“Christ Supreme”

This is the manuscript for a sermon I preached at Emmanuel Reformed Church (Springfield, SD) on Sunday, June 18, 2017. This sermon serves as the introduction to Emmanuel Reformed’s summer/fall preaching series through the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews

Introducing Hebrews

We know very little about the the author of this letter “To the Hebrews.” We can be fairly sure that the writer isn’t Paul. Paul makes himself known in his letters. The author of Hebrews does not tell us his (or her) name. We don’t know his name, but we do know his heart. The writer of Hebrews is a pastor, one who is deeply familiar with the Old Testament, and with Jesus Christ, and with the concerns and pressures of his audience, the church he’s writing to.

The audience of this letter, “the Hebrews,” are exactly that: Jewish Christians living in and around the city of Rome during the peak of violent persecution against Christians. This is another reason we can be pretty sure the writer isn’t Paul: Paul’s calling and mission was to Gentiles, not to Jewish Christians.

Imagine a house church or small congregation of Jews who have converted to Christianity – maybe were even present in Jerusalem at Pentecost, baptized with the water and the Spirit. These Jewish Christians have the Holy Spirit within them, and a solid understanding of the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament, but little else. And now they are being persecuted in Rome, racially as Jews and religiously as Christians. Ancient Rome was a pluralist society, meaning that many different cultures – and religions – were practiced and protected equally. That sounds like it should mean that Christians would have been equally safe and free to worship Jesus Christ, but we know that it wasn’t. Christians became Public Enemy Number One in Rome, and for this house church of Jewish Christians, their anxious reaction was to withdraw from the world and from each other, and potentially even to surrender their faith entirely, choosing instead to merely blend in to the world around them. This letter is written to these Christians, to encourage them in the faith and urge them to persevere.

This morning’s reading: Hebrews 1

Christ is Lord

To encourage Christians and assure their faith, the writer of Hebrews holds forth Christ. Specifically, we read here that Christ is God. According to the first verses of this letter to the Hebrews, Jesus Christ is:

  • the inheritor of all things,
  • the creator of all things, and
  • the sustainer of all things.

Christ, the Son of God, has been given all authority over all things by God the Father. That is what we mean when we confess that Christ is Lord. Christ has all authority over all of me, and over all of everything.

This confession in Christ alone is the reason that Christians were so unwelcome and untrusted in pluralist Rome: in a society that insists everyone is free to worship however and whomever they choose, where everyone is equally “tolerated,” the only intolerable person is the one who says they have the right answer for everyone. If Christ is Lord, as all of Scripture says, then Christ is Lord of all. This technically means that Christians today still hold an “intolerant” position, if the dominant alternative narrative is that there is no Truth, only many equally valid belief options. That’s the world’s best solution for human peace on human terms. The best we can do for ourselves as humans is to simply “get along;” and according to the world, the first thing that has to go – if we’re all going to “get along” – is any absolute Truth claims, any position that one person can assert over another. The irony of this pluralism, of course, is that it is itself an absolute Truth claim: “all humans must tolerate and accept all humans equally if there is to be peace; and if you disagree, we can’t tolerate or accept you.” That’s the driving story that our world is still living by.

The writer of Hebrews – Thanks be to God! – has immersed himself in a different story, a story that holds forth real, lasting, substantial peace! Jesus Christ is the full revelation of a new way, the perfect image and imprint of His Father, who is at work in the world to redeem, restore and reconcile the world to Himself.

In Rome, that story was unwelcome. The Pax Romana (“Roman Peace”) was threatened by this story of divine peace, found in the person and work of Jesus Christ. This house church was therefore under pressure to change their story: “Just say that Jesus was another angel, a created divine being. We have lots of those, and we’ll welcome another!” At the outset of this letter, the writer of Hebrews insists that Christ is far more than any angel, according to the witness of all of the Hebrew Bible; and to say otherwise is to exchange the hard truth for an easy lie. No, the writer of Hebrews offers only Christ as the foundation of our faith, and the reason for our hope.

Christ is our High Priest

In Christ we see God’s solution for peace, peace beyond human understanding. We read in verse 3 a small phrase full of meaning: “After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.” Jesus Christ came as our Great High Priest to do what no human priest has ever done before: to offer one sacrifice for all people in all places at all times, that all sin might be washed away forever. Jesus Christ is also that sacrifice, offering his own sinless blood as the perfect atonement for sin, reconciling us to God the Father.

Our story offers us a peace so complete, so perfect, that no danger or threat can shake us. In Christ our Lord, we are brought into right relationship with God the Father almighty; in Christ our Lord, we are also brought into right relationship with all those who also in Christ our Lord. We are adopted as sons and daughters into a spiritual family that transcends and includes all races, all nations, all languages, all peoples. Christ has made peace – true peace – possible. The world’s best hope — apart from Christ — is “keeping the peace.” Christ actively makes peace. This peace we find in Jesus Christ is our hope for this world, and for the world to come.

And that is the main theme of this letter: the Supremacy of Christ. God has made His Son Jesus Christ first and highest over everything, that everything might be restored and renewed and reconciled in Him. We will read this throughout the book of Hebrews, but it’s laid out clearly here: Christ is first, greatest, highest, Ruler and Reconciler of all.

And with Christ, our Lord and our Savior, so highly exalted, our peace and our hope is sure. We will see throughout this Letter to the Hebrews how we are therefore called to persevere in hope, knowing that our Lord Jesus Christ is not only our Savior in the past, and our Lord for the future, but also our Priest in the present, praying even now for us at the right hand of God the Father. Thanks be to God for the precious gift of His Son for us, and for our salvation. Amen!

“Renewing the Covenant” – Ezra

This morning is the fourth and last Sunday of Advent, and we’re wrapping up our sermon series “A Priest Forever,” looking at Old Testament priests and how they point forward to Jesus Christ, our High Priest. This morning we consider Ezra, one of the last great priests before Jesus Christ’s arrival.

The books of Ezra and Nehemiah might not be too familiar to you. They’re separate books in our Bibles, but in the Hebrew Bible they are placed together. Ezra-Nehemiah tells the story of Israel’s restoration. After the appointed time in exile, God stirred the spirits of the Persian kings Cyrus, Darius, and Artaxerxes, to give His people favor with these kings, and He did it through men like Daniel, and women like Esther. These kings allowed the Jews to return, to rebuild the city walls and the temple. As they left, God also stirred the spirits of their Babylonian neighbors, and they gave the Jews gifts of gold and silver to use in the restoration. As God’s people arrived at Jerusalem, they began to rebuild their faith first, celebrating the religious festivals again. The priests who came with them started to offer sacrifices again to restore the people’s covenant relationship with God. They rebuilt the temple together, and dedicated it with worship and sacrifice and celebration. But they needed someone to organize and lead these spiritual reforms:

[Read Nehemiah 7:5-10, 9:1-38, 10:28-29]

The Law of God

Ezra is lifted up to us as a man who loved God’s Law. He desired to study it and to obey it, and to teach others to also study it and obey it. And God’s people are in a spiritual state where they are ready and eager to be led by such a man. Ezra and the other priests are asked by the people to regularly stand in public spaces throughout Jerusalem and spend half the day or more reading from God’s Law, the Hebrew “TORAH,” the first five books of our Bible. Now, if I stood reading the first five books of the Bible, and told everyone to come, you might show up, and you would maybe stay through Genesis and Exodus, but as soon as I got to Leviticus, you’d all go home. But God’s people are so eager to hear again what God requires of them that they all come out and stand listening for hours at a time. and they are so cut to the heart by what is read to them that they spend weeks lamenting their sins, wearing rough clothing made from sackcloth and putting ashes on their heads to physically remind them of their spiritual misery.

As Christians, ones in whom the risen and living Christ dwells and delights, we have a complicated relationship with the Old Testament Law. On the one hand, we believe that the commandments and statutes and stories are God’s Word for us and for our salvation; but on the other hand, we have Christ – the Word of God made flesh – living in us through the Holy Spirit, so God’s Law is written on our hearts. That tension in us Christians living in the 21st century is what makes Ezra’s story so compelling to me. Here is a man who loves God’s Law, what many of us find to be antiquated, confusing, and constrictive. Ezra loves it so much that he desires with all his heart to study it, to do it, and to teach it. Where we find a list of meaningless rules, Ezra finds a record of God’s goodness and faithfulness.

The Love of God

The Law of God read correctly reveals to us God’s covenant faithfulness. It also reflects back to us our own faithlessness: all our sinfulness, our shortcomings, our stumblings. Knowing God is holy reminds us that we are sinful; but remembering God is faithful draws us to Him in repentance. No one loves reading Leviticus or Deuteronomy, because we get lost in the ancientness of it, confused about what it means for us in 2016. But the story that is told in those first five books – creation, covenant, deliverance, provision – shows God’s tender compassion and infinite mercy for His people precisely when we are lost in sin. That is why, when God’s people are weeping for their sins, humbling themselves before their holy God, Ezra tells them the story of God at work in their lives and the lives of their fathers and mothers, all the way back to the beginning.

Ezra simply tells them their story. God, in His love, made all things good, and made us in His image to take care of those good things, and to enjoy them with Him. We rebelled. God, in His love, made a covenant with Abraham to begin building a people for Himself through whom He would someday redeem and restore and reconcile all things to Himself. That family that God chose wasn’t perfect, and they got lost. God, in His love, went and found them – over and over again – to bring them back to Himself, so that He could work His full salvation through them someday. Ezra didn’t know how that story would end. We do! We live after Christmas, after Good Friday, after Easter Sunday! We have seen how God’s Story is fulfilled in His Son, Jesus Christ, born as a human baby into this broken, stiff-necked, peculiar family, to save the whole world from the crippling, corrupting power of sin.

That story now belongs to all of us. This isn’t just the story of one small tribe of people living in the Middle East thousands of years ago. God’s plan was to redeem, restore, and reconcile all things, so He sent His Son Jesus for all of us. This story now belongs to all of us. God’s love has reached us, here, in 2016, because His new, renewed covenant of love has been opened to include all who receive Christ Jesus as their Savior and Lord.

So when guilt and shame grab hold of you, accusing you of the sin in your lives, you need an Ezra to come and tell you the story again: God is good and faithful and loving, and He has done for you what you could not do for yourselves, so you could receive what you could not earn on your own. Sin has no power here: you are new creations in His Son Jesus Christ. Live like it. And when you see each other, or your neighbors, or your family members, stuck in their sin, be an Ezra, and tell them the story: This is who we are now because of Christ, not that dead, sin-stained shell you were; Be who you are.

The Priest of God

This is the story that Ezra and all the priests tell God’s people, to comfort them and to call them to new obedience and renewed covenant faithfulness. But notice how they tell the story. The priests weren’t talking to the people. They were talking to God. They prayed their story with God to God, to remind themselves and God that this is how the story goes. It is as if the priests are reminding God – when they need Him to be faithful and good and merciful and steadfast – that God has promised to be faithful and good and merciful and steadfast. They are calling God to be now who He has been before, and who He has promised to be always.

That is a bold prayer. That is a priestly prayer. That is the kind of prayer that Jesus Christ is offering for us all, for you, even now, before the throne of God above. When it feels like God’s not listening, or like He’s far away from you, remember: the crucified and risen Jesus Christ is standing in the throne room of heaven, holding out his nail-pierced hands to His Father, saying, “This is what We do. We save them.” And the Spirit alive in us agrees, praying with groans too deep for words. And God remembers. And we remember: God is faithful, and good, and merciful, and He keeps covenant with us, not for our sake, but because it is His desire that none should perish, but that all might be redeemed, renewed, and reconciled to Him.

Thanks be to God!

“Take Up Your Cross”

Last week we witnessed the Transfiguration of Jesus, a shift in the gospel narrative: Jesus is finishing his work to announce the kingdom of God is near, and is beginning his work to inaugurate the kingdom of God on earth. Jesus is on the way from small-town Galilee to the big city of Jerusalem, from the margins to the center, where he will perform his ultimate act of kingship. But before any of that, Jesus must prepare his disciples, his 12 closest students, for what is to come.

Mark 8:27-9:1

Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?”

They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”

“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”

Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.”

Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.

He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.

But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”

Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said:“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”

And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”

“This adulterous and sinful generation”

If we’re to understand some of the impact of this morning’s passage, we must consider the place in which this episode takes place. Jesus has led his disciples to another Gentile area of the Galilee region, the area surrounding Caesarea Philippi.

Caesarea Philippi was the location of a major spring of water that came up from a great hole in the earth, a deep cave in the rock. This spring was ideal for shepherds watering their flocks, but the spring receded, and the sheep would often wander into the remaining cavern and die. This danger led the more superstitious shepherds to name this cave the gates of hell, an opening to the underworld Hades. Soon shepherds began intentionally sacrificing their sheep there, throwing them into this cavern, in order to appease the Greek shepherd god Pan. Today this cavern is called “Pan’s Grotto,” and it is believed to be the site of much of the ancient worship to Pan, along with other gods and goddesses of Greek and Roman myths.

In Greek mythology, Pan was a lusty and frolicking god, always making music and playing pranks. The cult-like worship of Pan, we gather, was much the same, involving animal sacrifice, to be sure, among other abhorrent rituals. The revelry and debauchery in honor of Pan would have shocked the disciples, good Jewish boys. They must have known the reputation of this region, and I’m sure they were increasingly uncomfortable among this “adulterous and sinful generation.”

It seems that Jesus has a mission here, a purpose for coming to this region specifically, for Mark to mention it. All of this region’s strange rituals and disgusting practices were done out of fear for what the capricious and selfish gods and goddesses might do to them. Greek and Roman myths are full of gods behaving badly, toying with humans for their own amusement and schemes. Jesus seems to set up a contest here, a comparison between the man-made gods of the world, fashioned in the image of humanity, and the Son of the one true God, God-made-man, who fashioned humanity in his image.

“Who do you say I am?”

It is here that Jesus asks his disciples for his public approval rating: “Who do people say that I am?” It turns out there is some confusion: he’s either the new incarnation of John the Baptist, recently beheaded by Herod, or of Elijah, who was long dead but prophesied to return, or of some other prophet come to shake up Israel from its spiritual sleepiness and to declare the Word of the Lord. The crowds following Jesus see what he does, but they cannot discern who he is. The public is unable to see deeper, unable to perceive Jesus’ true identity: the very Word of God, God made flesh. They are interested in hearing what Jesus says, but they’re not committed to following him, embracing his way of life as their own.

Therefore, Jesus is looking for more than public opinion: he asks his chosen disciples, “But what about you? Who do you say I am?” While the crowds get it wrong, Jesus is inviting his disciples to see him for who he really is, who he has been saying he is all along. And Quick-Draw Peter gets it: “You are the Christ,” or Messiah. A preposterous confession to make of your Rabbi from Nazareth, that he is the anointed King of God, but that is what Peter, and the other disciples, are slowly discovering to be true. Peter and the other disciples are able to perceive who Jesus is, his relationship with God and his calling to reign over God’s kingdom on earth; but they have signed on with this new King with the expectation that they will be awarded positions of influence and power within his new kingdom. If Jesus is the divine King as they understand – the chosen agent of God who will restore Israel’s political autonomy and might – then it makes sense that they have placed their hopes on his political mission. But if Jesus is an entirely different kind of divine King, then the disciples must change their understandings of Jesus’ mission, and reconsider their positions and expectations as they follow him.

Jesus breaks the news to them here, now, in plain language, that this is exactly what they must do. Essentially, he tells them, “True, I am the divine King you were promised, but this is what ‘King’ really means: a terrible ordeal of shame, torture, and death; and then, new life, and the kingdom come in power!” The disciples expect the kingdom to come without any need for suffering or shame, rejection or pain. They cannot fathom how such suffering could bring about God’s kingdom, and Peter openly rebukes Jesus for even suggesting such an offensive thought. And it is offensive to hear that the gospel, the good news, includes the call to suffer, and even to die. Jesus rebukes Peter openly, even calling him Satan, the great enemy of life, in order to emphasize that this is exactly what must be, and any other route to the throne is false and self-serving.

“Take up your cross”

Next, Jesus draws together a crowd of people to teach, and Jesus goes one step further: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Friends, we follow a Lord and Savior who laid down his life, took up his cross, and demonstrated self-sacrificial love; we worship him and follow him by doing the same, often in places where such worship looks particularly foolish.

And it is foolish in this world to embrace suffering. Suffering in our world is considered optional, that you can choose whether or not you are unhappy; and if optional, why would anyone opt to suffer? In fact, there are countless products and events and distractions created specifically to help us either numb ourselves to pain or avoid pain altogether. Some of these things are benign, harmless, even helpful and good, but many of the things we turn to in our anxiety or distress have undetected dangers to us. Our food is pumped full of fats and sugars to satisfy our anxious stomachs; our media is pumped full of celebrity gossip and so-called reality TV to numb our anxious minds; our homes are filled with the stuff we have purchased to help us feel secure and self-sufficient. Even the good things we need can take on unhealthy and even addictive properties. They entice us away from the gospel’s invitation to live abundant lives in service and worship to our loving Creator God, who has promised to give us all we need, and gave us the ultimate gift: his own Son Jesus Christ. It has become all too easy in our society to trade abundant life in Christ for a shadow of life, a hollow shell of the existence we were created for. The call to take up our cross is an offensive one, a scandalous one, and one that is easier and easier to discard as fanatical or radical; but the call still resounds: “deny yourself; take up your cross; follow me.”

At the same time, many of us have had little choice whether we will take up our cross, because crosses have been thrust upon us. Our suffering certainly isn’t optional. We did not get to choose whether or not to embrace suffering; the suffering was given to us, forced on us. The unexpected loss of a loved one, the paralyzing loneliness of aging or divorce, the exhausting anxiety of unemployment, the silent strangulation of abuse, the looming threat of death: all of these things happen to us, and our natural instinct is protest, to lament to God and our neighbors that this isn’t fair. This isn’t the way life was supposed to be. This isn’t what we deserve. Hear this morning that our sufferings break the heart of God, and he gives us permission to come to him with our laments, our anger, and our confusion. This isn’t the way things are supposed to be. This isn’t the abundant life Jesus came to offer us.

But at the same time, Jesus doesn’t tell the crowds and his disciples, “Lay down your cross, I’ve got this. Take up your life, and take it easy.” That’s the American gospel, not Jesus’. Instead, Jesus tells them and us this morning, “take up your cross, follow me. Lose your life, and gain mine.” Jesus Christ came into this world to suffer, in his whole life, but especially during these next few weeks of Lent, on his way to the cross, for us. He did choose suffering, he did embrace loss, and loneliness, and anxiety, and abuse, and death, for us. And the mystery of this, the powerful and strange and transforming mystery, is that Christ’s voluntary sufferings on our behalf give our own sufferings meaning and purpose. Christ’s death on the cross for the sake of each one of us means that our own sufferings can become a place where we encounter the heart of God for us. It may be a terrifying encounter, it may mean that nothing can be the same afterward, it may change us, because that’s what is means to see God face to face, but that is what our suffering can become because of the cross of Christ.

No one wants to suffer, and God does not want us to suffer. But suffering is a part of our daily lives now because of the presence and influence of sin in the world. The good news of the cross is that the reign of sin is defeated, and even suffering falls within God’s plan to renew and restore the world, because he orders all things in such a way that all things must work together for the good of those he loves, those he calls to himself. It is not God’s will that any should suffer, but when suffering is given to us, we can bravely and faithfully embrace it; we can obey Christ’s invitation to take up our cross, because God is at work to redeem our sufferings and transform us by them into Christ-like people, agents of renewal and transformation in the world.

So when loneliness or anxiety seize you, and your first instinct is to turn on the television to see if someone else has it worse than you, stop for a moment, take a deep breath, and ask God to meet you in the loneliness. This may be terrifying, to admit loneliness, but in taking it up instead of running from it, you may discover that God can transform painful loneliness into holy solitude, a place where you and He can meet together and a small piece of you can be restored. Such small and quiet acts of obedient and faithful self-denial are a peculiar and even offensive witness to a way of life that is utterly foolish, and yet utterly hopeful.

“See the kingdom of God come with power!”

I realize that what I have preached this morning might sound foolish, naive. It may even offend some of you, to hear this new, young pastor tell you that you must embrace the inconsolable pain and terrible sufferings you have had to experience. The wisdom of the world says that pain must be killed, or numbed, and if you can’t do that, then at least pain must be hidden away so that no one else has to deal with it. In our world, to embrace suffering, to put pain on display, will offend people, because it will hold up a mirror to the pain they are working so hard to conceal. But Jesus Christ invites us to be foolish, even offensive, in the eyes of the world, to take up the crosses we’ve been given, and follow him.

And in Lent’s journey of suffering and weakness and crosses, Jesus Christ holds out hope to us. Jesus Christ tells his disciples that all these things must happen, and afterward, he will rise again, and the kingdom of God will come with power. The disciples seem to not hear this last bit, this message of hope, because they are too scandalized by the suffering that must come first. Let us not miss the message of hope this morning. If Christ our King has initiated a new kind of life, a new way of living where suffering has lost its sting and death itself is defeated, then we must hold on loosely to the lives we have, and wait expectantly and actively for the one to come. And during Lent, waiting will look like taking up our cross with the expectation that even suffering itself can be transformed into a place where we meet our Savior Jesus Christ face to face, as he joins us in suffering and transforms us to be like him for the sake of the world.

Day 7: Holy Week

Then Moses called all the elders of Israel and said to them, “Go, select lambs for your families, and slaughter the passover lamb. Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and touch the lintel and the two doorposts with the blood in the basin. None of you shall go outside the door of your house until morning. For the Lord will pass through to strike down the Egyptians; when he sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the Lord will pass over that door and will not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to strike you down. You shall observe this rite as a perpetual ordinance for you and your children. When you come to the land that the Lord will give you, as he has promised, you shall keep this observance. And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this observance?’ you shall say, ‘It is the passover sacrifice to the Lord, for he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt, when he struck down the Egyptians but spared our houses.’” And the people bowed down and worshiped. The Israelites went and did just as the Lord had commanded Moses and Aaron.

~ Exodus 12:21-28

We begin the day outside the eastern walls of ancient Jerusalem, overlooking the Kidron Valley. From where we stand we can see the Temple Mount, the city wall with its gates, and a vast cemetery full of tombs and monuments. It is fitting that we begin our day’s study with a contemplation of death, as today we reflect on Jesus’ last days: his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, his prayer and betrayal and arrest in Gethsemane, his crucifixion outside the city walls, all before we remember with joy his resurrection from the tomb on Easter morning. All this happens the week of Passover, the high Jewish festival of remembrance, celebrating God’s deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt. Jesus’s arrest, trial, torture, and crucifixion during Holy Week retell the story of Israel’s Passover, with Jesus Christ as both sacrificial Lamb and delivering God. But before we can celebrate that new life of deliverance from slavery, we must first lose the old one. A great paradox: we must die to live.

Mount of Olives | Palm Sunday

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately. This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,

“Tell the daughter of Zion,

Look, your king is coming to you,

humble, and mounted on a donkey,

and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

~ Matthew 21:1-5

We consider here the “triumphal entry” of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, when Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem through the Golden Gates, surrounded by crowds waving branches and carpeting the dirt path with their coats, all while shouting from Psalm 118:

“Save us, we beseech you, (Hosan-na!) O Lord!

O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”

We celebrate Palm Sunday in our churches with upbeat praise music, led by our children waving palm branches and shouting “Hosanna!”, relieved that it’s finally the last day of Lent. It’s a party atmosphere. And maybe that’s how it was on that first Palm Sunday: a party. But read again what they’re actually saying: “Hosanna!” is not the same as “Hallelujah!” “Hosanna!” is a desperate cry for help: “Save us!” The people are greeting Jesus Christ as they would a conquering Messianic King, expecting him to be a king for the people, a political savior. But look how he comes: riding a donkey, not a warhorse, followed by fishermen, not soldiers, coming in at the eastern Golden Gate, the gate through which the Messiah was to come, but without any fanfare other than the voices of everyday people.

Across the city, at the Jaffa gate, Pontius Pilate would probably have been arriving from his villa at Caesarea Maritima, surrounded by Roman legions, in preparation for the Jewish festival of Passover. This is the arrival of a king, not the rabble on the other side of Jerusalem.

The Pharisees are quick to chastise Jesus for this inappropriate display (Luke 19:39). We shouldn’t read this as an angered outburst of jealousy from Jesus’ enemies. One of the most interesting things I learned on this trip was that Jesus had a more nuanced relationship with the Pharisees than I had assumed. The Pharisees probably saw Jesus as a prospective addition to their number, except for his problematic tendency toward the prophetic. We’ve heard a few times now how Jesus’ views align very well with the Pharisees’ views on most things, and these Pharisees might even have been following Jesus to learn from him. They’re simply asking for some restraint in the crowd’s celebration of Jesus’s arrival in Jerusalem. The Pharisees are not comfortable with Roman occupation, and they certainly don’t want to exacerbate tensions in Jerusalem.

And all while the festive atmosphere builds, and the Pharisees worry over the implications of an ill-timed party, Jesus weeps.

As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.”

~ Luke 19:41-44

A church has been built at this spot on the way into Jerusalem, named “The Lord Wept” in Latin (Dominus Flevit). And as we look from the church yard out over the Temple Mount, we see now exactly what Jesus foresaw then: the inevitable and lamentable religious and political conflicts that have come, “because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.” Christ has come, the Light of the World, and yet the darkness has not understood it (John 1:5). We weep with Christ for the countless people still living in darkness, torn by the prolonged conflict. Lord, have mercy.

Gethsemane | Maundy Thursday

Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.”

~ Matthew 26:36

We were given time to walk around the garden connected to the church that stands here to mark Gethsemane, the Mount of Olives. We, as Jesus’ present-day disciples, are here in the warmth of the morning, observing the beauty of the flowers and wondering at the age of the gnarled, knotted olive trees, surrounded by other pilgrims and visitors. How different that night almost 2000 years ago must have been for Jesus’ contemporary disciples – cold, dark, lonely. We were reminded of what we learned in Nazareth Village at the olive press:

Just as the oil from the first press is pure, and used in temple rites of purification; and the oil from the second press is clean, and used in preparing foods and medicines; and the oil from the third press, while impure, is still useful for burning for light and heat; so the blood and sweat poured out in the prayers of Jesus are useful and beneficial for our purification, nourishment, and comfort, poured out for us. Thanks be to God!

Three times Jesus returned to intense, wringing prayer, after pleading his disciples to stay awake, and to accompany him in prayer. His poured-out prayers for himself, for his disciples, and for God’s will, are a model for our own intercession and petitions.

“My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.”

~ Matthew 26:39

“My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.”

~ Matthew 26:42

First, Jesus prays his heart’s deepest pleas not to a distant, indifferent deity, but to a God who is intimately interested in his good, and infinitely capable of providing what he needs. He calls the God to whom he prays “Father,” “Abba.”

Second, he expresses his plea simply and honestly, without bargaining or hiding or justifying. Jesus pleas, certainly, so intensely that drops of blood are wrung from him (Luke 22:44). But the depth of feeling in Jesus’ prayer do not lead him to “heap up empty phrases” (Matthew 6:7).

Third, he concludes his prayers by entrusting his words and his very life into his Father’s hands. He trusts his Father in heaven to work for only his best in any and every circumstance. Jesus closes his prayers with “Your will be done” because he knows and believes that “Yours is the kingdom, and the power, and glory forever.”

Just like our Lord and Rabbi Jesus, we can pray for what we need simply, honestly, and courageously to God as our loving and trustworthy Father, entrusting our prayers and our lives to Him who is ready and able to answer them for our ultimate good.

Of course, we cannot remember Jesus’ prayers for safety and deliverance without also remembering the way his prayers were answered:

At once [Judas] came up to Jesus and said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him. Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you are here to do.” Then they came and laid hands on Jesus and arrested him. Suddenly, one of those with Jesus put his hand on his sword, drew it, and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.”

~ Matthew 26:49-52

No wonder why we experience both fear and resignation when we reluctantly or perfunctorily pray our own “Thy will be done”s, if this is how they turn out. Jesus prayed thus, and immediately afterward was betrayed and arrested, so it seems that it must be God’s will that his own beloved son should be killed. And, we reason, if God would want His own son killed, how must he feel about us, poor sinners that we are?

But what if God’s will is grander and greater than manipulating all the pieces of the chess board? What if God’s will was not merely for his son to die, but that all people — indeed all creation — were reconciled to Him, through His son? And what if His will were not an arbitrary edict, but motivated by His immense, overwhelming, all-consuming love for His creation, for us? Then we could pray courageously and trustingly “Your will be done!” because we would know that in everything, God is out for our ultimate good, because he loves us.

So God is not to blame for Judas’ kiss. Judas is. And God is not to blame for the priests’ arrest. The priests are. And God is not to blame for Peter’s assault on the servant. Peter is. God is not a dictator, and His will does not override ours. Judas betrayed Jesus because of greed: the priests paid him to provide an intimate way to indicate Jesus out of the huge Passover crowds to the temple guards. The priests had Jesus arrested out of jealousy and misguided religiousity: he was a threat not only to their social status but also to their carefully balanced political peace with the Roman authorities. Peter attacked the priest’s servant out of vindictive love for his Rabbi: he did not strike to kill, only to wound, in order to preclude him from the strictly observed qualifications of physical wholeness required of temple employees.

We are responsible for our own decisions and actions. We cannot use God’s will as an excuse. This is precisely why we should take great comfort in praying “Your will be done.” If left to pursue our own wills, we invariably spiral away from our good and the good of others toward destruction; if we align our wills with God’s will, we will always be directed toward our ultimate good, even if that route passes through the valley of the shadow of death…

Kidron Valley | Good Friday

The Kidron Valley runs south along the east wall of Jerusalem, surrounded and filled with tombs. Because death and the dead were ceremonially unclean, burials were not permitted within the walls of Jerusalem. We walk the Kidron Valley path, filing past historic tombs with grand monuments and humble tombs with stones — each speaking of a family visit — thrown on top.

We pause here to hear about crucifixion, a favorite form of political execution used by Rome throughout its empire. Crucifixions, if certain historians are to be trusted, may have been a nearly constant occurrence here along the road into Jerusalem. Criminals of all sorts would have been placed here, probably at eye level, to remind travelers and pilgrims into the city to behave themselves during their stay, or suffer the same consequences. This is most likely Rome’s reason for crucifying Jesus. He was the self-styled “King of the Jews,” a publicly recognized insurrectionist, and he needed to be made an example of publicly, to warn anyone else who aspired to the same thing.

From the Jews’ perspective, Jesus was a blasphemer, a man who sacreligiously claimed too much of himself, potentially leading God’s people away from Him and toward a false concept of god, toward idolatry. As a religious leader, this would be a noble and right cause to censor or exile a false prophet. But Jesus was more than a kook on a street corner. He was a celebrity, and what is more, the people believed him because he spoke as one with authority, unlike the Pharisees and scribes. So it would take more than exile to get rid of Jesus; they also had to get rid of his ideas. And for that, a public execution as a political criminal was the best bid. After all, if Jesus was violently, publicly, bitterly executed for saying such things, then so would anyone else who said the same things.

I wonder, then, if the Jewish leaders were so justified in executing Jesus, according to their understanding of their faith, then why hold his trial in the dead of night, at the high priest’s home? Why not in broad daylight, in public, for an audience? Wouldn’t that only add to his indictment as a criminal? Perhaps they used such secrecy because it was Passover, and they wanted this taken care of urgently, before the major events, or at the margins, to not distract from the main ceremonies. Or perhaps the trial was held clandestinely in order to keep from inciting a riot in favor of Jesus, which is more likely. I wonder if the whole Sanhedrin was present? Or was this only a small group of only the upper management? I wonder…

Golgotha

So they took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them…The place where Jesus was crucified was near the city.

~ John 19:16-20

Golgotha

From a biblical perspective, the details of Jesus’ crucifixion clearly point to him as the fulfillment of Israel’s sacrificial system, begun all the way back in Egypt, at the first Passover. We read that Jesus breathed his last at 3:00pm, “the sixth hour,” on a hill called Golgotha (now enshrined just outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre). At that moment on another nearby hill, the Temple Mount, a priest would have ascended to the top of the Temple and blown a ram’s horn, announcing to all of Israel that the atoning sacrifice had been made for the sins of the whole nation. Other astonishing signs are recorded in the gospels’ account of Jesus’ death: an earthquake, premature darkness, tombs opening, dead bodies resuscitated, and most telling of all, the Temple curtain dividing the Most Holy place from the inner sanctuary is torn in two, from top to bottom. At the moment of Jesus’ death, the earth is wracked in grief and veils its face from the light; yet forgiveness fanfares ring loud, life breaks forth, and God’s presence is offered to all.

To grasp the exchange that occurred on the cross, we were reminded of what we learned at Tel Dan: blood is the physical manifestation of the life God gave us; our sins and our sinfulness mark us for death, and must be removed by life, by blood. This is the essence of a sacrifice, a specific sequence of redemptive events: a representative death, the manipulation of blood over what is to be cleansed, a burning of the remains (sometimes completely) in order that it “go up” (the literal translation of the Hebrew “offering”) to God, and a feast (sometimes featuring the sacrificed animal after it’s been cooked). These events were prescribed for Israel’s worship, not arbitrarily, but as a context for communion with God. In Christ, these events are fulfilled: in his death, ours is represented; in the shedding of his blood, our sinfulness is cleansed and our sins are forgiven; in his ascension, Christ “goes up” to God, bearing with him his blood (Hebrews 9); and in the sacrament of communion, he has instituted a regular feast of his own body and blood for our joyful remembrance, communion, and hope in and with God.

Notice that the cross is not the end of the sacrifice, but the beginning! And the exchange of the cross is not itself the purpose, but the means to our enjoying perfect union with God.

We discussed a yet more complex element to sacrificial or atonement theology. It must be asked, What is the nature of our separation from God, that sacrifice is necessary to attain union with God? Have our sinfulness and sins so ruined us, that God is no longer even able to look on us, unless we pay the price of our wickedness? If this is so, then sacrifice is necessary as a propitiation, a gesture from us to God to win His love and favor. This is like a husband who does the dishes for his wife to gain her approval, because doing dishes is better than sleeping on the couch.

But what if the separation we experience from God is not because of His absence from us, out of wrath or disgust for our sin(s)/fulness, but rather our absence from Him, our rebellion or distractedness or selfishness. Then sacrifice is not primarily our gesture to win God, but is in fact God’s act of expiation to remove the offense that keeps us from Him. This is like a husband who does the dishes for his wife because the dishes need to be done before they can spend the evening relaxing together.

The sacrifice of Christ is not the actions of an abandoned son trying to please a demanding Father in order that a ruined creation might be restored to its original splendor before God will love it once more. I fear this is how many of us understand the story of salvation, even if we would never say it in these words.No, the sacrifice of Christ is the ultimate gesture of embrace of a good and loving Father giving what is most precious to Him — the very life of His own Son — in order to win back the world He loves. Christ himself, as God’s beloved Son, loves his Father in heaven, and therefore loves what his Father loves, and willingly gave his life as a sacrifice for us, being obedient even unto death. For this we rejoice, that our God is a God of love!

Church of the Holy Sepulchre | Resurrection Sunday

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.

~ John 20:1

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre standing today is a crusader church built in the 1100’s over the traditional spots of both the crucifixion and the resurrection. But for the skeptics, who look for discrepancies between church tradition and factual history, we were told there are 15 evidences that this is the actual spot. What is most surprising about this to me is that the cross and the tomb were so close to one another.

This is not one church, but in fact a honeycomb of churches, one building hosting 6 different denominations of Christianity: 3 major churches – the Roman Catholic Church, the Greek Orthodox Church, and the Armenian Church – and 3 minor churches – the Ethiopian Church, the Assyrian Orthodox Church, and the Coptic Church.

As much as this church is a center of Christian unity — the one site on earth we all have in common, and where so many branches of the Christian family tree worship together — this is also a place where we saw the still great division among Christians. These 6 churches do not worship together, but each in their own separate languages, in their own chapels within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. As a humorous caricature of this disunity, we were shown a small wooden ladder that we were told has remained on the facade of the church for over 90 years, because no one church will take responsibility for putting it there. We were also told that a Muslim family has held the key to the doors of the single most important Christian holy site for over 700 years because that is the only way these churches know to share the same building. The empty cross and empty tomb of the living Jesus Christ is the one place on earth that should unite the Christian community in worship and peace, and instead it is marked by evidence of division and factions.

Bethesda

Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?”

~ John 5:2-6

Most of our touring today was focused on the events of Holy Week, from Palm Sunday to Resurrection Sunday. The healing at the pool of Bethesda was not part of Holy Week, as far as we know, but was very appropriate for considering the new life that is ours in Christ Jesus.

We finished our day’s pilgrimage at St. Ann’s, an 18th-century French church on the site of the pools of Bethesda. This place is long associated with healing: this is also the site of the ancient Roman Temple of Asclepius, where the baths, along with the use of opiates, helped to heal and restore people.

In the biblical episode at Bethesda, Jesus encounters a man by the side of the pool, as if the man is interested in being healed of whatever illness afflicts him. And yet if that were true, the man would presumably been more active in pursuing restoration. This is not the case. Perhaps he’s enjoying the secondary benefits of his illness, like the pity and the attention he gets from caretakers. Or maybe he’s simply afraid of what a life without illness might look like, as he’s forgotten what it means to be well. Either way, Jesus sees this man exactly where he is, and recognizes his reluctance to be really well. He wants to stay close to where he could be made well, certainly, but he doesn’t desire wellness.

Could we be like this man? We find ourselves over and over and over again at the cross of Jesus, praying for forgiveness and asking for new life, and yet we don’t actually pursue the assurance of complete restoration and healing that Jesus offers us in his resurrection from the dead. Jesus offers us a gospel of life, abundant life, life that burst forth from the tombs we often resign ourselves to. And still we find ourselves stuck believing a gospel of sin management, as though that’s the best we can hope for. Jesus encounters this unfortunate man again, and we see again that Jesus is more like the Pharisees than we often assume. Jesus prioritizes life over law.

Later Jesus found him in the temple and said to him,“See, you have been made well! Do not sin any more, so that nothing worse happens to you.”

~ John 5:14

The invitation to new life, to wholeness, to spiritual health and vitality, comes with this charge: “Sin no more.” We can hem and haw and explain this away, telling ourselves and others that we are always going to be bound to our sin in this life as fallen sinners. But our risen Lord and Rabbi Jesus has given us a command: “Sin no more.” We must commit ourselves, as redeemed ones in whom Christ dwells and delights, as resurrection people, to lives of serious obedience.

Indwelling Holy Spirit, empower us to live the new life of trust and obedience that Christ came to give us here and now. 

***

Other sights from the day:

Evening Speaker: Salim Munayer

Through My Enemy's EyesSalim is a Palestinian Christian, who works for an organization called “Musalaha,” which means “Reconciliation.” He shared with us more specific, personal examples of the injustices the Palestinians face in what was once their homeland. But what impacted me most was not to hear a diatribe against the Jewish occupation, or a litany of grievances against U.S. involvement in Palestinian oppression, or a passionate plea to us to side with the Palestinians for peace and justice.

Salim shared with us his sharp theological mind, turned not against Israel or toward Palestine, but fully fixed on God as revealed in Jesus Christ, seeking to live as a disciple of Christ in an impossible situation. He offered us some of the theological questions he daily wrestles with:

  • How would Jesus cross a checkpoint twice every day?
  • How would Jesus respond to this lose-lose situation: if he acts, he will be labeled a terrorist; if he does not act, his land will be seized for settlements?
  • How do we respond to the realities of this conflict when the occupiers use the same Old Testament Bible to support their occupation? Do we give up the Old Testament entirely, or simply question its authority in every situation?

Salim did appeal to us, as American ChristiaThe Land Cries Outns, to think carefully about our theological positions, their biblical foundations, and their political consequences. He shared with us that American “Evangelicals” (read “Premillennial Dispensationalists”) give $200 million annually to the State of Israel, all because of a bad theology of land. Zionists misunderstand the role of land in Scripture, and God’s relationship to it, and throw their lot in with disastrous outcomes. It is not enough for us to leave the conflict to others. Christians are already involved in this conflict. But how are we called to engage it? Are we called to take one side over the other? Or to be peacemakers?

Salim offered us a surprising solution: remembering. He reminded us of the memory that “Yad Vashem” encourages: “Never forgive; never forget.” But our Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, teaches a very different kind of memory, a memory it seems the Jews have forgotten in their efforts to occupy and re-settle their Promised Land. The memory of Passover is “You were once a stranger in a foreign land; when you enter the land I have promised you, love the foreigner and the alien.”

It is striking how prevalent and powerful the sense of victimization is here. Both Israel and Palestine claim more and more loudly that they are the world’s greatest victim. Being a victim means that the world, and especially its powerful, owes them everything. At the same time, the party in the wrong, their enemies, are entirely responsible for peace: “It’s their fault, we’re just the victims!” Both sides refuse to consider the pain of the other, and therefore shut themselves off from feeling any responsibility for the ways they have wronged the other. This makes repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation impossible. Lord, have mercy. Salim’s words are powerful:

“We find God in our enemies. We find ourselves in our enemies. Our enemies are always our neighbors: our future depends on how we treat our enemy-neighbors.”