Sunday, March 29, 2015

Long Awaited, Yet Unexpected (Holy Week I)

Long Awaited, Yet Unexpected from Joseph Taber on Vimeo.

Psalm 31:14-24
But I trust in you, O LORD; I say, “You are my God.”
15My times are in your hand; deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors.
16Let your face shine upon your servant; save me in your steadfast love.
17Do not let me be put to shame, O LORD, for I call on you; let the wicked be put to shame; let them go dumfounded to Sheol.
18Let the lying lips be stilled that speak insolently against the righteous with pride and contempt.
19O how abundant is your goodness that you have laid up for those who fear you, and accomplished for those who take refuge in you, in the sight of everyone!
20In the shelter of your presence you hide them from human plots; you hold them safe under your shelter from contentious tongues.
21Blessed be the LORD, for he has wondrously shown his steadfast love to me when I was beset as a city under siege.
22I had said in my alarm, “I am driven far from your sight.” But you heard my supplications when I cried out to you for help.
23Love the LORD, all you his saints. The LORD preserves the faithful, but abundantly repays the one who acts haughtily.
24be stong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the LORD.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

Mark 11:1-11
When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, [Jesus] sent two of his disciples 2and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. 3If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’”

4They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, 5some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” 6They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. 

7Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it.; and he sat on it. 8Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut int eh fields. 9Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Then he entered jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God.

A month and a half ago we followed Jesus out into the wilderness. We set out on forty days of Lenten Lament, reading the Psalms that plea with God to make things right again. We wrestled with grief, sin, injustice, and the harshness of being abandoned. Why would a father drive his beloved son out into the wilderness? Why would a loving God let us live in a world filled with lament?

Maybe the hardship of the wilderness, and learning to live with our discomfort, is an act of love. Perhaps the wilderness of our Lenten Lament prepares us to parade back into Jerusalem singing God’s praises. Perhaps there is holiness to be found as we return from wandering in temptation and take our place in God’s temple once again.

We followed Jesus into the wilderness this Lent. We sat in our lament for a whole season, taking on the struggles of this life as we look to the coming of God's kingdom. Now we grasp palm fronds in celebration that Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem has finally arrived! The long anticipated Messiah is at hand! "Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!"

We begin in a town called Bethany, approaching Jerusalem. the disciples are full of energy, they can sense that something amazing is about to happen. Mark's gospel is full of the word "immediately." But here, outside the gates of Jerusalem, time slows down. Mark's "immediately" is set aside and it takes us four chapters to cover one week. It's as if the whole gospel were in a headlong rush to arrive at this point. We can see it begin to unfold at Bethphage, and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives.

The setting established, Jesus looks around and needs to make some last minute preparation for the days ahead. "He sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” The gospel doesn't tell us if this is a pre-arranged code or an example of divine foreknowledge. It just tells us that the disciples are sent, and everything happens just as Jesus told them.

The colt is ambiguous. It could either be a horse or a donkey. If it’s a horse, it’s a regal symbol, the conquering king. The Roman Governor would have arrived on a horse, ready to oversee crowd control during the huge festival that celebrates Jewish liberation from worldly empires. He is the representative of Caesar, and brings the full authority of Rome with him. If Jesus arrives on a horse-colt, he is undermining that image. If, on the other hand, the colt is a donkey, it shows how Jesus of Nazareth will soon bear the burden of the world. A donkey is a beast of burden, with no overt nobility. It’s a work animal, not a regal one.

Perhaps the gospel writer is intentionally vague, our uncertainty about Mark's meaning connecting us with the disciples who don’t understand Jesus's teachings about himself. This long-anticipated king, who would restore Israel to the greatness it enjoyed under David, rides in on a colt, rather than a royal warhorse. “No reader should miss the implication: David’s great kingdom was built on bloodshed and military might. This new king, in contrast, enters humbly, on a colt, and will very soon shed no blood but his own.” The long-anticipated king is arriving, yet his manner will be quite unexpected.

With the colt acquired, Jesus heads down into the city, with his followers in front of and behind him. “Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields.” Yet in spite of the way being prepared, the cheers are only coming from Jesus’s followers, those who went ahead and those who followed. Perhaps this is less a kingly triumphal entry than a rabbi and his obnoxious rabble.

Mark’s Jesus has spent the entire gospel telling folks to say nothing. Word has, predictably, not gotten around. Jesus enters the city in silence. He does not wave to adoring crowds, he does not bestow imperial favors. He rides in on a lowly colt. His silence rises above the noise of the disciples, and unsettles our expectant hearts. We have come together after following Jesus into the wilderness. We have gathered outside Jerusalem to join the procession as his parade brings and end to out lament.

Yet this long-anticipated king enters in an unexpected way to save us in an unexpected way. “Mark depicts an entry which is triumphal only for Jesus’s followers who have not yet understood his destiny as the Son of Man.” The disciples want the triumph of a conquering king, their expectation is that the occupation of Palestine would end. Jerusalem would be free, ruled by God’s anointed. Their expectation is that the temple will be rededicated and God’s people will once again be a nation!

Spoiler Alert: That’s not what happens. Jesus of Nazareth does not lead mighty armies, he does not lead the people in rebellion against Rome from the back of his colt. He does not carry the parade to the seat of Imperial Authority and declare himself God’s anointed King of Israel and Judah. Instead, Jesus enters the temple.

What do we expect of Jesus? Like the disciples, do we anticipate the arrival of Jesus to mean political upheaval until those who agree with us are back in power? Do we expect that the coming of the Messiah brings a return to the glory of former days? Do we anticipate that God’s anointed will bring us to new righteousness and justice?

Do we expect that the radical change will be centered in the church? After all, the parade is just the beginning. “Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple.” Perhaps the temple is the place for the grand gesture? Surely, with the High Priest present the temple will flourish again. The offering plates will the full and the temple will be seen as a truly holy place by all. We anticipate Jesus’s in breaking into our worship and spiritual practices to set our hearts aflame. We wait expectantly for his word, his action.

Then, unexpectedly, “when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.” Seriously? After that big entrance you’re going to head back out of town to where you’re staying? Jesus looks around in the temple, then turns around and leaves. He goes back to Bethany each night until Passover begins! It’s like he’s teasing us out into the streets, standing apart from our expectations of him, standing in line with the will his Father has for him.

Jesus’s actions send a clear message; he’s not here to magically fix all our problems. He’s here to obey God. Jesus comes to Jerusalem to glorify God, not to make us feel better. No wonder our “Hosanna’s” turn so quickly into “Crucify him.” Our long anticipated, yet unexpected Savior is not focused on us, or the crowds, or the temple, or the Empire. Jesus of Nazareth remains focused on God.

Jesus is not who we want him to be. He is who he is, and no expectation on our part can substitute for his identity. “The figure of Jesus emerges more and more as one whose mission it is to enact and suffer his singular destiny, while the kingdom of God and the Son of Man who embodies it with its authority fade into the background.” We expected the triumphal entry to bring us joy, to carry us out of the lament that has left us weary after these forty days of lent, after a lifetime of wilderness. We yearn for the long-anticipated joy of God’s intervention in our world. But in our longing, we have forgotten: You’ve got to fill up the cross before you can empty the tomb.

Yet our longing persists! Why would a loving God bring us out of the wilderness only to leave Jerusalem and head back up to Bethany? Why would we have this huge to-do as the one we have called Messiah entered Jerusalem, only to have nothing change by the end of the day? Why would God bring us out of our lament only to leave us outside the Holy City filled with disappointment?

Oh God, you who have walked alongside us throughout our whole lives, throughout our whole history, can’t you see that the people are suffering under Roman rule? Can't you see that Palestine is occupied, and needs a liberator? Oh LORD, why do these injustices persist when you could right all things wrongs in a moment?

And yet, O God, you are holy. You have brought us from the shapeless void into your created order. You have molded us from a tribe into a people, from slaves into a nation, from exile into restoration. You have heard our lament, and we know the long-anticipated day of praise will come.

Yet in spite of our palm-waving, praise-filled parade, it is not this day. We are captives, O LORD, and yet you allow us to remain in bondage. We have followed you to the gates of Jerusalem, and beyond. We have followed you to the temple, because we remember the wonders you have done in our sight in the past.

We have seen the great things you have done, we have seen you act through Jesus of Nazareth, and through your church. For that reason we praise you, O God. We proceed before you and follow behind, holding a parade to celebrate that Truth of your intervention in this world.

Yet still we raise our lament, because our expectations do not match what we see around us. We see death, and captivity, and suffering, and injustice. Because you have not acted, we feel abandoned. Great God! Carry us through our lament, that we may know the joy of your promise.

Save us, O God, for the pomp of Palm Sunday still leaves us unfulfilled. Save us, O LORD, for you are our creator, redeemer, sustainer. You are our long-anticipated, yet unexpected, Savior and God. 

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