Interim Pastor Doug Marshall
Thought for Meditation:
Jesus’ command to Mary Magdalene – “Do not hold on to me,… but go to my brothers” (John 20:17) – seems to have the effect he wanted. She let go of his feet but held on to his words. “Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her” (John 20:18).
A professor of psychology at the University of Mississippi taught a parenting class. In this class he always tried to emphasize reinforcement of good behavior. When your children do something good, reinforce the behavior by praising them with words and showing them your love. The professor’s wife was a youth counselor. He asked her to speak to his class about teenagers. In her professional life she used her maiden name, so no one in his class knew that they were married.
When she finished her lecture the professor stood up to thank her. He said to the class, “Didn’t Ms. Street do a wonderful job? Don’t you think we should reward her?” She expected a round of applause. Instead, her husband took her into his arms and gave her a passionate kiss. Then he looked at his students and said, “That is positive reinforcement! Class dismissed.”
Neither his class nor his wife expected the professor to kiss her. I assume that he eventually told his class who she was and they all got a good laugh out of it. But they were surprised by something they didn’t expect. This morning I want us to think about our expectations. What do you expect from Jesus?
Our Scripture lesson this morning is from John’s account of the resurrection. Early on Sunday morning Mary Magdalene went to the tomb. When she got there she saw that the stone had been rolled away so she went back and told the disciples. Peter and John ran to the tomb and Mary followed them. By the time she got back to the tomb Peter and John had already left. She stood outside the tomb weeping. Jesus came to her, spoke her name, and she recognized him.
I grew up with an image of Mary Magdalene from the rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar. She was a harlot who falls in love with Jesus, and sings a beautiful song. Yet the truth is that we don’t know much about her. Luke tells us that Jesus had cast seven demons out of her and that she, along with a group of other women, traveled with Jesus, supporting him with their own money. Mary was also at the cross when Jesus died and, according to John, was the first one to see Jesus after the resurrection.
Magdalene was not her last name. It was the name of the town where she lived, Magdala. It’s on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, about four miles from Capernaum, where Jesus lived. Magdala was a fishing village and in 2009 archaeologists discovered a synagogue in the town, so there were probably Jews who lived in Magdala, including Mary. Jesus probably preached in the synagogue in Magdala. That’s all we know about Mary from Magdala. Yet I would suggest that in some ways we have a lot in common with Mary Magdalene.
For one thing, like Mary, many of us live in darkness. Mary went to the tomb early on the first day of the week. The word “early” suggests that it was still dark outside, probably about 4:00 in the morning. Yet for Mary, the darkness was more than the fact that the sun had not come up. Jesus, her Lord, her Savior, and her friend, had been killed. Her life and her dreams had been shattered. She lived in the darkness of grief.
Darkness is a powerful metaphor. It comes in many forms. Certainly there is the darkness of death and grief. We all experience that at times and there has been more than enough of that at Sharon the last couple of months. There is the darkness of sin, which breaks our relationship with God, who is the source of light and love and life. There is the darkness of broken relationships with other people. This church went through that several years ago. Then there is the darkness that isn’t based on the circumstances of life, but on our internal world – the darkness of depression, fear, or confusion.
A young, teenage girl wrote a powerful expression of darkness. I don’t know her particular story, other than the fact that instead of living with her parents she lived at Buckhorn Children’s Center and wrote a poem titled “Inside of Me.”
Feeling confused in the darkness of night, Alone in my world, cold without light.
Anger rushing through my mistied head, Tears on my pillow, sweat on my bed.
Hatred filling the pulp of my heart, Fighting for love, confused where to start.
This hatred inside - all new to me. I once could love, twas clear to see.
Now full of hatred, I sometimes get scared,
I fight for love given and fight for love shared.
I want to go back to where I went wrong, And turn this hatred into a happy song.
I want to feel love and give it too! I want to sing my song, full of beauty anew.
What I feel inside is hard to explain,
It once was like sunshine but now it's like rain.
Until the light starts shining, I'll be the one to blame.
Until I know love once again, I shall live life in shame.
Mary went to Jesus’ tomb early in the morning. Her world was dark outside and inside. Like Mary, we know what it is like to live in darkness.
There is a second way that we are similar to Mary; we don’t expect much from Jesus. Mary went to the tomb expecting to find Jesus, but she expected him to be dead. She didn’t expect to see him walking around. She didn’t expect him to talk to her. She didn’t expect to receive his love. On Easter morning Mary Magdalene went to the tomb with the expectation that Jesus was in her past, not her present or her future.
It seems to me, that is how many people approach Jesus. He was an historical figure, like Aristotle, Abraham Lincoln, or Martin Luther King Jr. He lived in the past, but not now. Jesus was a great teacher who taught us how God wants us to live. He showed us how we are supposed to live. We know that he died on the cross for our sins was raised from the dead and now lives in heaven. But do we really expect to see Jesus alive today? Do we come to church with the expectation that we will meet Jesus here, that we will hear his word, that he will talk with us, call us by name, surround us with love and transform our lives?
If we believe that Jesus is alive today and present with us we won’t take our faith for granted. If we expect to meet Jesus when we come to church we would not treat our attendance at worship so casually. If we expect Jesus to speak to us through His word, our Bibles would not collect dust on a bookshelf and Sunday school and Bible studies would be overflowing with people. Honestly, what do we expect from Jesus? Do we expect Jesus, the living and reigning Lord of the universe to be present with us and to transform our lives?
This is an old sermon that I rewrote for today. I first preached it on Easter Sunday, April 23, 2000. Sometimes, when I finish a sermon, I’ll write notes to myself, in case I happen to preach the sermon again. After I preached this sermon I wrote the following, “rethink and develop this idea (that we don’t expect enough from Jesus) for active and growing Christians.”
On Easter we expect that people will come to worship who only come on Christmas or Easter. We know that there are people who want a “spiritual fix” but don’t really want to take their faith seriously. On the Sunday after Easter, today, I assume that those of you who are here take your faith more seriously. So how does this idea of expecting more from Jesus connect with our lives?
To be honest, I wrestled with this idea all week, and I don’t have any great inspirations. I would love to hear your thoughts about our expectations of Jesus, and what it would look like if we expected Jesus to be present, to speak and to act. Ultimately, I think that if we are honest, even those of us who take our faith seriously, don’t expect enough, or much at all, from Jesus. We expect that he will forgive our sins and take us to heaven when we die. But I have a sense that Jesus wants to do so much more in our lives.
There is a third way that we are like Mary. We all need to experience the risen Christ. We need to know that Jesus is alive, not just up in heaven, but with us. We need to hear Jesus speak our name.
Mary went to the tomb on that Sunday morning, filled with the darkness of sorrow and grief, not expecting much. When she first saw Jesus she didn’t recognize him. Maybe it was because of the tears in her eyes. Maybe the resurrected Jesus looked different. The passage suggests that she might have been looking at the tomb rather than at Jesus. We don’t know why she didn’t recognize him. What we do know is that when Jesus spoke her name, she recognized him and her life was changed. The darkness of her sorrow was transformed into light and joy.
Like Mary, our basic need is to encounter the risen Jesus. We need to see Jesus and to hear him call our name. We need to experience his love. We need more than knowing about Jesus. We need to know Jesus. We need to hear him call our name. We need to experience the presence of our risen Lord and Savior.
We can’t create that type of experience. It is always an act of grace that God initiates. Mary didn’t plan to see Jesus alive. It was unexpected. It surprised her. Our experiences of Jesus will be unexpected surprises.
However, we can make it more likely that we will encounter Jesus. We can start by being open to something new. We can ask for Jesus to come to us. We can go places where we are likely to meet Jesus, such as worship. As the old saying goes, “You can eat a Big Mac at Taco Bell, but it’s more likely to happen at McDonald’s.” You can meet Jesus anywhere, but it’s more likely to happen at church, in God’s house and surrounded by God’s people. We can read God’s word that points us to Jesus, the living Word.
There is one more way that we are like Mary. When we meet Jesus we are given a job to do. After Mary recognized Jesus she grabbed his feet in amazement and love. She didn’t want to let him go. Jesus said to her, “Don’t hold on to me. I still need to ascend back in to heaven.” Notice his next words to Mary. “Go to my brothers and tell them that I’m alive. Go, tell the world that you have seen me.” Our job is to tell the world that Jesus is alive, that we have seen him and experienced his love.
Last Sunday the sanctuary was wonderfully full. It’s exciting when there are that many people here, when there are people in the front pews. There is energy and life that fills this room. It’s contagious. Most of us would probably like to see the church that full on a regular basis.
There is one way for that to happen. All of us have the job of telling our friends, our neighbors, the people we work with, that Jesus is alive. All of us have the job of inviting people to church, where they can hear about and meet Jesus. The reason that people come to church is not because the pastor is such an eloquent and inspiring preacher. It isn’t because we have spectacular programs or a beautiful building. The reason people come to church is because they have been invited by friends. And then when they come, hopefully they experience the presence of God and the love of God’s people.
Go and tell your friends, and invite them to church. Say to them, “I have seen Jesus. I have experienced his love,” for Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed!
Psalm 91; Romans 8:35-39
Interim Pastor Doug Marshall
Thought for Meditation:
In the cross is salvation, in the cross is life, in the cross is protection against our enemies, in the cross is infusion of heavenly sweetness, in the cross is strength of mind, in the cross joy of spirit, in the cross the height of virtue, in the cross the perfection of sanctity.
There is no salvation of the soul, nor hope of everlasting life, but in the cross.
Thomas à Kempis
Our Source of Security
Do you remember the Doomsday Clock? (http://thebulletin.org/timeline) It was created 70 years ago, in 1947. The idea for the Doomsday Clock came from the scientists who developed the atomic bomb. It is intended to say how close we are to Doomsday – destruction of the world with human technology. The closer the clock gets to midnight the closer we are to a catastrophe caused by nuclear destruction or climate change.
When it was first developed, the Doomsday Clock was set at 7 minutes until midnight. Two years later, 1949, it moved to 3 minutes before midnight. That was when the Soviet Union developed its own nuclear weapons. In 1953 the time was set as close to midnight as it has ever been – 2 minutes. That was the year the US developed the first hydrogen bomb. Nine months later the USSR also had the hydrogen bomb and the arms race had started.
From 1960 – 1990 the time on the Clock ranged from 3 minutes to 12 minutes before midnight. In 1991, with the end of the Cold War, the time on the Clock went to 17 minutes. That also coincided with the United States and Russia signing the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which reduced the number of nuclear weapons. Since then the time on the clock has gotten shorter and shorter. In 2016 it was back to 3 minutes. In January of this year the Doomsday Clock moved to 2.5 minutes before midnight. This was a response to everything going on in the world: climate change, North Korea, the Middle East, Russia, and Donald Trump.
I’m not here to bash Trump, or liberals, or anyone else. I’m simply trying to point to the reality that fear is a part of our lives and a powerful force. This certainly includes fear about what is happening in our world. I have a sense that both liberals and conservatives are often acting out of their fear rather than their convictions. But the fear of our lives is not only about the big events of the world. It includes fear in our personal lives – fear for our children and grandchildren; fear for our jobs, wondering if we will have enough money; fear for our relationships; fear for our health, and even fear of things we don’t know about yet.
We live in a dangerous and sinful world, a world that threatens to destroy us. We look for security and safety in many different ways. As God’s children we are invited to trust in God, for God is the source of our security and safety. We are invited to trust that God loves us and is always with us. Psalm 91, which Bekah just shared for us as her favorite Bible passage, is one of the best expressions of this invitation to trust God. Let’s take a look at this psalm.
The psalm uses a variety of images to describe the threats that people faced – the snare of a fowler (I think of a bird helplessly trapped in a net, thrashing about); deadly pestilence (scholars aren’t sure whether this is a reference to the name of one of the demons in that area or a deadly disease like the Plague); the terror of the night or the arrow that flies during the day (disasters can happen any time, night or day); an army of thousands or ten thousands; a lion or a poisonous snake.
The list of threats doesn’t cover every potential problem, but tries to be broad enough to suggest that the world is dangerous. The list is intended to make us uncomfortable with one or more of these threats.
Hold all these threats on one side and compare them with the description of God’s protection. God is a shelter – this is a secret hideaway where our enemies can’t find us. God is a shadow – the desert sun in the wilderness of Israel would be unbearable. Any shade would help. God is our refuge, our fortress and our dwelling place, a place where we can rest and a safe place to fight against our enemies. God covers us with his pinions and takes us under his wings. This is the image of a mother hen pulling her chicks close to her side. God is a shield and a buckler, which is another name for a shield. God sends his angels to guard us and keep us safe. God himself protects us. God answers our prayers. God rescues us, honors us and satisfies us. God is always with us and shows us salvation.
The threats of our world are real and powerful. But we are invited to trust in God, to find our security in God, for God is bigger and stronger than anything that threatens to destroy us. There may be an army of 1000 or 10,000 attacking you, but God is more powerful.
On October 17, 1989 the Loma Prieta earthquake shook California. It’s the one that happened during the World Series. The epicenter was about 56 miles south of San Francisco, less than 10 miles from my home. As soon as I heard about it I called home and amazingly was able to get through on my first try. I found out my parents were okay. Tanya and I were at a meeting that night, so we didn’t watch the news reports until later. Several years later I read something by a person who had watched the reports. He saw a fascinating sight.
He was watching a reporter, standing in front of the rubble of a fallen building. Behind the reporter there was an open umbrella. It wasn’t raining, so the person who wrote about this umbrella wondered if the person who owned the umbrella opened it up to try to keep the buildings and bridges from falling on top of him. Someone tried to find protection by standing under a nylon umbrella.
When the world is falling down all around us or shaking our lives to the core, where do we look for security and protection? We are invited to trust in God.
There are a couple of other ideas from this psalm that stand out. First, God’s protection is for those “who live in the shelter of the Most High” (Psalm 91:1). The word “live” means to dwell in a place, to sit down and remain there. It isn’t someone who ignores God most of the time, but when trouble comes they run to God and expect God to take care of everything. This is a person who lives in God’s presence every day. This is a person who worships every week, who lives out his or her faith on a consistent basis.
Verse two suggests an intimate, personal relationship with God. God isn’t a refuge and a fortress, but “my refuge and my fortress.” Yahweh is “my God, in whom I trust.” It isn’t obvious in the English, but in the Hebrew of verse three the pronoun for God is emphasized. He, God alone, will deliver you. Our loyalty is to God, to God alone, for only God is able to protect us.
Finally, notice that verses 14-16 are different. The first 13 verses tell us about God and the protection that God gives to us. Verses 14-16 are God speaking directly to us. Don’t just take my word for it that we can trust God. Listen to God who invites us to trust: I will deliver, I will protect, I with be with them, I will rescue them and honor them, I will satisfy them and show them my salvation.
There is a danger with this Psalm. The danger is using it in a superstitious way, as a magical protection. Satan tried to use this Psalm to tempt Jesus. Remember the temptation where Satan took Jesus to the top of the temple and said “Jump off. If you really are God’s Son,” and then he quoted Psalm 91:11, “He will command his angels concerning you… On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” Jesus rejected that temptation because he knew that real trust doesn’t test God. In other words, trusting God doesn’t excuse being stupid.
There is another problem with this psalm. That is the fact that bad things still happen God’s children. People who trust in God still get cancer, or are killed in car accidents, or are caught in natural disasters. The theological term for this is theodicy. It would take several hours to try to explain theodicy and even I could explain it, we still wouldn’t be satisfied. So let me share with you the best answer I know to the problem of bad things happening to God’s people.
In Romans 8 Paul asks if the struggles we face in this world are able to take us away from God’s love.
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? (Romans 8:35).
Paul’s list is similar to the one in Psalm 91. There are a lot of bad things in our world, tragedies and struggles. But can these things take us away from God’s love? Paul’s answer is very clear.
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, not things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:37-39).
In other words, none of the bad things that Paul describes, none of the struggles that Psalm 91 talks about, none of the struggles of our lives, can take God’s love away from us or take us out of God’s gracious presence. So trust in God, who loves you, who protects you, and who promises to always be with you.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
1 Corinthians 15:12-26
Interim Pastor Doug Marshall
Thought for Meditation:
Easter is not the celebration of a past event. The alleluia is not for what was; Easter proclaims a beginning which has already decided the remotest future. The Resurrection means that the beginning of glory has already started.
Karl Rahner, Everyday Faith
Are Ya Livin’?
While we were in Israel four people in our group actually rode a camel, Tanya, Jan, Karen and Terry! If you want to see pictures of that you’ll need to come to the adult Sunday School class in two weeks.
My Grandmother went over to Israel and someplace there is a picture of her, at the age of 88, riding a camel! Grandma lived to be about 92. Unfortunately, her body lived until she was 99. At 90 she was vibrant and alive. She traveled and was lots of fun. Then she started to have a series of small strokes that turned her into a frail and feeble old lady. She lost most of her memory. She slept most of the time, and when she was awake she had a vacant stare. She was alive, but not really living.
There are probably others here who have had similar experiences with loved ones. That is part of the struggle of watching our grandparents and parents get older and die. But the real tragedy is that some people, maybe even some of you, are physically and mentally healthy, yet not truly alive. Are ya’ livin’? Are you really alive?
Paul reminds us that everyone, like Adam, will die. You’ll stop breathing and your heart will stop beating. I heard one sermon describe it like this:
“It’s gonna happen to everyone here. They’re gonna put you in a box and take you to a cemetery. They are gonna drop you in a hole and throw dirt on your face. Then they’re gonna go back to the church and eat potato salad.”
We tend to deny that truth and ignore that reality, but it is going to happen. The challenge for us is to actually live while our bodies are still alive. Paul tells us that those who are in Christ will be made alive. What does it look like to be alive? Christ’s resurrection gives us the hope of eternal life. It is also the promise of an abundant life, here and now. Let me share with you three characteristics of being alive.
First, to be alive means to live with passion. Tony Campolo taught a class at the University of Pennsylvania. He started the class by asking one of the students a question. “How long have you lived?” The student mumbled, “I’m twenty-one.”
That wasn’t what Tony had in mind. “No! No! No! You’ve told me how long your heart has been beating. My question was how long have you lived?” The student looked puzzled, so Tony told a story about the time he was in the 9th grade and his class took a trip to New York City.
We were taken to the top of the Empire State Building and, like most boys my age, I was chasing girls and crawling around the observation area. Then suddenly, I caught myself! I walked to the railing and peered over the edge of the building. The magnificence of the skyscrapers of New York lay before me and I stood there, stunned into reverence. In one mystical moment, I absorbed the city. I gazed at it with such intensity that if I were to live a million years that moment would still be part of my consciousness. I was so fully alive at that moment, that I sensed it had become part of my eternal now.
Tony looked at the student again and asked: “How long have you lived?” The student replied, “Well, Doc, when you put it that way, maybe a couple of minutes. I don’t know. It’s hard to say. Most of my life has been the meaningless passage of time, between all too few moments of genuine aliveness.”
How long have you lived? Are ya livin’, right now? Is there a passion that empowers your life and fills you with energy? Is there a dream that focuses you and drives your life? Is there a cause to which you are willing to devote yourself?
Every child is born with a built-in passion for life but as we grow there is a tendency for that life to shrivel up and die. We bury our passion and live comfortable, safe, but boring lives. We go through the motions of living without truly being alive. We fill our calendars with the activities of life but lose our sense of curiosity. We watch other people live, maybe our children or through TV or the internet, yet we never really live for ourselves.
Are ya livin’, with a passion? Christ lived with us, died for us and was raised to new life, to fill us with passion and give us an eternal and abundant life.
Second, to be alive in Christ is to know that we are forgiven. The truth of our sinfulness is not the ultimate reality of our lives. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, our sins are forgiven.
In 1881, at the age of 41 Sarah’s husband died and she inherited $20 million, which was a huge sum back then. She also received a daily stipend of $1000, which in today’s money is more than $23,000 every day. She was powerful, rich, and she was miserable. Not only had her husband died, but she was still grieving the death of her only daughter, 15 years earlier, at the age of five weeks.
Sarah felt cursed. Her married name was Winchester, of Winchester rifle fame. It was the most popular rifle in America and had killed 1000’s of soldiers and Indians. Sarah felt guilty for their deaths.
She moved from New Haven, Connecticut, to San Jose, California. She bought an eight room farmhouse and 160 acres. She hired carpenters and other craftsmen who worked on her house constantly, for 38 years. They created what is today known as the Winchester Mystery House. It has 6 kitchens, 47 fireplaces, and 160 rooms. There are 40 stairways, most of which have 13 steps. Some of the stairways lead to dead-ends. One leads to a doorway that goes outside, and a 50 foot drop. There are 10,000 windows, each with 13 panes of glass. Some of the windows open onto chimneys. Others onto blank walls. Every closet has 13 hooks and each chandelier has 13 globes. The house is weird.
Sarah never left the house for 38 years. She lived in a castle of regret and unresolved guilt. Sarah believed that some sort of spirit had told her that as long as she kept building the house she would live.
I don’t imagine that anyone here is as odd as Sarah Winchester. But I wonder how many of us continue to carry guilt for the sins of our lives. We live in shame and haven’t fully embraced the truth that through Christ’s death and resurrection we are forgiven. We know forgiveness in theory. Yet we have a hard time forgiving ourselves and believing we are forgiven. We find ways to cope with our guilt and shame, yet our guilt cripples us and keeps us from being truly alive.
Whether you are a Christian who struggles with forgiving yourself, on a non-Christian who needs to receive forgiveness for the first time, hear the good news: Through Jesus Christ you are forgiven! Your guilt is gone. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection we are free to live as God’s beloved children.
The third characteristic of being alive in Christ is that we cling to the hope of eternal life. In this section of the letter, Paul is trying to convince the Corinthians that the resurrection actually happened. There were some people who denied the resurrection, for Jesus or anyone. In verse 19 Paul says that if there is no resurrection and our faith only helps us in this life, then we are to be pitied. If there is no hope of eternal life, then our faith is a waste of time.
Paul goes on to proclaim the center of our faith, “In fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died” (1 Corinthians 15:20). Jesus was the first fruits, the first one raised from the dead. And because of his resurrection everyone who believes in Jesus will also be raised from the dead. Through Jesus Christ we have the hope, the promise, of eternal life.
She was a countess in Germany, back in the 19th century. She was known as an avowed atheist. She was convinced that there was no God and no eternal life. Once you were in the tomb you were there forever. Before she died she left very detailed instructions for her burial. Her tomb was to be sealed with blocks of granite. They were to be fitted together perfectly so that nothing could get in, or out. Heavy iron clamps were to fasten the granite slabs to each other. On the granite she had the following message inscribed. “This burial place, purchased to all eternity, must never be opened.”
Everything that could be done to seal the tomb was done. The countess was sure that her tomb would serve as a mockery to the belief in the resurrection. A seed from a birch tree fell on the ground next to the tomb. It sprouted and its roots found a crack in the granite, working their way into the tomb as well as into the ground. Over the years it forced its way in until the iron clamps popped open and the granite lid was pushed off. The lid leaned against the very large birch tree, with the inscription hidden by the tree. The message that the countess wanted to proclaim – there is no eternal life – was silenced by the work of a determined tree, and a very powerful God.
My friends, 2000 years ago another stone was placed over a tomb to keep the body of a dead man inside. Soldiers guarded the tomb to keep his followers from stealing the body. Yet the stone and the soldiers, and death itself, could not keep Jesus in the tomb. He was raised from the dead and is the promise, the first fruits, that you and I will also have an eternal and abundant life. So I invite you to live life to the fullest, here and now; by living with a passion, by knowing that you are forgiven and freed from sin, and by clinging to the hope of eternal life.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Psalm 118:19-29; Matthew 21:1-11
Interim Pastor Doug Marshall
Thought for Meditation:
When God entered time and became a man, he who was boundless became bound. Imprisoned in flesh. Restricted by weary-prone muscles and eyelids. For more than three decades, his once limitless reach would be limited to the stretch of an arm, his speed checked to the pace of human feet. Max Lucado, He Chose Nails
Who Is This?
We come again to the familiar story of Palm Sunday, Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Most of you have heard it many times before. You could probably even tell it yourselves.
Before I read the passage I want to show you a couple of pictures from Israel. This first picture is of the Mount of Olives, from Jerusalem. Bethany, where Mary and Martha and Lazarus lived, where the procession began, is just over the top of this hill. To the right of this is a very large and ancient cemetery. You can see that in the second picture. Some of these graves were here when Jesus walked this way on the first Palm Sunday. We don’t know exactly what path he took down this hill, but it would have been somewhere in this area.
The danger with these familiar stories is that we assume we know them. We think that they don’t have anything new to say to us. I invite you to listen again to this familiar story. You might even hear something new. I’m going to read Matthew’s version which is a little bit different from Mark’s, Luke’s, and John’s. Listen to God’s Word.
Most of Jesus’ ministry was in the northern part of Palestine, around the Sea of Galilee. Eventually he journeyed down toward Jerusalem. There are three roads that go from the north to the south. The first is the Via Maris. It went along the Mediterranean Sea and was the main trade route of that time. The second went through the middle of Israel, through the hill country and Samaria. The third was along the Jordan River. This is probably the rout Jesus took because he stopped in Jericho, which is right along the Jordan River, about 15-20 miles east and north of Jerusalem.
Finally, he started up toward Jerusalem. Before he reached the city he sent two of his disciples into a village at the top of the Mount of Olives, telling them to bring back a donkey and her colt. They brought them back and put their coats on the donkey. Jesus got on and rode down the Mount of Olives into Jerusalem. This was to fulfill a prophecy by Zechariah.
A number of years ago I watched an Animal Planet show that talked about a man who rescued donkeys from owners who abused them. He treated them gently and they became pets, almost like a dog. We don’t tend to think of donkeys that way, but they can be docile, loving animals. In Jesus’ time the donkey was an animal that a king rode in a time of peace. If a king tried to show his power and came as a conquering warrior he rode a horse. When a king came in peace, he rode a donkey. Jesus entered Jerusalem as a king who came in peace, gentleness and love.
Matthew tells us that there was a very large crowd. This event took place at the time of Passover. Every Jew who lived within 20 miles of Jerusalem was expected to come to the city for the feast. Any Jew who was able to come to Jerusalem would try to be there. About 30 years after Jesus’ there was a Roman governor who reported that there were more than 2.5 million people in Jerusalem for Passover.
Probably all 2.5 million people were not part of the parade, but there was a large crowd who did join in. They placed their coats and branches on the ground. This was a powerful symbol for the people.
In 175 BC Antiochus Epiphanes attacked Jerusalem and tried to wipe out Judaism. He defiled the Temple, sacrificed pigs on the altar. He sacrificed many different animals to Zeus rather than to Yahweh. He used the Temple as a house for prostitutes. Eventually a group of Jews fought and defeated Antiochus Epiphanes. They were led by Judas Maccabeus. They restored and purified the Temple. And then they held a great celebration of their victory. In their celebration they had a parade and laid palm branches on the ground and shouted the Psalms, just as people did as Jesus rode into Jerusalem. The people expected Jesus to get rid of the foreign oppressors and to cleanse the Temple, which is the story right after ours.
Note what the people shouted as Jesus rode into Jerusalem. “Hosanna to the Son of David!” Hosanna is a Hebrew word that means “save us.” It is found in Psalm 118 and used to be a prayer for God’s help, but over the years it came to be a statement of praise to the one who saved us. The people recognized that Jesus was a king, like David, who would save his people. They also shouted, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” This is another quote from Psalm 118. It is an affirmation of faith that the king would be blessed by God and that through the king the people would be blessed.
Like most of you, I’ve heard this story every year of my life. I’ve preached this story about 10 times. A few years ago I was studying this passage in Matthew, getting ready to preach again, when I saw something I had never noticed before. In verse 10 there was something that jumped out at me. “When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’ (Matthew 21:10). Even if everyone in the city wasn’t part of the parade, they would have heard it and probably seen it. They would have wondered what was going on. “Who is this? Why are people making such a racket about this person?” The translation “the city was in turmoil,” is not strong enough. The Greek word for “turmoil” is the word that is used for an earthquake. The people of Jerusalem were shaken to the core. They were terrified, trembling with fear. “Who is this that is shaking up our world and our lives?”
When Jesus enters your life he will shake you up. He will turn your world upside down and cause you to ask, “Who is this?”
The fifth book of the Chronicles of Narnia is called “The Horse and His Boy.” It is about a horse named Bree and a young boy named Shasta. As the story opens Shasta is an orphan who lives with an abusive man who treats him as a slave. Shasta meets Bree, a talking horse, who is also in a bad situation. They run away and head toward the land of Narnia. As they travel they meet up with a young princess and her talking horse, Aravis and Hwin. They go through a series of adventures as they travel toward Narnia.
They discover that an evil army is also going toward Narnia, to attack it and make all the Narnians slaves. They race ahead to try to warn the king. They get to a hermit’s house, just outside of Narnia. The two horses are completely spent and Aravis is injured, so Shasta runs on by himself. He finds the king and warns him about the danger. The king finds a new horse for Shasta and they all race back to set up their defenses.
Unfortunately, Shasta is not a good horseman. He got separated from the rest of the party, took a wrong turn and ended up going up and over a mountain pass. It was night-time and Shasta was cold, tired, hungry and afraid. He began to feel sorry for himself. Let me read to you what happens. (Read p 155-159) I won’t give you the rest of the story. I'll let you read it for yourselves. I will tell you that the mysterious creature at Shasta's side is Aslan, the Christ figure in the Chronicles.
When Jesus enters your life he will shake you up and cause you to ask, “Who is this? Who are you?” And maybe even “What are you doing?” That is true the first time he comes, the second time, and every time he comes to us.
The Palm Sunday story confronts us with the question, “Who is Jesus?” Let’s be honest, most of us are so familiar with this story that we are bored with it. It’s a nice children’s story, but doesn’t make any difference in our lives. I would imagine that many of us are so familiar with Jesus and so comfortable with our faith, that we don’t expect to be shaken to the core by his presence. We don’t stop and ask, “Who is Jesus?” and “What is he doing?”
Friends, if that describes your life, look out! My prayer for all of us is that Jesus will ride into our lives, shake us up, and cause us to ask again, “Who is this? Who is this man who claimed to be God? Who is this man who calls us to pick up our own cross, and then died on his own cross? Who is Jesus for you, and what is he calling you to do?”
Let us pray: O Jesus, enter into our lives again. Come to us and shake us up. Startle us with your glory and your majesty, with your compassionate, furious and relentless grace. Amen.
Interim Pastor Doug Marshall
Thought for Meditation:
The power of death to awaken us to the presence of God speaking to us is particularly urgent in our times. We live in an age that values control. Theologians like to be able to explain things so there are no questions, young executives want to be on top of their work, and new pastors wish to appear to their people to have their lives together. Death comes and renders these assumptions of control a shambles. Then in our chaos and our dependency we cry to God. Then and perhaps only then we can hear. Urban Holmes
The Voice that Wakes the Dead
I don’t usually use the lectionary, which is a series of Scripture passages assigned to each Sunday. However, there are times when I don’t have any ideas for sermons and will select the lectionary passage. In January, as I was planning my sermons for Lent, I knew that our pilgrimage would make it impossible to do a series of any sort, so I looked at the lectionary and the story of Lazarus was listed for today. It sounded fine to me, so I wrote it on the worship schedule and forgot about it.
In some ways the story of Jesus raising Lazarus is an unusual choice for today. We are in the middle of Lent, a time for repentance and reflection on our spiritual journeys. Yet the story is about resurrection and life. It seems more like an Easter story.
Then two days before we left for our pilgrimage I heard that Horst Endress had died. While we were in Israel Tanya and I learned that Leslie Holt, a 46 year-old lady from one of my former churches had died. Her funeral was last Saturday. Then last Sunday Susanne Udvari called me and told me that Joe had died. Monday morning I came in to the office, looked up the passage for today’s sermon, and was stunned at how appropriate it was.
Mary and Martha appear several times in the gospels and we know a bit about them. Martha was hard working and driven. She tried to please everyone by what she did. Mary was more contemplative and emotional. When she went out to meet Jesus she fell at his feet and wept. These two sisters had a brother named Lazarus. We don’t know much about him. He was sick. Then he was dead. And then he was surprised.
Lazarus lived with his sisters in Bethany. Bethany is a small village at the top of the Mount of Olives. It’s about two miles from Jerusalem. When Jesus came to the Jerusalem area he stayed at their home. He ate dinners with them. Jesus was friends with Lazarus, Mary and Martha.
We don’t usually think of Jesus having friends. We know that he had the disciples. There were people who came to him for healing and to listen to him teach. There were crowds around him, but friends? Wasn’t he too busy being the Messiah to have any friends? Yet Mary and Martha and Lazarus were Jesus’ friends. Our passage says that “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (John 11:5).
In the 15th chapter of John’s gospel, at the last supper, Jesus said to the disciples “I’m not going to call you my servants. You are my friends.” That includes anyone who is a follower of Jesus. That includes you and me. We are Jesus’ friends. Yet, what does it mean to be Jesus’ friend? Do friends get special treatment? Are there privileges that come with being friends? Does it mean that when we are in trouble Jesus drops everything else and rushes to help us? That is certainly not what Mary and Martha experienced.
Lazarus got sick. Mary and Martha knew that Jesus had healed many people. They sent a message to Jesus. “Lazarus is sick.” They didn’t ask Jesus to come and heal Lazarus. They just expected him to come right away. We expect the story to say that “Since Jesus loved Lazarus he rushed back to Bethany and healed him.” Instead, the passage says that “though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was” (John 11:5-6). By the time Jesus finally got to Bethany, Lazarus was already dead and had been buried for four days.
Have you ever noticed that Jesus never hurries? There are no stories of Jesus running. He didn’t even jog. He doesn’t rush or seem frantic. That drives me crazy because I often feel frantic. By the time I got the office Monday morning I was running as fast as I could. There were 65 emails that had come in while I was gone. Vera Crookshank’s funeral was on Monday, The funeral for Horst and Anneliese was yesterday. I had to meet with Susanne, Kristen and Matt to plan Joe’s service. I had to plan today’s worship and sermon. And there were a number of other tasks that should have been done but I never got to. I spend a lot of time rushing from one thing to the next, trying to get done all the work that Jesus wants me to do. You would think that Jesus would rush to keep up.
Yet he doesn’t. Jesus is not dragged around by our agendas. His timing is often different than our timing. And because Jesus doesn’t always show up when we expect him to and doesn’t follow our agendas, we sometimes get disappointed with him. Jesus is not interested in fulfilling our dreams and desires. His goal is to bring glory to God.
Lazarus is whatever you count on Jesus loving and blessing. Maybe it’s your family. You want your children to be healthy and to have good jobs and live close by. Maybe it’s your dreams for your career or your retirement years. Maybe it’s your hopes for this church or some great mission project. These desires are not necessarily wrong or bad. But if we cling to these desires rather than clinging to Jesus we just might end up disappointed. Jesus doesn’t want to rescue our lives. He wants to give us new life.
During our pilgrimage we went to the traditional site of Lazarus’s tomb. The picture on the screens is that place. On the left hand side there are 15-20 steps down from a small road, into a little waiting area. Then you have to duck through the doorway and go down 5 or 6 more steps into the actual crypt. Above those steps there is a little window where you can look down into the actual burial area. These widows are very common in burial chambers.
Usually a burial happened within 24 hours of death. The body would be wrapped in spices and cloth and then put into the crypt. A stone was rolled across the door of the crypt, but the little window was left open. The belief was that the spirit of the person stayed around the body for three days before it went to Sheol, the place of the dead. When it left after three days it would go out through the window. Jesus showed up four days after Lazarus was buried, which means that his spirit was already gone. Lazarus was dead and all that was left was the grief and putting life back together with an empty place in the hearts of Martha and Mary.
When Jesus got to Bethany Martha came out to meet him. She was mad. “Why didn’t you get here earlier? You could have healed Lazarus.” When Mary came out she asked the same question, but it seems that her emotion was more sorrow than anger. She fell at Jesus’ feet and wept. Both sorrow and anger are a normal and healthy part of grief.
Jesus doesn’t reject or scold either of the two sisters – Martha for her anger or Mary for her sorrow. He accepts them just as they are, with all of their emotions and struggles. Jesus even shared in their grief. When our passage says that Jesus “was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved” (John 11:33) it could be translated “he was angry,” just like Martha. And of course, we know that Jesus wept. That verse is one of the great trivia questions about the Bible. What is the shortest verse in the Bible? “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). However, Jesus’ tears are anything but trivial. He shares in our grief.
In his exchange with Martha Jesus makes an incredible claim. “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25-26). Then to prove that he has the power to give us life Jesus called Lazarus back to life.
I love the way John describes that event. First Jesus prayed. He didn’t ask God to bring Lazarus back to life. He simply thanked God for the miracle that was going to happen. Then he “cried with a loud voice” (John 11:43). It ought to say, he shouted. “LAZARUS, COME OUT!” I wonder if he shouted because Lazarus was not likely to hear him, or was it because we so often don’t hear Jesus’ voice. We are so overwhelmed with the voice of death that we miss the good news that Jesus brings us life. We are so focused on our fears and the life-squelching, life-destroying message of the world that we miss the good news that Jesus came to bring us life, abundant life, eternal life. “LAZARUS, COME OUT!” Then Lazarus came out.
This story is the good news that Jesus’ love reaches beyond death, and whenever Jesus shows up there is life, new life, resurrection life. Jesus has power over death and the power to give us new life, the life that God wants us to have.
The story of Lazarus being raised from the dead is a precursor to Easter, pointing to Jesus’ resurrection. Today is the fifth Sunday of Lent. Lent is the 40 days before Easter, not including Sundays. The reason Sundays are not included is that every Sunday is intended as a celebration of Jesus’ power over death. Every day is a celebration of Jesus’ resurrection. Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed. Let us celebrate that through Jesus’ death and resurrection we have life – abundant life, new life, eternal life! Amen.