Sermon preached on Matthew 21:1-11 for Palm/Passion Sunday, April 9, 2017 at Lutheran Church of the Atonement, Florissant, MO
What is your image of God? It’s not a question we ask ourselves or each other very often. It doesn’t come up at the water cooler at work, or even around the dinner table at home. But it’s a vital question because as I read in my devotions recently, we become our image of God.
This is the same question being asked by the people of Jerusalem as Jesus makes his triumphal entry on a donkey. “Who is this? Who is Jesus?” Matthew reports that the whole city of Jerusalem was in turmoil over this question and with good reason. Jesus is not just “a prophet from Nazareth in Galilee,” but Jesus reveals the character and nature of God. So, what image of God does Jesus’ life reveal? We join the crowds in Jerusalem asking, “Who is this?”
Does Jesus reveal an image of God who is the judge and punisher of our sins, a God who makes sure we get our just desserts, and lets us blame people for their own misfortune? If not, those of us who think we are righteous are disappointed.
Is Jesus the morality police who condemns those who don’t behave according to strict moral codes so that, “we are in, those ‘others’ (whoever those ‘others’ are for us) are out?” If not, the arrogant religious are humbled as we stand on level ground with all sinners.
Does Jesus embody an image of God as the apex of power who will defeat the Roman Empire and make Israel (or America today) #1? If not, then those among us who want a political messiah are thwarted, and violence is not justified.
Does Jesus reveal a God who is absent—an old man with a beard in the sky who does not care about us personally? Does this far-off God “watch us from a distance,” (as the unfortunate lyrics of that Bette Midler songgo) as if our lives don’t matter? If not, the powerful who oppress others stand accused, for our behavior matters, and the lowly are raised up.
Does Jesus show us an image of God who is a perfectionist who demands the same from us? A God who says that salvation is all up to us and you’d better hop to it because you’re on your own? If not, then the agitators and activists are brought down from their high horse.
Who is this Jesus? Everyone in Jerusalem is disappointed, for they are not getting the God they wanted. Perhaps neither are we. Is this why the crowd who cried “Hosanna to the Son of David” shouted “crucify him!” just a few days later? Because in Jesus, they did not get the God they wanted?
When I was in chemotherapy for breast cancer 9 years ago, I was angry at God. I have never known such a depth of physical suffering combined with a dark night of the soul. I was plastered to the bed for 5 months of chemotherapy, I was on disability for 9 months and couldn’t take care of my family. I didn’t want Jesus to suffer with me, I wanted him to take my suffering away!I did not get the God I wanted.
We are so disappointed that Jesus is not the God we want, that we put God to death in the end, even death on a cross. I confess that I am guilty.
But isn’t it in this death, that Jesus reveals who God really is? God’s image and character become clear—God is One who suffers on behalf of the world God made. Jesus reveals the length, the width, the height, the depth, (as Ephesians 3 says). Jesus reveals the expanse of God’s love in that suffering, so that in our suffering we might meet God there, and embrace a relationship with the One who called us into being and loves us no matter what.
It took time, but eventually the Spirit enabled me to see God in the midst of my suffering:
• in the dinners people prepared for us;
• in the Moms who picked up and dropped off my 3 kids for their basketball, soccer, and baseball practices;
• in my parents, 2 sisters and 2 girlfriends, all who lived out of state, who took their vacation time to stay with us and help my family;
• in the cards so numerous I could have wall-papered the bathroom;
• in the prayers that so many offered on my behalf;
I could go on and on and on about the ways God showed up in my suffering.
One thing becomes clear: there is no glorification of ourselves in this God who suffers with us, and for us, and alongside us. We do not get to be more righteous, more powerful, more moral, more favored, or more perfect, more holy than anyone else, than any other country, than any other community or group. The truth of who we are is exposed in Jesus’ suffering; all we can do is receive the unfathomable love of our God, and respond with our whole life, trusting that God never allows the cross and its suffering to be the end of the story.
For the character of this God who suffers, is also and always to bring new life, new birth, new joy, indeed, resurrection out of suffering. Through our relationship with Jesus, God asks us to participate with him in bringing love, healing, renewal, hope and resurrection to all people.
Last week, a pastor serving in northern Illinois asked me to go to a local hospital and visit the niece of her parishioner, who has breast cancer. She’s 30 years old with children ages 2 and 5. She had the same stage cancer that I did, the same surgery. She looked at me and said, “It’s so good to see you got through this; it gives me hope.” In fact, all my pastoral visits have been qualitatively different since cancer, because people know that I know their suffering. People know that I know what it’s like to be in the hospital bed rather than standing at the bedside. Only a God who suffers can give this hope, when all I did was show up. That is the character of God – to bring comfort, love and hope to others through our redeemed suffering. It’s not about us, but what God can do through us.
We become our image of God. So lean in to the passion story this Holy Week, and this God who suffers on our behalf. As you receive the body and blood of Christ at Communion, hear the story that through Jesus, you know that God knows you and your suffering.
When we receive the unfathomable love of God and we say “yes” to this God who invites us into an intimate relationship, then we can ask new questions. Instead of “Who is this Jesus?” We can ask, “Who is Jesus shaping me to be through my own redeemed suffering?” And “To whom is God using me to bring comfort, love and hope because they need to know that you know their suffering? There are people who need to know that you know. That is your passion story, because it makes it possible for them to know that God knows their suffering, too.
So Jesus’ passion story continues through our passion stories as we join him in making real the love and presence of this amazing resurrection God.
Image: Jesus Dies on the Tree by Jyoti Sahi; Jyoti Art Ashram, North Bangalore, India