"How Do We Greet Jesus?"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - March 16, 2008
Psalm 118:1-2; 19-29; Matthew 21:1-11
Every year on Palm Sunday Christian congregations around the world celebrate Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, an event that is described in all four Gospels. Matthew’s description of this well-known story has these verses, “When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was thrown into an uproar. ‘Who is he?’ the people asked. ‘This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth in Galilee,’ the crowds answered.” (Matt. 21:10-11)
This morning we are going to reflect on whether we are any different today from those who asked, “Who is he?” What words would you choose in your answer if an usher handed you a microphone? More than likely we would recite what we have been taught through the years, e.g., "Jesus was the Son of God, Jesus was God who took a physical form, Jesus was a carpenter, teacher and healer, Jesus was the one who died for our sins, Jesus was the man who revealed the presence of God’s Kingdom on earth.”
Would our answers be any different from, “This is the prophet Jesus, from Galilee”? Back then strangers could have thought, “Oh no, another prophet! How many have we had? I wonder what we’ve done this time that should bring dire warnings from God.” Just as we have been taught how to respond by our near two thousand years of tradition, so the Jews of Jesus’ day had learned from their traditions.We can be sure that there were hundreds of shrugs and back to business as usual responses because the crowd dissipated almost as quickly as it had formed. They probably reasoned, “If this prophet has the power and support to restore David’s throne to Israel, we will soon know. If he is just another angry demagogue, his uprising will be crushed by the Romans as the others have been. We will wait and see.”
The people that were in Jerusalem had gathered from all over the world to celebrate Passover just as they had for generations. Very little that happened on that first Palm Sunday influenced anyone. Perhaps the “uproar” described in Matthew created some unusual conversation during the Seder meal, but little else.
My sermon title this morning, “How Do We Greet Jesus?” can evoke a wide range of thought patterns. As we meditate on how we might respond, I want us to think about the result area that we make visible because we are one of his followers. What has our knowledge of Jesus helped us to accomplish? Has our definition of Jesus influenced us to live more peacefully in the Kingdom of God while the cross currents of our life-experiences swirl around us? The question we need to ask ourselves is this: Is Jesus a deliverer, one who does things for us, or is he one that empowers us?
Years ago a new pastor came to a church in a beautiful rural setting. One day he stopped by a farm owned by one of his church members. His parishioner was on a plow turning the soil when the two noticed each other. As the farmer made his way to where his guest was standing, the pastor noticed the freshly painted barns, several ponds that had manicured banks, the beautiful, blue Harvestor silos and, best of all, the farmhouse that was magnificently landscaped.
The farmer climbed off his plow and held out his hand as the two greeted. The pastor said, “I just happened to be in the area and thought I’d stop by for just a moment. I know how busy you are with what it takes to manage a farm. As I was standing here, I could not help but notice the beauty of this farm. God sure has been good to you.” The farmer leaned against his plow and said, “Yes, God has been good to us. We bought this farm eleven years ago. You should have seen the place when God had it all to himself.”
How do we greet Jesus? Do we look at him as our deliverer or one that empowers us? What kind of expectations do we place on Jesus? Do we look at him as a life raft, a person who will take away our pain, a person who will wash away our sins, a person who will empower us to do things we never thought we could do or a presence who will bring countless blessings to us because of our beliefs? The Jews had great expectations that God would one day send a deliverer. Is this who Jesus was and is for us?
While our answers may be personal, we might be better served if we understood what Jesus brought rather than trying to understand all the answers we might share if the microphone came our way. He wanted us to discover how to live with a new consciousness he called, living in the Kingdom of God. He taught us how to order our lives so that the final result would bring peace and healing to our lives and world. Do we have that?
Many times Christians praise God for sending Jesus into our world, but remain forgetful about what he brought. So often what Jesus invited us to become escapes any specific definition. We call it, discipleship, but what is that? How does being a citizen in God’s Kingdom feel? How does it cause us to think? Who does it cause us to be? We can worship Jesus in our minds and hearts and completely miss the treasure he was helping his listeners to access.
Many years ago, diamonds were being discovered all over West Africa. There was a farmer who heard these stories almost on a daily basis and decided to leave farming and find what so many others were finding B enormous wealth. He wanted to live the excitement and adventure others had described while on their path to acquiring their vast fortunes. He sold his farm and went in search of riches. As I recall the story, he became despondent after exhausting his financial assets and he took his life by throwing himself off of a bridge.
Meanwhile, the man who had purchased the farm was relaxing in his home when a friend stopped by to visit. While they were talking, the friend noticed a large unusual crystal on the mantel above his fireplace. He said, “My gosh, Pete, why would you have something of this value just sitting around? Are you out of your mind? Where did you get it?” The farmer replied, “It’s a piece of quartz. I was wading across one of the streams on my property when I saw it glistening in the sun. The streams on this farm are full of that stuff.” His friend said, “This crystal isn’t quartz. This is a very large raw diamond.”
As it turned out that farm was covered with diamonds. That property became one of the richest diamond mines in West Africa. The original owner had everything he needed to achieve the wealth he desired, but he thought he had to look for it elsewhere before exploring what was already his.
This story was told hundreds of times by Rev. Russell Conwell, who wrote the book, Acres of Diamonds, in 1915. He used it in countless lectures as he raised money to establish Temple University in Philadelphia.
My point in telling this story is that we can have great understanding about Jesus. We can praise Jesus. We can pray for others and ourselves in the name of Jesus. We can place our hopes in Jesus to see us through challenging and difficult circumstances. Yet, like the initial farmer, when we look for our treasure in the external world, we can miss what Jesus brought B “No one will say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or, ‘There it is!’ because the Kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17:21)
Jesus had to leave his disciples and their dependence on him before they would discover their own diamonds, i.e., their strength, treasure and vision. Their power was not in his external presence but inside of them. Initially, the disciples were powerless. Peter denied knowing Jesus. The disciples went into hiding after the crucifixion of Jesus. However, long before Pentecost, their confidence returned to face whatever life brought to them. This was Rev. Conwell’s point. He knew the truth of Jesus’ words, “Greater things than these will you do when I leave you.” (John 14:12)
That first Palm Sunday did bring out the crowds. They were clearly praising God. In Mark, we read, “Praise God. God bless him who comes in the name of the Lord! God bless the coming kingdom of King David, our father! Praise be to God!” (Mark 11:9). In our lesson it says, “Praise to David’s Son!” All eyes were fixed on an external being who had the potential to be the Messiah for which they had patiently waited for years.
All Jesus could do was to model what it looks like to live in a Kingdom where the symbols and those in authority have no power at all. This message would take centuries for many Christians to understand. Many of us still cannot see. That Palm Sunday crowd went home with fantasies and symbolic images of a Messiah that they had been taught would one day come to restore David’s throne to Israel. By waiting for a deliverer to arrive, as Moses had been, the Jews missed understanding that the more substantive goal was consciousness not an independent region of real estate where their people could live.
How do we greet Jesus? He taught, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them and they follow me.” (John 10:27) He was not suggesting that we should look to him to fix our spiritual blindness, our economy, our political leaders, our warlike nature or our forms of governance. Jesus was powerless to prevent Judas from betraying him, to prevent Peter from bringing a sword into the garden, to prevent James and John from wanting to rain down fire on a Samaritan village. Jesus was attempting to teach them about the power that would become theirs once they learned how to perceive everything and everyone with love.
Some people wanted him to be their king when he came to be a servant whose only desire was to lead others to find their treasure, their acres of diamonds. Most people were not interested in that. The same attitude may be alive and well in many of us. We know why this is so.
When we have leaky pipes, we call a plumber. When we want to buy or sell a house, we want a highly skilled realtor. When we need surgery, we get second opinions and want a surgeon who has successfully performed hundreds of operations like the one we need. We go to the people who can deliver what we need.
Yet, no one can heal us when we are grieving. No one can give us the ability to laugh and remain highly energized each day. No one can instill in us talent. No one can pour into us the qualities of character. No one can give us the power to be a self-starting, highly motivated person. No one can bundle the skills of spirit and graft them into our soul. Such radiance can be ours only when we stretch toward a consciousness that enables us to overcome the world B a possibility that was magnificently demonstrated by Jesus when a crucifixion could not take away from him his ability to love those who had done this to him.
Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick, a preacher of another day, once said, “So many church members are second-handed Christians. They have inherited it from their families, borrowed it from their friends, married into it, or have taken it over like a new suit of clothes bought from a fashion catalog.” A number of people turn to their church in a moment of personal crisis, hoping to find what they have not nurtured. Jesus said, “Those who have sown sparingly will reap sparingly.”
When Jesus rode into Jerusalem on what we call Palm Sunday, he knew few would understand. Later in the week, Jesus would tell Pilate, “My kingdom does not belong to this world. I was born and came into this world for this one purpose B to speak about the truth. Whoever understands the truth, listens to me.” (John 18:36f) With all these words being said, how do we greet Jesus?
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Eternal God, like the people of centuries ago, we often wait for others to open the doors to our fulfillment. We look to wealth, to specific personalities, to knowledge and even to the church to deliver us from life’s challenging changes. We want to energize others to be what we fear we are not. Inspire us to remember that what saves us is a changed heart, mind and spirit. Inspire us to remember that when life experiences darken our spirits, the chances are good that we have spent little time feeding and nurturing our relationship with you. Renew our understanding that we cannot be at peace, if we have been too busy with other things to attend the needs of spirit. As Jesus led and taught us by example, inspire us to follow. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
How wonderful it is, O God, that to this day we can remember Palm Sunday with a similar mixture of emotions that were displayed that day by the participants. There was the pride of the disciples who enjoyed being with such a popular personality. There was the mood of expectancy that Jesus could be the Messiah that was promised by the prophets.
How often we are tempted to want someone to come into our lives and save us with a promotion, an answer for our loneliness, a weight loss program, a pill to stabilize our emotions, a book that provides profound answers to life’s paradoxes, a stimulus to reach our dreams or an instant ability to bring healing to our relationships. We often find ourselves looking for a savior in so many areas of life. Yet Jesus taught us not to look for the Kingdom of God anywhere but within ourselves B the only place where our spirits evolve.
As we continue our journey, we do so knowing that our travels take us among others whose awareness is on different levels from our own. Jesus entered Jerusalem knowing that few would understand his reason for doing so. Few would know that his Kingdom could only take form within people and not in real estate. Open our eyes, O God, to his message. He experienced similar ignorance, pettiness, and the deceptive nature of power that is present in our culture. None of it was powerful enough to put out his light, a light that has burned brightly for thousands of years. We thank you for that reality as we pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .