April 13, 2014

I Did Not Turn Backwards

Passage: Isaiah 50:4-9a, Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29, Philippians 2:5-11, Matthew 21:1-11
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The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backwards. I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.

Canada is a highly urbanized country like other industrialized nations. Over 80 percent of Canadians live in urban areas and that percentage is increasing. The largest urban areas in the country—Montreal, Vancouver, and Toronto—make up 34.4 percent or over one third of the population. It seems a common trait the world over, that people who live in big cities pride themselves on their savvy, their sophistication, their urbane cultural sensitivities. Along with this upscale mentality is a certain built-in disdain for small-town folks. Given the breadth of things a city dwellers encounters in daily life it takes a lot to startle them or to make their eyes widen with wonder.

A few weeks ago Valerie and I happened to be on a city bus in Toronto travelling north on Yonge street—what you might consider Toronto’s “main street.” There was a parade of people walking south carrying signs in support of taking action with regard to lost or murdered Aboriginal women. Clearly the Santa Clause parade gets much more attention and notice. People may have glanced at the signs the crowd was carrying; few stopped to watch. There was some inconvenience for vehicle traffic—drivers were finding alternate routes.

Jerusalem was a big city with respect to Israel. These city dwellers looked down on the country folks from Galilee. The impromptu crowd of people accompanying Jesus along what became a parade route was the typical crowd of Galileans coming for the celebration of Passover. Most city dwellers would barely take notice of them—just the usual crowd of simple country folk; not much to see here.

But Matthew tells us that, “When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’” This Greek word translated “turmoil” is used by Matthew to refer to the earthquakes at Jesus final breath on the cross (Matthew 27:50-51) and at the appearance of the angel at the empty tomb (Matthew 28:2). The word is the root of our English word “seismic.” Jerusalem in turmoil harkens back the turmoil that this same city was in when the wise men came looking for the child born king of the Jews. The king has finally arrived in the big city. The city of Jerusalem is in turmoil of seismic proportions.

We usually experience Palm Sunday as a happy day; people lining a parade route with great shouts of joy and high expectations. But there is turmoil; at the entrance to the city we sense a foreboding—trouble is brewing. Indeed there are shouts of joy from hearts full of hope that their rescuer had come to Jerusalem; the time for throwing off the oppressive grip of Roman military occupation had come. But there is something sinister brewing just under the surface. The city was in turmoil.

1. Would you have entered the city if you were Jesus? It is hard to put ourselves into our Lord’s shoes. Clearly, his thoughts are not our thoughts. He has been saying quite openly for some time now “that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” (Matthew 16:21) Passing through the gates into Jerusalem must have felt like a point of no return.

I often wonder how it was that our Lord came to this conviction with regard to the events that were about to unfold. If we take our clues from the writings of the Apostles, what are known as the Servant songs in Isaiah’s prophetic writing played an instrumental role in Jesus’ unfolding consciousness of the will of the Father for Messiah. Early on the disciples had eagerly confessed they believed he was the Messiah. Jesus affirmed their belief as correct. But when Jesus went on to speak of what was coming in Jerusalem the disciples were dumbfounded. In their understanding of Messiah it didn’t compute. Peter rebuked Jesus for talking nonsense.

It was following the resurrection that Jesus “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.” Particularly that it was “necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things.” (Luke 24:25-27) And as you read the Apostles’ writings these Isaiah texts play a significant role as they explain Jesus’ suffering. The significance of these Isaiah servant songs for the Apostles, in explaining the Messiah’s suffering, they learned from Jesus; indeed the centrality of the cross originated in the mind of Jesus himself.

Come with me again and see Jesus at the threshold of Jerusalem’s gate. Try to be in his shoes for a moment. I can imagine that the words of Isaiah 50 (one of these Servant songs) are on his mind and in his heart. “The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backwards.” Will he go through the gate? “I did not turn backwards”, comes the answer.

Every year on Palm Sunday in the Lectionary—the scriptures appointed for reading Sunday by Sunday—this servant song from Isaiah 50 is the appointed older testament lesson. It is correct that on this day of walking with Jesus into Jerusalem we should read a text that played such a significant role in Jesus’ understanding of his own mission.

I marvel that “he entered Jerusalem.” If I were standing at the gate in his shoes knowing what he knew I am not so sure I would have entered. Perhaps I would have just heard all the cheering but he knew there was turmoil. The gospel declares that this was all for us. I am ever grateful that he did not turn backwards.

2. It is evident everywhere in the Bible; a foreboding that seems to bubble beneath the surface. Look at our texts we read today. The people are shouting phrases from Psalm 118—“blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” Jesus will cite from another place in this same Psalm the next day when he talked of his coming rejection by the Jewish leadership; “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing and it is amazing in our eyes.” (Matthew 21:33-46) Jesus indicated that this Psalm foresaw his being rejected by the Jewish leaders; the chief priests and Pharisees who heard him say this knew that is what he meant and Jesus’ comment solidified their resolve to arrest him.

We read of both blessing and suffering in our Epistle reading from Philippians. “Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name.” Why? “He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”

In our Palm Sunday reading we read of how “a very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, ‘Hosanna (save us) to the Son of David! The Messiah’s triumphal coming to the city—but there is turmoil bubbling below the jubilation.

In Isaiah we read of the servant’s empowerment for his mission; a mission that includes great humiliation. “The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens—wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught. The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backwards. I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.” (Isaiah 50:4-6)

You can hear the foreboding the runs through them all. In every word of good news it seems that trouble is not far behind. There is turmoil in the city. When God shows up turmoil appears to accompany his arrival. Why is this so? Is it because God is trouble?

The gospel says that there is turmoil because we have denied the goodness of God. In our sinfulness we don’t trust God wants good for us, so there is turmoil. God does indeed announce his judgement of us—that we are sinners—but he does so only to remedy the situation for us. He announces the starkest diagnosis only in the process of bringing the cure. And this creates turmoil. Like many in Jerusalem we think that his coming to us will mean that we will have to give up cherished power or position or passion.

Somehow we know we were made for better things. Augustine said in his confessions he had long known God was calling him to better things—“just not yet” was his answer. The music of every era carries this theme. Some of you are old enough to know the rock bad AC/DC. They have a song titled Ride On. The singer keeps promising himself that “one of these days I’m gonna change my evil ways.” But he never does. He keeps concluding, “But I know what I'm gonna do—I'm gonna ride on.”

Jerusalem is in turmoil. “Who is this?” they ask. What explanation is to be given for his unsettling presence? I spoke recently with a young Christian man who had been sharing his faith in Christ with his best friend who was not a Christian. They had often spoken and shared freely with one another their thoughts on spiritual life; email and text messages regularly addressed the subject. This man had just finished reading a book on spirituality that this best friend had recommended. He had sent a note responding to the content of the book from his perspective as a Christian. There was dramatic and sudden shift in the tone his best friend’s response; the best friend questioned if they could be friends any more.

Friends there is turmoil when Christ approaches us. For some it is the turmoil of uncertainty—does he mean to do me harm or good? So that we will have no doubt about God’s purposes for coming to us the unfolding drama of this week will culminate as God takes the just judgment for our sin upon himself. So there is no room for questioning his goodness humanity will do its worst to him and he will pray, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.” Can we not open our hearts to him—even just a crack? Is it not strange how readily people believe things read through internet search but question the love of God trumpeted in his life given for us?

3. There is another king riding to Jerusalem about this time. The Roman governor Pilate is making his way from his palatial abode in Caesarea on the Mediterranean Sea to Jerusalem in the Judean hills. He is likely annoyed that he has to leave those pleasant surroundings by the sea. He comes in the pomp and power of a conqueror; he has come to keep the peace during the Passover festival. Ruling the Jews for Rome was a tricky thing given the always bubbling foment for a Messiah; this foment always seemed to spill over during the religious festivals. Passover is coming, so Pilate is headed to Jerusalem, mostly out of expediency; he likes his job—its perks, power, and prestige—and he is loath to let any self-acclaimed messiah create trouble for him

How different is the king who comes riding on a donkey. Kingdoms are colliding here is Jerusalem. The city is in turmoil. It’s the perfect storm. And in the unfolding drama we will see whose kingdom makes for peace; whose kingdom loves its citizens; which king really wants good for his people.

In the paradox that the gospel will always be, we must be sure to note that our Lord’s humiliation is his exaltation; his degradation is his triumph; his dying gasp “It is finished” is the declaration that his mission has been accomplished. Paradoxically, again, his victimization at the hands of miscreants is his victory. And in the paradox of paradoxes, Christ’s shame is his glory.

I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting. The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backwards.