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Sermon – “The Lord Has Need of It” – April 13, 2014

Sermon for Sunday, April 13, 2014

First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

“The Lord Has Need of It”

Psalm 118: 1-2, 19-29: Matthew 21: 1-11

Summer Sunday afternoons it is quiet. I walk outside and look up and down South Third Street, and there is no car coming from where the monument and its cannon face north, and no car turning south onto Third Street. Itʼs possible that thereʼs no sound of traffic from Market Street. Maybe thereʼs a pedestrian in view somewhere, and maybe not.

At the end of August, however, the university returns to life. Soon over three thousand students are on campus. Thatʼs a more than fifty per cent increase over the population of the borough itself, and those silent summer Sundays are gone.

College towns are a bit like shore towns, or resort communities, or anyplace where thereisaseasonalinfluxofpopulation. Anyonewhoʼslivedinaplacelikethatisfamiliarwith the increased activity which comes with beach season, or ski season, or the new school year. That gives us some idea of what it would be like to be in a place which is the destination of pilgrimage.

The population of Jerusalem in the first century is put at six hundred thousand. That was its year-round population. At Passover as many as two million pilgrims might arrive. Thatʼs more than triple the usual population. Those who came from any significant distance made sure to arrive about a week ahead, as Jewish law required seven days of ritual purification before taking part in the Temple cult. In the gospels, when Jesus arrives in Jerusalem for the festival in the midst of throngs from all over the world, we read the word “crowds” over and over. They are not only the crowds drawn by Jesus himself, to which we have grown accustomed from Jesusʼ countryside celebrity. They include multitudes who havenʼt heard of him at all, and whose first exposure to him probably results from the event we celebrate on Palm Sunday.

The crowds are a factor in the Holy Week story. There is something like mob psychology at work while Jesus is entering the city and while he teaches daily at the Temple, in that the positive energy of his disciples communicates itself to the wider group. That is one of the things which makes it impossible for the officials, who already have decided to act against him, to arrest him during the day. He is popular, and surrounded by huge numbers of people excited by religious feeling, resentful of Roman overlords, and unpredictable in their reactions. Later, when Jesus has been arrested, and Pilate offers the crowd a chance to dictate a prisoner to release, it doesnʼt take many agents of Jesusʼ enemies within the mob to sway the feeling of the many to elect Barabbas. Collective mentality can work for or against anyone.

Most of what happens initially is aided by the pressure of numbers and anonymity of persons in the great wave of pilgrimage. Jesus can appear publicly, staging events such as the Palm Sunday entrance, and still have a secret place where he and the disciples spend the night. In a world in which there is no such thing as a camera to capture an image, he can be notorious in the minds of his enemies, yet his particular identity so uncertain that they require his betrayer to indicate him at the arrest, which, though at night, is illuminated by torch light. In Johnʼs gospel, when they are face to face with him, they still ask him who he is, to make sure.

Matthewʼs eagerness to show how events in Jesusʼ life fulfilled scripture usually is seamless. All the gospels are written to make a case, and we are used to phrases like “this was done to fulfill the prophecy…”. In the case of Palm Sunday I believe Jesus, who was thoroughly acquainted with scripture, fulfilled the expectations of Psalm 118 deliberately. Anyone as aware as he was of his tradition couldnʼt have fulfilled the role of one entering in triumph, and arranged to have his disciples do their part in that, without knowing that he was doing that.

To spend a moment on Matthew. Matthew would prefer the hearer of the story to find the parallels between the language of Psalm 118 and Jesusʼ entry an amazing coincidence only able to be explained by divine purpose. For the faithful it is that while being Jesusʼ choice, but my point is that Matthewʼs focus on what he takes to be the scripture in question skews his account. Matthew mistakes the common parallelism of Hebrew poetry– the sort of thing we see in that familiar Christmas scripture quoting Isaiah– ”the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness–on them light has shined.” We know Isaiah means one people living in darkness and one light shining on them, because heʼs referring to the one Jesus. Here, though, in Matthewʼs account of Palm Sunday, Matthew misconstrues Zechariah 9: 9. As translated in our pew Bible, it is: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! [see, same twice-saying thing here–Zion is Jerusalem] Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Matthew reads it as “on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” That obliges Matthew, determined to have events match scripture, to have Jesus ride two animals. I think itʼs easier to understand this as Matthewʼs over enthusiasm with his method than as a way of riding used by Jesus.

Matthewʼs delight in the way Jesus has fulfilled scripture– and the whole New Testament shares this, and it many times has nothing to do with anything Jesus himself has arranged–prevents him from relating the history of what happened. He makes Jesusʼ comingintothecitymatchamisreadingofascripture. Alltheothergospelsknowone animal was used, and all the gospels tell us that everything about Jesusʼ ride was prearranged. There was an animal waiting for the purpose, it was ritually appropriate–at least one of the gospels tells us no one had ever ridden it– and Jesus told his disciples what to say in order to have it turned over to them.

Jesus has a destiny, and he knows it. He announces himself to the world– the crowds at Passover include people from all over, and Johnʼs gospel makes a point of saying that it was some Greeks asking to see Jesus which made him realize that heʼd fulfilled everything he could do before being lifted up on the cross, which in the logic of Johnʼs gospel is Jesusʼ conclusive saving deed. The fulfillment of scripture at Palm Sunday is part of a conscious and deliberate gesture, meant to be witnessed.

Many Christian traditions baptize in this season, many on Palm Sunday. Itʼs not a coincidence. We have planned ahead, worked up to this. When the doors of the baptistry open and the cross, usually slightly obscured by the woodwork behind it, is starkly visible against the wall over the pool, thatʼs no accident. The designer of this worship space meant for the cross to be most clearly seen when the baptistry doors are open.

Our faith is that the desire for discipleship is planted in a personʼs heart by the Holy Spirit, and that a person elects to be baptized for himself or herself. Divine influence and conscious choice combine. All our lives we decide over and over to be the person God is making us.

The fulfillment of the purpose God has for us is announced in the pool of baptism. It is a conscious and deliberate gesture, meant to be witnessed. Like Jesusʼ own baptism, it fulfills a righteousness not wholly within human reckoning, and like Jesus at Palm Sunday, it claims the premise and promise of a long tradition for oneself.

 

 

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