SERVANT, PRIEST, AND KING

Isaiah 53:4-12; Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45

Jennifer Hosler

My paternal grandfather (my dad’s dad) was really interested in genealogy. I never asked exactly where this interest came from but through it, I learned some random historical facts about my dad’s side. Little nuggets of info such as, I apparently have a Quaker ancestor from somewhere near Pittsburgh or Erie, PA, or that others in my family line were British Loyalists who moved up to New Brunswick after the American Revolution.

Not everyone has the privilege of knowing about their specific ethnic heritage: some cultures lack written documents, while others were subjected to abuses and atrocities that wiped away much cultural and historical memory. In one of my classes this semester, I’ve learned a little about DNA mapping and how one’s ethnic heritage can be traced by the stories on our bodies that we can’t see. For some people, learning about their ethnic heritage or genealogy provides a way to understand themselves as part of a larger, longer human story, bringing meaning and even healing to known or unknown pasts.

The Bible has a lot of genealogical information. The New Testament starts off with a genealogy of Jesus. Jesus was ethnically and religiously Jewish—a descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He was also in the family line of David, whether you trace him through Joseph’s lineage in Matthew or Mary’s in Luke. While the genealogy passages Matthew 1 and Luke 3 might seem a little dry or tedious, they are actually important for understanding that Jesus didn’t just spring up out of the blue. His ministry was an extension of a few thousand years of faith and worship in Israel.

In the Church of the Brethren, we say that the New Testament is our creed and we emphasis the words and teachings of Jesus. This emphasis came out of a desire not to fight over creeds and theology, as Christians were doing in the 1600 and 1700s. But in saying that the New Testament is our creed, we aren’t saying that the Old Testament should be thrown away or isn’t important. The Hebrew Scriptures or First Testament, as the OT is sometimes referred, provide an important context and foundation for our faith and for understanding Jesus.

We Need the Hebrew Scriptures

A few weeks ago, we had footwashing in our Love Feast worship service. Footwashing is rather weird. Our feet are clean, pretty much, but we kneel down and scoop water over them and dry them. Feetwashing needs context in order to understand the meaning behind it, something that we try to do regularly—teach context and meaning. The need for context is present any time you read the Bible, including when we look at Jesus’ life and ministry, his death on the cross and his resurrection. Without the context of the Hebrew Scriptures, everything about Jesus is pretty weird. Some might say it’s rather strange even in context—but it is in context that we learn the spiritual and practical meanings of who Jesus is and why what He did matters.

The Hebrew Scriptures—which were Jesus’ Bible—put the New Testament into a context of God the Creator reconciling the world. As created beings, humans were given the freedom to choose: to choose love or to choose hate and harm and greed. In the beginning of the Bible, we see that people chose the latter. God then took the long road, the thousands of years-long journey of reconciling us to Himself and to each other and our world. Curiously, at least to me, God has chosen to do this through small and seemingly insignificant people and people groups. A wandering nomad named Abram became the ancestor of a nation. A large clan of Jacob became a nation state, though with significant ups and downs like slavery and the Exodus and wars and idolatry and wise kings and bad kings and exile.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, we also see a complicated religious system revealed by God. The LORD, Yahweh, is holy and the people of Israel—corrupt as we all are in our hearts—need to purify themselves to remain in relationship with God, through religious rituals. This system of purification—Levitical Law—is messy and bloody and complicated and, overall, insufficient for permanently making the people right with God. High priests were appointed to offer sacrifices on behalf of themselves and the people. No lambs or goats made lasting dents on the Israelites’ or humanity’s capacity for violence, hate, and greed.

Thankfully, God’s plan didn’t stop with that sacrificial system. It was a bridge, something that the ancient Israelites could grasp and that pointed to a final act of reconciliation, where Yahweh would perform the ritual acts needed to cleanse human hearts. We see this foreshadowed in the Old Testament, when the prophets speak of the LORD giving the people new hearts, of making a new covenant that the people themselves could never ever break.

Our passage in Isaiah is one of those foreshadowing passages. In it we read about a suffering servant. Isaiah has several poetic passages called “servant songs,” one of which goes from chapter 52:13-53:12, of which we read a portion. Servant songs point towards someone who would lead Israel out of its path of exile and back towards its mission as God’s people, bringing light to the nations around it. In Isaiah 53, we see that the servant is so willing to commit to God’s will that the servant suffers, is killed despite innocence, and is lifted up as great and righteous, and in doing so, making others also righteous.

Several years ago, when I was in college in Chicago, I was volunteering in a ministry that tutored English as a Second Language to senior citizens, ones who had emigrated from the former Soviet Union and most of whom were Jewish. There was typically a short devotional and then we broke up into pairs to work on English, sometimes just having conversation or sometimes reading passages together from the Bible or a newspaper, as each senior felt comfortable.

My partner, Olga, was interested in learning more about the Hebrew Scriptures, since many Jews in the USSR had not been allowed to practice their faith. Since she was okay with reading the Bible, I thought we could read a passage that might also raise some questions about how Christianity is connected to Judaism. She started reading aloud from Isaiah 53 and she stopped part way, a bit aghast. “This is Jesus!” she exclaimed, incredulously. I said, “Yes, that was what Jesus’ disciples said too.” The NT writers looked back and saw several layers of meaning in this passage: meaning for Isaiah’s time and also a meaning for 800 years later, in the time of Jesus. The suffering servant pointed toward Jesus, who would also suffer in innocence and “make many righteous” after doing so.

Preaching the Cross and the Empty Tomb: Christ Crucified and Raised

As I was preparing this sermon and reading these texts, I wondered, “Is it possible to preach the Cross without also preaching resurrection? Is it possible to preach the resurrection without also preaching the Cross?” Neither, I think, provides us with a full gospel. In college and a bit beyond, I grew dissatisfied with a message that I often heard, preaching Christ “came to die” without also preaching about what Jesus did while on earth and without emphasizing the Resurrection. It seemed as if the dying part was only what mattered to some people, not also the healing the sick, the feeding the hungry, the loving the outcast, the raising the dead—and being raised FROM the dead. It seemed like an incomplete approach.

This dissatisfaction was one of the things that drew me to the Church of the Brethren, which draws heavily from Jesus’ life and ministry and emphasizes the resurrection and Christ’s coming Kingdom. Now, I am a preacher and a minister, tasked with interpreting and helping people understand God’s word and the gospel of Jesus. It is good news that Christ conquered death and rose from the dead: that death no longer has mastery over us, that we are dead to sin, dead to hatred, to racism, to greed and alive to God, alive to love, alive to reconciliation, alive to generosity.

Romans 5:12-21 talks about how sin and brokenness began with the first humans in Genesis. Hatred, violence, and greed became a way of life for all of humanity. Even if not all of us commit violence or are that greedy, our hearts have this tendency to hurt others and care mainly about ourselves. The apostle Paul writes about how someone was needed to help us break this cycle, someone who wouldn’t succumb to hate. A servant of God who would not do violence, would not be deceitful (Isa. 53:9). Someone who could live out humanity as it was meant to be: loving, serving, healing, feeding, reconciling, and forgiving. This person was Jesus.

The religious elite of Jesus’ day didn’t like that he healed, fed, loved, and forgave sins on God’s behalf. They were concerned about preserving the status quo, about outward rituals, about not rattling the Roman occupiers. So Jesus was falsely accused of blasphemy and executed as a criminal by the Romans. Looking at Isaiah 53, we see how the Suffering Servant, like Jesus, did not resist the violence being done to him (v. 7). The punishment meted out by the Romans was unjust; Isaiah said that the servant “by a perversion of justice he was taken away” (v. 8).  Jesus certainly did not deserve to be crucified alongside thieves and murders, for the crimes of healing the sick and forgiving sins in the name of the LORD.

While we read that Jesus was Immanuel, God with us, fully God and fully human, it wasn’t automatic that He would live as He did. He had to work to love and be obedient. God recognized Jesus’ obedience at his baptism (Matt. 3:17). Hebrews 5:5 says that this obedience, even if it meant suffering and death, this fulfillment of what it meant to be a loving and just human—even if it cost him everything—led to God appointing Jesus as high priest. Jesus became the High Priest of all High Priests, the one who could offer up prayers and ask for forgiveness of sins once and for all.

Transformed by the Cross and Resurrection

All of this—prophecy, Jesus being the human of all humans, a suffering servant, a prototypical high priest—it is all rather complicated. Yet what it means for us, as followers of Jesus, is that we follow the One who lived out what humanity should look like—and died because of it. We follow the One whom God raised from the dead and appointed as our high priest, our mediator before Him. Hebrews 4 says that Jesus was tempted in every way that we are, yet without sin: “Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (4:14-16).

Sisters and brothers, who is Jesus and why do we follow Him? Jesus is God-in-the-flesh, the perfect human to come and break us out of our cycle of hate and violence and greed. Jesus is the One who shows us what it really looks like to live and to love, that the greatest are not those of us who lord ourselves over others but the great ones are the ones who serve. Jesus is the One who was willing to follow God’s way of love, even if it meant dying an unjust death. Jesus is the One who has conquered sin and hate and greed, who has walked through the darkness of death, and has forged the way of new life as the firstborn Resurrected child of God.

We follow Jesus to learn what it means to be human and to truly live. Jesus is the One who stands before us as our High Priest, bringing us into right relationship with God. We follow Jesus to be reconciled to God, through Jesus’ submission, death, and resurrection. We follow Jesus to be transformed, to encounter new life through the Holy Spirit, as God gives us a new heart. We follow Jesus to show the world what God’s love looks like: compassion and justice and reconciliation and nonviolence and mercy and sacrificial service. AMEN.

Hebrews 12: 1-2

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

Victor, King, Servant?

Victor, King, Servant? – Jennifer Hosler

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

Today is Palm Sunday, as we have already seen and heard and waved our palm branches. Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter, is the name that the church has given to mark the events in Scripture which are referred to as the Triumphal Entry.  The Triumphal Entry, which we just read, involves palm branches waving and coats flying and people shouting, “Hosanna!” Something big is going on with what Jesus is doing: the people around him realize it and rejoice.

What is the Triumphal Entry, besides a fun excuse to order palm branches and wave them around in celebration? What does it tell us about who Jesus is? What does it mean for us as followers of Jesus?

I spent a few moments this past week musing on the word triumph. When we use a word or phrase phrase regularly, we can forget the meaning within. Triumph—the word indicates victory, glory, overcoming, winning. “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 into a crowd or a setting or place.

What is a modern example of a triumphal entry? The first one I thought of involved sports teams, athletes coming home after winning a national championship.  It is usually a very big deal when the winning baseball or hockey team comes home: there are parades of victory throughout the streets.  The streets are decorated, signs go up. Everyone gets talking about the victory. Everyone is celebrating the glory of the team and of the city.  While this isn’t something that DC knows much about in recent years, we can all picture the excitement there would be if the Nats won the World Series or the Capitals won the Stanley Cup.

While DC might not be too familiar with sports team glory in recent years, DC does know another modern form of a triumphal entry. Every four years, the city rolls out an impressive extravaganza for the Presidential Inauguration. After battles in primaries and in the general election, the electoral victor is finally sworn in at the US Capitol building, surrounded by crowds and dignitaries. There is then a processional march from the Capitol to the White House down Pennsylvania Avenue. Thousands and thousands cheer and celebrate and strain their necks for a glimpse at the new President of the United States.

People in Jesus’ times were familiar with triumphal entries of leaders. In fact, there was a typical format each entry took: there was victory; the victor rode into the city on a steed and with an entourage; the crowds welcomed and rejoiced; the victor moved toward a temple or religious site, and then gave a sacrificial offering up to a deity (Losie, 1992, pp. 854-855). 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 also eschatological or end time significance. Since the end of the prophetic period (when prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Micah, 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 words of the psalmist (Ps. 13) rang true for many, “How long, O LORD, will you forget us forever?” 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 was teeming with people. Thousands and thousands were making their way into the city from all over the country, in order to head to the temple for Passover. As DC tourist season is once again in full swing, you can picture what it means for a city to be teeming with people (especially if you walked along the tidal basin this past week). The temple was the center of the Jewish faith and Passover was the holiday most central to the peoples’ existence: Passover marks YHWH’s deliverance of the people from slavery in Egypt.

Jesus’ request of his disciples in Matthew 21 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 (as do the crowds, apparently) and chooses to finally present himself and claim the role that the LORD God has bestowed upon him. The prophet Zechariah had spoken long before that the future King of Israel would come riding on a colt (a young donkey). In the passage, the LORD proclaims that he will rescue Israel from warring and violence and that the LORD would reign through the Messianic King.

By riding into town on a donkey—and by coming into Jerusalem via 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.

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. 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. “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heavens.”

It is clear that the celebrating crowds were only a portion of Jerusalem. They may have primarily been people from Galilee, Jesus’ northern region that was not of the highest esteem. Matthew writes that “When [Jesus] entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” There was a commotion in the city. Not everyone knew who Jesus was but word spread quickly, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” (Mt. 21:10-11)

Throughout his ministry, Jesus was not always verbally open as to who he was. Jesus would heal the sick and raise the dead—but often stopped short of saying who he really was. With the Triumphal Entry, Jesus is openly declaring that he is the Messiah—but is also relying on people to make the symbolic connections from Scripture. The Triumphal Entry is a picture to illustrate that Jesus is the One whom the prophets foretold, come to deliver God’s people and to usher in the Kingdom of God’s reign.

The Triumphal Entry is theologically important because Jesus claims his role as the Davidic King. The Triumphal entry is also important because it shows us what type of King He is—not an oppressive king, not a violent king, but a servant king.

Pope Francis, the head of the Roman Catholic Church, has enthralled the world and media over his first year. He has chosen modest housing accommodations over a palace, simple garments over lace and gold and handmade shoes, and a twenty-year old used car over new, luxury models. These steps have been a welcome change by many who saw the Vatican as overflowing with wealth.

Yet perhaps the most meaningful actions by Pope Francis have been ones that diminish the distance between the everyday person and the Pope. Personal phone calls, unannounced visits, refusing to be encased in the Popemobile bubble, footwashing of prisoners, embracing a disfigured man: Pope Francis clearly tries to be a humble servant. Humble servants are not in large supply in this world and we are used to people using their power and privilege to support themselves and their own comfort. Pope Francis is a contrast to our dominant culture and values. People around the world are moved by his actions, by a person in power, with great means, who chooses humility, simplicity, and service.

Jesus comes into Jerusalem, not on a mighty steed or warhorse, but on a donkey. He comes as Lord and King not for his own privilege, but to serve and deliver others. Jesus’ ethic of service and humility can be seen throughout the book of Matthew, particularly in passages close to the Triumphal Entry and the Cross.

In Matthew 20, the chapter prior to today’s text, the mother of disciples James and John comes to Jesus with a request. Basically, “Give my sons glorious positions of power when you come into your Kingdom.” Jesus says no and the other disciples, when they hear about it, are furious. Jesus takes it as a teaching opportunity, “Rulers and kings lord their power over their subjects. But not so with you. Whoever wants to be great should be a servant” (paraphrased, Mt. 20:25-26). Commentary author R.T. France states that, “Not so with you well sums up the theme of this whole section of the gospel; the kingdom of heaven creates an alternative society which challenges conventional values” (1994, p. 930). Jesus’ Kingdom is defined by service, not privilege or power.

Another passage in Matthew 20 reminds me of Francis’ acts of caring for the sick (or rather, I should say that Francis reminds me of Jesus). On the way to Jerusalem (but before the donkey), the crowds are following Jesus and two blind men on the side of the road hear who is coming. The two men cry out, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!” The blind men realize who Jesus is. Yet the crowds shout them down: Jesus doesn’t want anything to do with you, blind beggars on the side of the road, literally on the margins. But Jesus doesn’t look at outward appearances and everyone is worthy of his care, his healing, his grace. The blind men are healed and begin to follow Jesus.

After the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, Jesus heads to the temple. He looks around and sees that the temple area (about 30 acres) was filled with money changers and animals for sale. These commercial activities were crowding out the main purpose of the area—worship, prayer—and were probably exploitative. Jesus clears out the money changers and merchants and, soon after, “the blind and lame” come to him there and he cures them (21:14). Jesus’ acts illustrate that he is a servant king, using his authority to bring justice and grace.

From the Triumphal Entry and the clearing of the temple, we move forward to the Upper Room on Thursday. Just a few days after arriving in Jerusalem, Jesus the Servant King holds a Passover meal with his disciples. In the book of John, we read that Jesus, knowing that he would be put to death, took the last opportunity to teach his disciples by choosing to humbly serve them.

In New Testament times, people would have their feet washed upon entering a room, probably by a servant. The disciples and Jesus didn’t come with servants and no one had apparently been moved to be the one to serve. So the teacher Jesus girds himself with a towel, bends down, and washes his disciples’ feet.

After he is done washing, Jesus asks his disciples, “Do you not know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (John 13:12-15).

As followers of Jesus, we are called to live out Jesus’ example of service. Our lives are meant to be defined by gratitude, simplicity, humility, and service, rather than clutching onto status or privilege or some authority that we might have. We are called to live our lives by Jesus’ ethic of service—and also to model his act together. This week, we worship together on Thursday for Love Feast, where we, like Jesus and the disciples, partake of the bread and cup, share a meal together, and wash one another’s feet. As we go through this week and as we join for Love Feast, may we meditate on Jesus our model, the Servant King. AMEN.

 

 

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.