Monday, March 17, 2008

Palm Sunday: ‘Le Temple, c’est moi’

Mark 11:1-11 and 12:28-34

ACL's Kids on Palm Sunday

On Thursday I taught the Religious Education component on Christianity for three different Year 3 classes at my son’s school. They gave me a copy of the curriculum for the Christianity unit, and I went in prepared to talk about how Jesus was the founder of Christianity, the difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament, and some of the popular stories from the Bible that I thought they would like. I talked about how Jesus had a group of friends called disciples, who were also his students. I talked about how he loved everyone, even his enemies, and how he loved to eat. Have you noticed how many stories about Jesus take place around a meal? I finished by talking about how much Jesus liked kids—how he let them talk—how he let them help with his miracles—how he said that kids understood best how to have faith.

Mostly I wanted to present an honest image of Christianity without offending anyone or embarrassing Ian in front of his schoolmates.

I started by introducing myself, and because I knew they’d already had some teaching on Jesus and Christianity, I asked if they had any questions to start off with. Almost every kid raised their hand. I started calling on kids…

The first one asked: What does it mean to be the Light of the World?
The second asked: How is Jesus the son of God?
A little girl looked me in the eye and asked: Did it hurt when Jesus was crucified?

Did I say these were the first three questions they asked me?

I pretty much disregarded most of my notes from that point on and we dealt with some of the deeper questions about the Christian faith. What these kids were asking for was a way to understand what they’d learned in their Religious Education unit in their class. What they were really asking was a crucially important question: Who is this Jesus?

Mark 12:28-34

28One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, "Of all the commandments, which is the most important?"
29"The most important one," answered Jesus, "is this: 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one 30Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.' 31The second is this: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these."
32"Well said, teacher," the man replied. "You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. 33To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices."
34When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, "You are not far from the kingdom of God." And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.

Just to put our story in context: We’ve been talking about the pace of Mark’s gospel, how Jesus seems to move so quickly from place to place. That’s the way it was for the first 10 chapters of this book, but now that we’ve come to Jerusalem, the last six chapters slow down quite a bit—there’s so much detail here about Jesus’ teaching and ministry and time with his friends. One writer talked about the first 10 chapters as an extended introduction or prologue for the real story Mark wanted to tell—the Passion story that takes us from Palm Sunday to the Garden of Gesthemane to the Cross and finally to the empty tomb.

In the chapter and a half before our text this morning Jesus has been very busy. We saw last week how Jesus healed Bartimaeus, how he gave him a new sense of vision both physically and spiritually. Right after that Jesus entered Jerusalem and the crowd went wild: they were cheering, waving branches around and singing lines from the Psalms. Hosanna—blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! The people were convinced that Jesus had come to overthrow Rome, to drive the corruption away and let them enjoy the Promised Land again.

In the very next paragraph Jesus is in the Temple, overturning tables and throwing the merchants out. In fact, almost all of his teaching in Jerusalem was aimed at the people of Israel, not at Rome—at the ones who were supposed to know better, the ones who had forgotten their first love. Within 5 days many of the same people who were cheering Jesus when he entered the city—in just 5 days many of them were calling for his crucifixion.

So what’s happening in our story?

Jesus entered the city and after roughing up the businesses in the Temple courts, he started teaching there; he fielded questions on all kinds of things:

about his own authority,
about politics and taxes,
about the nature of marriage

One of the teachers of the Law liked what he heard from Jesus, so he threw in one of his own questions; the teacher appreciated Jesus’ answers, and Jesus liked his response. Jesus ended the exchange: ‘you are not far from the Kingdom of God’, meaning, ‘you’re close to understanding the limitless nature of me.’

I love it that Jesus enjoyed the conversation with the guy who was asking the questions. Like the kids at Ian’s school, he was probing and working and searching for the answer to one big question: Who is this Jesus?

Every so often it’s good for us to stop and think about that same question: Who is Jesus? We call him the Promised One, the Son of God. In some of our worship language we refer to him as The Lamb who takes away the sins of the world. At a deeper level we believe that Jesus represents The very presence of God with us, side by side with us, the Word made flesh. We talk about all of those titles and identities of Jesus, but what do they mean?

As we think about the meaning of Jesus we need to remember the meaning of the Temple, of God’s gift of his presence. The Temple was God’s way of giving his people a visible, tangible way of experiencing him on a regular basis. It was where people worshipped, where they went to offer sacrifices for forgiveness, where they went to share in the journey of faith with other fellow travelers.

Last week the New York Times ran a story about The Global Seed Vault in Norway. More than 150 meters under the permafrost is a huge storage vault where seeds for food crops are stored—just in case some natural or human-made disaster destroys the world’s food supply. The vault is designed to survive earthquakes, and bomb blasts. It has a state-of-the-art temperature control system so everything is perfectly preserved. No one person has all of the codes needed to get in or out. It’s an amazing place—the article called it a massive backup hard drive, in case some event causes the world to forget how to feed itself.

The Temple in Jerusalem functioned in a similar way from the people of Israel. It had evolved from a place where God’s people could worship and learn and share, into a place where God was kept frozen, protected and hidden from the rest of the world.

When Jesus entered Jerusalem and confronted the moneychangers and the temple leadership and anyone else in that holy place who detracted from his message, he was shifting the focus of an entire community of faith from a building to himself.

NT Wright, the Bishop of Durham, said that “when Jesus came to Jerusalem there was bound to be a confrontation between himself and the Temple. The city was simply not big enough for the two of them to coexist.” It was Jesus’ destiny, not the Temple’s, “to sum up Israel’s long history in himself.”

If the Temple was God’s way of giving his people a place that they could point to and say ‘My God lives right there,’ then Jesus took it one huge step further and became the person we can point to and say ‘That’s what my God is like.’

But what was he like? Or, more importantly, what did he want from his people?

I mean, the people back then sure didn’t seem to be all that happy with them. They seemed pretty disappointed in him—like God had tricked them with a little bait and switch maneuver. He promised them a King, and what they got was, well, nothing like any king they’d ever known.

But the Jesus they got was the only one who could help them complete the mission God had for them in the beginning. I know I’ve said this a handful of times, but it needs to be repeated whenever we talk about the people of Israel. God called them not because they had earned some special place, but because God wanted to do something special through them. And what was that special job?

To be a blessing to all nations. To communicate God’s blessing to all the people of the world.

And how were they supposed to accomplish the task of being that blessing? By doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God. Or as the teacher of the Law answered Jesus: To love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength, and our neighbor as our self.

Israel had let itself get blinded by the fact that they had the Temple—God’s dwelling place—right in their neighborhood. They treated it like that deep freeze seed vault—a place where life was to be locked away and secured—a place where the seeds of life were to be kept hidden and safe and protected. They forgot that they were supposed to take that message to the rest of the world. They forgot that they were supposed to live that message where they were. And since Rome was occupying their country, they started thinking of the Messiah as a military leader who would throw Rome out so they could enjoy the Temple for themselves again.

Jesus took the focus off of the building and put it on himself. The good news was transformed from being about a place to being about a person. That’s what we celebrate on Palm Sunday. Jesus becoming human, flesh and blood, and a way for us to experience God in person.

What does that mean for us? What are we supposed to understand now about the meaning of Jesus:

First, we should understand that Jesus’ earthly ministry was a part of a plan, a long process of God wanting to live with his people so that they could know him and worship him and serve him in faith.

Second, we can never get away from the calling on each of us to be a blessing to other people because of the gift of God’s presence in our lives. Being a blessing to all the nations means helping the poor, taking care of the sick, looking out for widows and orphans. In short, doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God.

But most importantly, grasping some part of the meaning of Jesus leads naturally to sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ freely and honestly, struggles and all, with the people with know and love and encounter in our lives. The meaning of Jesus isn’t supposed to be locked away, like those seeds in that frozen vault. The point of Jesus’ ministry once he entered Jerusalem was to teach us that God’s presence wasn’t locked in one place—that the message of the gospel wasn’t limited by a building or ethnicity or gender or national boundary. In this community of faith every single person has the full message of the gospel in their hands.

As we move into this final week before the celebration of the miracle of Christ’s resurrection, my prayer for this church is that we’ll step out in faith, ask hard questions, listen for God’s answers, and share the message of life with the people we know.

For Christ’s sake, and in his name. Amen.

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