Sunday, April 17, 2011

Sermon on The Gospel Readings for Palm Sunday - "Expectations!"

Read the Processional Gospel here: Matthew 21:1-11
Read the Passion of St. Matthew here: Matthew 26:14-27:66

What excitement!  The day has finally come – Jesus is finally going to do it.  Jesus is finally going to take the lead in restoring Israel!  After the years of unusual teachings – turn the other cheek, love your neighbor and so forth; after all of the healings and the miracles; after all of those odd and confusing statements about picking up your cross and following and the predictions about going to Jerusalem to be crucified and raised; after all of that – Jesus is finally going to reveal himself as the Messiah!  Jesus is finally going to reveal himself as the one who is the glorious King of Israel and he will destroy the invaders and the infidels (the Romans) once and for all!  Finally!!!
It must have been a heady and exciting time for those crowds that followed Jesus around throughout his ministry, and also for the disciples.  Jesus had attracted a number of followers during the three years of travelling around Judea and the Galilee preaching and teaching and doing miracles – followers such as former John the Baptist disciples and curious Pharisees, peasants and merchants, political revolutionaries and those who were collaborators – even Jesus’ inside group of male disciples included a curious mixture of men who otherwise would probably have never gotten along – merchants and businessmen like Peter and Andrew, James and John, radical revolutionaries like Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot, and then there were collaborators such as Matthew the tax collector and on and on.  But the one thing that seemed to unify this group of disciples and the crowds was their fascination and commitment to what they thought was Jesus’ mission: the believed that Jesus was the Messiah.  And this Messiah healed and taught and performed miracles – never before has anything been seen like this in Israel, exclaimed the crowds back in chapter 9.  The disciples had figured it out ages ago, in fact Peter had actually verbalized and told Jesus to his face that he believed him to be the Messiah – and Jesus had not denied it.  Sure, Jesus then made some odd comments about dying and rising, but none of the crowds or disciples paid much attention to that!  “Jesus was the Messiah – and you know what that means, right?  Jesus is going to reclaim the throne of David once and for all and then the reign of God will begin.  Jesus is going to lead his army of followers against the Romans and expel them and destroy them once and for all!”  After all, that is what a Messiah does!
            And so, Jesus enters into the city on a donkey to the cries of Hosanna from the crowd.  Hosanna, Hosanna to the Son of David  - which means – Save Us, Save Us, Son of David!  The crowd could hardly wait – they were pumped and ready to follow Jesus.  They were ready to join his rebellion!  And the disciples were right there with the crowd the whole way, cheering Jesus on and ready to fight! 
            These were the expectations of the crowds and the disciples on the day we remember today: Jesus is the Son of David, the Messiah, the King.  This could only mean one thing – Military Victory!  When the crowds cried “Hosanna” or “Save Us” they meant “Save us from the Romans.”  They had very clear expectations, and very clear understandings of what they expected to happen and they are ready for it.
            We can all relate to this, can’t we?  We all have any number of expectations that often form an important part of our relationships.  Parents have expectations for their children; husbands and wives have expectations about what marriage is suppose to be and what we expect of our spouses; we have expectations of our government, our schools, our sports teams and on and on.  And how many times in your life have you had expectations disappointed?  How do you deal with these kinds of disappointments?  Can you adjust your expectations to a new reality or do you incline to stubbornly hold on to out of date or unreasonable expectations? 
And, what kinds of expectations do we have of Jesus?  And are our expectations all that different from the crowds that greeted Jesus as he entered Jerusalem?  Don’t we also incline towards a glorious Messiah?  Don’t we American Christians prefer the risen Christ of Easter rather than the broken Jesus on the cross? Every year churches around the our country are filled on Easter Sunday. Can we say the same about our Good Friday services?  Why is that?  For without Good Friday, Easter is meaningless. There can be no resurrection without crucifixion and this fact alone should call us to take a long hard look at our understandings and expectations, and to reconsider what this means for our faith and what it means for our daily lives.
            For their part, this crowd appears to be not inclined to revise their expectations, not on this day; during this week.  They are excited and waiting for the word from Jesus.  But it never comes.  Jesus lets the moment pass.  The crowds are like a fire ready to burst into flame, but Jesus doesn’t light the fire.  He moves in a different direction.  He stays on the Mount of Olives, he continues to teach and debate and all the while his disciples and the crowds are getting restless and angry, to the point where one disciple finally takes matters into his own hands and tries to force Jesus to act – this is Judas.  Judas is the one who does the act of betrayal, but don’t think that the other disciples weren’t thinking the same thing – they were.  They all wanted to find a way to get Jesus to act like the Messiah they believed he was.  But Jesus hadn’t taken advantage of all that support he had when he entered Jerusalem, so Judas tries to force his hand in the Garden of Gethsemane.  And what do the other disciples do?  At the time of his arrest, one of the disciples draws his sword and strikes a blow! “Ok, here we go – now the insurrection starts….” No – they still don’t get it….
Put your sword back into its place (says Jesus) – for all who live by the sword will perish by the sword!
            What a shock!  This is not what was expected.  Is it any wonder then that the crowds turned on Jesus? Crucify him, Crucify him!   Is it any wonder the disciples all fled in fear and confusion?  “What a disappointment!  Our hopes are completely dashed!  Jesus the Messiah did not meet the expectations we had for him; he wasn’t the kind of Messiah we were expecting!”           
But God doesn’t do things in the way we humans expect.  God’s ways are different than our ways.  God does answer and respond to the calls of Hosanna – Save us; but not in the way we expect.  Through Jesus, God saves us through service; gives victory through weakness; gives life through death.  It is not what we expect.
But it is not like this is a particularly new way for God to act.  We can run through the entire salvation history of Israel and see that this is exactly how God acts.  Surprisingly, God acts consistently through forgiveness and grace and weakness: God chooses Abraham and his wife Sarah to be the patriarch of a great nation through which God will bless the world.  Even though they are homeless wanderers and a little on in years. God stays with this family through all of the deceit and dishonesty and selfish behavior exhibited by Jacob and his sons.  Then God calls a murderer who is on the run to return to Egypt to lead God’s people into a new land.  Throughout salvation history God calls men and women to witness through their lives that God is not about status quo, business as usual. God is about liberation. God is about lifting up the lowly and caring for the poor and hungry and lonely and grieving and destitute. God is about casting the mighty and selfish down from their thrones and sending the rich away hungry.  God works in our midst not through power and might and wealth – but through weakness and love and grace.  This is not what we expect.  The cross as a symbol of liberation and grace – who would have thought?
We are now about to enter into our remembrance of Jesus’ final week in Jerusalem – a week we call Holy.  As we proceed throughout this week we should note that this is a week filled with expectations that are continually dashed by a God who loves us so much that God refuses to be imprisoned by our expectations. From the entrance into Jerusalem, through the Last Supper in the Upper Room, to the arrest in Gethsemane, the trials before Caiaphas and Pilate, the crucifixion at Golgotha – and then the most surprising twist of all: the empty tomb! This is not what we expected! Praise God! For through these events God, through Jesus reaches out to us in love and grace!  It’s not what we expect – thanks be to God!  +

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