Sunday, March 24, 2013

Sermon for Palm Sunday (March 24, 2013): Words that change our world

Luke 19:28-40

After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.
When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, “Why are you untying it?” just say this: “The Lord needs it.” ’ So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, ‘Why are you untying the colt?’ They said, ‘The Lord needs it.’ Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying,

‘Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!’

Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, order your disciples to stop.’ He answered, ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.’


Isaiah 42:1-4

Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
   my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
   he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
   or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
   and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
   he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be crushed
   until he has established justice in the earth;
   and the coastlands wait for his teaching.


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"After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem."

The tricky thing about the way we read the Scriptures in church is that we’re always starting in the middle of the story.  “After he had said this.”  Well, what’s this?  And who’s he ahead of?  And where’s he been before Jerusalem?

So here’s what Jesus has been up to, in the few chapters before today’s reading.

He’s been going from town to town, a wandering preacher and teacher and healer.

He’s told a story of a man attacked by robbers, left half dead on the side of the road, and how the religious leaders crossed to the other side of the road and passed him by.  But a Samaritan -- a racial and religious enemy of the Jews -- stops, and bandages his wounds, and loads him on his donkey and takes him to an inn.

Jesus has told parables of lost sheep and coins and sons.  He’s taught the disciples how to pray, how to call God Father, how to ask for the coming of the kingdom, how to depend on God for daily bread.

He’s eaten with sinners and Pharisees.  He's invited himself into the home of a dishonest tax collector named Zacchaeus, who then declared “Half of my possession I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone I will pay it back four times as much.”

Jesus has cast out demons, and given sight to the blind.  He’s raised a little girl from the dead just by taking her hand.  He’s healed a crippled woman, one who had been bent over for eighteen years.  He’s cleansed ten lepers just by his words.

And now Jesus is on his way into Jerusalem, riding on the back of a borrowed colt with cloaks strewn along the road, and the disciples shouting “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”  Verse 37 says:  “The whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God with a loud voice for all the deeds of power they had seen.”

I was really struck by that:  deeds of power.  It’s actually just one word, in Greek:  δυνάμεων (doo-NA-men-on).  It literally means “powers.”  And there’s power all over the gospel of Luke.  When Jesus is touched by the bleeding woman, he feels power -- δύναμις -- go out from him.  He’s surrounded by crowds who want to touch him because power -- δύναμις -- goes out from him and heals them.  When he casts out demons the crowds marvel and say, “With authority and power -- δύναμις -- he commands unclean spirits.”

And when Jesus comes out of the desert -- after forty days of fasting and temptation, after meeting the devil face to face -- he returns to Galilee ready to begin his ministry, ready to teach and preach, and he is filled with the power -- δύναμις -- of the Holy Spirit.

When the disciples sing their praises of all the powers they have seen, what my mind goes to is the miracles.  The exorcisms, the healings, the lepers cleansed, the woman straightened, the little girl raised from the dead.  But when I look at the whole of the gospel, and everything that Jesus has been up to before Palm Sunday morning, I just can’t help but think there’s something more to the deeds of power.

I don’t think deeds of power are limited to miracles.  I think Jesus’ deeds of power are just as much the stories he tells.

When Jesus picks up a mustard seed and says the kingdom of God starts that small, and can grow into a tree that becomes a home for every bird, that changes things.  That takes this overwhelming and powerful and mighty concept of God and makes it very, very small, makes it touchable, makes it something that can roll around in the palm of your hand.  And then that very, very small thing becomes something very, very big.  Suddenly the kingdom of God is both tiny and huge, both something we can grasp and something we can rest in.

When Jesus says that God is like a shepherd who leaves ninety-nine sheep to go find one lost one -- or that God is like a woman sweeping her house from top to bottom looking for one lost coin -- or that God is like a father watching for his prodigal son to finally, finally, finally come home -- those aren’t miracles.  But they are words that change things.  They open up for the disciples and the crowds and the Pharisees -- and for us -- the amazing and abundant love of God.  The sheer ridiculous extravagance of God’s mercy.

I don’t think deeds of power are limited to miracles.  I think deeds of power are just as much about the words Jesus speaks.

Because words change things.  Words change our reality.  There are words that go straight to the heart of who we are, and slice us wide open like a lightning bolt.  There are words that change our lives forever.

Like the first time your son or daughter looks at you and says “Mommy.  Daddy.”

Like the first time you hear, “I love you.”

Like someone who hurt you saying, “I’m sorry.”

Like someone saying, “I forgive you.”

Like the moment when someone you love -- someone who has been hurting, and struggling, and fighting -- finally says, “I need help.”  “I’m sick.”  “I’m an alcoholic.”  “I’m depressed.”  Maybe like the moment when that someone was you.  Like the words that finally bubble up from your heart and burst out your chest because you have been hurting for so long that you can’t hold them in any longer.

Like words that helped you let go of perfect and just be real and good and wonderful just where you were.  Words that call you out of fear, and make it possible for you to speak your truth.  Words that change reality because they change you.

I crowdsourced my sermon on Facebook and one of my dear friends from high school messaged me about a teacher we’d shared.  She said, “In high school I was painfully shy, and not very confident in myself. One day our teacher stopped me after class and said something like, ‘I see you. You're really smart, but you never participate in class discussions. Why not?’  And my friend said, ‘I don't think I really have anything to say.  What I say doesn't matter.’  And our teacher responded, ‘Yeah, but … nothing really matters. So you might as well speak up.’ ”

Words change our lives.  They change our reality, because they change the way we see the world.  And that’s a deed of power.

Like standing before God and each other and confessing, together, that we haven’t lived up to God’s hope for us.

Like hearing someone say, “In the name of Jesus Christ, your sins are forgiven.”

Like someone holding up a hunk of bread and saying, “This -- this is the body of Christ.  And it’s given for you.”

These are words that change our lives forever.  Words change our world.  Words are powerful, and they are the deeds of power that change our lives.

But words of power create tension.

Jesus won’t do any miracles in Jerusalem this week.  Luke doesn’t tell stories of healings or multiplying loaves and fishes.  Instead, he teaches.  He speaks.  And every time he speaks, the tension rises.  Every time he tells a story, the religious leaders and teachers get more angry.  He debates them about authority, and taxes, and life after death, until finally they no longer dare to ask him another question.  They want to trap him in what he says, to lay hands on him, to kill him.  It’s Jesus’ words, not his miracles, that get him into trouble.  Words of power create tension.

Palm Sunday is an odd day, because we know the rest of the story.  The disciples think this is a sign of what’s to come -- of glory, and honor, and more deeds of power.  They think this is the start of an upswing in the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, an upward trend that’s just going to continue.  He’s on a rise to power.  Some of the disciples and followers might have expected Jesus was on his way to becoming a political rebel.  There had been prophecies of a Messiah who would cleanse Jerusalem of their oppressors.  A militant leader, who would take up the sword.  The Jewish people would finally be free of the Romans, who burdened them with taxes and crushed their spirits.  They have been longing for someone to free them.

And now Jesus is riding into Jerusalem, celebrated by the people, heralded with cloaks on the road and the shouts of children -- just before Passover.  Passover, the most important holiday of the Jewish people.  Passover, when so many people journeyed to Jerusalem that it quadrupled in population.  Passover, when the Jewish people celebrated God’s liberation of them from slavery and oppression.  Jesus is marching into the midst of a people who are telling the story of freedom -- people who are longing for someone to restore the nation of Israel.  They are whispering the words of Isaiah:  “Here is my servant, whom I uphold; my chosen in whom my soul delights.  I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.”  It is, for the disciples, a glorious day.

But we know the rest of the story.  We know that the bottom is about to drop out of the world.  That this servant in whom God delights will soon be a man scorned.  And the praises sung today will turn to shouts of anger and to Jesus’ cries of pain.

On Good Friday, the world goes silent.  Even the stones do not cry out.  The only deed of power is Jesus’ willingness to die.

See, deeds of power change lives, but deeds of power create tension.  Words that change the world are also words that kill.  There is something that always dies when truth is spoken.

If we admit that we are hurting, the illusion that everything is OK dies.

If we admit we need forgiveness, the illusion that we are perfect dies.

If we admit, like my high school friend, that it doesn’t matter, than our fear and our anxiety and our lack of self confidence has to die.

If we admit that we love and we hurt and we need help, then our self-reliance has to die.

When we hear the truth, when we speak words of power, then our lives are changed.  And there is always tension in that.  And there is always something that dies.

And when Jesus finally admits who he is, he has to die too.  Not because he’s a political rebel who has to be silenced.  Not because he’s a religious troublemaker.  Because he came to give us words that free us, words that break us out of chains, words that stop whatever’s already killing us.  He came to love us into wholeness and hope.  He came to change our lives with deeds of power.  The world wasn’t ready for that kind of change.  The world says No to Jesus.

But we already know the end of the story.  The world says no.  But God?  God says yes.

When we cry out for a king, it’s not for military power to crush our enemies.  It’s not even, maybe, for miracles.  It’s for a word that changes our lives.  It’s for a king who gives us a kingdom small enough to hold in the palm of our hand.  It’s for wholeness, and salvation, and grace.  For someone to come and change us.

Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.




Someone's shouting from the desert.
Someone's shouting from the sea.
Someone's shouting from the mountain.
Someone's shouting from the valley.

Messiah, Come and be our King.
Messiah, Come and be our King.

Someone's shouting from the city:
I am young, I am cold.
Someone's shouting from the country:
I am lonely, I am old.

Messiah, Come and be our King.
Messiah, Come and be our King.

Someone's shouting I am broken.
Someone's shouting make me whole.
Someone's shouting come and change me.
Someone's shouting save my soul.

Messiah, Come and be our King.
Messiah, Come and be our King.

(Larry Olson, ©1989 Dakota Road Music)

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