Tagged: Palm Sunday
Costly Gifts: A Sermon on the Anointing at Bethany
Palm Sunday, Bethany Memorial Baptist Church, 2021
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” – John 12:1-8
This week my wife and I woke up to our oldest son making his mommy a gift. Rowan sneaked down to the kitchen and started breakfast for his mom. Rowan has taken to learning cooking and baking, and he is doing a wonderful job. He made chocolate cookies the other day – sorry chocolate-covered peppermint fudge cookies – the other day, and frankly, they were some of the yummiest cookies I have ever had. However, this was not cookies.
This particular morning I came down while Meagan was in the shower, as I usually come down and start the whole process of cereal and toast for all our kids. I came downstairs to find that Rowan and started making eggs on the stove. While I was about to give him the talk about not using the stove when parents aren’t around, I noticed the eggs appeared to have blood in them.
“What is that?” I said. “I put red food coloring in to make it in the shape of a heart for mommy,” my son replied.
“Oh, I see,” I said, “Well, I am sure Mommy is going to be surprised,” I remember looking again at the sight of these eggs, which looked kind of like something died a horrible death in the frying pan, and I recall gagging a bit, even though it was just food coloring.
Of course, Meagan came down and was, in a word, shocked, to say the least. After the shock wore off, she recomposed herself as Rowan said that he wanted to make heart-shaped eggs for her. To which, she happily ate that reddish, pinkish mess of eggs that did not really come out in the shape of a heart at all (Maybe a kidney or possibly a liver shape).
The point is often, parenting, as I have learned, means giving a lot for your kids, and sometimes it means seeing them give gifts in return (one way more than the other for sure). These gifts, while they are not what we expect, are the ways in which our kids show love. In that regard, they are special. I love that my son has taken to cooking and wants to appreciate people with it.
While this notion of gifts, gifts of appreciation, gifts expressed in particular and personal ways, and in the case of this text today, gifts that cost deeply, that is what the life of faith is about.
I found myself reflecting on this account of the triumphal entry, reading the passages leading up to it and the ones coming after it, and as I said to Sarah, I want to just pause and think about the events that happen just before Jesus comes into Jerusalem on a donkey. Jesus is anointed at Bethany before this, and I want to reflect on this beautiful passage as a way of getting to the truth of Palm Sunday this morning.
John’s Gospel is the only one that places the anointing before Jesus comes into Jerusalem. John’s is also the only Gospel who names Mary of Bethany as the woman (not Mary Magdalene – there is a lot of Mary’s in the Gospel accounts, by the way). The reason I bring this up is that ancient history writers like the Gospel writers wrote this history with rich narrative. One of the reasons you see stories told in different ways and in different places in the Gospels is because the Gospel writers place the stories in a certain order to say something.
We sometimes are tempted to think of the Gospels are haphazard catalogues of the events of Jesus’ life, which we listen to in our Bibles section by section, but the reality is the Gospels are beautifully crafted stories, very intentional in how they say what they say.
Narratives mean something on the whole, and we do the Gospel’s a bit of a disservice by chopping them up and reading them in little sections and bites. There is nothing wrong with just enjoying a beautiful verse, but if anyone is a book lover, you know that a good story is a page-turner, and you just want to keep reading to just dwell in the story.
One of the most significant moments of growth in my walk with Christ is when I took a course on the Gospel of John in college. One thing the teacher made us do was to sit down and listen to the whole Gospel from start to finish in one sitting.
I had never bothered to do this before, and it allowed me to experience the Bible in a new way. John’s beautiful storytelling came through. The emotion and tension between Jesus, the people, and the Pharisees, seem so real and palpable. The use of irony and even sarcasm in the text, I saw for the first time. And the sense of climax and culmination as the tension and conflict builds between Jesus and the religious leaders that lead to Jesus’ crucifixion. It all really hit me.
Let’s take time to read the story as it is meant to be read. Again, small passages are good, but you don’t just listen to one line of your favourite song. You listen to the whole thing, from intro to ending.
I am just going to put this out there. I have a pastor friend who, every year for Good Friday, has a get-together at his house, and there they listen to the entire Gospel story, everyone taking a chapter, breaking to eat and talk and pray. Perhaps this is something we could do next year.
But for the time being, maybe sit down this week and listen to the whole of John’s Gospel, and when you do, look at the stories that happen before a passage and after it. Ask yourself, “Why did John place this here? What is John trying to tell us?”
Here, beginning in chapter 11 and into the beginning of chapter 12, just before Jesus marches into Jerusalem, something takes place that is setting this whole final week of Jesus’ life into motion. Jesus gives a very costly gift. He raises Lazarus. And, we see here that Mary, Lazarus’ sister, responds to this with her gift of perfume in adoration. She thanks Jesus with a costly gift. But his disciple Judas scoffs at this. I am going to suggest that that hardness of heart that we all can have will cost us as it did him.
Jesus gave a costly gift; Mary thanked him with a costly gift, but Judas scoffed and it cost him.
1. Jesus gave a costly gift
So, what happens before this story? Well, if we go back to a chapter, we find out that Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead.
If you recall, in this story, people come to tell Jesus that Lazarus has fallen sick and is about to die, and Jesus says he is going to come to Bethany, just outside of Jerusalem, to raise Lazarus. The disciples get really worried about all this. The last time Jesus traveled that close to Jerusalem, a crowd trying to stone him. Jesus has made some very powerful enemies that want him dead.
But Jesus goes anyway, despite the risk. This upsets the disciples. Thomas even says sarcastically, “Fine then, let’s go so we can die as well.”
Jesus goes, and he raises Lazarus, even though Lazarus had been dead for four days, and proclaims, “I am the resurrection and the life.” To raise the dead and to claim that in Jesus is life itself, those are things that God says and does.
You can imagine that news like that does not stay hidden. A word about this gets to the ears of the religious leaders, and they realize Jesus is taking away their followers. Jesus is taking away their power and influence. Jesus is threatening their religion. It is funny how Jesus can do that!
If Jesus is God in the flesh, they are out of a job because they have made a lot of money telling people grace comes with a price. And if a desert Rabbi can do these things and claim these things, the religious teachers are exposed as greedy frauds that they are.
So, the Pharisees put in motion a plot to arrest and kill Jesus if he comes into Jerusalem.
By coming and raising Lazarus, Jesus is a marked man. With raising Lazarus, Jesus’ life story has entered its endgame.
You have to ask, then, why did Jesus do that? Surely, he could have kept on living for many more years, healing many more people, teaching many more things, then come and died on a cross. Why take this risk? Why be wasteful?
The answer is obvious: Jesus loved others, and Jesus was faithful to the plan God the Father set for him. Jesus loved Lazarus to the point of weeping at the news of him passing, even though he knew he was going to raise him up. This was what God the Father set out to show.
Jesus was faithful to his task, which was showing us love at a deep cost. Jesus gave the gift of life back to Lazarus, but it was an action that would cost Jesus his life in the end.
Jesus gives the gift of life, and he gives the gift of his life. The two are one and the same.
Jesus says later at the last supper, “No one has greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” John 15:13.
One writer says this, “The mystery of the Christian faith is that if you have not loved, you have not truly lived, but if you have truly loved, you will end up dying for it.”
The raising of Lazarus is the beginning of the climax of John’s Jesus story, preceding Jesus coming into Jerusalem, Jesus being betrayed, Jesus laying down his life at the cross to “draw all people to himself,” to be a sacrifice for the sins of the whole world, to show us that God has this kind of love for sinners: a love that sacrifices of one’s very self.
All of this is to say to us when the very worst parts of ourselves come out when we feel and know deep down it is like there is nothing good in us, nothing that deserves better, God loves.
God loves us despite the very worst of ourselves.
When we feel like our lives are worthless, like we don’t even deserve to live, God gladly dies our death to offers us his life in the cross.
If we ever are tempted to think that God has forsaken us, has lost hope for us, that we have sinned against God too many times: we just don’t feel what should feel and do what we ought to do, we have to remember that God has revealed himself in Jesus.
John 1:18 makes this plain: “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” God is like Jesus because Jesus is God and Jesus shows us what God is truly like.
What is God like? God is the God that loves us more than his very life. God is showing us that this love is life, eternal life, the resurrection and the life.
Because Jesus loves with a perfect, self-giving, self-sacrificing, costly love, what he does for Lazarus is merely Jesus being who Jesus has always committed himself to be, for each and every one of us, showing us who God truly is.
This is why he could not stay away. He had to go. He had to love. Its who he is!
But here is the thing: if we know that we are saved by this kind of love. If we know that this is who God is and invites us into this love. We must love the same way: “If you have not loved, you have not truly lived, but if you have truly loved, you will end up dying for it.”
Jesus says a few verses later, “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also” (John 12:25-26)
The question is, how do we do that? How do we do that in our everyday lives, where we might not have life or death decisions in front of us? And to that, Mary, Lazarus’ sister, gives a bit of a clue:
2. Mary thanked with costly gratitude
The story says that Mary and Martha are the sisters of Lazarus. It also says that the sisters lived with Lazarus. Is it because Mary and Martha are not married? It makes you wonder: Have they been widowed? It seems likely.
If this is the case, Lazarus dying could have spelled poverty and dereliction for these ladies if they had no other family support.
And if they were widows, which is very likely, this says all the more what Lazarus meant for Mary. Lazarus was the brother that cared for her when she lost her husband, the person that sustained her when she had nothing. He seems like the kind of endearing, tender-hearted person that when he died, Jesus himself missed him and wept.
Jesus gave back her big brother. The question is, if you were Mary, what would you do or say to Jesus if Jesus did that for you, and he does this, moreover, knowing that this will cost him this life?
Mary is overcome with gratitude, and so she does something special, even over the top. She goes out and buys an expensive incense. It seems like she had some savings as this incense is supposed to have cost nearly a year’s wage, something that would have cost today tens of thousands of dollars. We don’t know where she got this, but I wonder if she is a widow, if these are her savings leftover from when her husband died.
Has anyone ever done something for you that made you want to give a gift that could cost an entire year’s pay? Think about that for a second, and it gives you the sense of just how moved she felt.
What does she give? The incense is nard, which was the oil from a type of honeysuckle plant that only grew in India and China. It’s expensive because it is imported and very difficult to make. It had a sweet smell, and it was used in medicine: it soothed muscles and cleaned the skin. It is so expensive that you would try to ration it to make it last for as long as possible. However, she buys a whole pint of it and brings it to Jesus and pours it on him.
She comes into the room and anoints Jesus’ feet by pouring this oil on him and adores Jesus to the point of wiping his dirty feet with her beautiful hair. I think the women can appreciate this action more than the men. She is showing her thanks financially with the incense, but also physically and emotionally with her hair.
She also makes a point of using oil that has a double meaning.
First, it is the oil you would anoint a king with. The kings of Israel were anointed by prophets who herald them as coming kings.
God used the great prophets to herald the kings like Saul and David. Here God chooses a lowly but grateful lady, Mary, to anoint the true King. While the disciples seem to scratch their heads, puzzled about who Jesus is, Mary seems to get it.
Jesus is our king; Jesus is her king, but he is the king who is going to give up his life for others because his kingdom is different, and it made a difference for her.
A few days later, at the last supper, Jesus sits his disciples down, takes a towel and, as a servant, washes the disciples’ dirty feet. The disciples are horrified that Jesus would be a servant to them. They still think his kingdom is about having power and status. But here, Mary is already living the way of Jesus for Jesus, anointing his feet. Mary know Jesus is king and she knows what this kingdom is all about.
Second, it is also oil that you would anoint the body of a cherished family member with when they died. Jesus recognizes this. He knows it is for his burial.
The next day, people shout Hosanna to Jesus, greeting him as a messiah, and eager to see what Jesus will do for them: will he overthrow the Romans? Will he re-establish a golden age of prosperity for them?
They never think of what this will cost Jesus. Mary knew. Mary knew Jesus would die.
That is why this gift costs her. It costs her materially and emotionally. She puts herself into it.
She wanted Jesus to know that Jesus was worthy of the very best she had to give.
She wanted Jesus to know that what he did has meant everything to her.
She wanted Jesus to know that she was thankful deep down to the core of her very being.
The crowds the next day hailed Jesus as King, but at his cross, they left him because a dead king is no king at all in their mind.
Mary died the opposite. She anoints Jesus as King because she knows he will die.
Do we understand that this week especially? And if so, how will we show it?
3. Judas mocked at his own cost
There is a powerful saying by the Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon, “If Jesus is not everything to you, Jesus is nothing to you.”
If we don’t recognize this costly gift Jesus gives, we can’t receive it for all that it truly is.
It seems that there was one person that really failed to understand this in Jesus’ circle, and that was Judas. It seems that all those years of travelling with Jesus, seeing miracles, hearing his teaching didn’t do anything. Judas’s heart had grown hard.
So, when he sees Mary do this for Jesus, he is indignant. What a waste!
You could have given that to the poor! He snarled. But John reminds the reader that Judas did not actually care about the poor; he was greedy and would often help himself to the communal funds. He was skimming off the top.
Judas does something I have seen many times over. We love to cloak our apathy with concerns that sound pious.
How often is racism from our nation’s past protected in the name of preserving “culture and history”?
How often are ignorant and bigoted opinions protected in the name of freedom of speech?
How often do we as Christians excuse ourselves from doing what is good and just by invoking religious freedom?
If we take a good look deep inside ourselves, we know we can put up excuses and fronts that get us off the hook from following Jesus in a costly way.
In fact, in a sad and ironic way, I have heard this very story be used to get out of doing what Jesus teaches us to do.
Judas scoffs at this and says this money could go to the poor, and Jesus says, “the poor you will always have, but you won’t always have me.” I have heard preachers use that phrase to say that, therefore, we should not care about the poor; there will always be poverty, so don’t bother with soup kitchens and benevolence and all that.
That seems to really miss the point of what Jesus is saying on the cusp of his crucifixion, to the person who will betray him.
Mary was not neglecting the poor, she was recognizing the one who had loved her, whose kingdom was for the poor, whose kingdom was for all people, especially the forgotten of this world.
But it goes to show just how often we can mask our apathy, our unwillingness to follow Jesus in those important costly ways, by making very seeming good excuses.
How do we do that? I think of how often I have said, “I wish I could do this or that, but I am just too busy.”
How do we do that as a church? Can we hide behind excuses when we know we need to be going out and serving as Jesus did? We have to ask again this morning:
Will we love Jesus with everything we have?
Will we serve like Jesus even if it costs us everything we have?
It should not escape us that the anointing at Bethany is the namesake of this church. It is a name that recalls us to the power of Jesus is raising Lazarus and the love of Mary in anointing him.
It recalls us to the costly nature of following Jesus. Serving Jesus will cost us. But the cost is worth it!
One great Christ-follower of the last century was a missionary named Jim Elliot, who died in 1956 at age 28 in Ecuador. He was killed by a marauding band that swept through his camp, killing several people, including him.
Why did Jim Elliot go to He felt the Gospel was calling him to share the good news in the most dangerous places on earth. He felt called to share the Gospel to tribes in Ecuador, which was a place irrupting in violence. People pleaded with him: “Don’t’ go, it’s too dangerous.”
Jim Elliot replies with the mentality that I think Christ had, and it is the mentality that we must have: “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep, to gain what he cannot lose.”
“He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”
Brothers and sisters, when we know that Jesus has given us everything, when we see Mary’s example of offering everything, and we see the peril of Judas refusing and losing everything, we must ask ourselves: What are we holding back? What can you entrust to God today?
Is it emotional, or is it financial? Is it time, or is it a task?
What have you got to lose? More importantly, what have we got to gain?
Perhaps, if you are like me, just asking these questions reminds me of all sorts of ways I forget and neglect to make Jesus my everything, every day.
So often, we aspire to be like Mary, giving 100%, but in our day-to-day lives, we feel more like Judas, apathetic and unfaithful, making excuses.
Judas met a terrible end in betraying Jesus. However, so did Peter and his story ends very different. Let me suggest to you that he met this end in part because he simply could not fathom that Jesus could forgive him after what he did. He simply could not surmise that Jesus’ grace really is grace because his mercy really does not have conditions or limits.
So, it is not whether we fail in our Christian walk, we have and will. It is whether we can keep trusting God’s forgiveness in our lives.
In that case, part of the gratitude we are all called to begins with that simple thank-you, saying today and every day in a new way,
God, I know I don’t love you perfectly,
but I know I can trust you again today
that you love us perfectly.
Jesus, I long for your love to renew my heart today,
so I can love you deeper
and love like you.
Let’s pray this together before we continue in worship:
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.