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Hero for A Day; The Empty-handed Savior

March 30, 2015

“Hero for a Day” John 12:12-16 © 3.29.15 Palm/Passion Sunday B by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

“Humanity is fickle,” a poet once wrote. “They may dress for a morning coronation and never feel the need to change clothes to attend an execution in the afternoon. So Triumphal Sundays and Good Fridays always fit comfortably into the same April week” (Calvin Miller, The Singer).

And that’s how things would turn out. The clamoring horde who went out to greet Jesus as he entered Jerusalem had heard he had done something beyond belief. A man had been raised from the dead! Surely anyone who could defeat the most feared enemy of humankind could drive out the forces of Rome. So man, woman, child shouted as loudly as they could: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the King of Israel.”

The cries of the crowd came from Psalm 118, in which the victorious king is welcomed back home. Yahweh the Great Warrior has helped him defeat the foe and saved the man from death. The nation of Israel, the stone the builders rejected, is now shown to be the key element in all human plans. That means the ruler gets bragging rights.

The military background of the psalm was not forgotten by the multitudes who greeted Jesus. Perhaps this one, this Jesus, would return sovereignty to Israel.

But it’s the palms that really give away what the crowd is thinking. In at least the back of the popular mind was the 200 year-old story of the Maccabean revolt. In 167 BC, the evil king Antiochus Epiphanes IV set up an altar to the Greek high god Zeus in the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. Then he sacrificed a pig on it, an animal at the same time sacred to a pagan god and an affront to the kosher regulations of the Jews. To make matters worse, he wouldn’t permit the Jews to practice their religion. Everybody had to follow Greek customs, and those who didn’t were punished severely, even killed.

A man named Mattathias and his five sons resisted. They began a guerilla war against Antiochus, and in three years, Mattathias and his army had reclaimed the Temple. His son Judas Maccabeus, known as “the Hammer,” cleansed and rededicated the sanctuary. The fighting went on for twenty more years until Simon Maccabeus achieved a diplomatic settlement. In the history of the war there is this note about the celebration of Jewish independence: “…the Jews entered [Jerusalem] with praise and palm branches, and with harps and cymbals and stringed instruments, and with hymns and songs, because a great enemy had been crushed and removed from Israel” (1 Maccabees 13:51).

So waving palms was a way of greeting Jesus as a great military leader, a nationalist hero. Someone once explained it this way: “What do the palms say? They say: We are tired of being kicked around, hungry to be Number One again, ready to strut our stuff once more. Here’s our agenda, and you look just like the man we need. Welcome, warrior king! Hail, conquering hero!” (Byron Rohrig, “What Do the Palms Say?” The Christian Century, 3.9.88: 237).

Jesus was thrilled by their praise, right? Not at all. Hoping they would get the point, he found a donkey and sat on it. A lowly burro. A king ready for war would come down the street on a prancing horse with his entourage in tow. One seeking peace arrived on a donkey. Jesus’ kingdom would not come by armed revolt, but by the suffering of his own death.

Our Lord intended to make peace and justice more than merely dreams in the hearts and minds of the hurting and downtrodden. The author of the gospel wants us to see this scene as the fulfillment of two prophecies. One is from Zechariah. The other is taken from Zephaniah. Even if you’ve never heard of them, I suspect you’ll be thrilled by their message. They told of a time when there would he no more fear or hopelessness. There would instead be joy and singing, for God would take delight in his people. Those who had been shamed and excluded would be proud again and in the limelight. That, says John, is the sort of kingdom Jesus was promising to the crowd.

Once his intentions became clear, Jesus was a hero for only a day. The crowd dressed for coronation turned against Jesus. Their shouts of praise turned into jeers. Their festive garments became fouled with the blood of their would-be ruler.

What would you and I have done or said or felt? What is it we want from Jesus? I mean really, not the answer we know we’re supposed to give about salvation and joy and all the rest. Maybe there are questions you want him to answer. Or some favor I would like done. Maybe we long for more excitement and reward in our career or the assurance that our kids are going to turn out OK. Perhaps we would ask for an easy death or a life without pain. Our requests might even be more in the vein of those who lined the street those long years ago. We would like our team or nation or organization to be Number One and be acknowledged as such by everybody.

As we enter Holy Week, we might ask ourselves what we do when our faith disappoints us or doesn’t give us what we want. When the institutional church doesn’t measure up to our expectations or represent Christ. When God seems to have something else in mind for us than what we had planned. Do we walk away, grumbling? Do we add our voices to the angry Good Friday mob, which used to be the cheering Palm Sunday crowd? Or do we wrestle and fight and pray and try to make sense of it all? Or if we can’t make sense, then trust that God knows what’s going on?

The last option is the hardest. We may feel much like the disciples, standing there watching and not really understanding, somehow not quite grasping that if faith is a gift it is also demand and that on the road to glory looms a cross.

But one day the disciples did understand. They were so filled with resurrection power that they could face with confidence even the pain that came their way. They could remain loyal to their Lord as their hero not just for a day, but for thousands of days, a lifetime.

We too can be so transformed that we can accompany Jesus in popularity and disfavor, in joy and in pain. We can even follow our Lord when Triumphal Sundays turn into Crucifixion Fridays, and the cheering stops.


“The Empty-handed Savior” Philippians 2:5-11 © 3.29.15 Palm/Passion Sunday by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Masao Takenaka was a Japanese theologian and poet. Years ago, I read his explanation of an ancient tea ceremony started by a man named Rikyu. The particular style of the ritual recommended by Rikyu was influenced by “wabi,” which refers to the Japanese preference and appreciation for simple beauty rather than showy decoration. The service, known as “wabi-cha,” “tea of wabi,” uses simple cups and utensils and participants meet in a humble, uncluttered room.

Takenaka went on to look at Christ through the lens of wabi, the life of simplicity and humility. In Japan, he said, some Christians were interested in forming fellowship groups based on the traditional tea ceremony. Thus, the theologian found fresh insights for Christian theology and living in something familiar and well-known.

Centuries before, Paul used a similar method. He took a familiar piece of liturgy, namely, a hymn sung at baptisms, and gave it a new application to a troubled church. By using a hymn they already knew and loved, Paul was trying to emphasize that what happens and is heard in worship should influence their daily lives.

The Philippian song recounts the cosmic drama of salvation. Though Christ was equal with God, he did not insist on privilege and advantage. He refused to “grasp” or “take by force,” as the Greek has it. The term is a military one which refers to soldiers plundering an enemy’s goods and taking whatever they wanted by intimidation and violence. Rather than display such a rapacious spirit, the Messiah “emptied himself,” giving up privilege and position to become a servant. Such pouring out of oneself was called “kenosis” in Greek. It was “deprivation of power,” “becoming empty-handed.” Our Lord came holding no weapon, whether for conquest or for self-defense. He didn’t cling to his meager possessions, but offered what he had freely to all. He extended his open hand in friendship and for healing to whoever needed comfort and companionship.

Paul urges that the congregation corporately and individually internalize the story. They are “in Christ,” and belong to the realm ruled by the empty-handed Savior, so they should live differently, as he did. Specifically, the factions headed by two women named Euodia and Syntyche should cease fighting, and the two ladies make peace. Those who wanted to be Paul’s favorites should get a different goal in life. Everyone should ignore and repudiate any false teachers who troubled the church. Instead, focus on building community so that should persecution come, the congregation could bear it. Work together side by side without thought of personal reward or advancing the agenda of this or that group. Unite to achieve common purposes, even if they didn’t agree on every detail of practice or belief. And most of all, trust God to bring fruit from their labor just as he had given the gift of exaltation to the Messiah.

What might it mean for us today to follow our servant Lord? What would emptying ourselves look like in family, church, and community? The answers will be different for each of us, depending on what power and privilege and resources we have. But in general, we can say that there is no room for seeking personal glory, pursuing hidden agendas, relating to others with pompous arrogance or closing our hearts if we are to take seriously our calling to imitate Christ, who emptied himself and trusted fully in God to deliver him, even from the grave. The way of the cross is the path to new life. As someone has put it: “…when a person lives as Jesus did, and spills out his or her life for others, either in one decisive moment or gradually over a whole lifetime of daily attrition and impoverishment, then such a person is truly alive. If you live to expand yourself rather than expend yourself, you are empty and dead. Such doing has no power and bears no fruit. Such apparent vitality is really sterile” (CE: SA Philippians/Mark, Fall 1981). The paradox of faith proclaimed and lived in Christ is that only in service are we exalted, only in emptying our hands do we receive, only in vulnerability do we secure ourselves, and only in dying do we really begin to live.

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