, but on a donkey. He comes as Lord and King not for his own privilege or to wage war, but to serve and deliver others, to usher in a kingdom of peace. This King goes on to wash his disciples’ feet, to model humility, grace, and sacrifice.

Jesus turns out not to be the Messiah that people were expecting. Just a few days from all the palm waving and throwing and coats on the road, the supposed deliverer is arrested, beaten, tortured, and executed like a murderer or a thief. He is crucified, and all the glory and praises of Sunday feel a world away on Friday. Some had wanted a superhero to overthrow the Romans. Some had wanted a King to reign like David. None wanted a murdered Messiah.

Throughout the gospels, we see Jesus turning our human expectations upside down. Though the people yearn for a savior, a deliverer, a superhero, the Creator of the Universe enters the world as a baby, as a newborn. The King of the Jews comes in on a donkey, not a war horse. Power and strength is not shown through violence, but through choosing to die and to sacrifice Himself for others.

The cries of the crowds echo the cries of millions today. “Save us! We beseech you! Save us from these Roman occupiers! Save us from the senseless violence of Boko Haram! Save us from our love of money and guns over human lives! Save us from our bigotry and corruption! Save us from ourselves.” Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord, who shows us another way.

So much of me wants that superhero, wants someone to land on the ground in northern Nigeria and put an end to Boko Haram, to land on the ground in this town and puts an end to greed and violence and so much that is wrong in our world. I want that superhero. But what we have is Jesus. And instead of a neatly resolved comic book ending, the story is much more complicated, much messier, and involves so much of Jesus’ sweat and sacrifice—and it involves yours and mine as well.

Our donkey-riding, feetwashing, king of peace—the conqueror of death and sin—is crucified and raised to life. The story is miraculous and amazing. Yet it is not wrapped up in a neat bow. Jesus ascends to heaven and leaves us to do the work by the Spirit’s power, leaves us to proclaim and to engage in peace and forgiveness and reconciliation. God’s plan is not to do everything and make everything whole in a single command, but to work through us fragile, broken, complicated humans.

Today, as we mark our journey towards the Cross and the Tomb, we take time to recognize our own and our world’s longing for a victorious, violent warrior. We focus our hearts on the Deliverer whom the LORD sent—the One who is the opposite of what we want, but who is exactly what we need.

[Man of Sorrows here instead of later]

References

France, R.T. (1994). Matthew. In G.J. Wenham, J.A. Motyer, D.A. Carson, & R.T. France (Eds.), New Bible Commentary (pp. 904-945). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Losie, L.A. (1992). Triumphal Entry. In J.B. Green, S. McKnight, & I.H. Marshall (Eds.), Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (pp. 854-859). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

SOWING FOR GLORY

Nathan Hosler — Preacher

Jeremiah 31:31-34, Hebrews 5:5-10, John 12:20-33

This is basic gardening.

12:24 Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

Sowing assumes loss but anticipates great gain. In sowing the sower turns over the precious seed to the dark earth. The seed is hidden from light in secret places where worms roam and the mystery of life takes root. This insight, is, however, general. Anyone with experience or basic understanding of plant stuff will get this. Jesus is going beyond.

Imagery and analogy of plant life abound in scripture. In 1 Cor. 15:36-37 we read.
35 But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” 36 Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 37 And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. 38 But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. 39 Not all flesh is alike, but there is one flesh for human beings, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. 40 There are both heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is one thing, and that of the earthly is another. 41 There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; indeed, star differs from star in glory.

Sowing assumes loss but anticipates a harvest. Sowing is the intentional burying of an object that appears dead and then awaiting the pushing forth of new life. The multiplication of the small to the many. Last year sunflower seed that sprouted on its own grew to 8 feet tall with well over 100 hundred blossoms from a single stalk. This growth is mysterious, unexpected, almost uncontrollable—yet also fragile, at times easily destroyed, and precarious. However, the seed must be sown, buried, abandoned, set free.

Sowing the seed of life is the same. Verse 25 Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. The cost is great but the result surpasses even this. Verse 26 continues, Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.

Jesus sows with the anticipation of glory and invites us to the same. This is not suffering for suffering’s sake. And it is not personal suffering for personal gain, it is for others. An oft repeated and type of unofficial mission statement of the Church of the Brethren is: “For the Glory of God and for our neighbor’s good.” In James 3:18 also uses the imagery of sowing. The New Revised Standard Version reads. “And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.” The New International Version reads “Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.”

If one loses their life (either literally or figuratively) as part of a gamble to save one’s life, then it would seem like the point has been missed. “Gambling”, however, even if one’s motive is clear, does not convey quite the right sense. For, to gamble is to bank on chance, which is rigged so that losing is neigh inevitable. Sowing—sowing is much different. Though it is still not guaranteed success, sowing is done out of trust, resolve, skill, perseverance. The sowing is risky, it is an embrace of the unknown.

This weekend we held a Going to the Garden initiative gathering in New Orleans. This brought Brethren community-based gardeners from around the country to share of their efforts in dynamic (some might say radical) community gardening. Gardening that confronts the displacement of Indigenous peoples, that builds community, that reveals racism and challenges mass incarceration, that, as one gardener describes it “is growing more than veggies.” For some, the congregation eventually told the pastor that they supported him spending as much time as he felt called in the community gardening. One took a Fed-ex night shift so that the daylight hours would be free to garden. Another stayed in the Lower 9th ward after working in disaster response to the hurricane Katrina. People left home to follow the call of God on their lives. Some envision how it may help to reintegrated formerly incarcerated individuals. (In my description you may hear the strains of the “great cloud of witnesses” in Hebrews 11).

A classic text of this giving up of one’s life is Luke 9:23.

“Then he [Jesus] said to them all, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”

Sowing assumes loss but anticipates a harvest. Sowing is the intentional burying of an object that appears dead and then awaiting the pushing forth of new life. The multiplication of the small to the many.

5 minutes of silence—Congregational Response—on sowing

Jeremiah 31:31-34
31:31 The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.

31:32 It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt–a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD.

31:33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

31:34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.

A defining characteristic of the new covenant inaugurated by Christ is the breaking beyond ethnic and geographic boundaries. In Ephesians 2 we read.
 12 remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15 He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16 and might reconcile both groups to God in one body[c] through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.[d] 17 So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 

This “new covenant” is announced already in the prophet Jeremiah. The vision of this passage concludes with:

31:34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

These prophecies have a predictive quality but also a visioning function. They shape the imaginations of the people who seek God. In Baltimore there is the American Visionary Art museum. In DC at the Smithsonian American Art Museum at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in NOLA there are sections dedicated to “visionary art,” These typical include art works—almost always bright, rather wild, often apocalyptic—which are often based on “visions” and biblical texts. Often these “folk” artists labor for years in insolation, creating. Prophecies such as Jeremiah participate in shaping the imaginations of the people who seek God. They shape the imaginations of the people who seek God. This shaping, however, does not mean that the task, the goal, the bringing of the Peace of Christ is simply up to the will of the church nor the will of humanity but is carried forward by the action of God. It is not simply something that we work juuust a little harder to achieve. The Spirit of God carries it forward.

Of our Gospel passage in John commentators write, “Thus, ‘lifting up Jesus’ is not something contemporary preachers and Christians are charged to do, but something that has been done by God’s act at the cross and resurrection.” (Craddock and Boring, 330).

Our work as a community remains clear: gather to worship God, proclaiming the peace of Christ through word and deed. This ministry of reconciliation seen in 2 Corinthians 5 brings us to reconciling people to God and people to people (as well as all of creation).

These prophecies have a visioning function. They participate in shaping the imaginations of the people who seek God.

Congregational Response—waiting in silence—on being visionary

COME TO THE LIGHT

Numbers 21:4-9   Ephesians 2:1-10   John 3:14-21

Jeff Davidson

The comedian Norm MacDonald has a shaggy dog story that he sometimes tells. I’m going to do a very, very shortened version of it here.

A moth visits a podiatrist’s office. The podiatrist says, “What can I do for you today?” The moth says, “Doc, my life is a mess. I’ve been married for 20 years and things had been going pretty well, but then I lost my job. I didn’t want to tell my wife so I kept leaving the house every day and then just hanging around in the park. Eventually we ran out of savings and my wife found out what I’d been doing, and now she wants to divorce me.”

The podiatrist says, “That’s terrible.” The moth says, “I know, doc. And my son hates me. He’s taking his mom’s side in all this and he doesn’t want to speak with me and I don’t know how to reach out to him. I don’t have any job, I’ve burned through all of our money, all of my family is mad at me, and I can’t stand to look at myself in the mirror in the mornings.”

The podiatrist says, “I’m sorry to hear all of that.” The moth says, “I know, doc. I’m staying in a cheap motel down on the strip and I don’t know how I’m going to pay my bill for the next week. I get up in the morning and I go into the bathroom and I look in the cracked and wavy mirror and I think about how futile life is and how everything I’ve done has turned to crap and I wonder whether it’s even worth trying to go on with life any more or not.”

The podiatrist says, “I really am sympathetic and I really do want to help, but it sounds like you need a psychologist or a therapist. I’m a podiatrist. Why did you come in here?”

The moth says, “I know doc, but the light was on.”

Light attracts. Light doesn’t just attract moths – it attracts people. If you’re looking for a place to stop at night, whether it’s a store or a restaurant or a motel, do you pick the one that’s dimly lit with some neon lights out and large pools of shadow in the parking lot and the lobby area, or do you pick the one that has bright lights that you can see down the block and where you feel safe walking from the car to the entrance?

One of the things that light does is, obviously, to make things visible. It makes things easy to see. A recurring theme throughout the Bible is how that which saves the people, whatever that means in the immediate context, that which saves the people is something that the people have to be able to see so that they can take advantage of it.

Our Old Testament reading talks about how the people are complaining about the food they have to eat. This is in Numbers 21. What food is it, I wonder, that the people are complaining about? Let’s look back to Exodus 16:2-5. “In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The Israelites said to them, ‘If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.’ Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘I will rain down bread from heaven for you. The people are to go out each day and gather enough for that day. In this way I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions. On the sixth day they are to prepare what they bring in, and that is to be twice as much as they gather on the other days.”

This bread that the Lord is talking about was manna. The people of Israel are complaining about manna. They don’t have to hunt, they don’t have to sow seed, they don’t have to weed, they don’t have to gather, they don’t have to do anything but go out and pick up their food. Not only that – they only get enough for the day, so they can’t overeat and there’s no need to find space to store the leftovers. 

But still the people complain. Their complaints don’t actually make any sense. It reminds me of Yogi Berra, who said “That restaurant’s so crowded that no one goes there anymore.” That’s the level of the Israelites’ complaints. “There’s no food, and the food tastes awful.” No wonder God is perturbed. 

So how are the people to be saved from the punishment of the poisonous serpents? By looking at a bronze serpent. Did they have to wander around looking at the ground to find the bronze serpent while poison was coursing through their veins? No. The bronze serpent was on a pole. All you had to do was look, and there it was. It was easy to see. 

In our Gospel reading John implies that the bronze serpent raised up on the pole to save the people from the poison of the snakes is kind of a preview of Jesus, raised up on a cross to save people from their sins. That brief introduction leads into what is almost certainly the best known verse in the New Testament, and perhaps the whole Bible, John 3:16. I don’t usually use the King James Version, but that’s how I learned this verse and it’s still how it is most comfortable for me: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

John goes on starting in verse 19 to talk about why people might perish: “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

We all have dark and hidden places in our lives. We all have things that we keep hidden from others, things we hate to admit even to ourselves. We all try to live in darkness from time to time. But we can’t. To live in darkness is to live in death. To come to the light is to find life. To come to the light, to abandon the darkness and expose the hidden places of our lives to the light, is to know mercy and forgiveness and grace. It is to know Christ, and to be able to live in the light of Christ’s love and sacrifice.

In our reading from Ephesians Paul doesn’t talk about light, and he doesn’t really talk about the bronze serpent or about the cross either – at least not directly. He does, though, talk about being lifted up. In verses 4 through 6 he writes, “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ –by grace you have been saved– and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus…”

We are not yet seated in the heavenly places with Jesus, but when we come to the light we are raised up. When we come to the light we become a visible symbol of Christ who saves people from their sin. When we come to the light we become like that bronze serpent. We become like that well-lit place in the night. We become the thing that attracts and invites people to know more about God, to know more about Jesus, to know more about what life in Jesus means and how it affects the way we live. When we come to the light, we invite others to come to the light as well.

There’s something else that I think is noteworthy here that I hadn’t really thought about before. In his blog “Left Behind and Loving It” Mark Davis point out that in verses 14 through 18 in our reading from John the images of the serpent and the cross are particular. In other words, you had to look at that bronze serpent on that pole in order to be healed. I don’t know if there were other serpents on other poles, but if there were they weren’t any good. It was that particular serpent and pole that made a difference.

Likewise for those who know of Jesus it is faith in Jesus that saves. There are lots of other wonderful Christians in the New Testament, and you may have your own favorites. Peter, Paul, Tabitha, Stephen, Mary Magdalene, Phebe, Timothy, and many many more. Faith in them doesn’t do you any good. It is faith in Jesus in particular that offers salvation.

But then in verses 19 through 21 things broaden out a little bit. John starts talking about light and darkness, not just about a particular historical place and time. This is what lets us into the story.

It is not possible for us to personally know the historical Jesus, the flesh and blood man who walked the shores of Galilee a couple of thousand years ago. That flesh and blood man, that particular person, is not around anymore.

But Jesus is more than a specific flesh and blood person who died. Jesus is the Word, as John puts it at the beginning of his Gospel. Jesus is the Word made flesh, who has existed since before the beginning of the world. Jesus is the light of the world. We cannot see the particular bronze serpent, and we cannot see the particular flesh and blood man Jesus. But we can see Jesus the Light of the World. We can see the difference between light and darkness. We can walk in the light. We can live in the light. We can know the certainty of salvation and the joy of grace. We can know the love of God, who gave his only begotten Son that we might have eternal life.

Other people can know that too. How? They can know it through us. They can know it through our lives. They can know it by seeing us walk in the light. You and I are bronze serpents lifted up on a pole. It’s not that we can save anyone – we can’t. It’s not that looking at us automatically helps someone – it doesn’t. It’s that if we are walking in the light people will see the light reflected in us. If we are walking in the light we become a beacon that attracts others. If we are trying to continually come to the light, continually trying to move toward the light, continually seeking to live as followers of Christ, filled with grace and mercy and truth, then others can follow us and come to the light as well. Others can become a part of the kingdom of justice, of love, and of mercy, the kingdom of which we are citizens. Others can know the salvation that comes only through Jesus Christ.

Lent is a time where we examine our lives and think about how we live. Where are the dark, moist places in our lives where sin grows like mold? Where are the places in our lives that need fresh air and light?

Open the windows and doors of your life. Be transparent. Come to the light, and as you get closer and closer to it the light will shine through your life more and more, and more folks will see it. They, too, will be lifted up. They, too, will be able to walk in the light. They, too, will come to Christ. Amen.

THE ALLEGED WISDOM OF THE CROSS

Nathan Hosler — Preacher

Exodus 20:1-17, Psalm 19, 1 Corinthians 1:18-25, John 2: 13-22

The 10 commandments—seems straight forward enough—a list of things to do or not do. Written in stone. Delivered by a notable God/Moses team.

Psalm 19 seems less straight forward, but still comprehendible.

The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. –“firmament?” a little less clear not a word I use most days…but in general I’d give that a pretty high rating on clarity. Even if the particular message proclaimed by the heavens may get occasionally muddled, say, through shifting clouds—oh! Now I see a T-rex… Still the basic notion that God—who is a creating and sustaining God—can be seen in our surroundings makes sense. Seeing the sun rise provokes a sense of awe, pulling up to the 5a bus stop from Dulles airport and seeing Jenn waiting after a long and harrowing journey, feeling a tiny human move in the belly for the first time. In these, it is not a stretch to imagine that we see hints of God’s presence in the world.

A good God meets us in beauty and joy. In the Gospel of John, Jesus’s first miracle is to sustain the joy of a wedding party in Cana of Galilee. Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, in The Brothers Karamazov describes, the young man Alyosha, as he prayers in despair at the death of his mentor Father Zosima, drifting in and out of sleep hearing the Gospel account of Jesus’ miracle of turning the water to wine at a wedding feast, responds, “Ah, that miracle! Ah, that sweet miracle! It was not men’s grief but their joy that Christ visited, He worked His first miracle to help men’s gladness…’He who loves men loves their gladness, too.’…He was always repeating that, it was one of his leading ideas….’There’s no living without joy,” (Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, 338). The heavens and all of creation are telling of the glory of God.

Immediately after the continuation of the joy in Cana, Jesus acts for justice. Jesus cleans out the Temple. He drives out those misusing the worship space—this seems straight forward. Jesus obviously didn’t like what was happening and did something definitive. Action oriented, decisive ethical judgements on injustice, clearly communicated. Paired with the first miracle of Cana and at the beginning of the Gospel of John this sets the stage for Jesus’ ministry. In the other three Gospels it is culmination and a building of tension before the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus. [It is also thought to be a symbolic act of destruction. (W.R. Herzog II, “Temple Cleansing,” Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 820).

The cross, however, the cross… The cross, which also would seem to be the message, Paul seems to assert that the cross is only be comprehensible if one is already being saved. The enlightenment of the cross only makes sense once you’ve reached understanding which shows that the cross is not foolishness but the power and wisdom of God. In Corinth, the orators, the masters of rhetoric were stars.

[One commentator writes, “The world of Paul’s day was deeply enamored with public oratory by virtuoso rhetors known as sophists. Because Christianity placed such emphasis on public preaching, its preachers would inevitably be judged by sophisticated audiences according to the cannons of rhetoric.” This performance was one both of word-skill as well as presentation. (B.W. Winter, “Rhetoric,” Dictionary of Paul and his Letters, 820-821). Those who spoke eloquently gathered followers through the logic and beauty of their words (Hays, First Corinthians). Paul, though likely having some such training and demonstrating this skill in his writing—Paul preached without fuss. Paul preaches the foolishness of the humiliating cross.

1:18 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

 

The 10 commandments cut into stone. Creation pointing towards God. Jesus acting against injustice—seemingly pretty straight forward. The cross—less straight forward. May even be intentionally counter how we expect this to go. God is powerful. We expect God to act powerful—God-like even. Much philosophical reflection on the nature of God through the centuries has focused one the stark difference between finite humans and a powerful, the infinite, the other other—God. In the cross our expectations are turned upside-down.

In the cross our expectations are turned upside-down.

However, at this point, since the cross has now been now used for hundreds of years as a symbol and ornament it may feel clear. Because of this commonality, even when used well it likely has lost its shock. Not only has it likely lost some of the surprise through proliferation, but it has often been used in blatantly bland ways but also in blatantly offensive and abusive ways—with marauding Crusaders or in the burning cross of the Klan, for example. (For bland and offensive at once there is the use the crusader as a mascot for Christian schools)

If the wisdom of the cross is less clear, how do we get clarity? By staring at it intently awaiting enlightenment? By figuring it out? By describing it eloquently?

Black Liberation theologian James Cone notes that for Jews of the time crucifixion held a place of particular horror, he writes, “Thus, St. Paul said that the ‘word of the cross is foolishness’ to the intellect and a stumbling block to established religion. The cross is a paradoxical religious symbol because it inverts the world’s value system with the news that hope comes by way of defeat, that suffering and death do not have the last word, that the last shall be the first and the first the last…That God could ‘make a way out of no way’ in Jesus’ cross was truly absurd to the intellect, yet profoundly real in the souls of black folk. Enslaved blacks who first heard the gospel message seized on the power of the cross.” (Cone, 2).

Cone writes, “The cross and the lynching tree are separated by nearly 2,000 years. One is the universal symbol of Christian faith; the other is the quintessential symbol of black oppression in America. Though both are symbols of death, one represents a message of hope and salvation, while the other signifies the negation of the message by white supremacy. Despite the obvious similarities between Jesus’ death on a cross and the death of thousands of black men and women strung up to die on a lamppost or a tree, relatively few people, apart from black poets, novelists, and other reality-seeing artists, have explored the symbolic connections.” (Cone, Cross and the Lynching Tree, xiii).

That one community was seized by the cross as an understandable and strikingly similar lived experience, does not necessarily make that understanding either correct or relevant for other groups with a different set of experiences. However, given the way in which this passage overturns the assumptions of the “wise” and the “religious” folks who lack identification in the cross, we, if we are in that group, should be alarmed. Growing up in Sunday School or the Church might not get you there. A seminary degree might not get you there. Flannel graph might not get you there. 1:19-21 For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe.”

It sounds like we may not get it—we may not get the wisdom of God. For the wisdom and power of God are shown in the cross. Without the cross we lack all that we need. Returning to Cone, for those of us who allegedly can detach from the suffering of the cross we ought to be alarmed that we may miss God. We are at risk.

The wisdom of the suffering of and power of the cross becomes clearer in taking up the cross and following Christ. Taking of the cross and beginning to learn from and even join those who suffer. Cone continues, asking why white theologians have almost wholly missed the connections between the cross and the lynching tree. More specifically he focuses on theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, perhaps the most influential theologian and ethicist of the 20th century, who focused on the cross, wrote about race, and lived in close proximity to large African American communities—pastoring in Detroit during the Great Migration and working next to Harlem, a center of black cultural life. Cone asserts that though Niebuhr wrote about racial injustice he never fully felt it (41). He showed little interest in actually getting to know black folks. He writes, “It has always been difficult for white people to empathize with the experience of black people. But it has never been impossible.”(Cone, 41). This beginning to understand, is not simply understanding a social analysis of an “issue” but digs deeper into even understanding God. Understanding the very nature of the way that God has worked and how we participate is at stake.

The Jews, having lived under the oppression of both military occupation and forced exile understandably expected and hoped for the Messiah to come with political force and set up a righteous kingdom where they were in power. The Greeks wanted elegant and beautiful rhetoric to convince them. However, as Cone writes, the cross inverts the expectations and values. The cross is not only not this but would seem to be the opposite—foolish and weak.

“but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” Jesus invited his disciples to “take up their cross” and follow him, Christ calls us to be present with him in being with those who suffer.

God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength (v.25).

NO CROSS, NO CROWN

When I first read through the scripture readings for this Sunday, it wasn’t immediately clear to me how our gospel reading relates to the passage from Genesis. The story of Abraham and Sarah seems to be all about God bestowing unconditional blessing and abundance on two old people who had no hope at all for the future of their family.

The story of how God promised to make Abraham the father of many nations is one that, at first glance, seems very human and not supernatural at all. All of us want to leave a legacy. No one wants to see their name die out, to be forgotten by future generations. On its face, the story of Abraham and Sarah seems like a case of divine wish-fulfillment – a very human story with very human motivations. I can relate to it instantly.

On the other hand, there’s this story about Jesus and his hard-core insistence on embracing torture and death. In our gospel reading from Mark, Jesus rebukes Peter in front of all the other disciples. He says Peter’s mind is set on human things, rather than on the things of God. Jesus calls Peter “Satan” for his suggestion that Jesus should avoid the cross.

Peter and the other disciples didn’t believe in the cross. They didn’t believe in the path of self-emptying and dying to ego that Jesus was teaching them. Such things are incomprehensible to the human mind. Every one of us can understand a story about God granting new life, vitality, and progeny to an old man and his wife. Is it miraculous for an old woman to bear a child? Absolutely. Does it challenge our conception of the good life? Of who God is and should be? Probably not.

We want a God who guarantees our own survival and prosperity. We want a God who makes us fathers and mothers of many nations. Successful careers, happy families, public acclaim, and personal prosperity. We want the God of the good life, a God who promises joy, not suffering. We want the triumphant and generous God of Abraham and Sarah, not the whipped and crucified God that Jesus introduces us to.

But there is only one God. The God of the promise is the same God who endures the cross and invites us to walk in his way of self-abandonment. The God who provides us with a hope and a future is the same one who asks us to suffer for truth.

What is the relationship between these two faces of God? How do we reconcile the apocalyptic, bone-shaking God of Golgotha with the reassuring, sustaining God of the Promised Land?

For the apostle Paul, the answer is clear: It’s the resurrection. In our reading this morning from his letter to the Romans, Paul draws a clear line between the promise that God gave to Abraham and God’s act of raising Jesus from the dead.

Believe it or not, I find it easy to forget about the resurrection. I don’t know why, but I guess I’m a little more captivated by the fire and brimstone. When Jesus issues his challenge to the disciples, warning them about the suffering and persecution that he and his followers will face, that challenge seems like everything to me.

But the cross is not the end of Jesus’ story. The end of all the challenges that we face as friends of Jesus is not the grave, but victory. The message of Jesus one of life, truth, peace, and joy. As I mentioned in my last sermon, the very word “gospel” comes from the Greek term for a victory announcement. It is very good news.

From Genesis to Revelation, we discover a God who heals, guides, and protects us. God’s character doesn’t change. God was not first generous to Abraham and then hard-hearted towards Jesus. God demands the same thing from each one of us. He calls us into a kind of faith that brings us into conflict with the world as it is. And this same faith promises unconditional joy, growth, and wholeness as we choose to follow Jesus.

In our passage from Romans this morning, Paul teaches that God’s promise to Abraham wasn’t based on following a legal code. It wasn’t based on genetics, either. God promised that Abraham would be the father of many nations – not just his own biological descendants, but all those who share in his faith. It is Abraham’s faith made this promise from God possible. It is the righteous living that comes from faith that allows those who live in the spirit of Abraham to inherit the world.

I said that sometimes it’s easy for me to forget the resurrection in the midst of Jesus’ suffering. In the same way, I tend to ignore how much challenge and suffering Abraham and Sarah endured to receive God’s promise and blessing. Abraham and Sarah left home and family, wandering to an unknown land in the west. They did this on nothing more than a promise from God, that Abraham would be made into a great nation, and become a blessing to the whole world. Abraham and Sarah took an enormous risk based on a promise from a still, small voice that whispered in the night. Abraham and Sarah ventured out into the unknown. They took a leap of faith.

It all could have gone so badly. But God was faithful to Abraham and Sarah. Even when times were hard and they were on the run – even when Abraham got scared and did things like try to pass Sarah off as his sister! – God didn’t waver in preserving their lives and their marriage.

God was just as faithful to Jesus and his friends. Jesus suffered beatings, imprisonment, torture, and death on a cross – but on the third day, God raised him from the dead and glorified him. The faith of Abraham, the faith of Jesus, this faith has the power to birth children from the barren elderly and to raise the dead to life.

Before the resurrection, Peter and the other disciples simply couldn’t fathom how powerful this kind of trust could be. They couldn’t imagine how the path of pain and darkness could ever lead into the light. But after the resurrection of Jesus, the friends and followers of Jesus were filled with boldness, joy, and power. The apostles, who before the resurrection had been so clueless and frightened, found courage to share the good news throughout the world. They accepted the many challenges and hardships that came with this ministry. All but one is believed to have been murdered for their faithful witness.

In a world without the resurrection, this would seem a great tragedy. Why throw your life away when you could lead a safe and comfortable existence? But the faith of Abraham and Jesus teaches us a new way of living. Through the resurrection, we are rooted in the power of God, who is not constrained – even by death – in the ways that he blesses us.

We all have access to this resurrection power. Those of us gathered here this morning have been touched by his salvation. In large ways and small, we have experienced many spiritual baptisms into his death. We know darkness and suffering, the kind that requires trust to endure. We know the power of Jesus, through his Holy Spirit, which can raise us into new life.

We experience God’s call to yield ourselves, to embrace the challenges of righteous living. It’s a kind of life that draws us out from the mainstream culture and into the vibrant and risky counter-culture that is the kingdom of God. We know from experience and from the testimony of scripture that God calls us to take great risks. Through his resurrection power, God can overcome any adversity.

The world doesn’t understand this. Our own human minds can’t comprehend it. That is why Jesus rebuked Peter. He just couldn’t believe that Jesus was serious about submitting himself to death on the cross rather than leading a violent revolution to overthrow the Roman oppressors. Peter was only able to conceive of victory in the world’s terms. But in Jesus, God has revealed another way of conquering the world: with love, restoring wholeness and peace to the creation.

Most days, we’re just like Peter. We’re not capable of understanding God’s way of conquering love until we receive the faith of Abraham. We have to set our mind on the things of God, not on the human fears that hold us back from faithfulness.

There’s good reason for our fear. It’s rational to be afraid. Because God is calling us to a way of life that seems to threaten our very existence. As followers of Jesus, we’re called to surrender our wealth, our comfort, even our lives, to bless our neighbors and show love to our enemies. As the Lord Jesus tells us in our reading this morning:

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Jesus asks us, What does it profit you to gain the whole world – of comfort, wealth, status, and acceptance by worldly authorities? What does it profit you to gain the whole world and lose your life? What can you give in exchange for your life?

Only the God of Abraham, the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead, holds that kind of power. The power of life. Our God will defend you and bless you in the presence of enemies. He will walk with you through the pain and darkness. He will give you victory through the cross of Jesus.

Through faith, Abraham was able to see this. Now, through the resurrection, we can, too. God is the master of life and death. We can trust him, even when his word is totally out of sync with the wisdom of the world around us.

What are the areas of your life where God is inviting you to embrace the faith of Abraham? What are the challenges that seem insurmountable? What is the death that you’re afraid of? What does it mean for you to live in the power of the resurrection?