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Old Testament Reading: 2 Samuel 6:1-19

New Testament Reading: Luke 19:29-46.


Have you ever tried to picture the expression, the demeanor of Jesus as he sat astride that donkey during the triumphal ride into Jerusalem? Is it likely, do you think, that he smiled and waved to the crowd, blew kisses to his fans, maybe even signed an autograph or two?

I cannot believe that he did. It would make of Jesus too comical, too trivial a character in my book. I can't imagine that he didn't see what kind of current he was riding, where the stream was taking him, despite appearances. 

I contrast Jesus with petty public officials I have occasionally seen waving to the throng in small town parades. Once I saw the annual Mount Olive North Carolina Pickle Festival parade pass through the tiny center of our microscopic town. There were a couple of guys dressed up as pickles. Here came the college girl crowned as this year's Pickle Queen. And here came various nameless public officials, sitting in the backs of convertibles or pick-up trucks, feeling fully as important, no doubt, as Jesus on donkey-back on Palm Sunday.

Only I can't imagine that Jesus felt as self-important as they did. This reminds me: the other day Carol and I were watching a report about Mr. Koresh, the self-styled Branch of David down in Waco, Texas. He thinks he's Jesus. I turned to Carol and mused aloud, "I wonder if Jesus thought he was Jesus?" Because if anyone thinks he is Jesus, it means he is crazy, a megalomaniac. And I don't think Jesus was one of those.

I can't imagine he didn't see his Warholian fifteen minutes of fame for what it was. After all, in Matthew, the townspeople of Jerusalem do not even know who he is! They have to be told, "This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth."

If you want to see a good example of the probable demeanor of Jesus in the face of a crowd's acclaim, take a look at the gravity of another Messiah, one of the current candidates for the job, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. He sits in the midst of a room crowded with Lubavitcher Hasidic Jews, whose waving arms fan him with a steady hot breeze, whose voices of adoration must come near deafening the old man in such close confines.

His reaction? He sits and takes it in, unmoved and unresponsive save for a vaguely benign silence, as if grateful for the extravagant praises of children who show their love by what they say but whose extravagances cannot be taken seriously.      

But let me speculate further. I think Jesus, on that fine morning, saw not only a crowd of fickle and naive well-wishers. I think what he saw was a crowd of tempters, a forest of Satans, each beckoning and urging, "Forsake the cross!" "Abandon the cross!" "Shun the cross!"

What else did their cries mean, but that they were welcoming him either to an assumption of royal power, or at least to the royal treatment, the red carpet rolled out for a visiting dignitary. They didn't picture him enthroned on a cross, that's for sure!

But that was, we are told, his purpose for going there, and thus he must have heard their cries as so many bum steers, so many attempts to make him veer off course. He had faced the same moment with Peter some weeks before, when he had elicited from him the confession that Jesus was God's Anointed. The Jesus had informed him, "the Son of Man must be betrayed into the hands of men, and they will condemn him and spit upon him, and end in crucifying him." What was the reaction of Peter? "God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you!"

It just wasn't the kind of thing God could possibly let happen to his Anointed King! And Jesus turned from him with scorching words: "Out of my sight, Satan! For you mind not the things of God, but rather those of men!" And now here was a whole crowd of Peters, chanting, in effect, "God forbid, Lord! This must not happen to you!"

You know the outcome: Jesus did not veer from the path: he stayed the course to Golgotha. Because if Peter didn't understand that he had to die, and if the crowd of supporters lining the road to Jerusalem didn't understand it, there was one disciple who understood quite well, or well enough, at any rate.

It was Judas, Judas who had made all the arrangements and who even came to meet him at the departure point to kiss him good-bye. Thanks to him, Jesus completed his assigned course. He was faithful unto death and so received the crown of life.

I have been considering the fabric of the Passion story as we see it finally woven into a tapestry. But now let me step back and look closer at a few of the colored threads that make it up.

First, the very notion that Jesus entered Jerusalem for the express purpose of dying, and that he had even predicted it and wouldn't get out of his fate when he had the chance. Are these historical facts? I do not know. I don't think there is a way to know.

But one thing I am pretty confident of is that the way leading to the cross cannot have seemed so clearly to be the way to the cross. Perhaps Jesus and his entourage were simply headed to Jerusalem for the same reason everyone around them were: to attend the Passover festival.

And then, having been out of the city for some years, he was shocked to see the way things were in the temple and spontaneously wreaked havoc there. Or maybe Brandon was right, that Jesus was actually trying to seize control of the Temple in an attempted coup. I don't know.

In any case he wound up paying the price a few days later. He died, and once he had died, his followers couldn't believe it had been mere bad luck. Worse yet, it simply wasn't possible that their master had made a stupid mistake.

You know how they feel. You can't chalk up a tragedy to blind chance, either. Even less can you stand admitting that you brought it on yourself. So you look for the hand and the plan of God. "There must be a reason for it."

That's what the early Christians concluded, too, and in retrospect they inferred that if this were truly the plan of God, then God's son must have been apprised of it, and must have been dedicated to seeing it through.

Do you see what is happening here? The past, in this case, the events leading up to the cross, is being given new meaning in light of the present. In light of the final outcome. And had things broken differently, the past would have retroactively turned out to mean something else. God's plan would then retroactively have come to be something quite ­different­. Here is another example.

Look at the roles of Peter, Judas, and Satan. Have you ever noticed that the four gospels differ over whether Satan wanted Jesus to be crucified or not? In Luke and John, Judas betrays Jesus because "Satan entered into him" and impelled him to do the deed. Satan must have wanted Jesus dead. But in Mark and Matthew, Judas is simply said to be greedy. Satan is not behind his actions at all. He is busy elsewhere: he speaks through Peter's mouth when Peter tries to dissuade Jesus from being crucified, as we saw a moment ago; "God forbid, Lord! This shall not happen to you!" "Get behind me, Satan!" Satan wants him to avoid the cross at all costs, presumably because he knows it will pry all those souls out of his reptilian grasp.

Interestingly, in Luke and John, where Judas is said to be possessed by Satan, Peter is ­not­ called Satan. What we have here is two different versions of the events leading up to the cross. The past was repainted in different colors depending on whether you viewed the death of Jesus as a good thing (the plan of salvation) or a bad one (an attempt to eliminate him), though a bad one turned around.

What possible relevance can these deliberations have for you? Much in every way!, as Paul would say. For what is true in the writing and rewriting of the gospel story is equally true in your own life. You are in a constant process of rewriting the story of your life, of your past, every time current events cast a new light on your past. Isn't it true? Depending on what happens today, you may look back on the same decision as either a fatal misstep or the smartest thing you ever did! "That's where I went wrong!" Or "That was where it all began for me!"

And as clearly as it seems one way now, new events may turn the same point in the past into the very opposite tomorrow!

Was God smiling on you when you met that friend or that mate, or when you took that job? Or was it a day of ill-omen that you wish now you'd spent safely under the bed covers? You see, it wasn't "really" one or the other! You will see your past different every time the present puts you at a new vantage point to view it from!

We are every one of us like Winston Smith in his cubbyhole, constantly rewriting history from the standpoint of party dogma today. The past is malleable. Your past is a constantly reedited and heavily censored story of what happened. The past varies with the present. And the future varies with the past! Here is a great danger. What you believe to be your past, your past life as re-edited from your present standpoint, controls your future! We all seem to let what we have and have not done before set the limits for what we can do in the future

We consider a new task, a challenge or a hope, and we look back at the past (as we now see it anyway) and we shake our head and say, "I don't see any evidence, based on past performance, that I would be up to the job! I just can't see myself improving, making the grade, achieving my dream. Why? Because I don't see myself having done anything of the kind before."

We just don't believe in the old adage, "There's always a first time." We don't think there can be. But we have forgotten two things. There was a first time when we failed. There was a first time when things went wrong. Why can't there be a first time for success? For things to go right?

The other thing we have forgotten is that there probably was also a first time, and maybe several others when things did go pretty well! How can we be blind to this?

Because we are possibly still feeling the ache of a recent disappointment. And this pain has caused a quick rewrite of our past as a downward slide into failure, a unidirectional nose-dive. To make it look that way we had to ignore and forget a lot of things.

Our dark present made our past look dark, our failure as inevitable, a tragic fate decreed by God. The present has deformed the past, and the vengeful past threatens to strangle the future in its womb.

You won't have any trouble seeing this once the clouds break and things start turning out well again. Then those good memories of a brighter past will begin to cautiously emerge like the hibernating animals returning after the spring thaw.

But from where you are now, in the dark, in the shadow of your own cross, it is not so easy to see. You must look for those suppressed facts, you must believe against the pessimistic propaganda of the present moment that deep within you is the evidence that you can again succeed, deep inside are the resources by which you will again prevail.

This is what faith is. It is seeing what is hidden, remembering what you once knew even when your despair has done its best to suppress, to censor, and to destroy it. Faith is holding fast to the hope of change for the better even when there is as yet no sign of it on the horizon.

Look at it this way: if you are a worrier, you have no doubt started fearing the worst even when nothing, no circumstance in your life warranted it! Even when things looked good, you didn't have any trouble imagining that the bad was on its way, against all appearances, and sure enough: you were right! Maybe your pessimism even helped it come true!

Well, why can't it work in reverse? In precisely the same way, though things look grim right now, I am asking you to insist on believing that things will turn again and get brighter.

And I am suggesting that doing this is the first and the most important step in seeing that they do turn around. Your stubborn faith will take the future in hand and bring life out of death.

Jesus smelled death in the air even when a cheering crowd surrounded him, and just as surely he knew the Easter lilies must be coming to bloom outside his tomb, in Joseph of Arimathea's garden, even though all he could smell inside was his own charnel stench. He chose to disregard what then surrounded him and determined to win through to the life unseen on the other side.   

That's what I'm asking you to do.




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