Sunday, April 05, 2009

Standing Firm

Isaiah 50:4-9a

"Sticks and Stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me." That’s what you’re supposed to say when bullies pick on you and call you names. It would be nice, if names didn’t hurt, but from experience I can say – it’s not true. Names do hurt. Indeed, we’ve discovered that verbal abuse can be just as damaging to a child as physical abuse. James understood this to be true long before the psychologists caught on. He called the tongue a "restless evil, full of deadly poison." Indeed, the same tongue that we use to sing praises to God, we also use to curse those "who are made in the likeness of God." (James 3:1-12).

Today we celebrate Palm Sunday, and as we wave our palm branches and triumphantly process into church the excitement begins to build. Yes, this is a time to shout out words of praise and give thanks for God’s gift of deliverance. Oh, if things would just stay like that, but if you know the story, you know that things quickly changed. Those same voices that shouted out words of praise, soon began to call for the head of Jesus.

As a preacher, I never know what to do with Palm Sunday. It’s fun to sing and dance, but I know where things lead. Making a big deal about Jesus’ triumphal entry seems rather beside the point, when I know that Good Friday is on the horizon.

But the Gospels tell this story nonetheless, maybe as a reminder to us that we’re often fickle, getting pulled along by the crowd, this way and that. In that telling of Jesus’ story, we find him riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. To us riding a donkey might not make an impression, but for first-century Jews, it may have called to mind a prophetic word of hope. It’s quite likely that Jesus intentionally acted out Zechariah’s prophetic word that one day a king would ride triumphantly into the city on a donkey, bringing with him the promise of peace for all nations, even as he extended his rule to the ends of the earth (Zech. 9:9-10).

So, as the people began to hear that the teacher from Galilee was riding into town on a donkey, they must have wondered – Is this the one? Indeed, is this the one who will wrest dominion from the hated Roman oppressors and restore freedom to God’s people? With those thoughts in mind, it’s no surprise that the people responded by shouting hosanna and by spreading palm branches out in front of him.

As we consider this scene, we need to consider another one, because it’s quite possible that as Jesus was entering the city through one gate, the Roman governor was riding into the city through another gate astride a war horse. So, here we have it – two visions of reality. One vision lifts up peace, while the other focuses on domination. We’re fickle. We’ll give peace a chance, but only for a moment, because when push comes to shove, we’re likely to embrace Caesar. It’s safer, after all!

I. STANDING FIRM

Linus once said to Charlie Brown:
"I don't like to face problems head on. I think the best way to solve problems is to avoid them. This is a distinct philosophy of mine. No problem is so big or so complicated that it can't be run away from!"

I like that philosophy. I'd rather switch than fight! But Charlie Brown, who isn't known for standing up for himself, asks Linus: “What if everyone in the whole world suddenly decided to run away from his problems?” Linus answers: “Well, at least we'd all be running in the same direction.” [Robert Short, The Parables of Peanuts, (HarperSan Francisco), 47].

When we see Caesar’s armies heading our way, it’s likely we’ll either flee or submit, because those are the safer choices. But is that the Jesus way? Is the Jesus way, the safe way? I believe that Jesus knew what he was doing when he rode into the city riding on a donkey. He knew he was asking for trouble – because Rome wasn’t going to back down easily. That’s why the triumphal entry is an aberration. Jesus understood that peace would come by way of the cross and not the sword.

This Friday we will gather to reflect on the cross and its meaning for our lives. In our imaginations, we’ll watch as Jesus is nailed to the cross, cries out in agony, and dies a cruel and painful death. And, we’ll ask why things happened this way. I expect that the answer we receive will be a complicated one. There is no easy answer as to why the cross stands at the center of our faith. But, I do hope that our Good Friday reflections will remind us that no matter what we do, even if we abuse God’s son, God will not give up on us. And, I also hope we’ll better understand that while the search for domination is world’s way of living, God’s way is one of love, reconciliation, and peace.

In Christian theology, Jesus is often identified with the suffering servant of Isaiah 50. He’s the one who stands firm in the face of oppression, because he knows that God will stand with him. In the face of trial, this servant says "he who vindicates me is near." So, who can contend with me?

As I think about the church's place in an often hostile world, I find great hope in the history of the Christian faith. We can go all the way back to the earliest days, to Paul, Ignatius, Perpetua, and Origen. But there are many recent stories to consider as well – stories like that of the Chinese church. In 1949, when the Communist government kicked out the last western missionaries, that church was still small and struggling. No one gave it a ghost of a chance of surviving without outside help. But, today, more than a half century later, that church has mushroomed. Despite the cultural revolution and years of oppression, the church has grown from a few hundred thousand to millions of adherents. In fact, no one is completely sure how many Christians live in China, but some estimates place it well above fifty million. The church could have folded in 1949, but it didn't.

II. GOD'S THREE GIFTS THROUGH JESUS

Though times can be difficult, Isaiah 50 offers us three words of hope. These words, which apply at one level to the Jewish people, and at another level to Jesus, also apply to us, for as St. Francis said: Christians are "little Christs."
  • God Gives a Word that Sustains.
Words can destroy, but there are also words that heal, console, and sustain the weary. Jesus brought words of healing to sinners, outcasts, and the frail, and as "Little Christs" we can do the same.
  • God opens our Ears
Some times we worry about what to say to someone in distress. But in many cases we don’t need to say very much. Just listening may be more important that saying anything. Isaiah invites us to pray that God would open our ears so that we could hear God’s voice and also hear the voices of our neighbors. Even as God quiets our rebellious hearts, by opening our ears to his voice, God offers consolation and support, so that we can listen to our neighbor’s cries for help in times of trouble.

  • God helps us Persevere
It’s easy to give up in the face of difficulty. Linus may be right, running from our problems might be a good philosophy. It’s a safe choice, after all! But is this what God wants from us?

Jesus knew that Palm Sunday wouldn't be the last word. He knew that Good Friday stood in front of him, but he stood firm in the face of oppression, because he knew that his vindication was near. He knew the truth of Psalm 46, which declares that God is our refuge and our strength. Yes, God is our very present help in times of trouble. Though earthquakes shake the land or the oceans roar, we needn’t fear, because God – not the church, not our family, not our government – is our strength. The world may ask: Where is your God? And our answer should be: "It is the Lord who helps me."

Luther's magnificent hymn A Mighty Fortress is our God, is based on Psalm 46. In this grand hymn, we declare that God is our "mighty fortress" and "a bulwark never failing, our present help amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing." Though our enemies seek our destruction, we needn’t fear. There’s no need to run from our problems. Instead, we can stand firm, because God is near. God says to us in our times of trouble: “Be still and know that I am God!"

The promise of Palm Sunday is that Easter will overcome Good Friday. Jesus cries out on our behalf – “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” And he also declares a word of hope: “Into your hands, I commend my Spirit.” In this declaration, we find our hope.

The message of Holy Week, which we enter this morning, is this: Whether it’s sticks or stones, or names, we have been called to a ministry of word and service, and no matter what comes our way, God is there to sustain us in our ministry. As we go forth into the world, we don’t go alone. There will be resistance, but God and not Caesar will prevail. So be strong, stand firm!

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, MI
Palm Sunday/Passion Sunday
April 5, 2009

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