“Wave your flag, but DON’T touch the treasury!” Palm Sunday

 

Matthew 21:1-11

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Crowds are fickle.  Watch the supporters of any professional sports franchise and you will see. When the team is winning the stadiums are full, when the team hits a losing streak, the gate monies diminish.

Be they political supporters, pop idol followers, or sports fans; crowds are at their best when they are cheering on a winner.

Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey was a public relations winner.  The messiah hungry crowd witnessed and interpreted the arrival as it was cast in the all the old testament trappings and nuances of a royal arrival to the capital.  This was a hero’s welcome.  This was the Jerusalem equivalent of a ticker tape parade, or a coronation cavalcade.

The mystery that confronts me every time I reflect on this passage however, is how quickly this crowd in Jerusalem changes their mind and their allegiance.  If we follow the liturgical sequence and timing, which may not be quite the lost historical schedule, we have Jesus the victor on Palm Sunday and Jesus the villain by Thursday night!  That is a serious drop in the ratings! I doubt Charlie Sheen nor Tiger Woods could top that!

What could Jesus possibly have done in one week that so disillusioned his supporters that they turned on him, called for a criminal in his place, and were happy to see him killed?

Perhaps the key to understanding this falling away lies in what Jesus does when he gets inside Jerusalem.  He goes and overthrows the tables of the money lenders in the temple.

I remember reading somewhere that at the time of Jesus, almost the whole economy of the temple was based upon the temple and its sacrificial system.  The buying and selling of sacrificial animals, and the forex generated by changing money into the exclusive temple currency.  The religious industry was what made Jerusalem work economically.

If you ask me as a white South African, who has lived long enough to be immersed in Apartheid for 37 years of my life and the New South Africa for the balance (since 1994),  “What ended Apartheid?” I would tell you what brought the Apartheid regime to the negotiation table was primarily economics. The sanction blockade enforced by the global community made the old ways unworkable.  What is important not to forget is that at the heart of that sanctions campaign was a diminutive, ever smiling Archbishop named Desmond Tutu.  If the Apartheid rulers could have crucified him they would have!  You challenge my treasury at your peril.  Hadn’t the Nazareth Rabbi said it, “Where your treasure is, your heart will be also”?

The arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem, turned out to be, not the arrival of a club member who would endorse the status quo and conform to the messianic agenda formulated by the stakeholders; but rather emerged to be the arrival of a table turning radical, who had justice at his core. Once that realization dawned, assassination and not worship was on the agenda.

A Jesus who “refuses to be an insider but who always sides with the outsider”, as Richard Rohr puts it, will always upset our carefully laid economic tables and status quo scenarios.

I have some understanding for the fickle crowd.  I have felt their vacillation in my own heart.  The real, radical Jesus, from time to time, evokes deep visceral anger in my carefully crafted concepts. At these moments of challenge I could gladly do away with him.

It is at times like those, with Jesus upturning my values and attitudes, that I fight hard to remember the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “The truth will set you free, as Jesus said.  But first it will make you very angry!”

Angry enough to kill?

Paper, rock, scissors: water, Spirit, fire – Baptism of Jesus C

Luke 3:15-22
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, added to them all by shutting up John in prison.
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

“Paper, rock, scissors: Water, Spirit, Fire?
Is it a new team selection game? The kind you use on the playground when you have to decide who gets to choose first?
It may sound that way, and it is about making choices, but this is certainly no game.

John the Baptizer had raised the expectations of a nation disillusioned with rote religion. They were weary of a religion that justified and supported the status quo by diplomatic expediency so as to continue operating under the peace of Roman domination, the Pax Romana. People were hungry for justice and freedom. They were looking for a liberating leader and hoped that John was the one.

Those of us who participated in the transition of South Africa from Apartheid to Democracy in the nineteen eighties and nineties, will remember just how volatile and pregnant that longing can be. Ego drives and character assassinations were the dynamics of the day as one leader after another jostled and jockeyed for dominance in the flux of expectation.

Unfortunately there were only a few of the ilk of a Desmond Tutu who could detach their own ego driven greed and say, say as John the Baptist did, “There is another coming.
For South Africa, the coming one was Madiba, known to the world as Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, who on his release ended the jockeying and led South Africa through a bloodless and miraculous transition.
For Israel, it was Jeshua the Nazarene, or as we know him, Jesus of Nazareth.

Paper, rock, scissors; water, Spirit, fire.

The coming one, according to John, was not going to chaff around. He was coming to clear the chaotic threshing floor, where all was dust and trampling. He had a winnowing fork, that would throw it all in the air so that only that with substance and value would fall through and be seen clearly as substantial life-giving grain, whilst the worthless would blow off as fire fuel.

Paper, rock, scissors; water, Spirit, fire.

Bathing, washing, ritual cleansing was only the beginning.  John could do that work, just as Desmond Tutu could get South Africa ready, by speech and sanctions and blood-sparing mediation.

However, Breathing, Spirit, In-spiration, that sets the world ablaze with a passion for compassion and justice for all required someone with more to give.

Back in the day, Herod Antipas, chose as unskillfully as his father Herod, who had gone off as the Butcher of Bethlehem and killed all the children under two, to try and stop the coming of the true king. Antipas thought that imprisoning and finally killing John the Baptizer would halt the coming of the king’s reign.
They were both wrong. They chose badly.  They listened only to the voices of their fear, and never (it would seem) heard a voice from above.

Paper, rock, scissors; water, Spirit, fire.

Jesus, on the other hand, heard a voice from above that drowned the Gethsemane voices of fear.

Water

Spirit

Fire

Bathe, breathe, burn.

That was the sequence of Jesus’ ministry.
After ritual bathing in baptism, he heard the only words any child needs to hear to be complete as a human being, “That’s my child, my beloved, I am so proud of you!”.

Jesus was ready for the breathing of Spirit every moment as he burnt his life up as an offering for the salvation of all.

Paper, rock, scissors; water, Spirit, fire.

Once you know who you are, beloved child of God, there is nothing that can defeat or hold you. No prison, no power, no political regime.
You are then, as Jesus was, Invictus. You are Invincible.

(This poem, by William Ernest Henley, kept Nelson Mandela sane for twenty seven years on Robben Island)

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Paper, rock, scissors; water, Spirit, fire.

The words from his Parent in heaven, held Jesus, in the three and a half years of his ministry as he poured out his life.

I wonder what will hold me in this year, this life, still unfolding?

In my sane moments I choose to believe that the voice from heaven, speaks to me as it spoke to him, “You are my Child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” When I hear it, and the voice of my my fear does not drown it out, I too know I have the potential to be Invictus.

Bathe, Breathe, Burn…