Sunday, April 5, 2009
“Blessed is He Who Comes in the Name of the Lord”
[A sermon for Palm Sunday based on John 12:12-16; the sermon is the first in a Holy Week series entitled Eavesdropping on Holy Week]
My late great father, the corniest man not to appear on Hee-Haw who ever lived, loved to tell the story about the young man who wrote the following note to his sweetheart: “Darling, for you I would climb the highest mountain, I would swim the deepest sea, and I would cross the widest desert. And I’ll see you on Saturday night—as long as it doesn’t rain.”
Words, you see, may mean everything or they may mean nothing or they may mean something in between; it all depends on what stands behind them and on what follows after them. In the case of the young man in my father’s story, his words meant little because he lacked (1) sound intention and (2) corresponding actions. That is, his words of devotion were shown to be hyperbole, and gross hyperbole at that, by the fact that he had no intention of going to the trouble for his lady to which he swore he would go and by the fact that if it indeed rained on Saturday night he wouldn’t show up.
What words mean depends on the intent behind them and the intent behind them can often—maybe even usually—be seen in the actions that follow (or don’t follow) them.
If we were to describe the young man’s words mathematically, the formula might look like this: Faulty intentions + faulty actions = lying words.
I’m not at all sure that the same judgment could be rendered on the crowd that hailed the arrival of Jesus at Jerusalem on Palm Sunday; I’m not at all convinced that we can say that they were intentionally saying things that they did not mean and on which they did not intend to follow up. After all, we know that Jesus had developed a following during the few years of his ministry; we know furthermore that it was the custom for Passover pilgrims to greet rabbis as they entered the city for the festival; we know moreover that some people sometimes wanted to proclaim Jesus king.
It seems to me more accurate to say that the people were saying more than they knew they were saying—what they were saying was much truer than they could know but it was true in a different way than they thought. After all, as John informs us, “His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been done to him” (v. 16). If his disciples, if those who were closest to Jesus, did not understand, we can hardly expect the “crowds” to get it, can we?
What about us, though? Here we are as this people on this Palm Sunday in this place in this hour of worship and we are saying the same thing: “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord—the king of Israel!” Perhaps more significantly, when we leave this place we will go out into the world—into our homes, into our schools, into our workplaces, into our neighborhoods—and as we go we will go bearing the name “Christian” which means that we are committed to have the life of Christ lived out in our lives, so that in the things we do, the words we speak, and even the motives we have we are to show that we mean it when we say “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord—the king of Israel!”
Perhaps we would profit from considering the word “Blessed” in that sentence. The word means “O how happy”; the crowd was right in declaring that Jesus was “blessed” or was “happy” and they were correct in their statement of the reason that Jesus was blessed or happy—he was blessed or happy because he came in the name of God and because he was the King of Israel. Yes, they had the words right, but they did not have the meaning of the words right; when the crowds proclaimed Jesus “blessed” on that first Palm Sunday they thought that they knew what would make him blessed—he would exercise power and he would lead an overthrow of the Romans and he would place the nation in the position of prominence that it deserved; that to them was what it meant for Jesus to “come in the name of the Lord” and to be the “King of Israel.”
What the crowd didn’t notice—what they didn’t realize—was that Jesus came riding into Jerusalem not on an animal that would symbolize the kind of worldly royal power that they expected but rather on a beast that symbolized humility and submission and peace. What they didn’t know—what they could not know and what they could not have accepted had they known—was that for Jesus, to be “blessed” and to come “in the name of the Lord” and to be the “King of Israel” meant that he would give himself up in obedience to his Father and in service to people, that he would empty himself and become a Suffering Servant, that he would humble himself even to death, and that he would finally be designated King when a Roman representative placed a sign saying so over his head as he hung on a cross.
But we do know, don’t we? We know the whole story; we know how it ended in Jesus’ case; we know how it is supposed to continue through Jesus in our lives. So this morning when we affirm “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord—the King of Israel”, what are our intentions? Having affirmed it, what will our actions be? Will we be driven by motivations that bless Jesus, that make Jesus happy, and that please Jesus? Will we carry out actions that bless Jesus, that make Jesus happy, and that please Jesus?
Since when we talk about what we should do and not do it’s too easy to give ourselves credit or to slide over into legalism, I want to pose the harder and I think more Christian question: what are our motivations?
Are we motivated by fear or by faith? Jesus rode into Jerusalem full of faith even though he knew that his journey would end at the cross. He knew full well what was coming and he knew what it would cost him; we know that because of the prayer that he prayed in the Garden on Thursday night: “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me”—but still he kept moving forward, because faith rather than fear shaped his life.
Look into your heart and answer this question: are you driven by fear or by faith? You are driven by fear if you are always thinking of protecting yourself, if you’re always thinking of how words or events affect you, and if you’re always willing to sacrifice your principles in order to avoid painful or stressful situations or confrontations. You are driven by faith if you are willing to put yourself at risk if obedience to God calls for it, if you are more concerned about what people are going through than you are with what they are putting you through, and if you seek to live out grace and peace and mercy no matter what it costs you.
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” we say—but are we displeasing him because we are motivated by fear—which he was not— or are we pleasing him because we are motivated by faith—like he was?
Are we motivated by grasping or by giving? Jesus, Paul tells us in Philippians, “Did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped”; Jesus, as the old gospel song reminds us, did not “call 10,000 angels to destroy the world and set him free.” No, Jesus, Paul tells us in Philippians, “Humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross”; Jesus, as the old gospel song reminds us, “died alone for you and me.” Jesus did not grasp and take and seize; Jesus gave and offered and emptied.
Look into your heart and answer this question: are you driven by grasping or by giving? You are driven by grasping if you most often think of what’s in it for you, if you usually think that you deserve better than you’re getting or more than others are getting, or if you find yourself demeaning or devaluing the gifts and accomplishments of others. You are driven by giving if you put the needs of others before your own needs and especially before your own wants, if you think of the good things in your life or in someone else’s life as good gifts from a good God and thank God regardless of who receives them, and if you not only say that is more blessed to give than to receive but you actually feel more joy in giving than you do in receiving.
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” we say—but are we displeasing him because we are motivated by grasping—which he was not— or are we pleasing him because we are motivated by giving—like he was?
Are we motivated by salvation or by sacrifice? Jesus did not come to serve but to served; Jesus did not come to save himself but to give himself as a ransom for many. Jesus did not, as he was challenged to do as he hung on the cross, “save himself”; rather, he gave up his spirit and died. Moreover, Jesus said that if we sought to save our lives we would lose them but that if we lose our lives we would save them.
So look into your heart and answer this question: are you driven to save yourself or to sacrifice yourself? You are driven to save yourself if you want others to do for you but you don’t want to do for others, if the Christian life is to you all about you being blessed and you getting to heaven and not about you blessing others and you showing them a little bit of heaven, and if you either habitually make a conscious decision not to give up anything for anybody else or if you just never give a thought to giving up something for somebody else. But you are driven to sacrifice yourself if you are almost never looking to have something done for you but you are constantly looking to do something for somebody else, if you look so forward to heaven that you don’t worry about losing or leaving this life just so long as you can love Jesus and love others while you’re here, and if you pay conscious attention to the hurts that people around you are experiencing so that you can share grace where it’s needed.
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” we say—but are we displeasing him because we are motivated by saving ourselves—which he was not— or are we pleasing him because we are motivated by sacrificing ourselves—like he was?
Yes, we have said the words just they did all those years ago: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord—the king of Israel!” But do our hearts show that we really mean it? Are we motivated by his kind of faith, giving, and sacrifice? What do our lives show about our motivation and thus about our hearts?