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I was working with the church website and this one moved me last week. I had just had a conversation with our minister the previous week and questioned how to live as a good Christian. It was a very moving conversation and what made me decide for the baptismal this Sun.

Doing the Right Thing

Palm Sunday
April 1, 2007

Luke 19:28-40

28 After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.
29 When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, 30 saying, "Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31 If anyone asks you, 'Why are you untying it?' just say this, 'The Lord needs it.'" 32 So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. 33 As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, "Why are you untying the colt?" 34 They said, "The Lord needs it." 35 Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36 As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. 37 As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, 38 saying,
"Blessed is the king
who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
and glory in the highest heaven!"
39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, "Teacher, order your disciples to stop." 40 He answered, "I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out."

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29

O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;
his steadfast love endures forever!
2 Let Israel say,
"His steadfast love endures forever."
19 Open to me the gates of righteousness,
that I may enter through them
and give thanks to the LORD.
20 This is the gate of the LORD;
the righteous shall enter through it.
21 I thank you that you have answered me
and have become my salvation.
22 The stone that the builders rejected
has become the chief cornerstone.
23 This is the LORD's doing;
it is marvelous in our eyes.
24 This is the day that the LORD has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it.
25 Save us, we beseech you, O LORD!
O LORD, we beseech you, give us success!
26 Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD.
We bless you from the house of the LORD.
27 The LORD is God,
and he has given us light.
Bind the festal procession with branches,
up to the horns of the altar.
28 You are my God, and I will give thanks to you;
you are my God, I will extol you.
29 O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever.

Luke 23:1-49

1 Then the assembly rose as a body and brought Jesus before Pilate. 2 They began to accuse him, saying, "We found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is the Messiah, a king." 3 Then Pilate asked him, "Are you the king of the Jews?" He answered, "You say so." 4 Then Pilate said to the chief priests and the crowds, "I find no basis for an accusation against this man." 5 But they were insistent and said, "He stirs up the people by teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee where he began even to this place."
6 When Pilate heard this, he asked whether the man was a Galilean. 7 And when he learned that he was under Herod's jurisdiction, he sent him off to Herod, who was himself in Jerusalem at that time. 8 When Herod saw Jesus, he was very glad, for he had been wanting to see him for a long time, because he had heard about him and was hoping to see him perform some sign. 9 He questioned him at some length, but Jesus gave him no answer. 10 The chief priests and the scribes stood by, vehemently accusing him. 11 Even Herod with his soldiers treated him with contempt and mocked him; then he put an elegant robe on him, and sent him back to Pilate. 12 That same day Herod and Pilate became friends with each other; before this they had been enemies.
13 Pilate then called together the chief priests, the leaders, and the people, 14 and said to them, "You brought me this man as one who was perverting the people; and here I have examined him in your presence and have not found this man guilty of any of your charges against him. 15 Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us. Indeed, he has done nothing to deserve death. 16 I will therefore have him flogged and release him."
18 Then they all shouted out together, "Away with this fellow! Release Barabbas for us!" 19 (This was a man who had been put in prison for an insurrection that had taken place in the city, and for murder.) 20 Pilate, wanting to release Jesus, addressed them again; 21 but they kept shouting, "Crucify, crucify him!" 22 A third time he said to them, "Why, what evil has he done? I have found in him no ground for the sentence of death; I will therefore have him flogged and then release him." 23 But they kept urgently demanding with loud shouts that he should be crucified; and their voices prevailed. 24 So Pilate gave his verdict that their demand should be granted. 25 He released the man they asked for, the one who had been put in prison for insurrection and murder, and he handed Jesus over as they wished.
26 As they led him away, they seized a man, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming from the country, and they laid the cross on him, and made him carry it behind Jesus. 27 A great number of the people followed him, and among them were women who were beating their breasts and wailing for him. 28 But Jesus turned to them and said, "Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. 29 For the days are surely coming when they will say, 'Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed.' 30 Then they will begin to say to the mountains, 'Fall on us'; and to the hills, 'Cover us.' 31 For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?"
32 Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. 33 When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. [ 34 Then Jesus said, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing."] And they cast lots to divide his clothing. 35 And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, "He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!" 36 The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, 37 and saying, "If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!" 38 There was also an inscription over him, "This is the King of the Jews."
39 One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, "Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!" 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, "Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong." 42 Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." 43 He replied, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise."
44 It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, 45 while the sun's light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. 46 Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit." Having said this, he breathed his last. 47 When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, "Certainly this man was innocent." 48 And when all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts. 49 But all his acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.

All through this Lenten season, we’ve been looking hard at ourselves. I don’t know about other congregations, but Philippi people take repentance seriously. I know many of you and I know that, in one way or another, you have been carefully looking at your lives and asking yourselves, with unusual honesty, whether there is anything standing in the way of your being of utmost service to God and to your neighbor.

I know some of us are truly frustrated. We just can’t seem to get out of our own way. We try and try and things just seem to conspire to push us back into our old ways. Half the time, we don’t even know why we do the things we do, or fail to do the things we want to do. The disappointing patterns in our lives just seems to unfold irresistibly, and there we are, back in the old ways.

There are those of us who have spent some of our Lenten season quite literally shedding tears over all those areas in which we have failed to be everything we think God would have us be.

The first point I want to make about the story of Jesus’ suffering and death is that everyone in it is trying to do the right thing. I want you to let that sink in a little bit. Let me say that again: everyone in this story is trying to do the right thing.

And the situation at the beginning of this story, when Jesus rides that colt into the city, is a powder-keg waiting for a spark. The Romans were overlords, just like the Egyptians were two thousand years before, when God sent Moses and the plagues. Now, two thousand years later, Jews were streaming into Jerusalem from all over the known world to remember Moses and the plagues and the defeat of Egypt through the celebration of the Passover. This festival made the Romans very nervous. It’s rather amazing the Jews were even permitted to celebrate it.

So the Romans almost certainly have built up their presence in the city. On every corner, there are big, intimidating soldiers, well-armed and jumpy. This in turn makes the populace, who are probably also suffering for lack of space and accommodations, pretty jumpy themselves. Herod, the Jewish puppet king, has come to the city as well, with all his soldiers, adding to the tension. Over all of this, the high priests and the religious leaders of the city are trying desperately to keep the peace long enough for everyone to celebrate and get out without setting off a bloodbath.

So when Jesus comes riding in on a colt with thousands of disciples shouting Hosannah, which, by the way, means “save us,” he is sending a very deliberate and obvious message. He is telling everyone in Jerusalem that he is the looked-for Messiah. Jesus doesn’t just bring a spark into the powder-keg, but a big flaming torch.

The colt comes from Zechariah, where the prophet predicts the Messiah will come,
“humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

There’s a message here that comes with the announcement of who Jesus is, and it has to do with that word “humble.” This is the word the people who greet Jesus don’t remember. We’ll come back to this later.

The response of the people to Jesus is not about welcoming a humble king. The waving of the palm fronds comes from the story of the Maccabean revolution. When the Jews took back Jerusalem from the Romans in a bloody confrontation, it says in 1 Maccabees 13:51 that they entered the city “with praise and palm branches, and with harps and cymbals and stringed instruments, and with hymns and songs, because a great enemy had been crushed and removed from Israel.” The people crying out “Hosannah” were actually screaming for Roman blood.

If you were the high priest or a religious leader in this situation, what would be the right thing to do? What would save the most lives? They are sure if Jesus is allowed to preach freely, the Romans will assume he is leading an insurrection and bring their full military force to bear against Jerusalem. So they are trying to do the right thing in waiting till nightfall to arrest Jesus. They are trying to save lives by having his trial at night when they can control the crowds, and presenting his case as a done deal in the morning.

And when Jesus is brought out of the trial in the morning and the people hear that their trusted priests and religious leaders have tried him and found him guilty, they are not only let down that Jesus is not the Messiah they thought he was, but they are told he is actually a blasphemer trying to get them all killed. They are not only disappointed; they are betrayed.

If you had kids and family with you in Jerusalem and some blaspheming insurrectionist started trouble with the Romans, what would you want to happen to that insurrectionist? How would you protect your family? The people screaming for Jesus to be crucified are trying to convince the Roman brutes not to slash them to pieces. We want to say we wouldn’t be like that, but what do people do when they are threatened? What do they do when their loved ones are threatened? They do the right thing. They protect themselves and the ones they love.

And isn’t that the way when it comes to those behaviors that disappoint us in ourselves? We are trying our level best to do the right thing. We struggle with ourselves and push ourselves and make promises and commitments and knock ourselves out, always trying to do the right thing. And then, all of a sudden, like some Greek tragic hero who comes to his fate despite all attempts at avoiding it, we do the very thing we have been struggling not to do, or we don’t do the very thing we wanted most to do. And we ask ourselves, how did this happen?

Yet in the midst of all of this insanity, Jesus manages to choose exactly what he wants to do. He is truly free. We know this because Jesus does not do what most of us would do.

Think of it. If you were accused of something you didn’t do, what would be your reaction? If you were convicted of a crime you didn’t commit, how would you react? If you were actually tortured and led to your execution for something you didn’t do, how would you behave? We know the answer to these questions, don’t we?

It’s obvious that Jesus is doing what he chooses to do, despite what his body and nervous system must be screaming to him. He is not being ruled by his fear. He is free.

We say the death of Jesus is payment for our sins. Yet I believe the cross of Christ is more than merely payment. It saves us not only by paying for our sins, but by showing us the way to the kingdom of God.

When we are combating our sinfulness, when we are striving for self-control, when we are trying so hard to be good, we are doing exactly what everyone but Jesus is doing in this story. But what if we did as Jesus is doing?

What is Jesus doing?

Jesus is obeying God above all things. He is refraining from vengeance because that is the law of God. He is not participating in the legal proceedings because he is not answerable to Pilate or Herod or the chief priests. He is the Son of God, the king of Israel, the king of all kings, by God’s own pronouncement. A child of God has no need to even recognize the power of the world, even so much as answering a single accusation. He is not afraid of the worst the world can do to him.

But most of all, he is surrendering.

He is not fighting the tidal wave of sin that is washing over him. He is not struggling against it at all. He recognizes clearly that as a human being, he is utterly powerless against it. But he also realizes as the Son of God, truly begotten of the Father, that God is not powerless, but victorious, if only Jesus does not take matters into his human hands.

Our problem when we find ourselves doing wrong, or failing to do right, is not that we don’t have sufficient willpower, it’s not that we aren’t fighting hard enough, it’s not that we aren’t well-enough equipped with the proper knowledge of right and wrong.

No, our problem is that we are fighting at all. The moment we take up arms against sin, we sin. It is precisely when we struggle to do the right thing that we will inevitably find ourselves driving the nails into the flesh of the Son of God.

We have spent the time of Lent looking deeply at our sin. Many of us have learned just how deep and insidious and difficult the problem is in our lives. We come to God this morning, crying out, “what must we do!”

God’s answer? “Surrender.” Only by surrendering, by ceasing to fight, can we open ourselves to the power that God wants to offer us. This is the way of the cross. Amen.
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