Hosanna! Save us from Self-Interest! Palm Sunday-B

Mark 11:1-11
When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

For many years, as a preacher, I have been captive to the insight that the fickle crowd who cried Hosanna at the Triumphal entry would have largely made up the crowd who cried for Jesus Crucifixion only days later. I have harped on their fickleness.
Whilst I still hold to that insight as valid, I have had my captivating lockup sprung open by considering the etymology of that interjection “Hosanna“. Reflecting on that one word, I am beginning to realise that the culturally captive crowds of Jerusalem would have almost no other way of seeing the man on the hiterto unridden colt than as the expected Saviour come to rescue them from their perceived enemies and according to their preconceived expectations.

The key lies, as I have said, in the word Hosanna which originally comes from Psalm 118:25 “Save us, we beseech you, O Lord! O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!”.
By the time of Jesus this Psalm verse had found its way into common parlance as a greeting and blessing. When one looks into the Greek version of the Old Testament the Septuagint, the word for Hosanna in Ps 118:25 is translated σῶσον δή (soson dei) which, if you don’t have Greek, means “save us”. I suppose it would be close to the Irish common usage, “God help us“, said willy nilly in conversation.
There is an interesting sidelight here. In Lent 5b last week we read of Jesus asking in John 12:27, “And what should I say—‘Father, save (SOSON) me from this hour’?”
Isn’t that strange the one thing Jesus said he wouldn’t ask of God, “Save me from this hour” is the very thing that the crowd requires of Jesus in their Hosanna-“Save us now!”?

Staying with the John passage of last week, Jesus declines to ask God to save him, he rather requests the Father to glorify his name. At face value it would seem that the Jerusalem fan parade is glorifying God’s name but they are not really. They are simply demanding their own liberation. “Save us now!

The paradox of Jesus’ life is that the glorification of God’s name is found  in the ignonimity and humiliation of the accursed one who is nailed up on a tree. It is from there that the salvation called for in the Hosanna arises.  However, this salvation is now completely redefined by the poured out life on the cross.

Which brings me to that Jerusalem flash mob and their, “God help us! God save us!”

Isn’t that the most primal prayer ever prayed?

As I write and muse, I realise that the only thing that would change in my prayer in 2012 from the prayer of the crowd is that I usually pray, “God save ME!” My Western consciousness doesn’t care much for the tribe or clan. That aside, the prayer is the same. It is the most basic form of prayer. It is an expression of self interest.

We who know this story so well, know that when the expected terms and conditions of that salvation did not materialize , the crowd turned viciously on the colt rider and had him done away with. I am not convinced we would have done any different. Except that we would probably sue Jesus first, and expose him in the tabloids as a fraud for good measure!

The question that remains for me though, is whether the crowd could have done any differently? It seems that as enculturated self interested human beings (are there any other kind?), they were only doing what it is our nature to do, they wanted to survive.
The horror of Holy Week for me is that I realise again and again that were I in that time, as I am now in mine, nothing would change. Self interest always wins.

Yet the real miracle we see in this whole Holy-Horrific week that lies before us from Palm Sunday to Easter, is how the Divine parent uses the most destructive forces of human nature, namely scapegoating and violence; as the very process of redemption.

My “Hosanna”,and my “Crucify him” screamed from the visceral core of my being, and screamed with absolutely no real understanding of what I am asking for, becomes the miraculous vocabulary with which God teaches me the meaning of unconditional love, mercy and salvation.
The cross becomes the confrontation with my self interest.
So into the horrors we go…

When I have gaped and groaned long enough at the feet of the Crucified one this Easter, I pray I will arise with a transposed cry in my heart.
Perhaps this year God will change me enough to cry out “God save them“, and “Crucify me!”

Do you suppose  those words will glorify God’s name?

Seeds of Light -Lent 5B

John 12:20-36
Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.

“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. The crowd answered him, “We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?” Jesus said to them, “The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.” After Jesus had said this, he departed and hid from them.

It’s all a little confusing.

  • Seeds falling into the dark earth, germinate and break through the soil to the light and air as new plants.
  • God speaks, and most the people who hear it explain it away as thunder.
  • The eternal Messiah turns out to be the mere mortal Son of Man, who is going to die.
  • He speaks of gathering gloom but nevertheless encourages his followers to keep moving forward while there is enough light to see the way.

It is quite confusing. Something like those Zen Koans that defy logical thinking and pause the rational mind just long enough for truth and realization to break through.

Yet when I drop all the expectations I am continually projecting onto God, when I abandon what Thomas Keating calls, “my programs for happiness”, I realise that Jesus is speaking quite plainly about plain things.

Death and life are a natural cycle through which the propogation of species occurs. There is no place for selfishness in the natural order. Little seeds packed with genetic coding cannot hold out for their own devised destiny or reward, but in the surrender of their very identity and existence they become the origin of new and verdant life. The caterpillar spins its own tomb and emerges as another being fecund with eggs to propagate life. The master dies and the disciples are thrust into being conduits of the truth he taught.

And yes, sometimes I mistake God’s voice for thunder and vice versa. That’s all right. God will speak again just as surely as cumulus nimbus forms on a summer afternoon. Just maybe, lightning will strike twice.

If my messiah were not the mere mortal, son of man he would not be able to relate to my existence, my fears and my horror about my own death. This mortal Jesus, may not be the one who delivers the political liberation expected by Israel, nor does he perform according to my whimsical prayer demands. But I will tell you what he does in his own mortal life: he sets me free by showing how to be completely human and as that human how to open completely to the divine.

It is a husk breaking, skin shedding, thunderous and dim mystery, I’ll tell you.
Sometimes all my Greek philosophy and general sophistry is of little use.  It doesn’t get me to meet Jesus.

But when I close my eyes and still my mind from all its reasoning and overthinking, I notice that I can see dimly in the dark. Just enough light to take another step closer to his divine heart.
He who hides from all my argumentation, is the very one who shines a torch in the dark labyrinth of my prayer.

Fear on a Stick – Lent 4b

John 3:14-21
And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.’

Living as I do in South Africa I have grown up around snakes. I remember as a small boy in my first year at school, living in the sub-tropical lowveld of Nelspruit . My mother spoke no Zulu, but the first word she learnt was “I’Nyogka!”.  Screamed at the top of her lungs it brought Isaac, the gardener, running with a shovel to dispense the terror. Usually a deadly black mamba or boomslang.

I was taught that snakes were to be feared, and it was only later in life that it began to seep slowly into my consciousness that snakes are probably more afraid of us than we are of them. Truth be told, when I encounter a snake today, I realise that seepage isn’t complete. There is still a powerful residue of fear.  I have believed the Christian mythology that taught me snakes are evil.

So I ask myself, why would lifting up a serpent, the symbol of evil, be healing?  Why would the Son of Man, identify with the serpent?

In the Old Testament we read that the Israelites set out from Mount Hor, where Aaron was buried, to go to the Red Sea. However they had to detour around the land of Edom (Numbers 20:21, 25). Frustrated and impatient, they complained against Yahweh and Moses (Num. 21:4-5). This is the last of the complaint stories in the Book of Numbers. Just east of Palestine, God plagued them with “fiery serpents” for their murmurs against Him. For the sake of repentant ones, Moses was instructed by God to build a serpent of bronze that was used as an instrument to heal those who looked upon it

According to Lowell K. Handy, the Nehushtan was originally the symbol of a minor god of snakebite-cure within the Temple. The name of this god is unknown, however, the use of “brazen serpent” is a subtle play on words that are based on the metal that the snake is made of: נחש (nachash) means “serpent”, while נחשת (nachoshet) means “brass” or “bronze”. (More here)

It would seem that my boyhood fear of snakes connects me with the entire human race! The fear of snakes is global.

Is it going too far then to speculate that by comparing the Crucifixion with the Nehushtan ritual of Moses, Jesus is teaching that we need to confront our fears if we want to be healed?

The conversation with Nicodemus that dark Jerusalem night was literally a life and death interaction. These were the topics on the agenda.
‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’
Jesus’ response speaks about being born from above and then he speaks of his own death in the gospel passage for this Sunday.

As primary as my ophidiophobia is the assumption that Jesus is speaking to Nicodemus about saving his soul by being “Born Again”. I was taught at my Sunday School teacher’s knee that John 3 is only about being saved.
I find myself wondering if the heart of the conversation isn’t “Salvation” as my evangelical upbringing has taught me, as much as it is Jesus confronting Nicodemus with humankind’s two greatest fears?
The fear of change, “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” and the fear of death (the ultimate change), “just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

The longer and the deeper I journey in my life as a Christ follower in the church, the more I am aware of how I resist change and how much I think of my own death and the death of the Church.

It is worth remembering that when Jesus referenced the Nehushtan ritual it had been destroyed as part of the repertoire of Jewish Liturgy. He was calling upon a practice that had been outlawed in the time of Hezekiah

2 Kings 18:4 He removed the high places, broke down the pillars, and cut down the sacred pole. He broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it; it was called Nehushtan.
Scholars suggest that this was an act of removing Egytian cultural references to endear himself to Assyria. An abortive attempt for he fell into thrall of Assyria some years later anyway. (You can delay but never fully avoid confronting your fears)

Nicodemus the scholar would have known all this background.
The fact that he had come to Jesus indicated however, that his orthodoxy was no longer serving his needs. He needed something more than the dogma of the day.

New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth,
They must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth. –  James R Lowell

In Jesus, Nicodemus found what he was seeking. One who could help him face the sum of all his fears, change and death.
It transformed Nicodemus forever. Jesus was leading Nicodemus, the Orthodox Jew to salvation, but not as Orthodox Christians may believe!

As I contemplate the gospel this week, I wonder what could become of me, if I allowed myself to see, in the Cross of Jesus, the concentrated essence of all my fears being lifted into consciousness and awareness, and then waiting patiently to see what God can do with them, and me?

Fear on a stick?  It is about salvation after all!

Cleansing the Cardiac Temple-Lent 3a

John 2:13-25

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone.

There are many, many insignts that Richard Rohr has given to the Christian world through his teaching and writing. One of them has direct bearing upon the gospel reading for Lent 3.

Even a superficial reading of this passage reveals that Jesus fails to be impressed with the temple ritual whilst at the same time being passionate about the proper reverence for the temple as a spiritual space.
The key to the passage lies in the words of the gospel writer, “But he was speaking of the temple of his body.

Richard Rohr’s insight is, “When God is seen as ‘outside‘ the sacrificial system will remain. However,when God moves inside you are the temple and sacrifice is no longer required. The only sacrifice now, is me.

What Fr. Richard in drawing attention to is the unique contribution of Jesus in “interiorizing” religion.
Large parts of the teaching of Jesus, such as those recorded in the Sermon on the Mount, are about this interior priority.
The commandments are observed by inner integrity and not by mere external compliance to a rule. That is why the entire Law can be contained in the injunction to love God and Neighbour, because this is a religious observance that originates in the heart.

By contrast, observe any Fundamentalist expression of religion and you will see an obsession with externals, usually concerned with controlling what is done with the orifices of the body!
This is not the message of Jesus.
Jesus came to challenge mere external ritualism which issues in hypocrisy when it bears no resemblance to inner motivations and does not change the heart.
External religion will always be compulisively obsessed with Prestige, Privilege, Power, Politics, Protocol, and Precedent.  These are the tables and scales of oppression that Jesus overturns.

For Jesus, the heart is the holy of holies. The core of religion from which all thoughts, words and actions overflow.

Perhaps that is why the gospel can say, “many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone.

When the heart knows, the ego will not be seduced.