Matthew 6: 22-24, John 12: 12-19
April 17, 2011
I remember seeing Jesus a lot in my previous church. A portrait of him, actually. It was given to the church by a longtime member in memory of a loved one. It’s actually on the cover of our bulletin today. Take a look at it if you would:
It’s a portrait by Walter Sallmans, a painter out of Chicago from the early 1940’s. Titled “The Head of Christ,” it’s been reproduced some 500 million times. It’s a lovely portrait – Jesus gazing off to the side with a whimsical, contemplative sort of look on his face. Like other artistic renditions of Jesus, it’s achieved almost iconic status where people not only recognize the person but the portrait itself. ( http://www.warnersallman.com/collection/images/head-of-christ/, visited on 4.12.2011)
The thing is, this painting of Jesus did more than simply remind the church of the man they called “savior.” It also had a much more practical use – as a landmark and point of reference in our facility. See, the portrait hung at the end of this long hallway, a main thoroughfare. So for example, if you were up in the offices or coming out of the sanctuary at one end of the church and needed to get to the Fellowship Hall, you would be told by a staff or friendly church member: Go down the hallway and take a right at Jesus. Or if you were trying to find the Women’s Parlor or restrooms or preschool classrooms, you’d be advised to Take a left at Jesus.
And I’ll admit, it was kinda funny to say it! Not only because it sounded a little strange – Take a right at Jesus, take a left at Jesus – but also because it made one very big assumption: that any of us have a clue what Jesus looked like! I mean, think about it: no one today has ever actually seen Jesus. No one caught him on home video or whipped out the ol’ iPhone to take a quick shot and post it on Facebook. Over time we have formed in our minds this idea of what Jesus might’ve looked like – but the bottom line is that nobody really knows.
Just like that portrait in the hallway of my old church, we all have a picture of Jesus in our minds. And not just about what he looks like. We all have an idea inside us of Jesus’ character and his mission and his life in general; all of which has been formed over many years. For better or for worse, we tend to fashion Jesus out of our own story and our own experiences with him.
And if that’s the case, then imagine what it must’ve been like for those people in Jerusalem on that very first Palm Sunday. There is Jesus, making his entry into that city and the place packed with people – most of whom are waving palm branches and shouting “Hosannas.” And while I’m sure those palms were great for paying homage to Jesus and a lot of fun for the kids, they had to have gotten in the way a bit as people clamored to see this man.
And so if we had been there that day and could’ve seen Jesus through those palms, I bet we would’ve been amazed at the different ways people would’ve seen this one man. The ordinary folk, for lack of a better term, would have seen something unique in Jesus. These Hebrews lived ordinary lives, held ordinary jobs, raised ordinary families. They were tired of the weight of Roman rule and the stale flavor of their Hebrew faith. And so they saw this Jesus as one who could grant them true happiness and peace. They were tuned in to his teachings and his wonderful miracles and healings. Jesus was their ticket to being close to God – that’s what I think they saw in him.
Others there would’ve seen Jesus very differently – as someone who’d help them advance their radical agenda. Zealots, they were called – fundamentalist Hebrew separatists who carried a huge chip on their shoulder. Jesus’ message of peace and loving one’s enemy didn’t register all that much with this crowd; they were more concerned with getting rid of the “powers that be.” Rome was an evil force that needed to be overthrown; and Jesus was the man who could help them do this. I mean, already he had ruffled plenty of feathers by questioning the religious leaders who were content with foreign occupation. And look at that crowd he had with him! That’s what those Zealots saw in Jesus.
Still others would’ve gazed at Jesus through the palms that day with contempt and scorn, seeing only a serious threat to the established religious way. The Pharisees and Sadducees had spent their lives creating unity by fanatically observing the “letter of the law.” Jesus’s mission to fulfill the law did not rest well with those folks. Then there were the religious leaders who ruled with Rome’s blessing as long as they kept order. For them, Jesus was a dangerous rebel-rouser who threatened the stability and peace they’d worked so hard to create.
And I’m sure there were others that day who saw Jesus as a man lost in his own world. He was either a lunatic who actually believed everything he said, or he was a very persuasive liar who knew how to milk the crowd. For them, Jesus wasn’t a threat to anyone, he wasn’t a messiah, and he certainly wasn’t a military leader. He was nothing more than a side attraction in the drama of life.
Isn’t it amazing – all those people, and they saw all these things in one single man? A man riding bareback on a donkey through the streets of Jerusalem. And the crazy thing, if you want to know the truth, is that all these years later, our views of Jesus really haven’t changed much. You and I are just as prone to seeing Jesus “through the palms,” so to speak – we see him, but not all of him. We see him incompletely. We see him out of our biases and prejudices and perceptions. And perhaps more than anything, when you get right down to it, this is one of the greatest threat as we strive to engage in kingdom-living.
I mean, take a look beyond Palm Sunday to the week that followed. Do you notice something? Do you notice how huge that crowd was as it gathered at the gate in Jerusalem to welcome Jesus on that first Palm Sunday? Everyone was there shouting their “Hosannas” and calling Jesus Lord and celebrating his arrival. Everyone was elated and excited about being part of the whole affair.
But it’s interesting to see how, as the week went on, the crowds around Jesus grew smaller and smaller and smaller. To the point that, on that Thursday night, there he was in the Garden of Gethsemane praying his heart out, with only three disciples there, all of whom were asleep at the wheel. And then mere hours later, there Jesus was, hanging on the cross, his followers having run for the hills. Five days before, the crowds couldn’t get enough of Jesus. 120 hours later, he was utterly alone. Think about that!
You know what this says to me? It says that one of the hardest parts of kingdom-living is resisting the temptation to be “Palm Sunday-only people” – people who are eager to proclaim the Lord Jesus, but not as willing to stick with him through the rough week ahead. Which means the task at hand for us – and a difficult one at that – is to strive to see all of Jesus and act on all we see: not just the celebrated king “riding in majesty” as the hymn goes, but also the agonizing man in the garden and the broken body on the cross. Because what we see of Jesus directly affects how we live for Jesus.
The thing is, the world does not want us living like that. And, sad to say, there are even well-meaning Christians out there who mock us for leaving the Palm Sunday Party and heading into the messiness of the following week. You know, I don’t know about you, but I get this every now and then when I hear people say stuff like, Why are you so concerned with things like justice and equality and making a difference? Just stick to praising Jesus as Lord! It’s almost like they want the Palm Sunday Party to keep going on forever. But it doesn’t, does it? It can’t.
And besides, those people are making a terrible, terrible assumption if they assume that praising Jesus has to end when the parade is over. Oh my gosh! Nothing could be further from the truth! We praise Jesus as Lord when we head into the week after the joyous procession! We’ve never praise Jesus more than when we work to make a difference in our community and our world! We praise Jesus when we do our part to help bring about God’s kingdom on earth! Praising Jesus is at the very heart of kingdom-living – especially as we stick with Jesus beyond the “Hosannas” and palm-waving and dare to follow him to the garden and the cross.
And on this wonderful day that we welcome seven new young people into our church, I think this is exactly what they’ve done, what they’ll continue doing, and what we should as well. To wrestle with how we see Jesus and act on what we see, sticking with him when the celebration is over and going with him into the messiness that life can bring, in our quest for kingdom-living. In a minute we’re going to read their collective statement of faith; a beautiful mosaic of their individual faith statements. And I think as we read it and speak it together, you’re going to discover that the way your young people see Jesus is a way we all should strive to see him.
In fact, I’m reminded of the story of a little girl who was drawing a picture in Sunday school one morning. She was busy at work, using every crayon in the box. Her teacher noticed her hard work and asked what she was drawing.
Without stopping she replied, “I’m drawing a picture of God.”
The teacher smiled and said, “But honey, no one knows what God looks like.”
With a hint of annoyance, the little girl replied, “Well, they will when I get done with this picture!”
May God grant us the same gift that little girl possessed – where we look past the palms to see the fullness of Jesus. So that, as we gather at the gates to welcome and receive him and praise his holy name, we stay with him after the party’s over, all the way to the bitter end, and especially beyond. Thanks be to God. AMEN.