Nonviolent Protestors

(Isaiah 8:11-151 Peter 3:13-22)

Peter has exhorted his readers not to fight fire with fire, but rather with blessing, offering the assurance of God’s word that “the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are open to their prayer, but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.”  He follows that in verse 13 with a proverb:  “Who’s going to persecute you for being eager to do good?”  The implied answer is “no one,” and in general—which is the level on which proverbs work—that’s true.  In the normal course of events, if others see you doing things they consider to be good, they aren’t going to attack you for that.  Peter’s ap­pealing here, as he has at earlier points in the letter, to the fact that even a corrupt society recognizes much of what is truly good, and appreciates it as such.  As a general rule, people who do evil are punished, and those who don’t, aren’t.

Still, that’s only generally true.  It doesn’t always hold, and Peter knows it.  Some people hate what is right, and enjoy tormenting “do-gooders”; others feel threatened by those whose example makes them look bad.  Then too, there are those for whom it’s strictly business.  Nothing personal, but the morally upright are just easier to rip off and abuse, that’s all.

Beyond that, while there is much that God calls good with which the world agrees, we know the world is in rebellion against God; it seems each culture and every generation rebels in different ways, but there are always aspects of his righteousness which the world declares evil rather than good.  As we saw in the Beatitudes, anyone who hungers and thirsts for the righteousness of God will end up being persecuted sooner or later.  If you hunger and thirst for his righteousness, then you aren’t hungry and thirsty for the bill of goods this world wants to sell you, and you aren’t aiming to go where it wants you to go.  Instead, you will find yourself a walking contradiction to beliefs and commitments which the culture declares self-evident and non-negotiable, and the world will find it has no hold over you; that makes you a threat.

Instinctively, the fight-or-flight reflex drives us to react to worldly opposition by either backing down or going to war.  Large sections of the church in this country have taken the latter course as official policy, whether by trying to wall the world out or through political and cultural offensives.  Tellingly, their efforts do little to convince the culture of the love and grace of Jesus, and too often they end up being of the world even though they aren’t in it.  But for the rest of the church, which seeks to remain engaged with the world, compromise is a constant, insidious temptation.  There’s always the pressure to conform to the world—to look for some way to justify telling our society what it wants to hear.  Though we learn to hunger and thirst for righteousness, the hunger and thirst for the approval and applause of those around us never quite goes away.

Neither combat nor compromise is the right course.  As Peter tells us, we’re called to a third way:  to oppose without fighting, to stay connected without compromising.  Our job is to be different from the world—conspicuously, but not combatively, assertively but not aggressively.  On the one hand, we need not fear what the world fears—and fear drives the world as much as anything does.  The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, as the Scriptures tell us, in part because it puts every other fear in perspective:  compared to him, every earthly threat is insignificant.  If we fear God, we can be fearless with the world, and thus free to proclaim our faith boldly without feeling the need to protect or defend ourselves from anyone or anything around us.

Thus, on the other hand, we don’t actually need to fight for our faith.  We’re to contend for it, yes, but not in the world’s way.  It’s not our job to defeat others and win arguments, and nothing justifies tearing other people down or belittling them.  You’ll notice Peter says in verse 15 that we should always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks the reason for our hope.  We’re supposed to preach the gospel, yes, and do it without compromise, but Peter doesn’t tell us to push that conversation.  Rather, he envisions us living in such a way that other people ask usabout our faith.  What we say about Jesus ought to be credible, whether they want to accept it or not, because it’s backed up by what they’ve already seen in our lives.  If people haven’t already seen the sermon, they aren’t going to want to hear it, or be likely to believe it if they do.

Toward the powers of this world, then, we are to live as nonviolent protestors, actively resisting without fighting back.  Our strength is the strength of the Holy Spirit, which is revealed to us in Jesus Christ, who suffered without even threatening to retaliate, and died to save even those who were killing him.  In a culture which is increasingly convincing itself that orthodox Christianity stands against progress, we must stand firmly against what this world thinks is progress, but do so with only gentleness and respect.  If we do so, there will be loud voices that will slander us in every way they can think of, and many will believe those slanders because they want to; but those who take the time to look at us will see them for the lies they are, and that will be a more powerful witness to Jesus Christ than anything we could devise.

Our culture, for all that it’s running on the fumes of the faith of generations past, still has a deeply-ingrained belief that love is the best thing there is—a belief which really didn’t exist apart from belief in the God of the Bible.  This society has divorced that belief in love from any belief in God, but for now, that belief in the idea of love remains.  As a result, we have a culture which loves to talkabout love, but is losing any sense of any obligation to show love, especially if that would require any sort of self-sacrifice.  “Love” has become a weasel word, used to justify whatever the powerful and the fashionable want to justify.

>We can’t out-argue that.  It’s hard to argue someone into believing what they don’t want to believe, and at this point, the cultural headwind makes it impossible.  Even if that weren’t so, the best an argument could win us with most people would be intellectual agreement, and that isn’t our goal; that doesn’t change people’s hearts.  Indeed, it often doesn’t even change their behavior, unless you have the power to require the behavior you desire—which only hides the fact that their hearts haven’t really changed.

But then, we can’t change other people’s hearts, no matter what we do.  Only God can do that, and he does it through his love.  We can’t argue the world into believing its view of love is wrong; we can only show it to be wrong by loving the world as God loved the world.  We can only show the world the love of God by loving one another, and by loving our families, and by loving our neighbors, and by loving the desperate, the powerless, and the outcast—and by loving our enemies, and seeking to bless them rather than insult them or condemn them.

This is hard; and for a long time in Western culture, the church could believe it didn’t have to do that, because the cultural authorities were outwardly friendly.  But now, even in America, we are riding out of Palm Sunday and toward the cross.  We’ve been accustomed to the praise, and we’ve taken it as our due, expecting it to continue.  Jesus knew better.  He knew the crowd’s allegiance was shallow and fickle, and that they would soon turn on him; and he knew he wasn’t there to receive their praise, but to suffer and die for them.

This Is the Lord’s Doing

(Psalm 118:15-24Zechariah 9:9-17Matthew 21:1-13)

Psalm 118 is a psalm of triumph—we see the king and people of Israel praising God for victory in battle, a victory in defiance of all human expectation.  The army of Israel was badly outnumbered, their king was hard pressed on every side, but the Lord heard the prayer of his servant and delivered him from death; by his power, the Lord gave the king victory against overwhelming odds.  In thanksgiving and joy, the king is now leading a procession through the streets to the temple to offer his sacrifice to God.
Which king?  What battle?  We don’t know.  We do see the psalmist reaching back to the first great victory God won for his people, their deliverance from Egypt; verse 14, which we used as part of the call to worship, is quoted from Moses’ song of praise in Exodus 15, after the Lord drowned the army of Egypt in the Red Sea.  Whatever event occa­sioned this text, the writer is deliberately setting it in the context of God’s mighty acts of deliverance in the past—his righteousness to his people—in order to show this victory as one more step in God’s ongoing work of salvation.  That’s what’s important.
Irony, the reversal of expectations, is potent in this psalm.  It comes to a point in verse 22, in the context of the temple of God.  In verses 19-20 we have a challenge and response:  the king arrives at the great doors of the sanctuary and calls, “Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter and give thanks to the Lord”; the countersign comes, “This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous may enter through it.”  The king passes through to worship the Lord; in verse 14, borrowing from Moses, he has declared, “The Lord is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation,” and now he gives thanks to God for so answering his prayers.
And then in verse 22, we get this:  “The stone that the builders rejected has become the keystone.”  NIV has “capstone” there, which is fine too; you’re likely more familiar with the translation “cornerstone,” but that points us in the wrong direction.  The keystone holds the integrity of the arch and makes it work, serving to transfer the weight of the wall outward and down the arch to its vertical supports.  In a stone arch, you’ll often see the keystone emphasized because of this—it may be larger, or a different color, or perhaps engraved or embossed.  It would be the prize stone in that section of the wall.
And yet here, the king and the psalmist declare, the keystone is not a stone the builders prized, but one they rejected.  How?  Remember what we were saying about the divine passive a couple weeks ago—to say this stone “has become the keystone,” without any other explanation, means that God did it.  God has trumped the builders.  Which is particularly interesting because, remember, this is the temple.  It’s God’s building, but who built it?  The leaders of Israel.  The keystone of God’s work here, the person through whom he has won this victory, wasn’t just facing enemies among the other nations—he had been rejected by the leaders of his own people.  He could truly say his enemies sur­rounded him on every side, because even his own side was against him.  Even so, he overcame them all by the power and faithfulness of God.
Thus we have verse 23:  “This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.”  There is no one else to credit, and no one else to blame; there is no other explanation.  Human power and human brilliance cannot encompass it, much less create it, for it’s a victory in defiance of all prediction.  This isn’t even a mere upset; we’re not just talking Florida Gulf Coast over Georgetown, or Valpo over Ole Miss, or Butler making the champi­onship game two years running.  Those get called March miracles, but they’re entirely human affairs when all’s said.  The psalmist is celebrating a victory more on the order of Grace College beating IU to win the NCAA tournament.  Only God can do that.
Now, I mentioned earlier that this psalm draws on Moses’ song of praise after the Lord drowned the Egyptian army.  That was one of the great events of the Exodus, when God delivered Israel from Egypt; over the centuries, as Israel celebrated the Exodus in the Passover feast, this psalm came to be a part of that celebration.  As the Passover began, Jesus had just raised Lazarus from the dead; popular interest in him and his ministry was likely at its peak, and the city was full of pilgrims, many of them from Galilee where he had done most of his work.  Given that Psalm 118 was already in the hearts and on the lips of the people of Jerusalem as he approached the city, it’s no wonder that they took up its words to acclaim him:  “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
The thing is, they’d had centuries to wear the edges off this psalm; the crowds hailed Jesus in the words of verses 25-26, but they didn’t really understand the significance of verses 22-23.  Over the generations, repetition had ground away the shock value of those verses and their message, leaving them safe and familiar; what was once unpre­dictable had become completely predictable.  The crowds knew they needed a deliverer, but only in the conventional way—someone who would kick out the Romans and give them political independence.  They wanted God to do something that made sense to them.  They missed the lesson of the psalm that God can and does deliver us in ways that defy common sense and human expectation, “to showthat the all-surpassing power belongs to God and not to us”; he doesn’t limit his victories to the horizon of our imagination.
The crowds were excited by Jesus because they thought he might give them the worldly success they wanted; because they failed to understand what he was really on about, it would be just a few short days before the Jewish leaders would be able to fire them up to demand his crucifixion.  They missed the Messiah for thinking too small.

Foolishness to the Lost

(Zechariah 9:9-17; Mark 11:1-11, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31)

April Fool’s Day isn’t usually seen as a Christian holiday, but it probably ought to be. We think of this as a day when people make fools of each other, but it’s also a good day to think about the ways we make fools of ourselves, and how foolish our conventional “wisdom” often is. Take the case of Fred Smith, the founder of Federal Express. We take overnight delivery for granted, but when he proposed the idea in a paper for a class at Yale, the professor gave him a C, telling him it was interesting but couldn’t be done. Fortunately, Smith proved him wrong. Or consider David Sarnoff; when he first suggested to his bosses at RCA that radio could be a moneymaker, he was told, “The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?” When he arranged the first commercial radio broadcast in 1921, of the heavyweight championship match between Jack Dempsey and Georges Carpentier, they found out; by 1924 RCA was selling over $80 million a year worth of radios.

The world is not as wise as it thinks it is, and sometimes you have to be willing to be a fool in order to get anywhere; and doubly willing if you would seek to follow Jesus. Paul makes this point forcefully to the Corinthians, who were trying to conform the message of the gospel to the conventional wisdom of their day; and he makes this point to us as well, because it’s a lesson we keep having to relearn. God will not defer to our judgment, and he will not submit to our expectations. The gospel is not wisdom on human terms: it is a contradiction to human wisdom.

This is the point where Palm Sunday and April Fool’s Day meet. Why did the crowds rejoice to see Jesus coming? Look at Zechariah 9: “Rejoice greatly . . . Shout aloud . . . Look, your king is coming, triumphant and victorious, humble and riding on a donkey.” And so he comes, and they respond from Psalm 118, which was used during the celebration of the Passover; it’s a victory psalm, and the last half describes the king’s triumphal procession through the gates of the city to the altar in the temple. The procession was to be marked with branches, and palm branches in particular were a symbol of victory. The crowds were praising Jesus as a conquering hero, as the heir of David come to take his throne and restore Israel to its rightful place among the nations.

They wanted a military and political messiah, a great liberator and conqueror, because they were still thinking of Israel’s destiny in political terms. They had read Zechariah, but missed his point: they got the king part, but failed to see the rest. There is nothing in this passage that speaks of Israel being established among the nations. The king arrives, not on a war horse, but on a donkey—a beast of burden, a working animal—and there is an immediate end to any sort of warfare, as he commands peace to the nations. Israel’s deliverance will be the work of God alone, accomplished by his power alone. This is not a political victory in view here, it’s something altogether different.

Jesus is indeed the conquering hero, the coming king of Israel, but not the way they expect. The crowds see Rome as their enemy and their salvation as political independence. Jesus came to give us a far greater salvation, from the power of sin and death—but while that made him the king they needed, he wasn’t the king they wanted. They wanted worldly success, political and military power, and Jesus refused. That’s why, just a few days after hailing him as king, the crowds would mock him as a fool: by their standards, he was. In the judgment of the world, God is a fool.

God’s foolishness begins with a crucified Messiah. We get used to this, as Easter goes by every year, but if you really stop to think about it, it’s crazy. As the New Testament scholar Gordon Fee put it, “No mere human, in his or her right mind or otherwise, would ever have dreamed up God’s scheme for redemption—through a crucified Messiah. It is too preposterous, too humiliating, for a God.” No self-respecting God would put himself through something like that—becoming human, sharing all the nasty parts of life, and then submitting to be tortured to death—and for what? For us? Surely it’s beneath his dignity. But God doesn’t let his dignity get in the way of his love for us.

If a crucified Messiah is God’s foolishness, then surely Jesus was God’s designated fool. We see him as a great wise man and a great teacher, but a lot of those around him thought he was at least a fool, if not worse. He just didn’t act like a normal person, and his teaching didn’t make sense. For Jews and Greeks alike, the idea that the God who created the universe would become human was impossible and scandalous; the idea that instead of establishing his power on Earth, that God would allow the authorities to execute him . . . well, that would have been utterly inconceivable. For all their disagreements, the Jewish and Greek worlds agreed on one thing: this Christian story was crazy.

And yet, it was through this crazy story that God saved the world. It wasn’t through any of our own work or our own wisdom, not even the best we could offer, that God saved us; in his own wisdom, God saw to that. Though this all looks foolish to the unaided eye, God’s foolishness outsmarts our wisdom. Christ’s crucifixion, the ultimate act of powerlessness, is the ultimate act of God’s power; his crucifixion, which is complete foolishness to those who are lost, is the ultimate act of his wisdom. We don’t have the choice to look for some wiser way, because there isn’t one; we can only trust God and be saved by his wise foolishness, or cling to our own wisdom and be lost.

We aren’t called to a Palm Sunday faith, that celebrates Jesus when he’s popular and we’re riding high and everything’s going well, then turns on him when he starts making people mad and the road starts to look rough. We’re called to the faith of Easter: a faith that understands that it was precisely by his defeat that Jesus conquered, that a shameful and scandalous execution was the moment of God’s greatest glory, and that it’s only by going through that death and coming out the other side that Jesus brought about our salvation. To the world, the idea that a triumphal procession would lead not to a throne, but to that, is pure foolishness; but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God for us, in which we glory.

Only the Dead Rise

(Isaiah 52:13-15; John 12:20-32)

If you look up the page in John at the first part of this chapter, you’ll see Jesus enter Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, what’s commonly called his triumphal entry. It is, it seems safe to say, the high point of his fame in his earthly ministry. He rides into the capital city on a donkey, like the king prophesied in Zechariah 9; the crowds are shouting phrases from Psalm 118, which is a triumph psalm, celebrating the return of the king of Israel to Jerusalem after a glorious battle. It is of course a psalm of praise to God for giving his people victory, but there is great honor in that for the king through whom God worked to bring it about; thus the king’s procession through the streets is a triumph, accompanied with the waving of palm branches, which were a symbol of victory. The crowds that day were welcoming Jesus as a conquering hero, as the heir of David reclaiming his throne to restore Israel to its rightful place among the nations. The Pharisees were in despair at the popular reaction, declaiming theatrically, “This is getting us nowhere. Look, the whole world has gone after him!”

Now, from their point of view, that was hyperbole; their concern isn’t for the whole world, but only for a few thousand Jews. But John knows very differently, and so he skips over the cleansing of the temple—he’s already mentioned the first time anyway, back in chapter 2; instead, immediately following the Pharisees’ melodramatic lament, we get this: “There were some Greeks who were there to worship God, to celebrate the Passover, and they kept asking to see Jesus.” The Pharisees don’t really care about the world beyond Israel except as it affects the Jews, but Jesus is different, and here we actually have the world, non-Jews (though clearly non-Jews who worshiped God) coming to Jesus. Somehow or other they get connected to Philip; Philip, predictably uncertain, grabs Andrew for advice, and Andrew, equally predictably, goes to tell Jesus.

Now, I imagine these Greeks trailing along behind Philip and Andrew—that’s how these things usually work, after all—but John doesn’t say; and indeed, the Greeks are never mentioned again, as Jesus doesn’t directly address them or even refer to them. Instead, he takes their arrival as a sign: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” Which sounds completely, ludicrously obvious. Jesus has just been glorified—the donkey, the palm branches, the crowds yelling “Hosanna! Blessed is the coming king! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”—it’s already happening. I’m sure the disciples’ split-second reaction was simple agreement.

And then, as he so often does, Jesus turns everything inside out. He says “glorified,” and they’re thinking, glorified—power, success, honor, fame, the priests and Pharisees worshiping Jesus, the Romans out—maybe even a place to live, no more of all that walking around; but what does he mean by “glorified”? Try this: “I tell you the truth, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life will lose it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” I’m telling you, hold your ear close to the page and you can practically hear the disciples’ jaws hit the ground and bounce. Glory equals death? Where did that come from? Sure, many cultures have believed firmly in the possibility of earning glory through death in battle, but that’s clearly not at all what Jesus is talking about; his idea of glory is a long way outside the norm.

Which is precisely why this little parable is so important. This world ties glory to self-assertion, to conquest, to pride, to being better than others, and so the gods we make in our own image do just the same; our view of who we are and of what we should pursue frames and shapes our understanding of who God is and what he wants from us. Jesus shows us that God isn’t like that—that in fact, God is on about something profoundly different. Life as we know it isn’t as we know it; there’s something much bigger going on, calling us to a very different way of living.

In particular, human religion has a “do this, not that” model of the human relationship with the divine. Different religions do it very, very differently, but the basic idea is the same: god tells us to do certain things and not do other things and to behave in particular ways so that he’ll be pleased with us, while we ask god to do certain things and not do other things so that we’ll be happy with him. What the reasons are for what god says, what the justifications are for what we can ask and when, and the balance between them are different with every religion, but in the end, that dance of mutual obligation is the structure of every human religion.

That is not the gospel, and it’s not what Jesus is on about. His purpose is to give us true life, and he doesn’t seek to do that by giving us a list of dos and don’ts; instead, he declares that he will do it by direct donation. He will die, he will let go of his life, so that he can give it to us. Thus his death will be his glory, for it will be through his death that he will win his victory: the defeat of death itself.

And in so doing, in giving us his life, he shows us what it means to live his life, and he gives us the example to follow; this is not simply the way he wins the victory, but it’s also the way we win the victory in his name. Thus Jesus declares, “Whoever loves his life will lose it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” As you may remember, we’ve talked before about the way the Bible uses love/hate language to express absolute contrasts; Jesus isn’t advocating suicide, he’s talking about what is and should be our first love. He wants us to love him so much that if following him means giving up our own life—whether symbolically, letting go of the things we enjoy most in this world, or literally dying in his service—that we’ll do so, and gladly. To love Jesus in that way is to find eternal life. To love our own lives more than Jesus is to miss his life, and ultimately to lose everything that matters most.

The fact of the matter is, if we love our own lives most, we end up living to avoid death; we end up, indeed, very like this grain of wheat I hold in my hand. We clutch everything tightly to ourselves, and in the process make ourselves small, and hard, and narrow, with all our potential for life locked tightly inside for fear of losing it. If we will not give up our lives, time will yet take them by force in the end, crushing us into powder and leaving nothing that abides. But if we follow Jesus who did not clutch hard to his status and prerogatives as God, but who let everything go and accepted death in order that he might give us his life—if we let go of our lives and follow wherever he may lead, even if that means accepting death as he did—then we sow them into the ground where God can use them to bring forth much fruit.

And in so doing, we prepare ourselves to receive his greatest gift. God promises that we will experience his life in this world, but only in part; his greatest promise is that if we die with Jesus, we will also be raised from the dead with him, resurrected to eternal life in Christ. Those who love life above all, those who would avoid death, end by likewise avoiding resurrection, because resurrection is only possible through death. Letting go makes the promise possible, our surrender opens the door to victory, for as sure as the sunrise can only come after the night, this is true: it is only the dead who can ever rise.

The Beginning of the End?

(Psalm 118:17-27, Isaiah 43:14-21; Luke 19:28-44)

In John 11:7, after the death of Lazarus, Jesus says to his disciples, “Let’s go back to Judea.” His intention is to comfort Lazarus’ sisters by raising their brother from the dead, and then to go on to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. His disciples, however, don’t think this is such a bright idea. “Rabbi,” they respond, “the last time we were there, they tried to stone you—you don’t really want to go back, do you?” The ensuing conversation makes it plain to the disciples that they aren’t going to change his mind, and they give up the argument, with Thomas saying gloomily, “If he’s going, we might as well go too so that we can die along with him.” And so they went; Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, winning himself a new flock of converts—and, in the process, persuading the Jew-ish leadership that they had to have him killed by whatever means necessary.

Jesus’ disciples weren’t stupid; they knew what was coming. The Sadducees—who were the priestly party in Jewish politics—and the Pharisees—who were sort of a reform movement—didn’t agree on much of anything, but one thing they did agree on was wanting Jesus dead, and Jesus’ disciples knew it. They knew that for Jesus to go to Jerusalem, especially right after ticking his enemies off by raising Lazarus, was just asking for trouble.

The disciples had had high hopes for Jesus; they had even started thinking he might be the Messiah, the promised savior of Israel who would kick the Romans out of Jerusalem, restore Israel to independence and prominence, and in general get things back to where they were when David was king. They had seen some incredible things on the road with him that had really made them think Jesus could pull it off. Now, though—well, they were afraid that going to Jerusalem would be the beginning of the end. Maybe Jesus would escape; he had before, after all . . . but if the chief priests got their hands on him, surely it would all be over. All their dreams, all their hopes, all their plans, all the good they had seen Jesus do, all the good they had done themselves as they walked with him—it would all be over.

And so, as Jesus entered Jerusalem, even as his disciples praised God and shouted, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”—even as they were caught up in the joy of the moment, even as they proclaimed Jesus to be the promised King of Israel—they were no doubt worried what the days ahead might bring. Jesus was entering Jerusalem in triumph, the triumph he deserved, everything announcing him as the king of whom the prophet Zechariah had spoken; but would he leave the city in triumph as well? Would he leave at all, or would he die there? Jesus’ triumphal entry was a provocation the Jewish leaders couldn’t possibly ignore—in fact, it was one that even the Romans might notice; at this point, either he would reveal himself decisively as the Messiah whom God had sent to restore the kingdom to Israel, or he would soon be dead. What other possibility could there be?

In a few short days, the disciples would see their worst fears come to life before their eyes, as one of their own would sell Jesus to his enemies; they would see him die the most horrible, agonizing death Rome could deal out, and they would hear the grinding sound of stone on stone as a multi-ton boulder was rolled in front of his tomb. But in a far different context, the British prime minister Winston Churchill would remark of the Second Battle of El Alamein, “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning”; and his words could just as truly have been spoken beside Jesus’ tomb, had anyone been there who truly understood what was happening. Jesus’ death was not the end, for, unique in human history, he would not stay dead, but would rise again of his own power; rather, it was the end of the beginning—of the beginning of God’s plan to redeem the world. He had begun with Israel, and now he would extend his reach to invite all people in every nation into his eternal kingdom.

And so, though Jesus’ death would seem to deny it, the message of his triumphal entry into Jerusalem was nothing less than the truth: he was indeed a conqueror come to claim his kingdom. The difference was, neither his victory nor his kingdom were the sort the world expected, because God was throwing out all the old patterns and doing some-thing completely new—the sort of thing only he can do. God’s plan didn’t involve any conventional sort of victory because conventional victories can only achieve conventional results; to do the impossible, to redeem the world, it is necessary first to stand the world and its conventional wisdom on its head. For this reason, the cornerstone of God’s work would not be, could not be, anything obvious, like a conquering general, even though such people had had their place in his plan over the years; rather, the cornerstone would be a stone that all earthly builders had rejected—a homeless man, a wanderer, a man of no reputation, a man whose moment of greatest triumph would be quickly followed by his execution as a common criminal.

Except that, for those with eyes to see, his execution would be his moment of greatest triumph, for even death would not be able to hold him. It was for this that he rode into Jerusalem as a king, announcing a victory which none of his enemies would be able to understand. Just as Moses had walked back into Egypt to tell Pharaoh, “Let my people go,” and to lead them on the Exodus through the wilderness to the Promised Land, so Jesus rode into Jerusalem to begin the new Exodus, leading his people—all his people, not just Israel—out of their exile in the wilderness of sin; and just as that first Exodus had begun with the celebration of the first Passover, so would the new Exodus begin with the celebration of the new Passover, the Lord’s Supper. But this time, the exile was not political and physical, but spiritual; it wasn’t one people in bondage to another, but all people in bondage to the power of sin. Therefore, his victory would not be political but spiritual; he would win not by conquering his enemies, but by surrendering to them.

This was God’s kind of victory; which is something our politicized American church needs to remember. The Protestant mainline churches got into the lobbying business in a big way in the 1960s, on the liberal side of things; in reaction, the conservative wing of the American church launched itself into politics on a national scale a decade or so later, and has only been getting more and more invested in political issues as time goes on. This has, to be sure, generated a lot of energy in American politics, gotten a lot of laws passed, and increased the number of committed, engaged voters in this country. At the same time, though, it’s meant that many non-Christians now see the church as primarily interested in politics and the success of a given political agenda—and indeed, that many churchgoers would effectively agree. This isn’t good, because what the church is supposed to be about—not primarily about, but in total—is the gospel of Jesus Christ; and too often, with all our political arguments, the gospel gets lost in the noise.

Now, understand me here, I’m not saying the church should ignore politics; I’m not advocating that Christians should cut themselves off from politics—or worse, sepa-rate their politics from their faith. There are Christian leaders who have reacted against the politicization of the American church by going to that opposite extreme, but that’s just the equal and opposite error. Politics is a part of our civil life; as citizens of the kingdom of God, we are called to be good and faithful citizens of this republic. This means that at the very least, we should vote, and we should do so intelligently—and that if God calls us, we should involve ourselves in the political process in other ways as well. Jesus is Lord in every part of life, and we need to act accordingly.

The problem comes when we identify our nation with the kingdom of God, and the political process itself with the work of the kingdom, and conclude that a victory or defeat in a legislative vote or a court decision is a victory or defeat for the church. That is buying in to the power-oriented thinking of the world, and it has given too many churches in this country the mindset that what really matters is that we win, whomever “we” might happen to be. After all, if we are on God’s side on this or that issue, then we are doing God’s work; that being the case, then logically it must mean that we have to win and we will win, because our victory is God’s victory and he never loses.

The problem is, this isn’t the way the gospel works; it isn’t Jesus’ way. His disciples thought they knew what he was on earth to do—win an earthly, political victory over a corrupt establishment and a pagan military power—which is why they worried that his return to Jerusalem might ruin everything; but Jesus had other plans, and so it wasn’t the beginning of the end, it was the end of the beginning. Equating the political victory of our cause with the victory of God’s work on earth—however well-grounded in Scripture our cause might be—presumes far more knowledge of him and his plans than we actually have; as such, it inevitably leads us into grave error. Abraham Lincoln knew this, which is why during his presidency he declared to one questioner, “Sir, my great concern is not that God is on our side, but rather that I am on God’s side.” Unfortunately, too many of his opponents had forgotten this—if they ever knew it at all.

It isn’t our job to win victories for God, because we aren’t even qualified to judge what a victory is. The disciples would look at the cross and see only agonizing defeat, because they lacked the ability to see what God was going to make of it; we can’t see the future, we can’t know what will best serve to accomplish God’s purposes, and it’s not ours to try. Our job, rather, is to be faithful in doing what he has called us to do, to do it to the best of our ability and with all that is in us—because to love him is to obey him, and we are to love him with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength—and to let him worry about the victory. As the great poet T. S. Eliot put it, “For us there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.” This is truth, and it is liberating truth; not only does it release us from carrying the weight of the world on our shoulders, it also frees us from our pride, for the desire to win at all costs has far more to do with the demands of our pride than with the demands of our God.

We are here this morning to celebrate the God who brought us “out of bondage, out of the house of slavery”; as we do that, let’s remember that he did so not by winning a great military battle or political victory, but by suffering death, and bringing victory out of that. Does this mean we shouldn’t care about political issues, about votes and laws and court decisions? Of course not; our call is to live out our faith and seek to follow God’s will in every aspect of life, the political as much as anything else. But it is to say that we shouldn’t get too high about the victories, or too low about the defeats; we should trust God for what he’s doing, and remember that our primary focus ought to be proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ, not of our chosen politician or political party. As Psalm 146 says, put not your trust in princes, for in them there is no salvation. Salvation is in Jesus Christ alone, and in him alone we should put our faith, and him alone we should worship.

The Herald of Salvation

(Isaiah 51:1-52:12; John 12:12-16)

“Listen to me,” says the Lord. “Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness, you who seek me; listen and look.” If you’ve been here through this series, you’ll note that this appeal is new. In chapters 40 through 48 we read, several times, “Listen to me, O Jacob, O Israel”; with chapter 49, that changes, as the Servant of the Lord begins his speech by saying, “Listen to me, you nations.” With the shift that comes in chapter 49, the audience has changed. Now it’s changed again, to the faithful remnant within Israel—the people who are still seeking God and pursuing his righteousness, who have neither turned their backs on him nor rejected his servant. These are the ones who are willing to trust God—but even for them, it’s hard.

Indeed, maybe for them it’s especially hard, despite their faith, because they see their people’s dire situation much more clearly than their more secular friends and relatives. They can see beyond Israel’s physical exile to their much deeper and more serious spiritual exile, the distance of the people’s hearts from God, and their consequent spiritual barrenness and deadness; they can see past the obvious difficulty of Israel’s deliverance to the real difficulty that underlies it, and so they worry—not that God is unable to deliver his people, or that he doesn’t care enough to do so, as other Israelites do, but that the faithlessness of their people will somehow sabotage everything in the end anyway. They trust God, but they know better than to trust his people.

To them, God says, “Listen to me: look to the rock from which you were cut and to the quarry from which you were hewn.” A quarry is not a place of life; nothing comes out of it but dead stone. This is an apt metaphor to describe Abraham and Sarah, the father and mother of their people, for Sarah was barren, and both were far past childbearing age; even now, with our advanced technology, we don’t see 90-year-olds having children. When God says, “When I called Abraham, he was but one,” he’s not kidding; and yet, as God points out, “I blessed him and made him many.” The very foundation story of the family that became the nation of Israel is a story of God bringing life out of barrenness and deadness; that sort of miraculous birth is at the core of their national identity. “Trust me even in this,” God is saying, “because I’ve done even this for my people before.” What is now a wasteland, he will make “like Eden”—and this doesn’t just mean physical life, but also spiritual life, for Eden isn’t merely a physical paradise, it’s the place before sin, and before the curse of God that fell on us because of our sin.

“Listen to me,” says the Lord. “Listen, my people; hear me, my nation.” Is God once again addressing all the Israelites? Perhaps, but probably not; this isn’t a return to the “Listen, O Jacob, hear, O Israel” formula of earlier in the book. Given the context, what we’re probably seeing here is yet another step in God’s redefinition of his people. His nation isn’t defined by ethnicity or by borders, but rather consists of all those who pursue righteousness and seek his face, wherever they may come from; and so he promises, “The law will go out from me; my justice will become a light to the nations. My righteousness draws near swiftly; my salvation is on the way, and my arm will bring justice to the nations.” To emphasize the enduring nature of his salvation, he declares that even when the earth has worn out from old age and the heavens have faded away like smoke, yet his salvation will still endure, and his righteousness will never fail. The Lord is offering a gift to outlast the very stars, to anyone who will accept it.

“Hear me,” says the Lord; “hear me, you who know righteousness, you people who have my law in your hearts”—and note well, this isn’t the same as saying, “you Jews.” As Paul says in Romans 2, there are many who have the law in their heads because they were taught it, but don’t have it in their hearts because they’ve never lived it; on the other hand, there are also those who’ve never heard the law of God but nevertheless show by the way they live that they have his law in their hearts. To those who know and live out the righteous life of God, he says, “Don’t be afraid of the mockery and scorn of others; don’t be terrified by their hostility and attacks.” As with the heavens and the earth, so with the power of the wicked: it looks too big to conquer, too vast to overcome, and too endless to endure, but in truth it’s merely temporary, and far more fragile than it appears. They will not last, but God’s righteousness will. “The moth will eat them up like a garment, the worm will devour them like wool; but my righteousness will last forever, my salvation through all generations.”

God’s promises to his people, rooted in his miraculous promise to Abraham, are promises for the whole world, for all who will believe, for all who seek the Lord and pursue his righteousness, for all who want to be a part of his people; and they are promises you can bank on—more than you can bank on many banks, these days—because there is no power that can prevent the Lord from fulfilling his righteous and saving purposes. Those who would set themselves against him put their trust in the things of this world—but this world is passing, it will in time wear out and fade away, and God will still be there, and still faithfully keeping his promises. Not even our faithlessness can overcome his faithfulness to us; and so the prophet cries out to the people of Israel, “Awake, awake! Rise up, O Jerusalem, you who have drunk from the hand of the Lord the cup of his wrath . . . this is what your Sovereign Lord says: ‘See, I have taken out of your hand the cup that made you stagger; from that cup, the goblet of my wrath, you will never drink again. Instead, I will put it into the hands of your tormenters.’”

Awake, for you have slept through what God has been doing; awake, for he has removed your punishment. Awake, rise up, and put on new strength; shake off the dust of your humiliation, shake off the chains of your slavery, for all that is past, and put on the garments of the glory of the priestly people of the King of kings. This is what God says to his people—and note this: “the uncircumcised and defiled will not enter you again.” The Lord is not only redeeming his people, he is purifying them; they will be pruned of their unholiness and unfaithfulness, and he will make them worthy of the promises he has given them. This is an echo of the promises he gave through Jeremiah and Ezekiel to put a new heart and a new spirit within his people and write his law on their hearts; it’s all a part of his plan to make them in reality who he called them to be.

But how? Look at 52:3: “For this is what the Lord says: ‘You were sold for nothing, and without money you will be redeemed.’” Money had not yet changed hands, so the sale had not been finalized, and the Lord could reclaim his people; reclaim them he would, and just as the seller made no profit in the transaction, so the redeemer would pay no money to reverse it. But he must pay something; what could it be? How would he redeem his people?

The answer to that isn’t spelled out in this passage, of course, but it builds toward that answer. What we do get is that the Lord will redeem his people by the power of his mighty arm. Look back up to 51:9, where we have one other call to awake—but this one directed not to the people of God, but to the arm of the Lord. The prophet evokes the mighty things that the arm of the Lord has done in the past as a reason for confidence that the Lord will deliver his people as he has done so many times before, and God speaks words of comfort to Zion, to the captives in Babylon, and to the Servant. He will reveal his power, and his arm will bring justice to the nations, and hope to the peoples of the earth, as he declares in 51:5; he will show his power and his glory in a new way, rolling up his sleeves and laying bare his holy arm before all the nations, so that people to the farthest reaches of the world shall experience his salvation.

With that last statement, something new enters the picture, because it’s the close of a paragraph that’s one of the loveliest passages in all of Scripture, I think. Look at 52:7: “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news.” The NIV’s trying to be inclusive here, and I understand the impulse, but I think in this verse it’s a mistake; I think it needs to be “him,” because I think there’s a very particular him in view here. Remember, the Servant will not merely bring God’s salvation to the nations, he will be God’s salvation to the nations, and I think that’s what Isaiah’s talking about. “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who proclaims peace, who brings good tidings, who proclaims salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’ Your watchmen lift up your voices, and together they shout for joy—when the LORD returns to Zion, they will see it with their own eyes. Burst into songs of joy together, you ruins of Jerusalem, for the LORD has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem. The LORD has bared his holy arm”—I think “has bared” is better there than the NIV’s future tense—“the LORD has bared his holy arm in the sight of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.”

Now, as I read that, that paragraph is tight. It’s tightly woven and closely connected, and I think we’re talking about one thing there, one event. We have here the herald of God’s salvation, but it seems to me that the one who is announcing good news is in fact the LORD returning to Zion; the one who comes to proclaim peace and good tidings is the one who has brought them about, who has redeemed Jerusalem. He is, in fact, the arm of the LORD revealed, in whom all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of God. With his arrival in Jerusalem would come the revelation of God’s plan to redeem his people without money and extend his salvation to all the world.

And so it was, on that day when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, that day which we remember today as Palm Sunday. The Lord returned, and the whole city saw it with their own eyes, and crowds burst out into song; they cried out “Hosanna!” which means “Save us now!” and their faith that he would do so, though ephemeral, was well placed, for he would indeed do just that; in him, the Lord had bared his holy arm in the sight of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth would see God’s salvation. In him, through him, God would redeem his people without money. Through him, God would purify his people, giving them a new heart and a new spirit, writing his law within them. Through him, in him, God would extend his salvation beyond Israel to all the nations, even to the farthest parts of the earth.