I Recommend the Broiled Fish
This is the best text in the whole bible! It has everything we need, right here, especially for moments like we are in now. These are frightening times. If the world-wide economic crisis were not enough, now we have to figure out what to do with the fact that the Taliban have captured a town within 60 miles of the capital of Pakistan – a country with nuclear weapons! If there was ever a time we needed to hear the first words out of Jesus’ mouth it is now:
36 Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”
Happy thoughts of peace and pretense
Anybody can say “Peace be with you” as a pleasant wish, like “have a good day.” But when there is a real problem at hand, a real crisis – when the diagnosis is bad, when you hear the words you were dreading, when there is real cause for fear, words are not enough to bring peace. Neither is pretending helpful. It doesn’t help to say, “Well, things will get better” when it is likely that they will not, at least not in time to help you.
That’s the first reason I love this text: it is not about pretending and happy thoughts. It starts with complete honesty: those disciples were in crisis-mode. They felt terrible. Listen to the words Luke uses to tell us how they were feeling:
37 They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. 38 He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 41 While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering,…
If we gathered together just to think happy thoughts, we should be pitied. But if we gathered having to pretend our faith was strong in the face of crises, to try to look good to each other, as if belief came easy, it would be depressing. Part of being a disciple of Jesus – then and now – is facing the fact that doubt is part of our experience.
Faith is not the default position. It never has been. There is just about nothing less likely than that someone would die and rise again. Oh, there are plenty of stories of ghosts and spirits; it seems that most of us are even prepared to believe in angels and demons; spooky things happen to everyone from time to time – but none of us has seen someone rise from the dead.
And here is what I like even more about this text: even when Jesus’ disciples saw him standing there, with the evidence of their own eyes, and heard him speak with their own ears, they still doubted. They had a lot more to go on than I do – so if they could doubt with Jesus standing right in front of them, then my doubts are surely reasonable.
And when the times of fear and doubt come, should I add to my problems a layer of guilt for having such weak faith? No! Because Jesus does not show up wagging his finger at us to shame us or even with a smug “I told you so!” Rather, he comes with understanding and sympathy for our human limitations, and says to us “Peace be with you.”
I don’t know whether or not this economic nightmare and its effect on your future financial security is the kind of crisis that makes you wonder where God is; or whether your health makes you wonder, or the state of your relationships, or even the news of the world – or simply depression cause by the fact that life is not what you had hoped it would be – but doubt is part of the life of faith for all of us at various times. God does not wait for us to muster faith from some inner well, like athletes finding the strength deep down to push on in the face of overwhelming odds. Rather, it is in the moment of doubt and fear that Jesus comes to us, saying “Peace be with you.”
Actions speak louder than words
So what does Jesus do when he comes to his doubting disciples after pronouncing his peace to them? He acts. He offers himself to them to touch:
39 Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” 40 And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. … he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate in their presence.
So this was probably helpful to those doubting, fearful disciples; I’m sure that being able to touch him and watch him eat broiled fish with them did a lot to assuage their doubts. And yet this complicates it for us. We neither get to see him nor touch him today. He is not here to join us at the picnic this afternoon. How does this help us with our fear and doubts?
In this way. Jesus’ hands and feet probably bore the marks of crucifixion, but he did not draw attention to them in this moment. Nor did he say simply “look at me;” rather he focused their attention on his hands and feet. How could they have possibly looked at those hands without recalling the people he had touched with them; the blind people, the lepers, the sick people? How could they have looked down at his feet without thinking of all they places they had been with him – places they never would have gone on their own – to a tax-collector’s house, places where gentiles lived, in fact to Jerusalem itself to confront abuse and corruption right in the face of his enemies? Looking at those hands and those feet recalled his entire life for them in that moment.
Hands and feet today
This is where we are almost on level ground with those disciples. In my moments of doubt and fear, I can recall that there are countless hands and feet in the world, right now, reaching out with love and compassion on behalf of real flesh and blood people because the risen Christ is still at work in his people today.
It’s true that mothers around the world care for their children; fathers do all they can for their families, there is nothing special about people going out of their way to help their own clan, their own kind, even their own nation. The impulse to sacrifice for ones own group is hard-wired into us and indeed is an impulse we share with all species of animals.
But the willingness to put oneself at risk for others – people who are not related, who are not part of our “us” but who are, by every measure “them”, the willingness to respond to human need when there will be no pay-off or pay-back; in fact, the willingness to lay down ones life for ones enemies, that is not simply an achievement of social biology or evolution. It is nothing less than flesh and blood evidence of the presence of the risen Christ at work, transforming human beings into agents of God’s love and justice. This is what we can see around us today.
We see the risen Christ at work when flesh and blood hands and feet show up at the Christian Service Center and distribute food and supplies to strangers in need. We see the risen Christ in the people who build Habitat for Humanity homes for people they do not know from Adam. We see the risen Christ in people willing to prepare meals or host or even spend the night with Family Promise homeless people. We even see the concrete evidence of the risen Christ at work every time we take up a collection for One Great Hour of Sharing to bring relief and justice to people who don’t even look like us or speak our language.
Transformed by the risen Christ
What is the power that could take normally selfish human beings like us and transform us into people of compassion for and solidarity with strangers? It is simply that we have been changed by the power of the risen Christ. We have heard his call to repent of our selfish and sinful ways, and we have experienced his complete forgiveness; we have, in short, experienced redemption.
And our hearts have been enlightened to understand that this was his plan from the beginning. This is what Moses anticipated when he came down from Sinai with the law. He told us to love the lord our God with our whole heart and mind and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves – specifically providing for the needs of the weak and the poor, the widow, the orphan and the stranger. And this is what Moses meant when he said that in the future, God would raise up another prophet, like him, and when he did, people should listen to him.
This is what the prophets spoke of when they pictured a time in which people would come from North and South and East and West and sit together at a table in the kingdom of God; the time when they would beat their swords into plows and their spears in to pruning hooks, and no one would need to learn war anymore.
And this is why the prophets spoke of the coming Messiah, not as the leader of a revolution, but as the Servant of the Lord, who would suffer, and die, and then be vindicated when God raised him from the dead. And this is exactly what Jesus explained:
44 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you– that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46 and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things.
Yes, we are witnesses of these things. We who have seen the hands and feet of the risen Christ at work in our flesh and blood world. We who have come to know ourselves as Christ’s disciples, who have repented from the evil in our hearts and have been immersed in God’s complete forgiveness. We are witnesses – even though we are still weak, still vulnerable, still prone to doubts and fearful in the face of crises – we can affirm that we are witnesses of the risen Christ.
This is why we experience peace that Jesus gives. It is not just a pleasant wish, but a powerful calm that comes from Jesus himself, risen, alive today.
Why a Garden?
Darkness as default on Day One
In the biblical telling of the story, the earth starts out on day one in darkness.
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep. Gen. 1:1-2
I get that: that is the first thing that needs to be said about the world: it can be a dark place. The default setting of the world is not like a bright day at the beach, but an inky-black day without sun, moon, or stars; just darkness. How many people have made it from cradle to grave without being near the brink of utter darkness at some time in their lives – pushed to the edge by hunger or disease? How many women have made it through their all of their days unharmed? How many men have never known war in their lifetimes? Who has escaped depression? Loneliness? The first thing that needs to be said about the world is that it can be, and quite often is a very dark place.
In the biblical telling of the resurrection story, in the Gospel of John, the scene opens with strong echoes of Genesis 1, day 1:
Early, on the first day of the week, while it was still dark...
Mary’s dark assessment
Mary Magdalene did not live in a world of suicide truck bombs or drug-cartel killing fields, but neither was she naive about the darkness of the human heart. She goes to the tomb of a friend, a victim of an out-of-control judicial system, completely open to malicious manipulation and riddled with corruption, in which human rights are not abused; they simply do not exist; torture is just how business is done – and justice has nothing to do with outcomes. She arrives at the tomb, finds the door open, and has an automatic explanation that she can believe. “They” – whomever “they” are – the ones with the power to paint their little corner of the world black-and-blue – “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”
Layers of misunderstanding
Thus begins Johns layering of misunderstanding upon misunderstanding that is at the heart of his resurrection story. It’s like watching characters in a crime story: there are clues all around that everyone can see, but they don’t get it. Peter and that unnamed other disciple race to the tomb – as if speed is necessary at a graveyard – they see grave clothes, note the details about which piece is lying where – and John’s gospel tells us, their reaction is to simply go home. We do not know what they thought, but it’s early in the morning, on the first day of the week, and the world is a very dark place. Why should they expect anything different?
There is that odd line about the unnamed disciple seeing and believing – but it’s completely unclear about what he believes because the next line says specifically:
for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.
In fact, because of this, we who read this story are now drawn into this circle of misunderstanding too: he believes but doesn’t understand? What? Now we are off-balance too; our grasp on this story is weakening; we don’t get it. It’s going to get worse.
Mary’s Layer: Angels
Then Mary adds another layer of misunderstanding, and we are drawn into it with her. She is outside the tomb weeping, she stoops to look into the tomb, and sees two angels in white, even notices where they are seated.
The role of angels is always the same: angels are God’s messengers. So what is the big message these two angels announce? They have no message. Instead, they ask a question. In fact they ask the oddest question because you don’t have to be a messenger from God to figure out the answer:
They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?”
At this point, we would forgive Mary if her answer was bitterly sarcastic – “Why do you think I’m crying here at this tomb that you are sitting in?” But no, she answers them sincerely,
She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”
It is odd that they ask a question, and even more odd that she does not treat them like angels at all: no fear, no bowing, shielding the eyes, nothing: just a plain answer to an unnecessary question. We are now wondering if we are understanding this story. Neither the angels nor her response is going the way one would expect.
Mary and the Gardener
The next layer of misunderstanding is the final and thickest layer: Mary turns around (never mind the angels anymore – they simply disappear from the page after their one little question) and she sees Jesus. Only she does not recognize Jesus. How this is possible is never explained – although we are willing to read into the story the plausible explanation that it’s hard to see through tears – probably its still dark anyway.
Now it’s Jesus’ turn to speak. The whole Gospel of John has been building up to this point. The whole story is going to turn here; the Risen Christ, who has just broken the grip of death that has held every human being in its icy hands since the sixth day of creation speaks; and what are his words, his great opening statement?
It is completely strange: he asks a question – the same one Mary has just answered – and then follows with another question that he, of all people in heaven and on earth knows the answer to; he says:
“Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?”
There is something wrong with this story for us; we are trying to read it to make sense, filling in the gaps, smoothing over its rough places – but it’s getting more difficult. But certainly now it will all be put right. Mary will certainly recognize the voice of her beloved “Rabbouni” – her teacher – everyone recognizes unique voices. I bet I could name a good number of you if you called me and simply said, “Good morning Steven.”
But no: she still does not understand who is in front of her. She is still living in the world she understands: a dark world where grave robbers add their own insult to the injury of state-sponsored executions of the innocent. In characteristic sincerity she answers again that obvious question:
...Supposing him to be the gardener, she said “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”
Why does John bother to tell us who she mistakenly thought Jesus was? We did not need that detail at all. She could have thought he was just another question-asking angel, or she cold have thought another disciple had shown up – or a Roman soldier – the possibilities are endless. But John wants us to know what she was thinking:
…Supposing him to be the gardener,
Although it lies outside this morning’s reading, this story has another odd part that this “gardener” business brings up that must be mentioned. John tells us that Jesus was crucified at a place people called Golgotha, in Hebrew, because it means “place of the skull.” He also tells us that this place was part of a garden. We must not picture flowers, maybe not even vegetables – this place could have merely been an enclosed area where plants grew – but in any case, John says,
“Now in the place where He was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb… (John 19:41)
In this garden, it is important to John’s gospel that we know that Mary mistook Jesus for the gardener. Why?
Back on the first day of creation week, when it was dark, according to the biblical telling of the story, God started to do something. He started blowing his wind, his breath, his spirit over the dark waters of that void, and when he did, Creation began. The darkness lost its footing and was pushed back: light appeared that first day – it was like sunrise after a night of storms. And God kept creating and creating all week, until by the end of the week, what did he have where the darkness had been? Eden; a garden. Not a dark garden, but a beautifully lit garden with sun, moon, and stars. A garden of peace and plenty, a garden of delight and harmony, a garden in which he walked personally.
We all know that story: it is our story. There we are in Eden; but: we would rather choose to be our own boss, set our own rules, and decide for ourselves what is right and wrong, than live in a garden, if living there required us to play second fiddle. We all do it: we all go for the apple, take the bite, blame the snake, and choose to live in a dark world outside of Eden.
We don’t like it, but we understand it. It is awful to live with this darkness, but it is at least predictable. If you see a good person, don’t expect a long life for him. If you see an open grave, don’t expect to find the ring on the corpse’s finger.
The Prophet’s gardens
Could it be different? Is there any reason to think it could be? Well, there are those lofty visions of the prophets that tantalize us. They could imagine a future that frankly we cannot see. Their visions are beautiful, even if the are rather unlikely, right?
Like Isaiah – the one we read about wiping away tears and swallowing up death forever. Isaiah also said:
the LORD will comfort Zion;
he will comfort all her waste places,
and will make her wilderness like Eden
her desert like the garden of the LORD; (Isa. 51:3)
It’s a nice vision – kind of completes the circle that started at creation: in the future, God will be every bit as much the Gardener as the original God was.
John’s Gardener & Garden
Wait: could John be playing with us? After putting us off balance and making us unsure about how to read this odd story, are we now to understand that Mary’s misunderstanding might possibly be a kind of ironic understanding: The Gardener at the end of time has come back to the Garden after all? Isaiah was on target?
In fact Jesus never says, “I beg your pardon; I am not a gardener.” Perhaps only after hearing that Mary understands him to be a gardener, Jesus is in a position to identify himself to her. Which is exactly what he does. He does it by saying one word: her name; Mary.
Did the sun burst over the horizon in that moment to fill that garden with the light of a brand new day? That would be about right; John doesn’t say.
Listen: understanding God has never been easy, and probably never will be. We were conceived in darkness and live our lives expecting the worst. Or at least, that is the default position. But it does not have to be that way anymore!
Our story is a resurrection story! This world may indeed be dark, left to its own devices, but this world has not been left to its own devices! In the beginning, God started with utter darkness and intervened, making a garden. He has done it again! He has opened a tomb of death, shed the clothes of morbidity, and has come back to be the gardener of a brand new creation!
How will he ever break through our expectation that life will always be dark, that the only explanation is that grave robbers have stolen our only hope and left us crying, utterly alone, where even angelic visitation does nothing but to add to the questions?
This is Easter Sunday; the answer is in one word; our name. The gardener at the end of time has one tool with which to cultivate new life; it is that he has come to us, in our day of darkness, and calls us by name.
I’m going to ask you do participate in a short guided meditation. If you would, please bow your head; trust me to guide you into this story.
Picture this: It is early morning. It feels damp and cool. It is quiet. You are alone. You are standing in the cool morning air. An open grave is behind you. You hear a voice – you look up. It is Jesus; he is looking at you; he is calling your name. He is calling your name.
Now you respond; how? Can you see yourself saying back to him “My teacher!” Teach me your way; teach me your will; teach me the way to live as a child of light, not of darkness. Teach me to hope again; teach me to believe; teach me to follow”.
This is our story: Christ has risen! The Gardener has returned! He is calling you by name. Alleluia!
Horizon and Resurrection
1 When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 2 And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?”
4 When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed.
6 But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him.
Out on the horizon is a place where sea meets sky; heaven contacts earth; infinity touches finitude. In between the meeting of heaven and earth is the sea, vast, open, dwarfing us as we watch it from the beach. We sit on sand made by a million waves, countless as the grains themselves; predictably rhythmical, yet specifically random. We live under a sky no different from the sky that our ancestors sat beneath, big and blue, and open upwards; seemingly limitless.
And yet, we do not live in our ancestors’ world. We experience our world differently. We define sand, sea and sky by the lexicon of our times; the grammar of the scientific method; the achievement of our age; observation, and experimentation,. Gravity, hydraulics, and mechanics are the powers that pull tides from oceans and pound shells into granules. Scientific explanations provide us with a sense of certainty; we understand cause and effect efficiently. Gone are the gods of sun and moon. Absent are the powers of fertility and storm. We do not sacrifice nor bend the knee to the caprice of malevolent powers of nature. We have removed all her names; Poseidon, Neptune, Ba’al, and Asherah. We have, in their place, computer models, the weather channel, and reason. We live under a sky unlike the ancients.
But regardless of explanations about lunar gravity, we still have a love for the sea that goes deeper than causal connections. We feel something. Despite the absence of nature gods, we are still able to feel wonder, even awe at the horizon. Though we understand our planet’s place among the planets, and the daily rolling of the earth, still, sunrise and sunset stir in us longings for a world that is not this one. It is not only at the horizon that infinity touches finitude, it is also in the human heart. Despite all of our science, we long for a world that we feel we were made for, but which is not the one we live in.
There is a story of a time in which the two worlds touch. It is our Christian story. It is the story of God who exists above and beyond nature, who entered nature in the robes and sandals of a Palestinian named Jesus. Our story follows Jesus as he lives among the peasant farmers, the day-laborers, and the families of Galilee. We see in everything that Jesus did and said, the DNA of another world. He was like that horizon itself, the meeting point of earth and sky, infinitely extended and yet the accent of his speech was local.
He was like us, but unlike us too. Though he lived the daily life we live, experienced the same rhythms of the seasons and the daily alternation of labor and rest, the periodic gatherings of family at weddings and funerals, he stood out from us.
He was kinder than we are to children. He was more open than we are to foreigners, and he was not above speaking with women. He cared more than we do about the sick, and did what we would never do when he touched lepers. He seemed to have in his human body a point of contact with divinity, with God. He was like the horizon itself, the meeting place of the two worlds. And we sensed something in his company very much like the feeling we receive at the edge of the sea – a vastness, a presence, an ache for the something-more that is never satisfied in this world.
And he died. More clearly said, he was put to death. Most clearly sated; we put him to death. We could not bear the intensity of his light, nor the depth of the contrasting shadow we lived in. His life was a mirror held up to our people, who could not face what they saw reflected there. We read his goodness as critique on our lack of goodness, we interpreted his compassion as judgment on our neglect, and we construed his humility as an attack on our arrogance; and in our pretension, we rejected any claim his life implied against us.
There are two times each day when our attention turns to the horizon. Sunset, when the shadows lengthen and the day breaths, is like a death, a leaving behind, a goodbye to another never-to-be repeated span of life. A coffee spoon, stirred, drunk down to the last, and emptied. Heaven and earth touch at the point of the sun, which sinks down as if the earth has claimed another victim for burial. Night follows, and we recede to our homes against the darkness.
But like the mercy of a suspended sentence comes sunrise. Shadows begin to form into shapes and increase in solidity until objects are visible, trees, distinguish themselves from their hillsides, homes again appear from the shroud. On the sea, the horizon starts to form that long curved line, and finally the sun itself edges out from under the world with steady intensity, claiming everything for its own, leaving nothing hidden; it brings a new day of life. Every sunrise, like every single live birth, feels miraculous. Earth is again graced by the meeting point of heaven.
It was at sunrise that our women went to his tomb and found it empty. It was in the light of a new day that our men raced each other to see inside. It was when the sun had risen that the young man in white said, , “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here.” (Mk 16:6)
Our story is a resurrection story. This new sunrise puts everything that has happened before in an entirely new light. We live under a sky our ancestors never before imagined. We live with the new knowledge that the meeting point of heaven and earth is more than horizon, more than the past life of a saintly man, but is in fact the ongoing life of the risen Christ.
We now live with knowledge that our greatest fear, death itself, has lost all of the power of its former finality. The spell has been broken and its muscle has been exhausted. Resurrection has begun, the firstfruits of a harvest of resurrections to come. Death has lost its victory; the grave has no sting. He is risen!
In this light, under this new day, we revisit his story and see what he was showing us with new eyes. Like the mystery novel read for the second time, we now see the clues that were cloaked as we were caught up in the plot; now we understand! All along he was coaxing us towards an entirely different life; a life lived not longing for a distant horizon, but a life lived at the very brink itself. A life completely consumed by divinity; a life lived in the meeting point of heaven and earth.
Now we see that this life is not the cathedral life, for he did not ask us to build one. This life is not the monastic life, for he never instructed us to seek seclusion. This life is the life of dust and tears. This life is the life of sores and thirst. This life is the life of blind people and lepers. This is where soul meets body, where divinity lives in humanity. This is the new life lived in the light of resurrection.
It is with the imprimatur of resurrection that we read his words with enlightened understanding,
20 “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
22 “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.
Out on the horizon is a place where sea meets sky; heaven contacts earth; infinity touches finitude. In between the meeting of heaven and earth is the sea, vast, open, dwarfing us as we watch it from the beach. We sit on sand made by a million waves, countless as the grains themselves; predictably rhythmical, yet specifically random.
We live under a sky vastly different from the sky that our ancestors sat beneath, big and blue, and open upwards; seemingly limitless, a sky that has borne the light of resurrection.
You notice different things when you read the bible. Last year I noticed that half of the story that we call the Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem is about the donkey colt. This year I noticed the cloaks. Some people put their cloaks on the donkey, others laid them on the road like a red carpet. There must have be a lot of cloak-removal that day. The thing that made me notice the cloaks is that I was reading the gospel of Mark for context, and realized that the last thing Jesus does before that entry-ride is heal the blind man named Bartimaeus. Mark’s gospel includes the minor detail that when Jesus called Bartimaeus, he jumped up and left his cloak behind. Lots of cloaks were hitting the ground that day.
It is pretty easy to see that the emotion that drives all these cloak-removals; it is sheer exuberance. Bartimaeus, springs to his feet, overjoyed that Jesus will hear his request to regain his sight; so too, the people on the parade route were similarly exuberant that Jesus had come.
Both scenes are linked by expectation as well: it was not just that something was happening when the cloaks came off; something was about to happen; Jesus was about to do something. He did indeed for Bartimaeus; Jesus restored the blind man’s sight. That expectation was met. On the other hand, after the big parade Jesus goes to the temple, looks around, notices his watch; it is late, he leaves. Whatever the expectation that made people willing to carpet the donkey’s path with their cloaks, I bet it was for something more than that. I guess you could say that, at least for the moment, their expectations were un-met. Too bad for the cloaks.
One crowd? Maybe not
I also noticed something else this time as I read the gospels; many times I have heard that the irony of this parade is that the same crowd that shouts “Hosanna” today is the crowd shouting “crucify him!” very shortly thereafter. None of the gospels say that the crowds on those two different days were composed of the same people. Perhaps there was no irony; maybe the people with the donkey tracks on their coats really did catch the allusion to the ancient prophecy of a king coming into Jerusalem in a humble manner, riding a donkey colt – specifically because it was not a war horse, specifically to bring peace, as Zechariah said (9:9).
Easter is coming
If there is any remaining irony in the Palm parade, perhaps it is in us. We look at this parade day with post-Easter eyes. We know that the darkness of Thursday night is ahead of us when Jesus will be abandoned and betrayed; we know that the horror of crucifixion on Friday is coming, and the despair of Saturday too; but we also know that next Sunday is Easter, the day of resurrection.
The Humble King
Easter Sunday totally changes the way we read the parade story. Easter confirms that the one who rode in to Jerusalem over those cloaks with the branches waving really was and is the King of Zechariah’s prophecy. Yes, he came humbly, but not in humble defeat. He came with the humility of a king whose goal is not subjugation of a people – not to be the new tyrant in town, but rather the liberation of a people: the one whose whole agenda was to bring God’s kingdom of peace and justice to his suffering people.
As Zechariah said:
your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
He will cut off the chariot …
and the war horse from Jerusalem;
and the battle bow shall be cut off,
and he shall command peace to the nations;
So, this is indeed cause for exuberance. This is a reason to abandon restraint and throw off your cloak; the king has indeed come. It is right to shout “Hosanna” – God save us – because that is exactly what he is in the process of doing.
But he is not doing it exactly as one might expect. It does not all get done instantly. We are in a similar position to those people lining the parade route: we want the whole thing to happen immediately, here and now – but Jesus has more complex plans.
Because this text coaxes us to throw off our cloaks, take up the branches in our hands, and identify with the “Hosanna” shouters, it also forces us to examine our expectations as well.
On Sunday mornings we often ask ourselves, “What does God want from me?” This morning we are turning the question around: “What do I want from God?” “What are my expectations of Jesus?”
Right at the top of the list for all of us, is rescue. We want exactly what those people wanted: “Hosanna: God save us” “rescue me” and usually we add “now.”
There is nothing wrong with this desire for rescue, because we all need to be rescued; except that we quite often do not adequately recognize what we need rescue from. This text compels us to look at what Jesus’ rescue operation was about. What we find is that we need to be rescued from the soul-killing conditions that we find ourselves in.
Selfishness to giving
Jesus’ first rescue operation is to save us from ourselves; that is, to rescue us from a life of simple selfishness to a life of giving. Here’s the human condition: I do not feel anybody’s pain but mine, anybody’s hunger, fatigue, sadness, loneliness, depression but mine. I am acutely aware of my needs and how many of them are unmet. The default position, unless I am rescued, is for me to be “me first” about my entire life.
But the self-centered life is not worth living, and ends badly. There is irony in selfishness too; it never works. In fact the more we obsess on ourselves, the less happy we are. Lives that are given away are not lost lives, but found lives, as we saw last week. Now we see that Jesus’ willingness to give himself away for us, for others, is the pattern he sets for us. Whether or not this is what we are out on the streets yelling “Hosanna” for, whether we expect this rescue or not, the first rescue Jesus makes is to transform selfish people into givers.
Apathy to caring
The second rescue is from apathy to caring. It is rescue from a life of walking past the blind man without even noticing him – or worse, shushing him – but either way, his pain simply doesn’t register. The apathetic life is not worth living either. Easter eyes do not turn away from the scenes of suffering, scenes of hunger, scenes of homelessness. Jesus’ whole ministry was impelled by a deep empathy with people in pain – women with chronic diseases, children near death, lepers – and people in psychic pain, excluded and despised people like Samaritans and Roman officers. All of them were people Jesus cared about – and there is no such thing as a follower of Jesus who has not been rescued from apathy. We care about homeless people, about victims of poverty and discrimination, about Iraqi’s and Afghani’s, about Jews and Palestinians. We have been rescued from soul-destroying apathy by seeing the world through the Easter eyes of caring.
Despair to hope
The rescue we need so badly today, especially in this time of economic crisis, is rescue from despair to hope. We are not stuck in the world of hopelessness as if Easter never happened. We do not agree that the problems are too great, the evil is overwhelming. We are like Bartimaeus, crying out against seemingly insurmountable odds, or like the people on the parade route shouting Hosanna while Pilate and his minions looked on suspiciously. Rather, like Bartimaeus our eyes have been opened; we have Easter eyes now. We see our humble king riding into town and we know God is going to vindicate him on Easter morning. Let the empire throw all their power at him – as if they had the power of life and death. God alone has that power, and on Easter Sunday morning, Rome is put back in its place as a merely human institution.
This parade into Jerusalem is not a suicide mission – even though it will lead to Jesus’ death. Hope that God is doing something powerful and new does not end on Friday evening. Hope means that we see beyond the present awful conditions and circumstances because we believe that the God of Easter life is stronger than any army.
What are you dealing with right now in your life? Is it yourself? your future? your family? Listen: we are not in despair. We are always able to cry out “Hosanna! God save us!” We always have the hope that he hears us, that he is not apathetic to our cries but is deeply moved by our suffering. He is the God of rescue, of Easter, of new life.
And he is the God who is rescuing us and will rescue us from self-absorption, from apathy, and from despair.
God has put us here for a reason: we are disciples of Jesus Christ, here to continue his ministry in the power of the Risen Lord – which is at work in all us through his Holy Spirit. This is something to be exuberant about – enough to abandon the cloaks to the donkey and shout “Hosanna! blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”