Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Sermon for April 17th: Matthew 21:1-11

The Power of Love

I once heard a story about a city in South America with a fourteen-lane highway running through the middle of it. Scary as it may seem, there were no traffic lights to regulate this highway. Instead, at various points along the road there were police towers. Policemen would stand in these towers to regulate traffic, and whenever they raised a hand, the traffic would screech to a halt. The story is told that one day a small boy happened to get up into one of those towers when there was no policeman in it. He raised his hand as he’d seen the policemen do, and sure enough, the traffic screeched to a halt. The drivers were so used to obeying the occupants of those towers that they didn't stop to see if the boy was legitimate or not!

Imagine the thrill in that small boy’s heart. “All I have to do is raise my hand just so, and look - fourteen lanes of traffic grind to a standstill!” But unfortunately, what that small boy was probably feeling was in fact his first experience of an emotion that has caused trouble throughout human history; I’m referring, of course, to the love of power.

Whoever said ‘All power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’ has been proved right over and over again in human history. Some people, of course, enter political office already corrupted. A few years ago I attempted to read Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf. I didn’t finish it, but I read enough to convince me that here was one human heart that was corrupted by the lust for power long before he achieved high office. But others start out with the best of motives - the desire to do some good, and to serve their fellow human beings. Sooner or later, however, the seduction of power begins to work its evil spell, and it’s a rare person who can resist it. It’s not that politicians are any worse than the rest of us, of course. It’s just that the lure of power is so attractive that we poor sinners find it desperately hard to stand up to it.

Christian churches are not immune to this. I once heard Terry Dunn say “There's a game people play called ‘Church’; it consumes enormous amounts of money and energy, it’s all about power and control, and it has absolutely nothing to do with the Christian Gospel!” I've watched people play this game all my life as a Christian; indeed, I must confess that I’ve played it myself at times. I too have been corrupted by the love of power; my heart isn’t yet fully converted to the Way of Jesus, which of course is a very different way.

The Palm Sunday story, which we read in Matthew 21:1-11, is all about the tension between two ways of living - living by the love of power, or living by the power of love. Let's think first about living by the love of power, and the temptation this posed for Jesus and his followers.

Jerusalem in the time of Jesus was ripe for a Messiah to come and set it free. The city was under the thumb of the Roman occupation armies. Powerful people in high places had made their peace with the Roman regime and were now doing quite well by going along with its cruelty and corruption. And all the time ordinary people – the majority, that is - were living in poverty and oppression. What the city needed was a strong King to raise an army in the name of God, kick out the Romans and the corrupt Jewish leaders, and clean things up by force. This was a role that many people wanted Jesus to fulfil.

In the time of Jesus, you see, many Jewish people were waiting for their Messiah. They believed that he would be a descendant of their greatest King, David, and that like David he would be a man after God’s own heart. He would come in the name of God, drive out oppression and corruption, and establish the kingdom of God on earth. And so would come about the perfect society, with peace, prosperity and equality for all.

Jesus lived out his life and ministry against the backdrop of this expectation, and some would say he would have done better to go along with it. But if we look closely at the Gospel stories we can see that the corruption was already creeping into the hearts of Jesus’ team as well. In the chapter before today’s reading we see the mother of James and John coming to Jesus to ask a favour: “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom” (Matthew 20:21). She isn’t talking about life after death here - she believes that Jesus is on his way up to Jerusalem to become king by force, and she wants to make sure that James and John will be his chief ministers and get the most glorious positions in that kingdom. Like all moms, she wants the best for her children - but of course, that involves them getting more recognition than the children of other moms! See how seductive the love of power can be, even in people who are committed to Jesus’ mission!

Jesus chose not to take the route of power; he chose the way of love instead. He was a king, yes, but he chose to be a different kind of king - a servant king. He turned away from the temptation to live by the love of power, and chose instead the way of living by the power of love.

This story Matthew tells us has been structured around an Old Testament prophecy from Zechariah. Matthew quotes from it in verses 4 and 5, where he says, ‘This took place to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey”’. In its context in the book of Zechariah this is a Messianic prophecy with a difference, because the king is not coming to lead armies and wipe out the enemies of Israel. Rather, he’s coming to bring peace and justice to all nations on earth.

Kings in the time of Zechariah did in fact ride on donkeys at times, and when they did so, it had a specific meaning. A king who rode a war-horse was coming in battle or in victory. But a king who came riding a donkey was coming in peace. Matthew is emphasising this meaning. The NRSV isn’t quite accurate in its rendering here, because the Greek suggests not ‘humble’ but ‘gentle’ as the characteristic of the king.

Zechariah foretells the Messianic king coming to Jerusalem to claim his kingdom. In our reading, Jesus seems to be intentionally acting out this prophecy. Have you ever noticed that this is the only occasion in his life on which Jesus is recorded as riding a donkey or a horse? Normally he walked everywhere, but now he borrows a donkey and rides into the city. His disciples walk with him, and acclaim him as ‘the Son of David’ - a title for the long-awaited Messiah. Jesus enters Jerusalem, where he heads straight to the Temple and drives out the moneychangers and animal sellers. He and his followers then take possession of the Temple courts. This all seems very regal! His disciples must have thought, “This is it! He's finally going to do it!” They must have been able to practically smell their places at the new royal court - heady stuff for ordinary Galilean fishermen!

But then comes the anticlimax. Jesus doesn’t seize power and begin the violent revolution. Instead, he comes to the Temple each day to do what he’s always done - teaching the people, healing the sick and holding debates with the religious establishment. Then at the end of the week he practically hands himself over to be unjustly tried, flogged and crucified, and he forbids his disciples to resist in the strongest possible terms.

Why did Jesus choose this route? Because he knew that driving out the Romans and the corrupt Jewish leaders wouldn’t solve the real problem. They weren’t the real enemy. The real enemy is the evil, the sin, the corruption that infects the heart of every human being. This is the enemy that breaks our relationship with God and with other human beings. And this is the enemy that must be defeated before injustice and oppression can be broken forever.

The way that Jesus chose to defeat this enemy was the strange way of giving himself to death on the Cross. The Scriptures strain human language to try to describe exactly how the Cross accomplished this. It’s like the Old Testament animal sacrifices, they say, except that Jesus offered himself as a willing sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. Or, it’s like Jesus taking our place, the innocent dying instead of the guilty, so that we could go free. Or again, it’s like we were slaves to sin and evil and Jesus’ death was a ransom price paid to set us free. Or again, just as sometimes the sacrifice of some soldiers in battle brings a tremendous victory over the enemy, so Jesus’ death was the decisive victory over the forces of evil.

The reality of what the Cross means, of course, is far beyond our human understanding – that’s why the writers of the New Testament struggle so hard to describe it to us. What is certain is that the power of the Cross of Jesus to bring healing and change to our world is cosmic. But note what kind of power it is - the power of love. Rather than using his power to inflict suffering on others and coerce them to do what he wanted, Jesus chose to accept the suffering and death they inflicted on him. And because he did that willingly, you and I can be forgiven, reconciled to God, set free to be all that God dreams for us to be.

When the great victory had been won on the Cross, King Jesus did indeed send his armies out into all the world. But he sent them out with no weapons other than the message of the Good News and the command to love others as they had been loved by him. This was the only force that spread the Christian message, and yet in the book of Acts even the Church’s enemies said that the Christian missionaries had turned the world upside down (Acts 17:6 KJV).

However, before we get too smug about this outstanding success, we need to ask ourselves an uncomfortable question. Has the world, in fact, returned the compliment and turned the Church upside down? Has the love of power crept quietly back into the Church and corrupted us?

Unquestionably, the answer is sometimes ‘yes’. Of course, it’s all too easy to point to others as examples of this. My grandfather used to scoff at the English bishops who lived like little lords in their palaces. Or we could think of the Crusades, or the Spanish conquistadors who forced the South American native people to accept Christian baptism at the point of the sword.

But what about ordinary Christian congregations? I can think of many local churches that have been marred by fights between different factions, each one struggling to enforce their vision of the way the church ought to be. It’s all for a good purpose, of course - but notice how easily the love of power creeps back into the Christian community!

What would it mean for us to truly follow the example Jesus gives us? It would mean that we’d start out as God does - by respecting the free will of every other human being and refusing to coerce others to do what we want. It would mean that instead of trying to force our agenda on the church, we would join with our fellow Christians in listening together for God's will. It would mean that we would always be more willing to accept suffering from others than to inflict it on others. It would mean that we would be continually reaching out to those who have rejected us with the healing love of God in Christ. It would mean that we would take the hard road of sacrificial love instead of the easy road of playing power games.

Do I hear you say, “That's a tall order”? Of course it is! Jesus never said that Christianity would be easy. He said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). The way of the cross is always hard - but it’s the only way to spread the Kingdom of God. So let us resolve today that we will follow the example of Jesus. Let’s speak the truth in love as he did, and let’s be willing to walk the hard road of the cross in love for others. When we Christians truly learn to do that, we’ll see the power of God's love unleashed in a new way to transform the world. That can begin today, in the places where we live, through you and me.

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