Tagged: Oscar Romero
Stories of War and the Victory of Love
The word that Isaiah, son of Amoz, saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.
In days to comeIsaiah 2:1-4 (NRSV)
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
All the nations shall stream to it.
Many peoples shall come and say,
‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
That he may teach us his ways
And that we may walk in his paths.’
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
And the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
They shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
Nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
Neither shall they learn war anymore.
Last Saturday, 33 missiles and drone strikes rained down on the people of Ukraine, destroying essential infrastructure, and leaving hundreds of thousands of people without power as the weather starts to go cold.
This is just one more moment in a conflict that officially began several years ago with the annexing of Crimea by Russia in 2014, and since then, the conflict has simply not stopped, leading up to the invasion by Russia in February.
Up until the invasion, it was reported that 14 000 people had died in the conflict, but now the explosion of fighting with the invasion is seeing a death toll exponentially higher. The numbers are difficult to determine as both Ukraine and Russia are doctoring their numbers for the purposes of morale, but the best estimates suggest that somewhere between 7 000- 30 000 Ukrainian civilians have died, 60 000 Ukrainian soldiers have died, and possibly 90 000 Russian soldiers have been killed. So somewhere near 200 000 people have died and several times that injured, not to mention 13 million people have lost their homes. Those numbers, when I read them, left me speechless.
And sadly, this war does not seem to have an end in sight. Canada and other western powers have been sending resources, whether financial or military, to Ukraine, as well as imposing sanctions on Russia, which seems to be helping¾and I firmly believe these are good things, just as I deeply sympathize with Ukrainians who are simply defending their homes against a force that seeks their personal and cultural destruction.
And yet, an important detail in this conflict is often ignored by the secular west: this is a war being done by Russia, which believes it is a Christian nation, perhaps even a restored Christian empire, and it believes that the church and the state are one, its culture and its faith are one, and that these things ought to be defended and advanced using military force if threatened. The Patriarch of the Orthodox Church in Moscow has called this a holy war, sanctified by God to advance the ways of Orthodoxy in a world that has embraced the evils of western tolerance. And so, as we lament a death toll that nears 200 000 lives, this is met with a unique anguish for us Christians that those who are doing this claim Jesus on their side.
Whether this is the defence of the innocent or the justification of invasion, the world feels pulled towards war; its seductive allure to total war, whose end is destruction, whether the annihilation of the Russian forces, the annihilation of the Ukrainian forces and people, and in the end, perhaps, the termination of both. There is something about these numbers that make us long: Is another way possible?
Martin Luther King, Jr. once reflected on this possibility:
“War, as horrible as it is, might be preferable to surrender to a totalitarian system. But I now believe that the potential destructiveness of modern weapons totally rules out the possibility of war ever again achieving a negative good. If we assume that mankind has a right to survive, then we must find an alternative to war and destruction. In our day of space vehicles and guided ballistic missiles, the choice is either nonviolence or nonexistence.”Martin Luther King, Jr., from “Pilgrimage into Non-Violence,” in Strength to Love, pg. 161
So, how are Christians to think about war? We can’t ignore this question as we live safely in Canada. With tensions mounting between the Western powers and Russia as well as China, many are saying we could be seeing the stirrings of what will be another global conflict within our lifetime.
We do not know what will happen, but one way or another, we have to ask some simple but difficult questions: Whose side is Jesus on? What is Jesus’ way? What hope do we have?
1. A Different Allegiance
The narrative of the Bible is not a story where God’s redemption drops out of the sky unaffected by time but meets us in the midst of things within our complex web of relationships and histories, stirring us little by little towards God’s kingdom.
And so, it should not surprise us to find that when we look at the pages of Scripture, we find war, but not only that, God’s people going to war by God’s command.
And if you have ever read through the Bible, you will come to some passages that might shock you. There are passages in the Old Testament that command the killing of the Canaanites, the nation that lived in the land before Israel. The reasons for these passages in the Bible (passages in Deuteronomy and Joshua) sound frighteningly similar to the reasons the leaders of the church in Russia are saying they invaded Ukraine: the war is to punish the sin of those in the land, the war is to make sure God’s people are secure, the war is to stop the advancement of evil ways and keep God’s people pure, and so on and so forth.
These passages have been cited in our own history as well. Centuries ago, European settlers believed they were a new Israel coming to America, a new promised land, and because of that, its inhabitants, the indigenous peoples with their perceived pagan ways, needed to be exterminated if they did not convert.
Reading these passages should, hopefully, causes us to ask: is this all there is to this story? To read these passages as straightforwardly pertaining to today, as if that is where God wanted to leave our perception of him, where God leaves us in the drama of salvation, is to miss what we might call a long arc toward peacemaking in the biblical narrative.
It began with God meeting a desperate people in an ancient world that believed in things like tribal holy war, and these laws reflect a gentle push towards something better than the status quo.
We see this in all kinds of issues: the treatment of women, marriage, slaves, children, wealth, etc. If you have ever thought a certain passage of the Bible on these topics taught things that seemed regressive, potentially harmful, even oppressive, ask yourself what this look law looks like in comparison to what was being practiced in its time, and you will see what my Bible professors call, “a redemptive-movement,” glimpses of how God is nudging God’s people little by little towards the ends that God desires.
The whole of the biblical narrative is a travail moving from the subservience of women to equality, from slavery to emancipation, from exclusion to solidarity, from brutality to charity, and so also, from war to peacemaking.
And it seems that while God is gentle in instructing this redemption, we see little break-outs, seed moments, and events where the kingdom of God shines through with particular clarity.
It can look like Deborah in the book of Judges, a woman called by the Spirit of God in a time when women were seen with little worth to be a prophet and judge over all of Israel.
It might look like the love poetry in Song of Songs, where the bride and groom are described with a mutuality in marriage that defies the curse of Eve: “I am my beloved’s, and he is mine.”
It can look like laws in the Old Testament, like the laws of Jubilee, where every 50 years, all debts would be forgiven, all slaves would be set free, and all land wealth would be redistributed.
Or it can be a moment like when the commander of Israel, Joshua, is sitting ready with his armies in invade Jericho, and he sees a mysterious angelic man, and he asks him, “whose side are you on? Are you one ours or theirs?” And this man says, “I am the commander of the armies of heaven, but I am on neither side” (Josh. 5:14).
This is but one moment that plants a seed that suggests God is beyond our earthly allegiances, whether they are political, ethnic, financial, or even religious, what we label as Christian allegiance. Whose side is God on? When we seek to pull God onto our side to justify our community, our causes, and our conflicts, God is quick to say, “I am on no one’s side.”
Isaiah’s vision is another moment, written in a time of mounting tension between the superpowers, and it envisions many nations coming to Jerusalem to the house of God. They come to a God that seems like the God of a different nation, a God not of their nation, and yet, they assemble in Jerusalem, welcomed as if they are not strangers as if this nation is the place of the gathering of many nations, a people out of many peoples, and here they unlearn the ways of war.
Whose side is God on? God is on everyone’s side. God is not the God of one nation but all nations, not one people but all people.
This calls us to a fundamentally different allegiance as the people of God, who know and trust this truth. We are citizens of heaven, first and foremost.
This did not stop the early Christians from still being Romans or Greeks or anything like that, nor does it stop us from being Canadians, but it does orient us to say we do not participate in these earthly allegiances if they are set against our allegiance to the kingdom of heaven.
And when we realize this, we have to ask ourselves, whose side are we on? Are we on the side of the powerful, the rich, the apathetic, the status quo or are we on the side whom God has declared his special favour: the weak, the oppressed, the poor, the widow, the orphan, the lowly, the captive? Whose side will we choose to be on?
Whose side are we on when our nation says we need to invade these people in order to keep us safe and secure? But perhaps that question is not for us in Canada today: Maybe it might look like this: Whose side are we on when innocent people are being killed and need our help, millions of refugees have lost their homes and are showing up at our doorstep? Will we turn a blind eye and say, “Sorry, but helping will cost us too much. We have to look after ourselves”? Whose side will we be on?
But let’s go further: what if our nation says we need to forget about the rights of indigenous people or the rights of foreign workers because it means too much for Canadian prosperity to treat them fairly? Whose side will we be on, then?
Whose side are we on when our nation uses its military presence to protect its grip over the economies of the Caribbean, its mining interests over the inhabitants of South America or the Congo? Canada has a very respectable military, but it is not perfect. And those things don’t tend to make the news because it so readily goes against the narrative that we Canadians tell ourselves, we are the peacemakers, the good guys, and our nation does not oppress anyone. That is not quite true. When it comes to confronting the truth about ourselves, again, whose side are we on?
2. A Different Way
What our allegiance is will determine a different way. Isaiah says that “For out of Zion shall go forth instruction and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” What is this way, this word, God is instructing us toward?
As we have been seeing, there is a process that is working itself out in the biblical narrative, where God meets humanity where they are at, in the midst of tension and conflict, and slowly teaches them redemption, wooing them towards reconciliation, little by little.
And yet, this narrative comes to a kind of summit or apex moment in the coming of Jesus Christ, who came proclaiming what God’s kingdom is about: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called Children of God.” Where Joshua and David came and defeated Israel’s enemies, this new Joshua, this new Son of David, this Messiah came and gave a different teaching:
‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.Matthew 5:43-45
This Messiah waged a war of a different sort, not against people but against sin, fought not with weapons but with grace. And as the story of the Gospels show, the world, even God’s own people, did not want peace.
One writer said that we simply cannot have peace until we understand that peace will always feel like it costs us more than war. And Jesus’ preaching started costing a few people some things: their power and reputation. And so, religious leaders orchestrated the murder of the Messiah.
On the night Jesus was betrayed, soldiers came with Judas to get him in the Garden, where he was praying. One disciple, eager to defend the Messiah, a worthy reason for violence if there ever was one, takes a blade and strikes one of the soldiers. Yet, Jesus turns to heal the soldier on the spot of his own arrest and rebukes the disciple: “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take up the sword will perish by the sword.”
Then, Jesus was taken, tried, tortured, and hung on a cross to be executed. And it is here, in the darkness of the cross, that the word of God shines most clear. Jesus prays, “Father forgive them. They know not what they do.”
The heart of the Bible is the message that at this moment when we treated God as our enemy, when we killed God’s very son, God was saving us.
The cross is how God treats his enemies. Thank God!
3. A Different Hope
Yet, if the cross is how God treats his enemies, if we are saved by the cross, if we are called to take up the cross as well, the cross is also how we treat our enemies.
And so, if this is our allegiance, if this is our way, we will have a very different hope. Isaiah names this hope. One that day…
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
They shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
Nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
Neither shall they learn war anymore.
There is an old joke that, despite being a joke, names how we so often misunderstand Christian hope. It goes like this:
One day a man feels troubled and goes to church. He comes in and hears the preacher proclaim, “Step aside, and let the good Lord fight your battles.” He finds this inspiring. Just then, a gust of wind blows, pushing open the preacher’s coat to expose that he had a pistol holstered in his coat. The man is taken aback by it. After the service, he goes up to the preacher, “Pastor, you said step aside and let God fight our battles.”
“Yes,” said the preacher.
“Well, then, why are you carrying a gun?” the man asked.
The preacher looked at him like he had said something silly, “Of course, I carry a gun! That’s to hold them off until he gets here!”
I think that is actually a lot of people’s view of Christian hope: “God will fix that one day; until then, we can’t do anything about it. God will bring peace one day; until then, we are stuck killing each other. Oh, well.”
Put another way: our drive to annihilate our enemy is driven by a kind of worldly hopelessness. I have no hope left for my enemy, no hope for their redemption, so I need to take history into my hands as its judge.
That is not how we understand Christian hope. If God promises the restoration of all things, our hope is that God invites us to participate in this reality in a fuller way every moment, in anticipation of what God will one day do.
In fact, this is how the early church understood Isaiah chapter 2. Here is what Justin Martyr said,
“And that this [he is referring to Isaiah chapter 2 here] did so come to pass, we can convince you. For from Jerusalem there went out into the world, men, twelve in number, and these illiterate, of no ability in speaking: but by the power of God, they proclaimed to every race of people that they were sent by Christ to teach to all the world about God; and we who formerly used to murder one another do not only now refrain from making war upon our enemies, but also, that we may not lie or deceive our examiners, and willingly die confessing Christ.”Justin Martyr, First Apology, 1:175-6
If our allegiance is that God loves all people, this fundamentally prevents us from quickly saying I am on your side and dead set against them, much less choosing the sides of power and privilege.
If our way is shown in Jesus’ loving for his enemies, our way has to see in our enemy someone God has died for, with love that matches the love that saves us.
And if our hope is that God will judge all people and restore all things, this also prevents me from needing to repay evil with evil. As Romans 12 says, hope frees us to overcome evil with good. We do this because we trust that this is how the story of human history, God’s story with us, will end.
Walter Wink, the biblical scholar the worked to overcome racial segregation in the apartheid in Africa, once said that being a Christian was the art of resisting evil without becoming evil ourselves.
This does not mean we give up helping those that need help and opposing those who harm the innocent; it does not mean we jump to easy conclusions and give up that moral wrestling that has to negotiate those difficult moments where self-defence and protecting others, where force and harm are in play, where the tragedies of violence still happen. But it does change how, why, where, and for whom we act.
What does this look like? I am not going to offer a quick answer here. There isn’t one. However, let me conclude with this: The El Salvadorian archbishop and martyr, Oscar Romero, was told by some he needed to embrace violence and revolution if the people of his nation would be liberated from their oppressive and corrupt government. Violence was the only way to bring peace. Romero, a message he died for, said this, echoing Isaiah 2:
“We have never preached violence, except the violence of love, which left Christ nailed to a cross, the violence that we must each do to ourselves to overcome our selfishness and such cruel inequalities among us. The violence we preach is not the violence of the sword, the violence of hatred. It is the violence of love, of brotherhood, the violence that wills to beat weapons into sickles for work.“Oscar Romero, from The Violence of Love
While we live in a complicated world where militaries and police forces surely have their role to play in maintaining order when an enemy threatens us, however, do we get pulled into that seductive spiral towards total war, the grim realities of which history repeats over and over, or do we see a different possibility–light breaking in, by which, however that might look, we are inspired to do the hard work of “unlearning the ways of war”?
The Unexpected Messiah
I titled this sermon “The Unexpected Messiah,” and this has been a few weeks of the unexpected, hasn’t it?
This week has been a week of frustration trying to work from home, restlessness from being cooped up, of isolation from not seeing family and friends, of anxiety and anxiousness over this pandemic and all the fallout from it. But it has also been a time of unexpected blessings: time with my wife and kids, time that makes one thankful for all that we have, time being forced to do a little more of what the Bible calls sabbath.
And now, here this Sunday, I did not expect to be giving a sermon in front of a laptop today. But I also could not have expected everyone to pull through and come together to make the online service possible. These days are teach us in a new way what it means to be the church. So this has been a season of the unexpected, and now we are here on Palm Sunday, ready to enter Holy Week. I have to ask, if we have made preparations for how the world can give us unexpected twists and turns, are we ready for how God can show up unexpectedly? Let us come to God’s word for what we might hear from him today. The reading is Matthew 21:1-17 from the NRSV:
21:1 When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” 4 This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,
5 “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.”
6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7 they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,
“Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
10 When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” 11 The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.
12 Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. 13 He said to them, “It is written,
‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’;
but you are making it a den of robbers.”
14 The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them. 15 But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did, and heard the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they became angry 16 and said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read,
‘Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies
you have prepared praise for yourself’?”
17 He left them, went out of the city to Bethany, and spent the night there.
What do we expect kings to look like? What do we think of when we think of power?
Three hundred years before Christ, there arose a man named Alexander the Great. One of the most successful conquerors of all time – up there with Napoleon and Genghis Khan.
A Macedonian prince, schooled by the brightest in the world, his tutor was the philosopher Aristotle, and early in his life, the prince burned with a violent ambition for conquest.
After his father’s assassination, Alexander assumed the throne at age 20. Alexander feared rebellion, and so, he quickly worked to eliminate all possible challengers to his throne. He killed his cousins, two princes, his father’s other wife, her father, who was a general, and her daughter. He killed his whole family.
Once he had done this, he pursued his real agenda. He assembled his army: 48 000 soldiers, 6000 calvaries, 120 ships with crews that amounted to 38 000, and battle after battle, he conquered the known world.
His army was nothing short of impressive. Without radios, without motors, without any of our modern luxuries, his army ran with an efficiency and discipline that would make modern generals blush.
He was without a doubt one of the most formidable commanders in world history, ingeniously outflanking armies several times larger than his own. His victories are the stuff of legends.
In ten short years, his army had conquered all the way to Egypt then out all the way to India, where his soldiers finally persuaded him to turn back and go home.
When he came through Israel, he laid siege to the cities, and as they fell, he ordered his soldiers to kill all military-age males and to take all male children to sell them as slaves, funding the war effort.
Along the way, he founded 20 cities, most of them creatively named, “Alexandria.” As the army returned home, Alexander figured that he would set up a new capital in Babylon, however, one day, at age 32, after drinking some wine, he fell violently sick and died. Most historians suspect it was an assassination.
Alexander’s life was short, but spectacular. This young man conquered the known world by age 30. If you could describe his life in one word, it might be “glorious”: the glory of battle, of brilliance, of victory and conquest. That is why they call him Alexander the Great.
History is full of these kinds of “Greats”: Rameses the Great, Antiochus the Great, Cyrus the Great, Herod the Great, etc.
When Alexander conquered a city he rode in on his favourite horse. He rides his mighty horse, Bucephalus.
Look at almost every city in the world and at the heart of the city is a statue of its great man riding a horse.
Look Rome. Look at London. Look at Washington. Even look at Ottawa. They all proudly display the conqueror on the horse. It is the fundamental symbol of worldly power: The man on the horse, who has brought peace by victory. This is our image of power, wealth, stability, glory. This is what we expect a king to be like. Riding in with his army on the stallion, a Brucephalus.
Jesus did not ride in on a horse. Jesus did not do what we think kings should do. He wasn’t the messiah God’s people were expecting. He came in an unexpected way to give an unexpected message. And who Jesus is and what his message says, still today, two thousand years later, upsets our expectations of what we think God to be.
That is our challenge this morning. Jesus is still the unexpected messiah.
1. The people had the wrong expectation
Throughout the Old Testament, it is the people’s perennial temptation to want a conqueror on a horse. The people saw the great kings, and unfortunately, they wanted to be like the nations.
Look at the horse in the Old Testament, and frankly, sorry horse-lovers, the Old Testament does not look well on horses. Nearly every mention of horses is negative.
Why? Horses were exclusively used in war. You used oxen for farming. You used camels for long travel. Horses were much more expensive. They were kept for a singular purpose: battle.
Horses were the tanks of the ancient world, able to outflank foot soldiers and plow throw them like a knife through butter.
Israel’s prophets watched men like Alexander the Great riding on their horses. Deuteronomy warned that if Israel trusted in human power and a human king over God, the king will trust in his military more than God and lead the people astray. Deuteronomy 17:16 warns that the king must never accumulate horses, “lest they go back to the ways of Egypt.”
But they did.
The Old Testament is a sad narrative at many points. It is the story of God longing to be the king of his people, for them to trust him and accept his reign over their hearts and lives, but they resist for they want a king like the nations do. They want the wealth and security and grander of an empire. And they were willing to follow other gods, if those gods promised these things.
The apex of this quest is during King Solomon’s reign. His God-given wisdom brought wealth and prosperity beyond measure. 1 Kings records that he had so much gold that silver was virtually worthless, as common as rocks. But then he grew arrogant. The Bible records that he started to accumulate horses. It says he amassed 12 000 horses and 1400 chariots. He started to stockpile weapons.
He brokered alliances with pagan kings, and they gave him their daughters in marriage. His greed caused him to collect women like he did gold and weapons. And these wives persuaded him to worship their idols, perhaps because they promised power. Solomon grew corrupt. His kingdom began to fracture from insurrection as he grew more and more oppressive. The nation broke in two after his death into North and South, and as the two dynasties of kings constantly fell into idolatry and injustice, God finally removed his presence of protection.
Israel gets conquered again and again. First by the Assyrians, then the Babylonians, then the Persians, then the Greeks, and then the Romans in the time of Jesus. Israel lived under the shadow of empires and emperors, in oppression and occupation.
One hundred years before Jesus, the Jews revolt against the a Greek ruler named Antiochus Epiphanies. Antiochus bans Jewish worship and proclaims himself god. He nicknames himself the “Anti-messiah” the “Anti-Christ” in mockery of the Jewish God. The Jews are outraged and are rallied by their high priest, Matthias the Hasmonean. He gathers an army in the wilderness, and his five sons lead the army, headed by his firstborn, Judas the Maccabee. Maccabee means “the hammer” by the way: Judas the Hammer.
The Maccabees succeed in retaking Jerusalem. They come riding into Jerusalem on their warhorses. People cry out in adoration spreading their cloaks on the road. The people greet them by waving the symbol of their house. Can you guess what that is? The palm branch.
Now the Maccabean revolt was not particularly successful. Israel very quickly becomes a vessel kingdom to a larger empire, but the memory hangs on. People long for the good old days. They are nostalgic for the glory of the Maccabees. They long, you might say, to “Make Israel Great Again,” and so, the people greet Jesus with palm branches because they expected he was going to raise an army just like the Maccabees. He would be the next hammer. He would be a conqueror on a horse: Jesus the Maccabee, Jesus the Hammer.
The irony for us Christians is that we wave palm branches on a day like this, because that is what the passage describes. I have fond memories of holding palm branches in church when I was little. They seem so harmless. But since we are removed from this history, we do not realize why they were holding them. The palm branch was a symbol of revolution. It was like the hammer and sickle.
Perhaps this might change your feelings about waving a palm branch on Palm Sunday ever again. Or perhaps, maybe it is a reminder that we too can still today expect God to be something other than what he truly is.
In my experience, I know many people, Christians included, who assume God is like an invisible Santa Claus in the sky, existing to just give us stuff. This is the God that if you just believe in him, and if you are nice enough, which everyone generally is, you get stuff. You can get whatever you want out of God, and getting stuff is really the most important thing.
Other expectations are far less jolly. There is an expectation of God where God is so moralistic and angry, people live in constant fear and guilt. Their religion can be summarized in one line: “Don’t mess up or else.” This god claims to be loving, but only so long as you obey, never question, never stray.
This is a god that is a reflection of our own failed perfectionism. This god’s grace is limited because we are limited. We expect this god’s grace to be limited because we expect god to act just like us. If we know that we don’t measure up to our own standards, why should god be any different?
Still others believe God is absent from their lives, absent in the same way perhaps their fathers are. Where was God when I needed him most? Somewhere else, with his children, he clearly cares more about than me. This is a God that is never around and no matter what we do, we can never get his attention because nothing is ever good enough.
Still others believe in a God that approves of their politics. God is American. God is western. God is white. God is male. God is on our side. Our nation is God’s nation. Our war is God’s war. God hates everyone I hate.
What is it for you? What is your expectation of God? How have you put Jesus in a box of expectations the Gospel does not fit?
Can you say to yourself today as Isaiah 55:9 says: God your ways are not my ways and your thoughts are not my thoughts.
This easter time, are you ready for God to surprise you? Are you prepared for Jesus to show up in unexpected ways?
The people in Jesus’ time weren’t ready.
2. Jesus gave an unexpected message
Israel expected Jesus to be a conqueror on a horse. They expected him to come in and rally the troops like Judas Maccabee did, to conqueror the nations like Alexander the Great. But Jesus, as we know from the Gospel of Matthew, did not come riding in on a Brucephalus. He did not come with an army, with golden armour or sword. He did something unexpected.
He rode in on a donkey. Donkeys are work animals. They have stubby legs, best for carrying heavy loads, not for speed. If you have ever seen someone ride a donkey, you know it is not the most dignified of animals.
The people wave palm branches, hailing Jesus a warlord King. Jesus counters this with the prophecy of Zechariah, which Matthew quotes the first part of:
Look, your king comes to you
Triumphant and victorious is he
Humble and riding on a donkey,
On a colt, the foal of a donkey.
The next verse is important:
He will end the chariot from Ephraim
And the war-horse from Jerusalem;
And the battle bow shall be ended,
And he shall command peace to the nations
His dominion shall be from sea to sea,
The donkey is not only the symbol of humility, but it is also the prophetic sign of non-violence. Jesus is not their warlord. Jesus is not there to start a war. Jesus is not against the Romans. Nor is he merely the king of the Jews. He is everyone’s king. His kingdom cannot be reduced to this nation or that land or that tribe and that tongue. He desires peace for everyone.
In the 1970’s a Christian by the name of Oscar Romero preached to his church in El Salvador against the oppression they faced. He would be martyred for speaking out against these oppressors. So, the people wanted to rise up in revolution, kill their oppressors. They wanted Romero to tell them God was on their side, that God would approve of their violence. This is what he said:
“We have never preached violence, except the violence of love, which left Christ nailed to a cross; the violence that we must each do to ourselves to overcome our selfishness and such cruel inequalities among us. The violence we preach is not the violence of the sword, the violence of hatred. It is the violence of love, of brotherhood, the violence that wills to beat weapons into sickles for work.”
Jesus was a disruptor, a resistor, a revolutionary, just not the one they wanted him to be. His is a revolution of love, of justice, of peace, of reconciliation.
The people wanted him to kill all their enemies. Jesus did something more profound and ultimately more dangerous. He exposed the enemy within our hearts.
St. Augustine once said, “It is arrogant to believe that our enemies can do more damage than our own hatred.”
The people were expecting Jesus to come into the temple and perhaps give one of those iconic speeches a general might give, like Mark Anthony’s “Friends, brothers, countrymen, lend me your ears.” They expected him to preach a message that vindicated them and pronounced vengeance to their enemies. We are God’s people! They are not! Kill them, end this occupation, establish your kingdom, make us rich like in the days of Solomon! It says instead that he starts to overturn the tables.
Now let me put to rest an old misconception about this passage: Jesus was not surprised and outraged because there was commerce occurring in the Temple. the priests of the temple were not just having bake sales and fundraisers. In fact, what we know of the temple is that it was very important to the city that it did carry on commerce: The temple contracted barbers, clothing makers, incense makers, goldsmiths, etc. The temple kept a lot of common people employed. This is not the issue.
The issue was not commerce per se, but a certain kind of commerce. Jesus says that the practices turned the temple into a house of robbers. What was the robbery? The text says: Jesus overturned the money changers and dove sellers.
From what we know of temple practice, the temple refused to allow any goods or services to purchased with Roman money. The Temple had its own currency that you had to buy it first at an increased rate just to go buy something else. The temple regarded Roman money as unclean money, and unfit to be used to buy sacrifices with, but conveniently the temple did not have a problem taking that money off a person’s hands. Out of their hands and into the priests’ pockets, who conveniently not defiled to have large sums of it.
What sacrifice was being bough there? The text says doves. That is interesting because the law in the Old Testament allowed two options for a sin offering. If you sinned you could either sacrifice a goat or a dove. Goats obviously cost way more than doves, so if you were rich, you would obviously use a goat. Doves were the choice for the poor.
What we know of temple practices of this day is that doves were being sold at an exorbitant price: two gold coins per pair of doves. The poor had to pay several months of income just to get a pair of birds to sacrifice to God. In other words, the temple was exploiting the poor. The Temple was selling forgiveness. They turned grace into oppression, into a get rich quick scheme.
So the liberator on a donkey, comes into the temple he is supposed to drive out the Roman occupation from, but instead, he starts driving out the religion’s true sickness: greed, exploitation, apathy, hypocrisy. That’s unexpected.
Now we scowl and condemn those Pharisees, how do we do similar things?
How do we limit God’s grace to only those who we think are worthy?
What walls of exclusion have we built for who can come into God’s houses and who do we try to keep out?
Where have we used God’s name to justify our agendas?
How have we invoked our faith to remain comfortable and privileged?
Who have we blamed in order for that to stay the way it is?
If Jesus came into our churches, our lives, while we shout “Hosanna!” what tables would he overturn today?
If we shout out, “Hosanna, save us from our culture, full of unbelievers and doubters,” Jesus comes and clears the temple of our own faithlessness.
If we shout out, “Hosanna, save us from all those people that are ruining the environment,” Jesus may come and clear out the temple of our own wastefulness.
If we shout out, “Hosanna, make sure I have enough money,” Jesus may come and clear the temple of our lack of generosity.
If we shout out, “Hosanna, save us from all those greedy CEO’s and corrupt politicians;” Jesus may come and clear out the temple of our own hypocrisy.
If we shout out, “Hosanna, keep me safe from the coronavirus,” Jesus may come and remind us of our responsibility to the most vulnerable in our society.
As we shout out, “Hosanna,” are we prepared to have God work in us, break us open, overturn our expectations?
3. Who do we expect Jesus to be?
You will notice in this narrative that Jesus had many people respond to him. Some good others not. Which ones are we like?
First, there are the crowds, who proclaimed hosanna with the palm branches, expecting Jesus to be the next military leader. These were the same fickle crowds that just as soon as Jesus was not going to do that, they turned to yell out, “Crucify, crucify!”
When they didn’t get what they wanted out of Jesus, they turned on him. Will we do the same? Will we reject God just because he does not do what we expect him to do? Are we God’s fair-weather friends? Or will we trust God through thick and thin?
The second is the money changers and the Pharisees. These are people invested in the religious system staying the same. They have made their faith all about them. These are people whose identities are built on the idea that they are right and others are wrong. Out of some misdirected sense of piety, they decide who is in and who is out. And of course, they and those like them are the ones who are in and would prefer to keep it that way.
Are we like that? How are we invested in our churches staying the same? How are we invested in our churches looking just like us?
The last group is the sick and the children. The text says that Jesus, after clearing the temple immediately started healing the sick. If you had an illness in that culture, you would have been deemed unclean. In other words, you were excluded from the temple. You could not sacrifice. You could not have forgiveness.
This is not quite the same thing as being quarantined, for the ancient world believed that if you were sick it was because of your sins. You were cursed. You were clearly a sinner.
Jesus healed them, which means Jesus showed them grace and forgiveness that no one else would or could.
This is so wonderful that little children start praising him as the Son of David.
While we take care of those that are affected by sickness in our community, I think if we understand what sickness meant in Jesus’ time, we have to realize something with it. We are all in need of Jesus’ healing.
Without Jesus, we are all excluded from grace. Without Jesus, we are all unworthy.
Without Jesus, we are lost. Without Jesus, we are all broken. Without Jesus, we cannot expect forgiveness.
If we can admit that, can we confess that Jesus everyday – every day – surprises us with even more grace. Why? Because he is just that kind of messiah. He is just that kind of God.
May this prepare us for what lies ahead this week.
As we think about Good Friday, may we trust even more the surprise of the cross: that when we were content to murder Jesus, Jesus was content to love us. Jesus has died our death to offer us his life.
As we think about Easter Sunday, may we trust even more that surprise of the empty tomb, that all that has gone wrong in this world will be put right.
And if we know that Jesus is so unexpectedly patient, unexpectedly loving, unexpectedly gracious, may we be inspired to live that kind of grace out in our world a bit more too.
In a world of ignorance, of greed, of arrogance, of worry and fear, may you be this week a witness for Christ that your neighbours did not expect.