Defining Moments: Jesus In Triumph & Tragedy

Mark 11:1-11; 15:25-32

Palm Sunday, March 29, 2015

At the end of the American Revolution, great unrest existed among the original thirteen colonies and their leaders. While they had won the war over the British, the infant America was finding it difficult to live out the guiding principles of a republic in its day-to-day affairs. In short, the thirteen independent colonies were struggling to operate as one when it came to financial responsibilities and to making unified decisions.

In the midst of the unrest, one of George Washington’s officers, a man by the name of Lewis Nicola, wrote his general a very famous letter on May 22, 1782. Nicola pointed out that all of the issues now befalling the young republic were proof positive that the idea of a true democracy was a wonderful idea and dream but was at the same time impossible to bring about in real life. Nicola instead suggested that what America really needed was a good, honest and trustworthy king. Further, Nicola had someone in mind that he felt should fill these shoes – George Washington himself.

Many historians suggest that Nicola may not have been alone in his sentiments. Rather, the frustrations of the day may have made the idea of King George I of America an appealing idea to many. But, George Washington himself refused to take the bait. Instead, that very same day, Washington wrote back to Nicola and reminded him that his suggestion went against the very heart of the cause that they had just spent their lives fighting to achieve.  Amazingly, the passion and fervor of Washington’s reply led Lewis Nicola to write three different letters of apology to his General over the next several days.

This episode is a fascinating moment from our history as a man who perhaps could have been king refused the chance. It may have been a popular idea among his peers, but, for George Washington, the idea went against his own nature and his deep held beliefs. In turn, he refused to betray what he believed to simply bow down to the popular belief of others. (From the PBS.org entry, “Rediscovering George Washington: Letter to Lewis Nicola)

In essence, we see Jesus doing something very, very similar over the course of the days from Palm Sunday until Good Friday. What I mean by that statement is that the Palm Sunday crowd who cheered Jesus as he came into Jerusalem riding on a colt had far different expectations of Jesus from who and what he proved himself to be on Good Friday.

When Jesus arrived in Jerusalem to much fanfare, many if not most in the crowd believed that he had finally come to be the Messiah of their dreams and expectations. They believed that he was coming into Jerusalem as other leaders had done in the past, on parade, as a conquering hero. In their mind, he was there to exert his power, to overthrow the Romans, to free the Israelites from the control of a foreign government and to set up his earthly rule. They were most certainly waving branches at King Jesus, but it was the King Jesus of their dreams that they were affirming.

Interestingly, this Jesus of their dreams prevented them from the Jesus of reality. In the past, Jesus had tried to help them to understand that he had come to serve not to be served. He had tried to help them to see that he had come to bring forth the spiritual Kingdom of God and not the political Kingdom of Israel.

Even in his entry into Jerusalem, he had tried to be honest about who he was. After all, he came into town riding a colt or a donkey depending on which gospel you read. Either animal was a symbol of lowliness, humility and servant hood. Jesus didn’t come into town on a stallion, he came on a colt. Some commentators have said it this way – Jesus did not come driving a tank, he came riding on a tractor.

Yet, despite his best efforts, few if any understood.

Throughout Lent this year, we have been talking about decisions and particularly the decisions that Jesus made during these defining moments of the last days and hours of his life. Today’s text is no different. In that moment, the people of Jerusalem were ready to follow Jesus. They were ready to give their lives over to him completely and fully. It is a strong possibility that in that moment, Jesus could have become who they wanted him to be and have avoided the cross. But, Jesus refused to take the bait; he refused to be who others wanted him to be that he might remain faithful to whom God the father had called him to be.

Let me say that again for all of our benefit. Jesus refused to take the bait and become who others wanted him to be that he might remain faithful to whom God the father had called him to be.

This decisive, defining decision of Jesus comes with both comfort and a challenge for all of us here today on Palm Sunday. The comfort is in knowing that Jesus’ actions remind us that God refuses to change. Just as the people couldn’t change Jesus, neither can we. Just as their palms, cheers and aspirations couldn’t take Jesus off of his path; neither can the actions of our lives. What I am reminding each of us of is the simple truth that the heart of God, which resolves to love us, to be gracious to us and to keep us, will not be deterred. God will not cower to popular opinion. God will not cave in to others or their opinions, feelings or whims. God will be who God has resolved to be and that is to our great good fortune. In essence, God the Father’s unwillingness in Jesus to be who others wanted him to be, frees you and I to have the potential to be all that we can be.

That is the comforting word here but there is also a challenging word. The challenge word is found in allowing the actions of Jesus to call into question our own actions in similar situations. How often do we cower to public opinion? How often are the actions of our lives dictated by who we believe others want us to be rather than by whom we in our heart of hearts want to be? How much of our lives are lived and how many of our decisions are made merely out of our desire to please others rather than to remain true to ourselves.

The actions of Jesus here are so challenging for the truth is that it is much, much easier in this life to simply cave into public opinion than it is to live with great courage each and every day while remaining true to what we believe in the very fiber of our being.

Every college has a few famous graduates and mine was no exception. One quite well known Samford alum graduated some twenty years before I arrived on campus. When I came as a student, however, there were two or three older professors that I had classes with who had also had this famous figure year before as a student. Occasionally, when the well-known person’s name came up, it was obvious that they, his former teachers, were not nearly as enamored with him as most people were. Over time, we all came to understand why this was the case. Evidently, when this person had been a student there, he had show tremendous promise, intelligence and maturity. He had been very committed to some guiding life principles that really inspired him and that led to the admiration of his teachers. Yet, as time went on and as he matured, he realized that some of these same principles were not popular and not likely to win him key friends or help him influence the right people. Slowly, haphazardly and over time, he worried less about what he believed that he might capitalize on what was most popular. In the end, the observation of these older professors’ was that while he had succeeded in the eyes of many, he had failed deeply where it matter most, which is when it came to being true to himself.

In 1998, children’s author David Shannon wrote a book that I love called A Bad Case of the Stripes. If you have read the book or if you have enjoyed it with your children then you know that it is about a little girl named Camilla Cream who loves lima beans. Camilla though is afraid that if she admits to her friends that she loves lima beans they will only laugh at her and she will not fit in. Camilla just wants to blend in with everyone else. But, her decision to be like everyone else has terrible consequences. Once she refuses to be herself, she comes down with the stripes. And, as the old saying goes, her stripes literally change at anyone’s command. No one can figure out what is wrong with Camilla even though countless experts are brought in to visit the little girl. That is, until one day, when an elderly lady arrives with Lima Beans. Her encouragement is that if Camilla will simply eat what she loves no matter what anyone else thinks, she will be healed of her stripes. Though strange medicine, the elderly lady’s advice works like a charm.

Jesus offers the world the same exact medicine. Jesus healed the world, by remaining himself and choosing the cross not Israelite kingship. In so doing, Jesus also reminds us that life’s best medicine involves resisting every whim of the world that we might follow our heart and what at the very core of our being we know to be true. Amen.