Jesus’ “triumphal” entry into Jerusalem initiates a week of events that would change our world forever. The large crowds, the laying down of garments, the boisterous singing of hymns and waving of lulabs (cut branches from palms and other trees) all tell an important story…one which the people of Jesus’ time would have instantly recognized. This scene served to proclaim Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah, who is the Son of David and rightful King in Jerusalem; the liberator of God’s people. The Romans would be sent home! God’s people would finally be free!
Even though the crowds knew all the the words and symbolism surrounding Jesus’ dramatic entry into Jerusalem, in the end they would reject him. For rather than an army, Jesus brought disciples with him who practiced the way of love and forgiveness. Rather than riding a powerful white war-horse, Jesus road on a young donkey, little more than a colt. Rather than coming to confront and conquer, he came to suffer and give his life. He who once said “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart,” (Matthew 11:29) will now come to make those words real in his life and actions.
Those of us who would expect God to fit neatly into our plans often miss the power and the subtlety of Jesus’ mighty act of salvation. But those who listen for God’s living word with an open heart, and let God set the agenda, will instantly recognize in Jesus the fulfillment of all the “law and the prophets.”
Jesus and the disciples receive some troubling news: “Lazarus—whom you love—has fallen ill.” Jesus responds by doing…nothing. For several days! Jesus’ disciples believe that he is motivated by concern for his own safety in Lazarus’ home town, and they are relieved, until suddenly Jesus gets up and tells them he is going to Bethany, to Lazarus’ home, to “awaken” his good friend. Fearing the crowds who recently tried to stone Jesus, the disciples tell him, “We should just let Lazarus sleep, he needs the rest.” But Jesus isn’t going to a hospital or sick room. He is taking a walk to the cemetery.
Along the way, there are the questions—why didn't you come sooner, when it might have made a difference? When you have the power to open blind eyes, why didn’t you heal Lazarus? How are we supposed to maintain our faith in the face of death’s permanence? How can the promise of rising on the ‘last day’ ever compensate for my tears?
It’s a powerful, moving, emotional journey, whenever we make a walk to the cemetery with Jesus. But in the midst of this powerful time, an overwhelming truth emerges: even in the midst of death, through Christ we are in life. Lazarus, and indeed all who receive the living Word in Jesus, are able to come out the tomb because Jesus entered the tomb.
Due to technical difficulties, we were unable to capture an audio recording of this sermon.
Whenever someone is afflicted by suffering, lack, or dire circumstance, people will try to make sense of "why"? We prefer to have life's problems well-defined, lifted, turned this way and that, thoroughly examined for a way to make theological, ethical, and moral sense of it. We want to develop dependable rules about life; to discover what to do (or avoid doing) in order to more predictably "deserve blessing and avoid punishment." Jesus offers no such rules, but rather, a relationship.
In today's gospel lesson, Jesus encounters a man who was born blind. Jesus' closest followers quickly call for the theological explanation: "whose sin caused this man to born blind?" Jesus rejects their question in order to reveal a greater lesson: the grace of God is unfettered and does not operate according to fixed rules. Jesus healed the man, but being touched by Jesus was no walk in the park. The man endured the scorn and skepticism of his friends, was abandoned by his family, and ultimately rejected and cast out by the religious leadership. All of this happened, though the man never actually asked to be healed in the first place!
Through the eyes of faith in Christ we see that God's grace is free to touch and heal whomever, whenever, God chooses...and still some "love the darkness rather than the light." (John 3:19)
Some conversations seem doomed before they ever get started. Long before people encounter one another, preconceptions, false notions, bone-deep prejudices, or plain old garden-variety personality conflicts all conspire to keep people apart than bringing them together. This person was born in the wrong country, that person has the wrong gender, or gender identity, over there is a person whose moral and ethical compass seems to point due south, and yet another professes a false religion. From both sides comes the cry that the others are heathens, heretics, and apostates. No meaningful dialogue seems possible; it is doomed before it starts.
Jesus’ very presence in our world creates a powerful statement about crossing seemingly insurmountable boundaries for the building of God’s Kingdom. The Word—the living presence of God—became flesh and dwelt among us. The creator becomes one with creation in order to establish God’s purposes—first in Jerusalem, then all of Judea, then throughout the world. And so it is that Jesus initiates a conversation with a woman who is culturally distanced from him by every conventional understanding of race, gender, and religion. By the time they are finished talking, she has encountered God, and her simple witness of faith will transform an entire region. Her faith is simple, childlike, and lacking in sophistication, but her testimony will transform her world.
Sometime after sundown, in the dark of night, a religious leader named Nicodemus comes seeking an audience with Jesus. They are talking about God, and how people become part of God’s kingdom. The conversation bounces around, and there is a playful sparring with words, but in the end Jesus makes a strong, declarative summary statement: people become part of God’s Kingdom because they are “begotten” by God…and they are drawn to the light of God so that they can bear witness to God’s love and faithfulness.
Nicodemus struggled with the same issue facing many church-goers today, those who find themselves sitting in the pews but a million miles from God. Days go by, weeks, even decades…they see others all around them who seem to be “getting it”, “finding God”, “being born again”, feeling joyful and filled with love. But nothing has “happened” for them! A life spent in religious discipline feels a bit like slavery if it doesn’t flow from a living relationship with God. The soul can grow a nasty scab, and the spirit become bitter and discouraged. Such religion is not something celebrated and shared, but rather hidden and kept private…like the religious leader Nicodemus coming to Jesus under the cover of darkness. Even in the church, God’s kingdom remains invisible until we are begotten from above.
During Lent we will be overhearing 5 Great Faith Conversations. This week we listen in on the first conversation, which occurred after Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan. Jesus emerged from the waters and was led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness. There, for 40 days, he fasted, prayed, and considered what implications and responsibilities lay ahead of him as “God’s Son, in whom God is well pleased.” It was during this time that Satan came and tested Jesus…in fact, the testing was the very reason the Holy Spirit brought him to the wilderness in the first place.
Every great and Godly undertaking in this world is met by a profound and persistent opposition. This resistance takes many forms, but it invariably serves to derail, deflect, demoralize, and discourage. Virtually everyone encounters it. Jesus encountered it. It’s baked into the very fabric of this world. If we could see it coming, with horns, a tail, and a pitchfork, our opposition would be easy enough to recognize, and we could run the other way. But it is subtle, beguiling, often complimentary and practical. Most alarmingly, it is a voice that rises up within us.
Jesus went to sort out the difference between God’s call on his life and the seductive inner voice of opposition. Before he, or any of us, can give ourselves to the world, we need to have a true to self to give away. This requires an inner dialogue in which we grapple with the truth about ourselves. It the “essential confrontation” that leads to life.
Have you ever been tempted to tackle matters of sin and brokenness by “ranking” transgressions? In weighing your own moral and ethical life—and the lives of those around you—have you ever measured your mistakes, missteps, and misdeeds by telling yourself “THIS is a big, unforgivable thing” or “THAT is nothing, forget about it?” It's a real temptation, when we are confronted daily by the evidence of sin in the world, to give ourselves a pass, to create some moral breathing space from which to tell ourselves “well, yeah, I messed up, but at least I didn't do something really bad like commit murder.”
Jesus wanted his followers to understand that there is a pathway to sin that begins in the heart; that deliverance from sin and our souls' redemption depend on being healed from the inside out. Before “really bad things” like murder are committed, there are first really hard words exchanged. And before the hard words, there is the hardness of heart we call “hatred.” Hatred, lust, seeing others as less than human...these are interior conditions, matters of the heart. Though unseen by even our our closest family and neighbors, they are nonetheless present to us, and Jesus says there is no room in the Kingdom of God for such things. Hatred, lust, indeed all matters of the heart, are the very things Jesus came to heal in us, that we might be made clean and show his love to the world.