From a sermon preached on Palm Sunday, March 29, 2015
A few years ago my husband James and I had the privilege of hosting a group of HIV/AIDS workers from Kenya. One of them was a man named Dr. Mike. Dr. Mike was one of those quiet, reflective people – you know the type – a man of few words, but when he spoke, you best listen, because those few words had a way of knocking your socks off. During the course of Dr. Mike’s and the team’s stay, James and I, along with another American couple, took them to visit Washington, D.C., to show them our nation’s capital and other sites. Among the places we visited was a museum called the Newseum. If you’ve never been, I commend it to you, for it’s a fascinating museum that traces our nation’s history through endless displays of newspaper headlines and Pulitzer-prize-winning photographs. We all had a great time reminiscing with one another and with other museum guests as we browsed the exhibits: Where were you on 9/11? Where were you when the Challenger exploded? Where were you when Martin Luther King, Jr., was shot or when Pearl Harbor was attacked?
True to form, Dr. Mike didn’t say a word the entire day – until we got to dinner. While the rest of us were making small talk about what we’d seen that day, Dr. Mike suddenly asked, “What’s with your country and its obsession with violence?” We four Americans just looked at each other, not sure what he was getting at. Sensing our confusion, Dr. Mike continued: “Every one of those newspaper headlines we saw today was about violence: abuse, murder, scandal, political discord, theft, and more. Over 250 years of violent headlines.” You don’t have to have visited the Newseum to understand his point – just think about the headlines you’ve seen over the past week or so.
In an attempt to explain this obsession, my friend Alex, a retired newspaper journalist and photographer, said, “Let’s face it. Bad news sells. No one wants to pay money for a morning paper, only to have the headlines tell them, ‘500,000 people had a great day yesterday.’” Dr. Mike still wasn’t convinced. So we tried another tactic: “Dr. Mike, come on – you live in one of the most violent, poverty-stricken places in the world. Every day you encounter horrific levels of pain and suffering, from caring for those with HIV, to seeing children die from lack of food, to the threat of terrorist attacks in your nation’s capital and its borders. Dr. Mike,” we said, “doesn’t the bad news just get to you sometimes?”
Dr. Mike thought for a minute. Then he said, “You’re right. I do live in one of the most violent, poverty-stricken places in the world. Yet our headlines are not always gloom and doom. Even in the darkest moments, we can still find good news.”
Those 250 years of headlines don’t sound very different from today’s news stories, do they? Stories of attacks from ISIS or a tragic airline crash in the French Alps. Bad news may sell, but many days, I wouldn’t mind hearing a few stories about those 500,000 people who had a great day.
I imagine most of us can relate. After all, who doesn’t prefer good news over bad news? But, as Dr. Mike observed, whether it’s an obsession or a reality, we live in a world that is volatile – physically, economically, politically, socially, emotionally, and more. How do we, like Dr. Mike, manage to find the good news in the midst of it all?
Today is a day of good news for us as a family of faith. Today we celebrate Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem (Mark 11:1-11). Those present that day pulled out all the stops, giving him the royal treatment. They spread their coats on the ground, they waved leafy branches, and they shouted praises: “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” Until this point, Jesus has kept his identity pretty quiet. But now – finally! – he seems to be claiming his title as king. It’s a day that’s been a long time coming for the disciples. I can imagine them saying to one another, “Now this is more like it! This is what we thought life with Jesus would be like!” They were ready for Jesus to make a few headlines of his own. They had high expectations for the big changes Jesus would make when he established his kingdom.
Well, they got big changes, all right, but not exactly the kind of changes they’d expected. Sunday closes with Jesus looking around the temple. The next day, Monday, the people find Jesus back at that same temple, this time overturning the tables of those looking to make a profit off the backs of those coming to make their Passover sacrifice. Seeing this display of power, the disciples probably had hope that Jesus would overturn the Romans just as he did the tables. But then Monday turned into Tuesday, and Tuesday into Wednesday, and Thursday. By Thursday night, they would see their long-awaited king arrested – and, by Friday afternoon, they would find him hanging on a cross. Can you imagine the headlines on that day? “Shouts of Joy Now Tears of Disappointment.”
It’d be great if we could Tigger bounce from the headlines of this Sunday to the headlines of next Sunday – Easter Sunday. Then it would just be one great celebration after another, right? We could just focus on the good news and not have to deal with the rest of it. But the truth is: If we did leap from this Sunday to the next, there wouldn’t be any good news. There is no salvation on Palm Sunday. There’s actually not even salvation on Easter Sunday alone – apart from what happens between this Sunday and the next. The hope we celebrate next Sunday comes only through Friday.
Theologian and author Walter Brueggemann puts it this way: “We cannot jump from Palm Sunday to Easter. We have to go day by day through the week of denial and betrayal to the Last Supper to arrest and trial and execution. That is the only road to Easter, and that is our work this week.”
Just like you and I can’t skip over the events of this week, neither can Jesus. If Jesus were just to ride into Jerusalem to the cheers of the people and then keep on riding that donkey straight to the palace, where he would take his seat on the throne and we would all live happily ever after, if that were the end of the story, it actually wouldn’t be a happy ending, but a terrible, terrible ending – because it wouldn’t deal with the heart of the matter, that is, our hearts, our need for a Savior. The one who comes in the name of the Lord must do the work of the Lord. He must continue on to the cross. To paraphrase Brueggemann again, that is the only road to Easter, and that is Christ’s work this week.
Even the crowd’s cheers hinted at the work to be done. By the first century, the time of this scene in Mark, the word “hosanna” came to be used as a shout of praise. Yet its original meaning was not a shout of praise, but a cry for help. Hosanna literally means, “Save us.” The people are quoting Psalm 118, a song of thanksgiving for victory over Israel’s enemies. They sang it every year at Passover, but with the arrival of Jesus they likely sang it with a bit more gusto, as they remembered God’s saving them from their enemies in Egypt, and hoped that God would now save them from their enemies in Rome.
It’s an appropriate cry, maybe even more appropriate than the people realized, for hosanna means, not just save us from our enemies, but save us from the ultimate enemy – our sin. The people want Jesus to save them, and he does – not from their human enemies, but from their spiritual one. They want him to show them his power, and he does – by taking on our sin and willingly laying down his life for us, a true display of power demonstrated in sacrifice and humility. They want him to establish a new world order, and he does – not in the form of a political kingdom, but something better: the Kingdom of God. The crowds’ expectations may have been misplaced, but their hopes were not. They were realized far beyond anything they could imagine.
What about us? After all, those first disciples weren’t the only ones who had hopes and dreams for their lives, what they expected Jesus to do, or how they imagined life as his followers would be. What about when our Sunday turns to Monday, and Monday to Tuesday, and so on? I don’t know what all the “headlines” are in your life right now. But chances are you’ve experienced some disappointment or loss or unwanted change this past week, perhaps even this morning. The expectation of getting a certain job or getting into a certain school. Challenges in a relationship. The loss of health – a loved one’s or your own or both. What happens when our expectations and our reality appear to be polar opposites of each other?
The answer comes in looking around.
This majestic scene in Mark seems to end rather anticlimactically, with Jesus simply looking around the temple. It’s almost a throwaway line, one Mark could easily have left out. But he doesn’t – and I think it’s because it’s actually not a throwaway line at all, but a rather significant one. This week, this most holy of weeks, rather than jumping from this Sunday to next Sunday, we are invited to look around with Jesus. To walk with him through the events of his life this week, because, while we may think we live by the world’s events, these are the events that really shape us. So I invite you to spend some time reading Mark Chapters 11-15. Look around at Jesus’ life, for that is indeed the only road to Easter, and that is our work this week.
Look around with Jesus, not only at the events of his life, but at the events of your life. The temple that day was full of tourists in town for the holiday. However, Jesus wasn’t there just checking out the sites like a tourist. No, he was doing a bit of reconnaissance work – looking around to see if the temple was fulfilling its purpose, its Kingdom purpose. As we look around at our lives and our expectations for them, the same question faces us: Are we fulfilling our Kingdom purpose? Do we place our hope on things like success, health, wealth, making the popular decision, our sense of independence and human abilities – or something else? In other words, do we put our hope in the “kings” of this world, or in the King?
And when those expectations aren’t realized, when disappointment comes, are we able to keep looking around, with eyes open to how God might be doing something far greater than anything we’d ever dare dream?
Look around at Jesus’ life. Look around at your life. Finally, look around at the world’s life. Everyday we encounter people whose lives are marked by bad news. How might Christ have uniquely placed you and equipped you to offer someone the same hope he has given you? The one who comes in the name of the Lord goes on to do the work of the Lord. That’s good news. But there’s more: He left us to continue to do the work of the Lord. That’s also good news, for that’s our work, not just this week, but every week.
At a conference I attended several years ago, one of the speakers asked: “What good news did Jesus come to proclaim?” He then invited us to take a few minutes to discuss the question with those seated around us. Our little group came up with some pretty good answers, if we do say so ourselves: “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” “God is love.” “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.” As we talked, the speaker quietly turned in his Bible to Mark Chapter 1, verses 14-15, and when he had brought us back together, he read these words: “Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The Kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news.” When I returned from the conference, I shared this story with one of my seminary professors, Darrell Guder, and said, “I can’t believe I forgot the Kingdom.” Dr. Guder replied, “We all forget the Kingdom some days.” I think he was speaking about far more than just forgetting those verses.
Friends, in Jesus Christ, the Kingdom of God has come near. No matter how far it may seem, no matter how often we may forget, still the Kingdom is near. So look around. See the good news. Then go and be the good news – for we aren’t called to live by the world’s headlines, but to transform them, declaring that the Kingdom of God is near – until it is fully and forever here. Thanks be to God.