My name is Jeff and I'm a pastor of a small, local, Christian fellowship

It's a wonderful thing to love your work; to know that when you do it you are doing something that you were born to do. I am so fortunate to be both. I don't say I am the best at what I do. God knows that are so many others who do it better. But I do feel fairly lucky to be called by such a good God to do work I can only do with his help, to be loved by a beautiful woman, and to have a workshop where I can work my craft. These musings of mine are part of that work.

Friday, April 3, 2015

The Failure of Jesus: A Palm Sunday and Good Friday meditation

They brought the colt to Jesus. Then, throwing their coats on its back, they helped Jesus get on. As he rode, the people gave him a grand welcome, throwing their coats on the street.

Right at the crest, where Mount Olives begins its descent, the whole crowd of disciples burst into enthusiastic praise over all the mighty works they had witnessed:

Blessed is he who comes,
    the king in God’s name!
All’s well in heaven!
    Glory in the high places!

Some Pharisees from the crowd told him, “Teacher, get your disciples under control!”

But he said, “If they kept quiet, the stones would do it for them, shouting praise.”

When the city came into view, he wept over it. “If you had only recognized this day, and everything that was good for you! But now it’s too late. In the days ahead your enemies are going to bring up their heavy artillery and surround you, pressing in from every side. They’ll smash you and your babies on the pavement. Not one stone will be left intact. All this because you didn’t recognize and welcome God’s personal visit.”
Luke 19:35-44, The Message

Even though it's Good Friday, I've got Palm Sunday on the brain. It's the day Jesus literally rode into town. Of course, he'd been there before a number of times in the course of his life but on that day he came in as the grand marshal, if you will, of an impromptu parade one float long.

In the town that has been my home for over twenty-three years now, the biggest gala of the calendar year centers around the Fourth of July. Here we call it Liberty Fest – a week long extravaganza of community events that include a craft fair, a vintage car show, street dances, water ski shows, fireworks and the Liberty Fest parade. During the course of that week our little town of 2,100 swells to 6,000-8,000 as all the exiles, as Garrison Keillor refers to the former Lake Wobegonians, return to see the folks, hang out on the lake and soak up whatever ambiance our small town affords.

The Liberty Fest parade is like a lot of small town parades – a various assortment of floats and entrants from fire trucks to tractors, from vintage cars to kids on roller blades – all trolling down the main drag to the delight of us all. The veterans carry their flags, the high school band marches, teen royalty from neighboring communities ensconced on their thrones wave regally (including, no less, the Bluegill Queen and her court) and the Shriners wheel around in their funny little cars. As those things go, it's not much of a going concern but it's our parade. It's a big deal. I am not exaggerating when I say that if you don't put your lawn chair out the day before to reserve your seat, you will be lucky to find an open spot along the mile long route. Really!

In our town, this guy is a big deal
If you don't count the mayor and the royalty from our local nursing home, the real guest of honor is the Grand Marshal, usually a local person who is honored for his contribution to the community. Two years ago it was the guy who cuts my hair, Harry the barber. If I remember right, he rode down the main drag in a convertible surrounded by his granddaughters waving like the big wheel that he is. The flag, the band, the staff from the Baptist campgrounds singing “God Bless America” - it's all a slice of Americana and what it means to celebrate Independence Day in these here parts and a lot of other small towns across the country.

The day Jesus rode into Jerusalem was not a pre-planned event. Fliers had not been printed up ahead of time to make the locals aware that at 12 noon (well, that's when our parade begins), the man from Galilee who in the past year or so had made quite a reputation as a healer and prophet was entering the city at the onset of Passover week. Jerusalem would have been like Chetek at the onset of Liberty Fest – becoming noticeably busier as pilgrims from all over entered the city to celebrate Passover. Then in something like flashmob-fashion, it happens: in conscious fulfillment of Scripture, he rides into town on the back of a young donkey surrounded by his disciples. When most Americans see the stars and stripes there is an emotional reaction however subtle. If it's passing by, people stand, take off their hats and hold their hand over their heart. Jesus riding into Jerusalem like that affects them as it would affect us seeing the flag coming down Main Street. The reaction is spontaneous. The word quickly filters through the throng and the crowd starts throwing off their cloaks red-carpet style or hack off palm branches from nearby trees and wave them in acclamation.

From the multitude, the cry of Hosanna arises from the messianic Psalm 118. All my life I have known the word to be used exclusively in a worship setting either spoken or sung. It comes from two Hebrew words, hosha (save) and na (which adds a sense of urgency to the cry). Taken together they essentially mean: “Save us! Save us, son of David!” There's a touch of hilarity at this event. At long last perhaps God has heard the prayers of his people and is sending his Messiah to save them from their oppressors and set things right. But this is no “March for Jesus” declaring through word and worship his reign over the city. This is, in fact, a political rally and a demonstration against their Roman overlords. In my mind, to really appreciate what is going on here it would be better for us to hear the cry of “Hosanna!” as “Four more years! Four more years!” instead of a call to worship.

When Harry the barber was Grand Marshal, he was all smiles and why shouldn't he be? He rode at the front of the parade (which, incidentally, gave him plenty of time to double back via side streets to get on the float where he usually rides playing his accordion with his polka band, the Sentimental Sounds) as the guest of honor. But Luke tells us something very peculiar about Jesus that raucous, hilarious day when religious leaders were rebuking Jesus for not keeping a tighter grip on his followers for their emotional display: he doesn't wave to the multitude, he doesn't kiss any babies, shake any hands or hand out any literature. He doesn't even smile. Rather, he cries – no, weeps – as he is led into Jerusalem. The man of the hour looks decidedly out of place.

There are two places in Scripture that record Jesus crying. The first is outside Lazarus' tomb. The shortest verse in the entire New Testament captures it: “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). The second is here: “As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it” (Luke 19:41). As I understand it, in John's Gospel the word translated refers to a single tear running down a person's cheek – like that iconic commercial in the 70s that featured the sad Indian (when we still referred to them that way) who wept at the sight of pollution. But Luke's “wept” is a very different word. It means to ball like a baby, to be overcome with grief. If that's so, it makes me wonder why Peter or James didn't stop the parade and find out what's wrong with their Master. So picture this: the crowd is waving the flag and shouting enthusiastically and the guy at the center of the event is beside himself with sorrow. Say what?

We need Abe
Those of us who know our Bibles know why. As a prophet, Jesus saw their future. He saw Titus and his legions surrounding the city and eventually leveling it, burning the great Temple to the ground. He saw the devastation and destruction of thousands and the sight of it burst his huge heart. The mission had failed. For three years he had earnestly sought to teach the people who he is and what the Father had sent him to do. Sure, along the way he had healed lots of people and done stuff that we're still talking about two millenia later but all his efforts to save that generation had been for naught. On that shining, beautiful day as he fulfilled Scripture in front of their eyes, they still understood Messiah as we Americans would view the second-coming of Abe Lincoln – the Presidents of all presidents come to set America straight. Their lack of comprehension would cost them dearly.

Of course, Jesus was not a failure. He faithfully carried out the Father's will and was obedient to the letter but the mission to reach those people at that time had failed. As John put it, “...he came unto his own and his own received him not” (John 1:11, KJV). I know that it was all apart of God's plan. I know that what looked like total failure as he hung on that Roman gibbet was unbelievable and staggering victory. But as someone who is employed to teach and preach the Scriptures, who for over two decades now continues to strive to communicate the gospel in such a way that it is heard and comprehended to any who will listen, that image of Jesus – the best teacher of them all – beside himself with grief at the people's inability to get it reminds me that I'm in good company.

I can't hold a candle to Jesus (there are few who can) but I strove for eleven years to try and share the Gospel in a contemporary fashion to teens at a youth ministry I began. For the past 11 years, I've been trying to share the Gospel with inmates at the Barron County Jail. The results are difficult to measure. It's not all been for naught. There have been “wins” and gains. But from my perspective there has been so many who have, in the end, rejected what I shared with them or maybe they tried it for a bit and when this “Jesus-thing” didn't work, shrugged their shoulders and moved on. Those teens that used to gather here by the throngs on Wednesday nights? I've been here long enough to see some of the damage they have done to themselves and (now) their kids for not embracing the truth of what God has done for them and calls them to do. Those inmates at the jail? Some of them are slowly becoming “lifers” - doing “life” at the county jail six months at a time. If I thought about it too much it would break my heart too.

Tonight in Chetek, some of the community fellowships will gather at Chetek United Methodist to celebrate and commemorate Good Friday. We'll sing appropriate songs, hear the Story, be encouraged to ponder and reflect and then we'll leave quietly from the sanctuary. “Ephphatha!” That is the prayer that Jesus prayed – with a mighty groan, no less - over the man from the Decapolis who was both deaf and mute (Mark 7:34). “Open up!” It's the same prayer in my heart today for those I know who are yet indifferent to the message of Jesus, who are, for all practical purposes, deaf, dumb and blind to the entreaty of heaven.