THE SHOCK OF CHRISTIANITY
In the name of God; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. AMEN.
When you were a child, did you hear the story of Noah and the Ark? Weren’t you relieved when you heard the part about God setting a rainbow in the sky, promising that God would never go to such an extreme again? Did you hear the story of Jesus feeding thousands of hungry people with a few loaves of pita and a couple of fish? That was comforting. I knew that in case I was caught in a tight spot, I knew who I wanted to have with me. And had I realized Jesus’ power over thunderstorms sooner, maybe I could have slept more easily as a child in thunder-stormy, springtime Oklahoma.
I never really expected anything too bad to happen when I was a child. Maybe my comfort came from knowing that Jesus loved little children and feeling it was a safe universe.
What I learned about God as a child taught me to think of Jesus as safe refuge. I don’t think I had problems when I was a kid, but I knew if one came up, Jesus would protect me. In a sense, that is the kind of innocent mindset I think many of the people in Jerusalem had on Palm Sunday, especially those who weren’t in the inner circle or in the know.
The people who gathered to spread their garments and wave palm branches in front of Jesus had heard a messiah was coming to save them, to restore the people of Israel to their rightful place as rulers of nations. At the time, stories were circulating about Jesus, his teaching and healing, the many wonderful deeds he had done. Perhaps there was less and less to fear from the powerful Roman authorities or righteous chief priests.
Look! There he was, coming down the road right into the center of Jerusalem on a donkey, as the prophet had predicted. A savior was coming to fight for them and to protect them. For generations they had been taught to have high expectations when the Messiah came. This appeared to be the one! Everything was going to be made right. They were hopeful, as confident and as expectant as a child would be.
In our setting, there has long been the tradition of referring to Christ as the Lamb of God. The phrase sounds normal to our ears. It does not surprise us. However, to those who were expecting the descendant of King David to roar into power like the King of the beasts of the jungle, the title “Lamb of God,” would have been utterly shocking and nonsensical. They pictured a leader who would be a roaring lion, not a little lamb.
We are never prepared to have our expectations dashed, and the first disillusionments are perhaps the hardest. Things happen. Life takes sudden turns and sometimes on a sunny day, clouds gather. A star-struck, fanatical crowd can turn into an angry mob.
Paul Harvey called this, “The rest of the story.” If you’re lucky, you weren’t a child when you started to find out “the rest of the story,” though some of us were.
If you live long enough without a cloudy day of your own, you will see other people have dark days. It will probably look pretty scary, even from the outside. If you go to church or you are a student of the Bible, you will hear warnings (none much louder than the one you hear today) that a day might come when you can’t, or it won’t be easy to, get up in the morning and face another day.
How long do you think Jesus knew he had a dark day coming? Scholars think Jesus was 30 years old when he was baptized by John the Baptist and the Holy Spirit descended upon him. We think Jesus lived one to three years after his baptism until he was killed. If it was at baptism, when the voice of the Lord said, “This is my son, the beloved, with him I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17), that Jesus became fully aware of who he was and what he was called to do, then he felt the dark day of crucifixion coming for a year or more.
When he had the whole picture maybe he started to understand a little more. Maybe all of the times in the past he felt different from his brothers and his friends started to make some kind of sense to him.
As we get the whole story, life is often more difficult. A rich young man who had carefully followed the ten commandments had heard of Jesus and came wanting to follow him. Jesus said, “Go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor … then come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21). Wow. I bet that was more than the rich young man was expecting to be asked to do! I know it’s more than I was expecting when I was in the early stages of my Christian journey. It turned out that faith did not take the road I thought we would take.
Jesus kept giving this kind of instruction, which sounds simple to a child, and more complex later in life. Oh. Christianity is not as easy as I first thought. And life. Life is not as easy as I first thought, either. Nothing ever is what you first think it is going to be, is it?
When we are faced with difficulty, we respond instinctually until we learn another way. Eons of evolution have taught us that there are two responses, either: fight or flight. That was our evolutionary survival mechanism.
However, Jesus’ advice was to: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). That’s an acquired skill.
That’s not a fight or flight survival mechanism. That’s something else entirely. That changes the paradigm. Surely that is what God intends, to rid the world of evil? The only way to stop the pattern of repeating evil is to forgive.
The father of John the Baptist said to his son, the one who would baptize Jesus:
“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins” (Luke 1:76,77).
Salvation by forgiveness of sins. We are saved by forgiveness.
Sisters and brothers, forgiveness is the answer. Jesus is the example. On the cross Jesus proves that nothing is beyond forgiveness and personifies God’s way of dealing with evil.
It is not the way we expect. It is the unexpected, unpredicted way.
To be conformed to the pattern of the death of Jesus means sharing in the perspective from the cross where God saved human history from a marginalized position.
When evil is forgiven, it is transformed. By faith in the Christianity we have grown to understand, rather than the one we would prefer, we are powerfully transformed as well.
It is not the way we expect.
It is the unexpected, unpredicted way that leads to eternal salvation.
“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).