(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on March 20, 2016)
Movies do a great job of giving visual details to help us understand who is who in a movie.
In some cases, the details even work within the movies to help someone discover their identity. Disney’s Tangled is a newer version of the classic tale of Rapunzel. We know from the beginning of the movie that Rapunzel is the lost princess who has been kidnapped by a woman who is using the magical powers of Rapunzel’s hair. But in a scene of dawning recognition of who she is, it’s when Rapunzel holds a cloth with the Kingdom’s insignia of the sun that everything starts to come together for her. Watch.
Pixar movies are actually really good for things like this. In the first Toy Story movie, Andy has a next door neighbor who tortures toys, named Sid.
He’s pretty creepy, and from a toy’s perspective he’s a horrible villain. In Toy Story 3, Andy is all grown up and heading off to college, but a lot of people miss that Sid makes an appearance, too…as a garbage man.
The detail of the skull shirt is right there to tell us who he is, and it’s a great little joke.
Of course if you know me, you would know that I love to work in a “Lord of the Rings” reference any chance I get. Near the end of the 11+ hours you invest in the movies, there’s a scene where Aragorn is crowned King.
He’s re-establishing a long lost kingdom, and one of the great touches is that he is wearing the actual armor that the founding King, Elendil, wore thousands of years before.
We saw the armor at the very beginning of the movie in the prologue, and it’s a nice touch to see the same armor reappear. It’s a symbol for us as the ones watching, and if you sort of let yourself be invested in the world of the movie, it’s a way Aragorn is intentionally claiming an identity with something from long ago, wearing something with history and symbolic meaning that the people he’s now going to govern would know and understand.
Today is Palm Sunday, where we remember Jesus entering Jerusalem to cheering crowds.
In a very similar way, there are all kinds of signs in this event of who Jesus is, all kinds of little clues that help the crowd and us as readers see that Jesus is intentionally connecting with symbols from the past to make a claim to his identity as the Messiah, as the chosen one of God.
Turn with me to John 12:12, and follow along as I read this.
The next day the great crowd that had come for the festival heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting,
‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’
‘Blessed is the king of Israel!’
Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, as it is written:
‘Do not be afraid, Daughter Zion;
see, your king is coming,
seated on a donkey’s colt.’ (John 12:12-15, TNIV)
Many of the details here tie back to Zechariah 9: the location on the Mount of Olives, Jesus riding on a donkey. But there are also several references to Psalm 118, details that help us to realize Jesus is seen as God’s saving one, God’s salvation. Keep your place in John, because we’re going to do a comparison, but turn to Psalm 118: 19 [READ vs. 19-29]
Open for me the gates of the righteous;
I will enter and give thanks to the LORD.
This is the gate of the LORD
through which the righteous may enter.
I will give you thanks, for you answered me;
you have become my salvation.
The stone the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
the LORD has done this,
and it is marvelous in our eyes.
The LORD has done it this very day;
let us rejoice today and be glad.
LORD, save us!
LORD, grant us success!
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD.
From the house of the LORD we bless you.
The LORD is God,
and he has made his light shine on us.
With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession
up to the horns of the altar.
You are my God, and I will praise you;
you are my God, and I will exalt you.
Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;
his love endures forever. (Psalm 118:19-29, TNIV)
You can see the connections quite clearly. In verse 25 of the Psalm, we read “Lord, save us!” That’s a translation of the Hebrew word “Hosanna!”, which is exactly what the crowd yells on Palm Sunday. Verse 26 has “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” and we hear that on Palm Sunday as well.
Down in v. 27, “with boughs in hand, join in the festal procession”…perfectly describes what happens on Palm Sunday. This isn’t coincidence any more than the movie examples I gave are coincidence. Jesus and the crowd and John, the gospel writer, know Zechariah, know Psalm 118, and they are each intentionally playing this out to make sure everybody sees the connections, sees the identity. He’s claiming the kingship of David as the Saving One.
Of course there’s only one problem, and we say it each year on Palm Sunday.
We often talk about how the crowds got it right that Jesus was a king, but they got it wrong about what kind of king he was. Even with all the careful connections and details that show everyone is dialed in, Jesus is also intentionally connecting with other identity passages in the Old Testament. These are going to show in the Holy Week that is to come, as Jesus intentionally marches toward the cross.
Along with Psalm 118 and Zechariah 9, passages that most Jews at the time associated with Messiah or the coming King, Jesus also models his life’s mission around the suffering servant themes in Isaiah. At the time, it seems that most Jews didn’t see these as describing the Messiah or the coming King. Rather, they saw the suffering as symbolic of the suffering of the entire nation of Israel.
But Jesus sees those suffering passages of Isaiah as part of his mission. This vision began with the temptations in the wilderness, before Jesus began his public ministry. Jesus realizes that any claims to power, to influence, to overcoming by political or military might…any of those things are temptations from his real mission to sacrifice and suffer on our behalf.
This has become really key to me in understanding Jesus and what it means to be a Christ follower. And not in the sense that Jesus came for a “spiritual mission” and not a “political one”. But rather, that the key to true power, power as God has woven it into the world, is not grasping at strength, not riding popularity to overthrow; true, redemptive power comes from obedient, sacrificial suffering.
I think the very clearest place the bible talks about this (aside, of course, from the most powerful fact that Jesus chose suffering and dying rather than conquering with power) is in Philippians 2. I’ve long loved this part of the bible; in fact, this section was what I chose as the basis for the very first sermon I ever gave. Turn with me to Philippians 2:5-11.
In your relationships with one another, have the same attitude of mind Christ Jesus had:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a human being,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death–
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:5-11, TNIV)
What I love about this part of Philippians is that it doesn’t let us off the hook.
If we are tempted to think that this way of suffering, this way of the cross was just for Jesus because he had to do the spiritual work of our forgiveness; if we are tempted to think that we might be free to separate out politics and power from spirituality, as if we might think we could choose the Palm Sunday power option now that Jesus did the hard work of the cross…Philippians doesn’t let us off the hook.
“Have the same attitude of mind Christ Jesus had…” This is our calling, our direction, our mission as well.
The progression Jesus goes through is interesting and counter-cultural, against the grain. On Palm Sunday crowds celebrate him. It’s his biggest political moment, and yet that’s when he chooses to go the way of suffering and obedience. Philippians says God’s exaltation comes after the humbling, after the service.
I’ll be blunt and say that I think the message for us from Palm Sunday is to learn, like Jesus, not to be swayed by popularity and power.
So much in life pushes us to find reasons to listen to the crowd or to the cry for power in our gut. But I think it wasn’t just Jesus who needed to reject the common interpretations of how he should come with power and kick the Romans out; I think we need to follow his example and do the same.
Looking back at Psalm 118, there’s an image I want to use to give us a picture to aim for. Rather than think of Jesus doing something for us that helps us go into eternal life, I want us to think of Jesus himself as the gate to a new way of living…a way that is modeled after his life. Look again with me at Psalm 118:20:
This is the gate of the Lord through which the righteous may enter.
I want to suggest Jesus is that gate. Sometimes we think of “the gate” as something that Jesus opened to make the way into heaven. But I read the gospels, and Philippians, in a way that forces me to grapple with Jesus himself being the strength and the example to help me resist the temptations of power and the crowd. I hear Jesus asking me to follow his example of suffering and sacrifice.
This isn’t easy. I remember vividly how radical this seemed to me when I first was wrestling with it in college. I was reading all this Quaker stuff that was new to me, and really struggling with what I was reading. Many early Quakers had such dedication to the way of the cross that it led them to a life of peacemaking, rejecting war and violence.
I wasn’t sure if that was workable or feasible in the world we live in. And then I watched a movie that changed the question for me. I was thinking again this week, as we are getting ready to enter Holy Week, about this movie The Mission. It honestly became life changing, and I still love it.
For those who haven’t seen it, here’s the short synopsis. The movie takes place in South America, where Jesuit priests risk their lives to bring the message of Jesus Christ to a native tribe known as the Guarani. Political disputes between Portugal and Spain cause the Cardinal to order the Jesuits to abandon the mission and send the Guarani back to the jungle, a decision which will allow Portugal to begin enslaving them again.
This causes a classic moral conflict: should the Jesuits fight with the Guarani against the Spanish army for the obviously right moral cause? Robert DeNiro’s character, Rodrigo Mendoza, wants to fight. But Jeremy Irons’ character, Father Gabriel, believes something more important is at stake. Watch this scene.
This raised issues I hadn’t thought about at the time.
Everything in me wanted to stand up for what was so obviously right. But this idea from Father Gabriel, that dying with blood on his hands would ruin everything they had worked for…it challenged me to think that perhaps using power, even for a right cause, might go against God’s nature of love.
What really worked to challenge me with this movie is that neither option “works.” Those like Mendoza who choose to fight are killed and defeated. The few who stayed with Father Gabriel, who just protested with their presence and participated in worship while they were attacked…they all were killed too.
It changed the question for me. My question had always been, “What works in this world we live in?” When NOTHING works, a new question is raised. Rather than what works, the question becomes: “What choices most reflect and exemplify the character of God?”
This is what pulls us back to Philippians and Psalm 118. Did Jesus just open a gate for us, or is Jesus the gate we walk through, and is he the one who shapes our lives? Was Jesus unique in his mission to bring salvation, or is his life a model for our attitudes and actions?
I don’t claim this is easy, or that all will agree.
But on this day where we remember that Jesus chose to see the crowd’s cheering as a temptation, on this Palm Sunday were we remember Jesus wouldn’t become the conquering king they wanted him to be…I want to challenge us to think how power and crowds push us to embrace power actions that are not in keeping with Jesus’ example of the cross. I want to challenge us to a life of sacrifice and obedience, to be people who reflect God’s character.