God’s Bloody Hands 2: King of Peace - thrive UMC Official Blog

God’s Bloody Hands 2: King of Peace

palm sunday  

Luke 19:29-44

Through Lent, we’re following Jesus through his last trip to Jerusalem, on to the cross, and beyond, because this is the culmination of the story of Jesus.  This is where he comes into power.  And today we’re looking at the scripture story that’s usually associated with Palm Sunday, the Sunday immediately preceding Easter morning.  In it, Jesus enters the city of Jerusalem, which was the historical capital of the nation of Judah, and the cultural, political, and religious center of the Jewish people.  It was the city of the first great Israelite King, David. And it later became the site of the Temple, which housed the Holy-of-Holies: the Ark of the Covenant, and what was thought to be the very seat of the living God.  Suffice it to say, for Jews, this is a big deal, even a bigger deal than Vatican City is for Roman Catholics.

Now, a very, very quick history lesson that is absolutely necessary before we jump into our Bible story for today.  And don’t worry: we’re only going to spend about 45 seconds on it, so if you can’t stand history, or “learning” more generally in church, this will only be a very short tunnel to pass through.  Here we go: at this point in time, the Jewish nations of Israel and Judea no longer existed.  But Jerusalem was on Roman soil in Jesus’s day, which was a tense political issue.  Of the 600 years before Jesus, Judea –Jewish territory- had been occupied by 6 different empires.  Before the Roman conquerors had come along, the Jews had had about a century of independence.  They had this independence because of the ‘Maccabean Revolt’ –a military uprising sparked when the previous empire tried to force the worship of its national god in the Jewish temple.  Then, in the year 63 BCE, a Roman army came along and crushed their dreams of an independent, self-governed nation.  So, in Jesus’ day, Judea is ruled by Herod, a Jewish King, who governed on behalf of the Roman Empire.

Now, why is this important to know when we’re talking about the Palm Sunday story?  It’s important to know, because it tells us something telling about the excitement of the crowd in the story; and it tells us something critical about who Jesus wasn’tAnd, for us, this should serve as a powerful reminder for who Jesus is. Let’s read together: this is from Luke 19:29-44.

[Read Luke 19:29-44]

So often, when churches celebrate Palm Sunday, they get so caught up in the celebration and enthusiasm of the crowd that they miss the plot-arch of the larger story.  Here we have a crowd of people who are identified as Jesus’s disciples, cheering and praising God as Jesus enters their sacred city.  As an assembled body, they joined their voices together, shouting a paraphrased version of the 118th psalm.   And Psalm 118 reads ‘Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the LORD;’ but what the crowd shouts is: blessings on the “king”.  Did you catch that?  They called Jesus their king.  Which is pretty crazy, considering KING Herod is still in residence over Judea.

Of course, we probably don’t have time to go over every single little clue in this truly rich story, but as we follow Jesus as he heads through Jerusalem, it’s probably safe to say that the blessing and the enthusiasm of the crowd didn’t last.  In fact, if we keep reading, we’ll find that, less than four chapters later, a similar crowd gathers in another part of Jerusalem –not to throw down their coats as they shout blessings and ‘hosannas’ but instead to join their voices in the rally-cry of: “crucify him!” And we have to ask: what happened to his disciples?

As Jesus spent his days in Jerusalem, teaching in the temple, and speaking to the crowds, and responding to questions, we have to ask: what happened to those who had so recently proclaimed him king?  Where was the power of their passion as he was arrested and put on trial?  When the Roman Governor, Pilate, tries to set him free, what happened to their rejoicing?  When even Herod, his rival King, found no grounds for condemnation, what happened to their testimony?  When the political powers of their time conspire to set him free, where were their voices?  When the demand for their witness was raised, what happened to their faithfulness?

Of course, if we’d learn the clues and cues of the text, to read closely, it would become abundantly clear.  Read for yourselves, but if you ask me, Jesus was condemned because, while he may have been the savior the people needed, he certainly didn’t turn out to be the savior they wanted.

They see Jesus riding into town on a colt, just like Solomon when he was chosen to be David’s heir instead of Adonijah in 1Kings 2.  They’ve heard he was the anointed –the Messiah, just like the military commander Jehu in 2Kings 9, so they throw down their coats before him, in recognition of his authority.  They feel trapped by their enemies on all sides, like Israel in the 118th Psalm, so they chant it upon his arrival.  Armed with the stories of Moses and the punishing plagues that liberated them from the Egyptian empire; the story of King David’s mighty military conquest against the threat of the Philistines; they had the story of Jehu’s violent revolt against the Israelite king corrupted by foreign gods; and the stories of the armed rebellion of the Maccabees against the idolatrous trespasses of the Greeks  –with all of those stories,  and others, the people of Jerusalem were just waiting for God’s bloody hands to come down from the heavens and save them.

all, hadn’t they suffered long enough under these cruel, pagan empires?  Hadn’t the generations in exile been sufficient?  Weren’t they due for a little divine justice –didn’t they deserve it?   Weren’t the centuries of dispossession penance enough?

So here comes Jesus, rumored to be the Messiah, up over the hill.  Down the road from the Mount of Olives, where old King David rested before retaking his Kingdom, on a colt, in power and glory.  Here he comes: savoir… at last.

As Jesus came to the city and observed it, he wept over it.  He said, “If only you knew on this of all days the things that lead to peace.  But now they are hidden from your eyes.  The time will come when your enemies will build fortifications around you, encircle you, and attack you from all sides.  They will crush you completely, you and the people within you.  They won’t leave one stone on top of another within you, because you didn’t recognize the time of your gracious visit from God.”

            You see, everything about the shouts and the celebrations was right as Jesus came into Jerusalem that day.  They did, indeed, need a savior.  And they were correct in believing they’d found him.  The signs were right; the chorus was right; the praises for their king was right.  Everything about that moment was right, except for the story of God they had in their hearts.  Because they believed that, what God had been and done in the past, must be what God would do in the future  –which was to show favor only on his Judean children.  And until that point, God’s pattern had been consistent: discipline through violence.  There was a predictable formula in place, and they were remaining faithful to it: God’s pride would not allow His people to be dishonored, for the sake of His Holy name.  And they loved their stories of who God was… more than they loved the God who is –even in their midst.  So they ended up rejecting the savior they needed, because he wasn’t the savior they wanted.

“If only you knew, on this of all days, the things that lead to peace.” Jesus says, with tears in his eyes.  “But now they are hidden from your eyes.”

‘If only you knew the things that lead to peace…’

Brothers and sisters, what about us, here today?  As we listen to this most sacred of stories –and as we pay attention to the stories we’re constantly telling ourselves- have we found the ones that lead to peace?  When we pop in a movie, or listen to the news –when we sit down with our families and friends, when we heed our thoughts, or the radio, on our way to work, is peace the produce of their telling?  As our lives move forward, and as the credits of our relationships accrue, and as we grow and mature, is peace the compass guiding our daily choices?   When faced with our boss or spouse in moments of conflict or contention, do we possess and participate in a narrative that yields peace for all included?

When we stop to think about it, do we know what peace looks like?

Would we even recognize peace if we tasted it for a moment?

Is peace even what we want for ourselves, and for others?

For the crowds in Jerusalem in our story from Luke, they felt fairly confident they knew what peace looked like, and how it might be gained.  They had their holy book, with its tales of, and proscriptions for, peace. For them, peace looked like having their land and nation back.  It looked like God working mightily to demonstrate He was back on their side.  For the ancient Jews in exile, peace looked like self-governance, and freedom from Roman servitude.  It meant doing things their own way, and not being bothered by those pesky concerns, plans, and values of other peoples.  That’s what their peace looked like, and so long as the Romans were standing in the way of their plans, there could be no peace.  Therefore, for them, peace also looked like a lot of dead Romans.

It simply wasn’t possible for the Romans to have their version of peace, and the Judeans to also have their own version of peace at the same time –they were irreconcilable.   At least one of those versions had to go.  A sacrifice had to be made to satisfy the economy of peace.  To afford such a precious peace, there was first a cost to be paid –so let it be billed in Roman blood.  And may the God of bloody hands collect it.  May He raise up a Jewish man of great authority to cleans the people and their land, with clanging swords and a mighty vengeance.  May his courage be so powerful as to still the fears of a people quaking equally with indignation and impotence against a greater foe!  And here comes a man of such a sending and such a courage!  He’s coming over the hills, even now, riding on a colt.  Thus, let the hills, and the stones themselves, cry out!

But what about us?  What are our pictures of peace?  Can our pictures of peace sit serenely alongside the pictures of peace of other people?  Or does their picture threaten our picture?  And if their picture, just by being there, threatens your picture, what does that say about the strength of your version of peace in the first place?

You see friends, there’s a ‘to’ and a ‘from’ of peace: a peace that leads you toward something, and a peace that leads you away.   And the peace of the ancient Israelites was a negative peace: it was a picture of peace defined by being free from their enemies.  But what happens then when you remove the Romans?  You and I live in a blessed nation free from foreign powers, at least for the time being; but can we say that, in the absence of, say, fascists, we live peace?  Won’t there always be new, and more subtle threats?  From people we call terrorists, or those of different economic interests, or values, or stories?  How many enemies do we have to kill and run from before we find ourselves in peaceful territory?  Is it far enough to run home, and lock your doors?  Or will your spouse, or parents, or kids then become the ones who threaten our peace?  To fully run from everything that keeps us from peace, wouldn’t we have to just plain run from everyone?  Wouldn’t we have to delve into the solace of solitude to protect ourselves from the nagging desires and infringements of others in upon our lives?  Maybe we should all just go home, lock ourselves in our basements and communicate with the world only through social media and electronic encounters, that way any insult or trolling thrown our way will only be at our digital, and at our actual, selves?  Wouldn’t that solve it?

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’ve had periods in my life where I’ve tried that: tried sheltering myself from every threat –where I’ve sought peace from all that would threaten me, in refuge of my own room and my own head.  But I never once found peace there.  In fact, it was precisely in the dark and in the quiet that I came face-to-face with my most fearsome and terrible enemy of all.  There, hidden in the sanctuary of my loneliness, I met God, who was against me.

I don’t know about you, but in my previous imaginings of peace, I pictured myself as powerful and revered, and comfortable, and happy.  For me, peace had meant becoming the person I had wanted to be; having the things I had wanted to have, being free to do the things I had wanted to do.  Peace meant having the people I had wanted to possess –be it in friendship, competition, or romance.  In short, for me at that time, peace meant being in control.  Of myself.  Of the events of my life.  And, as much as I hate to say this aloud, it also meant having some control, or at least influence, over those around me –even the ones I had told myself I’d loved.  But time and time again, I found my plans and strivings shattered against the real-life will of God.

Because God’s narrative has always been that we are not the authors, nor the sole narrators, of our own story.  In fact, the heart of God’s narrative is that our story isn’t even our own –but our story was crafted to always be bigger.  There are always more characters to add, a more intricate setting to explore, a deeper plot-arch to uncover –than we could have ever imagined on our own.   Indeed the very presence of a solitary, directing God demands that we change the way the tension in our story is depicted.  With One God of all people, there is no ‘us vs. them’ scenario any longer: but there is only us, struggling to be ‘us’ together, more fully.

You see, brothers and sisters, this is why it’s so important to be in community.  Because, far from being threatened by our neighbors, the truth is that we can’t even be ourselves without one another.  Apart from all of the people who have hurt you and inspired you, there would be no sense of yourself.  It’s the strangest thing, but I know now that I wouldn’t even know who I am without other people continuously telling me about myself.  For example, at 12, I had thought my best, most outstanding talent, was basketball.  Until I listened to my team, my peers and my parents.  Once I started paying attention to what they were noticing about me, I came to realize, almost in spite of myself, that at that age, my most outstanding talent was actually drawing.  And maybe if I’d tried to make peace with being an art guy instead of always feeling like a failed jock, my teenage years could have probably had a much more joyous tone about them.  But instead, I took their words and laughs as violence, and I made them my enemy.  And in the process, I made an enemy out of God too.  And in my own, quiet way, I ended up adding my silence to a crowd roaring ‘crucify him.’  Because God was doing something, something big.  But I was caught up in my own tiny world instead.

So, brothers and sisters, this is my hope to you: that through Lent we listen hard to find the things that lead to peace.  It’s my conviction that, if you pay attention, there will be at least one tool to be gained here, which can open the doors of your heart to make your experience of the journey more peace-filled.  Last week, we talked about listening.  And we want you to hold on to that tool.  Keep listening to your life as God turns the page of each new day, and keep listening to the Bible as its story continues to unfold as your sacred, guiding story.

And this week, we want to make sure you’re equipped with another absolutely crucial means by which you work for peace: and that is the holy act of being community.  I know we have several here who were raised in the Catholic church, and one of the truly rich things about that tradition is their approach to what they call ‘mass.’  For Catholics, there’s something mysterious and powerful about just being together.  When you’re assembled in one place as a piece of Christ’s body, if only once a week, it’s like we’re just a little closer to having God’s peace on earth.  And then when the sacrament of Communion is shared –the holy act of being community- we actually get a chance to be plugged in to God and one another –not just here but around the world, and also with all those who went before us, and will come long after us.  It’s absolutely life-saving.  Because all of us have a hunger deep in our spirits to be a part of something bigger than ourselves.  And I don’t know of another way to truly experience that other than through corporate worship.  This time isn’t primarily about learning something new, or having a nice experience, but it’s about being strengthened and renewed as a community together.

What we do here, not just today, but every Sunday and every time we gather, is to come alive as a part of Christ’s body on earth.  It’s a chance to recharge and an awakening within God’s grander story –which does not stop at 11:10, or even when we’re dead- but rather it goes on, into eternity.  And that body, and that story, isn’t complete without you.   And it’s also not complete without all of those who aren’t here, or haven’t been included, yet.

And this is why I think we need to start telling a new story about worship.  This –right here, right now- isn’t just about getting back a particular kind of ideas or feelings, or believing a certain way; but this is about beginning to reweave our stories together again, after the week behind us, and its atmospherics, have let us drift away and apart.  After six days of flattened perspectives, and tiny, short-sighted visions of what salvation looks like, we need to be rejoined and renewed to, and with, and in the Spirit that breathes all life.  And as we come together, bringing our gifts, our energies and our stories, we will become closer to being whole, and closer to being ourselves, resting in the strength of God’s hands.