Sunday, April 17, 2011

Palm Sunday 2011 - Releasing the Tension

Isaiah 50:4-9a Philippians 2:5-11 Matthew 21:1-11

Sometimes the things we do seem a bad idea in the beginning but turn into good experiences with satisfying endings. Then sometimes we do things that seemed like a good idea at the time, but the end did not seem to justify the means. At the end of it all we take stock in what we do, what we hoped or meant to accomplish by doing so in the first place, and then try to determine if what we actually achieved was what we were shooting for in the first place.

In the first chapter of Ecclesiastes it is written, "What profit has a person from all labor in which is toil under the sun? One generation passes away and another generation comes ... All the rivers run into the sea, yet the sea is not full ... Is there anything of which it may be said, 'See, this is new'?" (1:3-4, 7a, 10a).

Nope. It's the same ol' same ol'. Nothing ever really changes. We simply shift emphases from one generation to the next but many teenagers continue to rebel as they discover their own passions and their own dreams, children still fight and fuss over toys, young couples focus almost exclusively on themselves and their new life together, humans for the most part continue to chase their own tails, and the local news will report new births and the latest deaths. And the list goes on. From one generation to the next, only the names really change. So Ecclesiastes can be tricky especially for the new convert and those who lack sufficient spiritual maturity because the book itself is filled with such statements throughout that virtually scream, "IT DOESN'T MATTER WHAT WE DO BECAUSE IT IS ALL FOR NOTHING! Vanity of vanities!"

This is not entirely true, of course, because the wisdom of Ecclesiastes challenges the faithful to look deeper and harder ... at everything. It is a book of priorities because the book reminds us of the inherent tension which exists between what is (the physical) and what is to be (the spiritual). Reading it carelessly, it is almost as if we can be assured of only one thing in this life: death. So what's the point?

Every year it is the same ol' grind. Advent and Christmas. Lent. Palm Sunday ... or Passion Sunday. Holy Week. Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, maybe a sunrise service, definitely an Easter service. It will be essentially the same Scripture readings but perhaps from a different Gospel account, the same hymns, the same crowds, probably the same sermon. Maybe some new children or new grandchildren will be shared with us, but more likely not since worship and church life are not exactly high on priority lists anymore.

Still there are the same worries and the same joys, but these are all "vanity" because it will not matter whether we are joyous or nervous because it will all end just as quickly as it had begun. It is the same tension which exists between the routine of "sameness" and the excitement of anticipation. Yet for us there is no real anticipation because we know how the story turns out. We get it. Jesus wins. So what?

There is incredible tension in Matthew's Gospel between what Jesus actually knows and what the disciples probably were anticipating. When Jesus sent His disciples to get the donkey and her colt, He knew what was ahead and what He would be riding into. The disciples may have been unsure in the beginning of what was to take place, but the excitement seemed to build upon entry into Jerusalem as crowds began to gather and enthusiastically welcome the "Son of David", the "prophet Jesus". There was joy, eager anticipation, and great expectations of what was to come - even if no one really knew exactly what was coming, they knew what they WANTED to happen. Maybe the Romans' days in Jerusalem were finally numbered. Maybe the Kingdom and throne of David would be finally and completely restored. But these were not to be. Not then. And not now.

On the surface nothing changed for Israel, and what we do now is the same thing that has been done for centuries even if the form and manner have changed somewhat over the course of time. And next year we can already see what is going to happen: another Easter egg hunt, another sunrise service maybe, another Easter worship service but really not much more than a repeat of the same, centuries-old cycle. We lift up the name of Jesus, we remember His brutal and tortuous death, and we celebrate His resurrection. Yet among all the pomp and circumstance, nothing much else will change. We can hope, of course, and we can pray as we must, but what else is going to happen?

Clearly "Jesus is the answer" as attested to by so many billboards and bumper stickers, but what is not so clear is the nature of the question. "How to get saved" seems to be the driving force of just about any question, but that question never came up in Jerusalem so many centuries ago, at least not in the same context. They had heard of this "prophet" and many knew Jesus as the "Son of David", but I am going to jump out on a limb and suggest there was very little in the way of associating Jesus of Nazareth with YHWH. I am going to suggest that the Lord God of all creation did not factor into the anticipation much ... if at all!

Some may remember the angst of the 60's during the Vietnam era and the Civil Rights era; two huge events in the life of this nation. Because of the uncertainty of the times and because it appeared our government was being less than honest with us, authority came to be questioned. Life was chaotic for some, and answers were demanded; yet few answers were found because the right questions were not being asked. And I see this much happening today as well because people are still seeking answers to their own particular and unique dilemmas, but they also cannot quite pin down the right question. And what is an answer without a relevant question?

The tension which exists today is as palpable as it was in Jerusalem as Jesus rode into town on a donkey. I dare say EVERYONE saw Jesus in one particular way or another but with this one common question: what's MY life going to be like now that He's arrived? A very broad and yet incredibly narrow focus on the here-and-now; the inherent tension between what we are and what we are called to be. The crowd that welcomed Jesus had high expectations as to how they would be positively and personally affected by Jesus, but being available to Him on any level was not likely on their minds unless He would be willing to do what they thought He should do. And I think the same can be said of us today.

It does not have to be this way, but it will continue as long as our priorities push our worship life further and further down the list. It will continue for as long as we place our hopes in medical technology and public policies. It will continue for as long as our personal ambitions and carnal desires far outweigh and outrun the necessary means of grace that serve to release the incredible tension between our physical present and our spiritual future. It will continue for as long as we choose to live in and for the moment and not for the future of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Pray that our palms remind us not of what "was" so long ago in Jerusalem. Pray that our palms serve instead as our means of welcoming what "will be". Pray that we use these palm branches in our lives and in the pathways of our hearts to welcome the eagerly anticipated return of the Eternal King. Pray that He find us as eager to receive and welcome Him not as an interruption of our present moment, not as the fulfillment of a personal wish, but as the actively and eagerly anticipated reality of His eternity. Pray that He find us working with Him and not against Him.

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