Sunday, April 9, 2017

The Power of Love (a Palm Sunday sermon on Matthew 21:1-11)

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, at the time this story was told 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. 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 check 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 come to a standstill!” We laugh, because it’s funny, but there’s a dark side to this funny story, too. What that small boy was probably feeling was his first taste of an emotion that has caused trouble throughout human history: the love of power.
‘All power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’, and we’ve certainly seen plenty of that in the recent past! Some people enter political office already corrupted. 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. 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 aren’t immune to this. A clergy friend of mine once said, “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; I’ve even played it myself at times. I too have been corrupted by the love of power, which just goes to show that my heart isn’t yet fully converted to the Way of Jesus.
The Palm Sunday story, which we read today in Matthew 21:1-11, is all about the tension between the way of power and the way of love. Let’s think about this for a few minutes.
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 many people wanted Jesus to fulfil.
In the time of Jesus many Jewish people were waiting for their Messiah. They believed he would be a descendant of their greatest King, David, and 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. If we look closely at the Gospel stories we can see that this idea was already taking root in the minds of some of the people on Jesus’ team. In the chapter before today’s reading the mother of James and John comes 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 believes Jesus is on his way up to Jerusalem to become king by force, and she wants to make sure 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 - including getting more recognition than the children of other moms. See how seductive 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, but he chose to be a different kind of king - a servant king. He turned away from the temptation to follow the way of power, and chose instead to follow the way of love.
Matthew structures this Palm Sunday story around an Old Testament prophecy from Zechariah. He quotes from it in verses 4 and 5: ‘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 isn’t 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 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 emphasizing this meaning. The word in the original language that our NRSV Bibles translate as ‘humble’ is the same as ‘blessed are the meek’ in the Beatitudes; my Greek lexicon says it also carries the meaning of ‘gentle’ – the very opposite of a soldier going to war.
So Zechariah foretold the Messianic king coming to Jerusalem to claim his kingdom. In our reading, Jesus seems to be intentionally acting out this prophecy. This is actually 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 Messiah. Jesus enters Jerusalem, heads straight to the Temple and drives out the moneychangers and animal sellers. He and his followers then take possession of the Temple courts. 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!
But then comes the anticlimax. Jesus doesn’t seize power and begin the violent revolution. Instead, he comes to the Temple each day to teach the people, heal the sick and hold 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 our human propensity for messing things up, for breaking things, for breaking people and relationships – in other words, the evil and sin that infects us. This is the enemy that spoils our relationship with God and with other human beings. 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 how the Cross accomplished this. It’s as if Jesus offered himself as a willing sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. Or, it’s as if Jesus took our place, the innocent dying instead of the guilty, so that we could go free. Or again, it’s as if 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 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 take revenge on those who murdered him, Jesus chose to accept the suffering and death they inflicted on him, and to pray for their forgiveness. And because he did that, we know that we too can be forgiven, and reconciled to God.
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 but 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 we read that those Christian missionaries turned the world upside down.
What would it mean for us to truly follow the example Jesus gives? It would mean that we’d start out as God does - by respecting the free will of every human being and refusing to coerce others to do what we want. In the Christian community, 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.
“That's a tall order!” Yes, 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. As we Christians learn to do that – to walk the way of love, not the way of coercion - I believe 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, as the Holy Spirit works through you and me.

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