Monday, March 17, 2008

Jesus Christ, Our King

(A Palm Sunday Sermon based on Matthew 21:1-11)

[The image is The Entry into Jerusalem by Fra Angelico (1387-1455)]

As Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the crowds that surrounded him cried out, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” In citing those lines from Psalm 118, the people were proclaiming that Jesus was the king from the line of David who would come as the Messiah.

People are funny about kings and other kinds of rulers. Sometimes I wonder if we want the kinds of rulers that are best for us. Sometimes I wonder just how much our sinfulness really gets in the way of our ability to recognize how good it really is to follow Jesus as king rather than to follow some other kind of ruler. Sometimes I wonder if we prefer a King Jesus of our own making who is cut from a very different cloth than is the real King Jesus. Sometimes I wonder if we cling to other rulers who are not nearly so benevolent and good as is King Jesus.

We can learn something about this from the history of kingship in Israel. Not too many decades after the Hebrews entered the Promised Land, they began to clamor for a king. At the time they were being led by the priest/judge Samuel whose sons proved unequal to the task of following him as leader. When the people told Samuel that they wanted a king so they could be like other nations, Samuel resisted. God told Samuel to give them what they wanted but to “solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them” (1 Samuel 8:9). And so he did, saying,

These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the LORD will not answer you in that day. (1 Samuel 8:11-18)

Amazingly, the people responded, “No! but we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles” (1 Samuel 8:19b-20).

Saul was anointed as the first king of Israel. He was followed by David, the “man after God’s own heart.” Of David and his ancestors the Lord said through the prophet Nathan,

(T)he LORD declares to you that the LORD will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me…. Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever. (2 Samuel 7:11b-14a, 16)

Eventually, in 587 B.C.E., the kingdom of David came to an end, historically speaking, but the Hebrew prophets came to understand that God would one day send a Messiah, a “king” who would rule in justice and righteousness, from the house and lineage of David.

Jesus was and is that king, that Messiah. As the king, he deserves our allegiance. As the king, he merits our obedience. As the king, he has claim on our lives.

I wonder why we don’t do better than we do in giving him our allegiance, our obedience, and our lives. Could it be because he is a different kind of king than the one that Samuel told the Israelites they would have and did in fact end up having? Would we respond with more obedience and with greater sacrifice if he took what he needed, by force and coercion if he deemed it necessary? That’s the kind of king that the Israelites agreed to take. I wonder if that’s the kind we want. I wonder if we want to be used, manipulated, and taken advantage of.

Make no mistake about it, now—Jesus Christ has the right and the authority to make demands of us. He has the right and the authority to expect that we will respond to his instructions with obedience. As he was preparing to enter Jerusalem, he needed a donkey on which he could ride. So he sent two disciples to get it. He told them that if anyone asked him why they were taking the animal they were to answer, “The Lord needs (it).” And, he said confidently, “he will send them immediately.” Now, while we can’t know for sure, it seems to me likely that the animal was borrowed from a follower of Jesus. If so, then that disciple responded with obedience to Jesus’ instruction. He gave up for Jesus what Jesus needed for him to give up.

Do we do that? Do we acknowledge the kingship of Jesus by giving up for him what he calls us to give up? A donkey was to a first century Jew an asset. How willing are we to give up our assets as he calls us to do? Do we gladly give of our material possessions—and of our money—so that others might be touched with the love of Jesus? Do we gladly live simply so that we will have more to share? What about the asset of our reputation and standing in the community? Are we willing to give that up for Jesus if that is what it takes to minister in his name? What about the asset of our cherished ways of doing things? Are we willing to give those up if Jesus needs for us to in order to accomplish his mission?

You see, here’s the thing: if Jesus marched in here today with a flaming sword in his hand and with his omnipotence and his divine glory written all over him and said, “Give this up” for me, every last person in the building would do so because we would be afraid not to do so. If he were a king that ruled through fear, we would do whatever he demanded. If he were a king that ruled through intimidation, we would do whatever he said. If he were a king that ruled through threats, we would do whatever he instructed.

But that’s not the kind of king that Jesus showed himself to be when he rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. He entered the city, as the prophet had said, “humble, and mounted on a donkey.” What did it mean for him to be humble? Think of it this way: what kind of king would tell his subjects as he prepared to enter the capital city, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised” (20:18-19)? Such humility was not forced on him; he took it onto himself voluntarily. In the words of Paul, he “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8).

Our king bids us to follow him in that same kind of life. He bids us take up our cross daily and follow him. He bids us to think more of others than we do ourselves. He bids us die to self and to rise to a new life of service to God and to others. He bids us to lay down our lives for each other. He bids us to be much, much more interested in what we give than in what we get. He bids us to give and give and serve and serve and love and love—like he did.

But he won’t make us do it. He could. He could be the kind of king that Samuel told the Israelites they would have. He has much more authority than David and Solomon and their descendants ever thought of having. And maybe we’d like that—maybe we’d like it if he forced us to do what he wants us to do and if he forced us to be what he died to cause us to be.

But he won’t. His way is for us to respond to love with love, to grace with grace, to forgiveness with forgiveness, to humility with humility, to peace with peace, to sacrifice with sacrifice, and to service with service. His way is for his grace and love to so penetrate our hearts and our lives that we just can’t help but be what he wants us to be and do what he wants us to do.

Maybe it says something important about us if we can’t seem to get motivated to serve that kind of Savior and to serve in that kind of Savior’s way. Maybe it says something important—and scary—about our discipleship if we have to be forced or coerced or begged or cajoled to live faithfully and graciously.

We are really not our own, you see—we really were bought with a price. The claim that king Jesus has on our lives is a claim that he placed there by his own death on the cross. In this life we get pushed around so much. We have so many people in our lives who thrive on telling us what to do and who are often not motivated by love or grace. How tremendous a thing it is to have a king who loves, who forgives, and who gave himself up for us.

How can we help but give him our all? How can we help it?

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