Sermon April 9: The Hour Is At Hand

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Faith United Methodist Church

April 9, 2017

Palm Sunday

Rev. Kristabeth Atwood

Scripture: Matthew 21:1-11, 26: 14-16, 36-46, 57-58, 69-27:2, 15-23

Prayer for Illumination: 

Give thanks to God, for God’s steadfast love lasts forever!  In this faithful love, we are forgiven and strengthened in Christ.  Amen.

And may the words that I speak and the thoughts that we form be acceptable in your sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer.  Amen.

Sermon:  The Hour Is At Hand

Palm Sunday started out so right.  How could it have gone so terribly wrong?  That’s the question centuries worth of Christians have asked, and there is still no easy answer.  The crowds that danced with joy on Sunday, waving their palms to shouts of “Hosanna!” stomped their feet and shook their fists on Friday crying “Crucify Him!”  Everything seemed so promising at first.   By Friday the hope of the world was nailed to a cross. 

Sometimes that’s the way things happened, though, right?  Things aren’t always what they seem.  Jesus’ followers thought that he was going to overthrow the Roman government and return Jerusalem to the Jews.  They thought Jesus was going to be a military hero like his ancestor David.  They had been down on their luck for so long, but Jesus was going to fix all that.  Or so they thought.  When it became clear Jesus wasn’t going to meet their narrow expectations many of his followers turned their backs on him.  And, not only that, they joined with the Roman authorities in cheering his death. What, at first, seemed like a miracle turned into a nightmare.

And it wasn’t enough that the religious authorities were out to get him.  It wasn’t enough that the crowds turned against him.  But his most intimate friends, those with whom he shared the most, didn’t understand.  Judas betrayed him for thirty pieces of silver.  Peter, James and John fell asleep when Jesus needed them most.  And, later, when asked if he was one of Jesus’ disciples Peter denied it three times.  In the end, Jesus was left alone.

Last week, in our “Emptying Our Plates” series, we talked about emptying our plates of doubt.  In reflecting on doubt, I said that I don’t believe doubt to be the opposite of faith, but fear.  And, today, I think that is exactly what caused everything to go so wrong.  Fear. 

A lot was at stake for the Jews of Jerusalem.  The Roman authorities, and even the Jewish leaders, were already suspicious of Jesus.  And even more so after Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead.  Jesus didn’t do things the way everyone else did.  Through his acts of healing and his radical teachings he drew attention to himself.  People were actually beginning to believe what he said.  To the Roman authorities and the Jewish leaders ~ those interested in maintaining the status quo ~ Jesus was a dangerous man.  They were afraid.

So, in aligning themselves with him, Jesus’ followers were taking a risk.  A big risk. They were publically calling into question the rule of law.  And, as minority members of the Roman Empire, this was scary stuff.  This was not a democratic society.  There was no freedom of speech.  There was a very real possibility they could lose their livelihood, their homes, possibly even their lives. 

Even the disciples, those who left everything to follow Jesus, likely had fears.  Presumably they had family back home in Galilee.  We know Peter had a mother and James and John a father.  We can assume they all had brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, if not wives and children.  Sure, they had been with Jesus for three-years, but if this Jesus-thing didn’t work out they would have to return home, make a living, carry out the rest of their days.  When things started going wrong they probably thought it prudent to distance themselves from Jesus, just a little, just in case.

It is easy to say that we would never have behaved as outrageously as the disciples.  We would have stayed awake.  We would never have done something as treacherous as Judas.  We would have been bold, unlike Peter.  We would have proudly said that we were followers of Jesus.  But that’s easy to say from our time and distance.  We have the benefit of hindsight.  The disciples were dealing with it in real time, making decisions in the moment, and watching as their world unraveled before their eyes.  Fear causes people to do things they wouldn’t think they would ever do, even betray their best friend.   

Craig Barnes wrote in the Christian Century, “One of the messages of Holy Week is that sooner or later every disciple will betray Jesus.  We will betray him in the workplace when it will cost too much to think like a Christian, and in our homes when the anger is so great that we hurt those who trust us, and in the sacred commitments we make that we simply cannot keep.  We will betray Jesus by our indifference to the poor, but our refusal to turn the other cheek to our enemies, and by the deaf ears we turn to heaven’s call to live for a higher purpose.”

But this does not have to be the end of the story.  Indeed, we know it is not the end of the story.  During the season of Lent we are reminded of our human frailties and failings.  Over the past six weeks we’ve tried to address them.  We’ve been emptying our plates of temptation, misunderstanding, regret, blame, doubt and, now, fear.  We want to arrive to Easter morning with empty plates ready to be filled with joy, hope, love and all the good things of God, because the real message in this story is the richness of God’s grace.

When have you, like the disciples been afraid to speak up for what you know is right?  When have you, to save yourself, turned your back on a friend?  When have you distanced yourself from a cause you knew was right because you didn’t want to be thought of as “one of those people”?  I believe that fear is the opposite of faith because fear denies that God will take care of us no matter what.  Fear holds us back.  Fear tells us that we are on our own.  Fear compels us to self-preservation above all else.  The life that Jesus calls us to is loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves.

We aren’t going to be able to eliminate fear altogether.  What we might be able to do is stop ourselves before we get caught up in the fear, before we are shaking our fists and crying, “Crucify him!”  I know a little something about fear, having lived with PTSD (of varying degrees) for the past 15 years. Fear constantly asks us to give up a little more of ourselves.  As the spiritual writer, Max Lucado, put it, Fear visits everyone. But make your fear a visitor and not a resident.”

Over the past few weeks we’ve scraped our plates clean.  We’ve sent temptation, misunderstanding, regret, blame, doubt and, now, fear, to the compost bin.  We are ready for Easter.  Pile it on!  And, still, the betrayal, the inattentiveness, the denial is real.  Little did the crowds know that Jesus had something even greater in store for them.  Little did they know that the kingdom Jesus came to create was not a kingdom of the earth, but a kingdom of the heart.  And perhaps we don’t have it totally figured out, either.  I can only wonder what amazing thing God has in store for us.  With open hearts, let’s keep watch for the possibilities.  Amen?  Amen.