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March 28, 2021

“The King We Weren’t Expecting” by the Rev. Don Wahlig, March 28, 2021, Year B / Palm Sunday –  John 12:20-33  •  Mark 15:1-11 

The big idea:  Jesus was willing to devote himself to God’s plan which enabled him to sacrifice himself in order that others might have life by tapping into God’s power of love, which is greater than any earthly power.

Application:  Flourish by surrendering our will to God, which enables us to sacrifice in order to realize the true life-transforming power of God’s love.

        Have you ever had the experience of reading a familiar story, one that you’ve read a thousand times before, but on the one thousand and first time, you catch something new?  Something that opens up a whole new window of meaning?

        I had that experience this week when I reread Mark’s account of Jesus before Pilate.  Pilate sees that the chief priests are jealous of Jesus.  It made me wonder why would they be jealous?  So, I did some digging into the role of the chief priests. 

As we all know, Moses’ big brother Aaron was ordained as the very first High Priest.  Aaron was from the tribe of Levi, and the chief priests who came after him were also mostly Levites.

For centuries, the Levite priests served at various holy shrines across the land.  After the exile in Babylon, the priests were centered in Jerusalem at the Temple.  The number of priests grew, and so did their power and influence. 

The chief priest became not only the religious leader of the people, but also the head of the government and the ambassador in all external affairs.

By this time, there were various families of priests, each with its own chief priest.  They would alternate serving in the Temple, taking turns administering their responsibilities. 

Once / year, the chief priest was permitted to go into the Holy of Holies, the most sacred space where God dwelt.  From one generation to the next, they enjoyed power and prestige.

But when the Romans conquered Judea, all of that changed.  The office of high priest became a political tool in the hands of the Roman administration.  As the power of the chief priests declined, so did their status and influence among the people.  By Jesus’ day, they became objects of ridicule.

But everyone remembered that it used to be very different.  Stories were told of a time, not all that long ago, when the chief priest had the sort of power that Israel’s kings used to have.

So, when Jesus comes on the scene and attracts the respect and adulation of the people, the chief priests resent him.  And, between Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, they do whatever it takes to make sure that Jesus becomes a victim of what they regard as the world’s real power:  Rome.

In Judea, that power rests with Pilate.  Pilate had access to all the military might Rome could muster – and he was not afraid to use it.  

That’s why he was able to hold the office of Roman Governor in Judea longer than anyone ever had before him.  He was ruthless.  His willingness to use violence to keep his subjects in line was legendary.

Pilate also knew his history.  He was well aware that the Passover Festival was a dangerous time.  With so many Jews packed into those narrow streets of Jerusalem, riots and revolt had happened in the past, and could easily happen again. 

It’s not hard to see why.  The entire focus of the Passover celebration is liberation from bondage. It was the time when every Jew remembered and celebrated how God redeemed his chosen people from slavery in Egypt. 

The obvious comparison of the Egyptian Pharaoh with the Roman Caesar was lost on absolutely no one.  The question on the people’s lips is, “Could this be the year when God finally delivers us from Roman oppression?

Jesus becomes the focus of all their hopes.  The crowds are eager to see whether Jesus might be the new Moses and Israel’s new king, ordained by God to free his people from suffering. 

That’s why they greet him by waving palm branches and shouting ‘Hosanna! Save us!’  This is no common parade – it’s a coronation procession!

But no one really understands who Jesus is, or the kind of power he has.  Like his kingdom, his power is not of this world.  It’s not rooted in force, violence or coercion; it’s rooted in grace, mercy and love.  It’s rooted in God.

But no one gets that.  Not the chief priests, not Pilate and not the crowds.  His own disciples don’t even understand the kind of power Jesus brings, until later at Pentecost. 

And the question I’ve been asking myself this week is how well do I really understand his power?  And how much do I really trust it?

From time to time, I suspect we have all asked that question of ourselves.  Whether we recognize it or not, this misunderstanding and mistrust is what lies behind our tendency to use force as the primary tool to address conflict in our world. 

But Jesus shows us a different way to respond, a better way, a higher way. 

In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus had the opportunity to rally his followers and fight those who would arrest him.  But he didn’t.  When he stood in front of Pilate facing all manner of false accusations by the chief priests, Jesus refused to engage their lies. 

And, even on the cross, unjustly accused and unjustly condemned, he did not call for violence or revenge.  Instead, he asked his Father to forgive his persecutors.  Jesus wanted the same thing God wanted:  not to conquer his oppressors, but to convert them instead.

How does that sound to you?  Does Jesus’ approach to conflict resolution sound like something that’s nice in theory, but utterly impractical in reality?  Maybe even foolish?

Many people believe that.  But history says otherwise.

One of the most famous recent examples of Jesus’ approach to conflict, and what it looks like in practice, came from Mohandas Gandhi.  He was the leader of India’s independence movement from Great Britain in the 20th century.

Ghandi was inspired by Jesus.  In Jesus’ confrontation with authority, Ghandi saw parallels with a Hindu and Buddhist religious principle that requires respect for all living things and to do no harm. 

Ghandi’s genius was to turn this principle into a tool for non-violent mass action.  He used it to fight not only colonial rule but other social ills like racial discrimination and the marginalization of India’s untouchables, the Dalits.

Gandhi gave this powerful tool a name that loosely translates as ‘truth force'.  Here’s how this truth force works.  Through persistent non-violent resistance, the goal is to gradually convert your opponent; to win over their hearts and minds, and to persuade them to your point of view.

Gandhi was adamant that non-violent persuasion was not a tool for those who were too scared to take up arms.  Rather, it was a weapon to be used by the strong.

He said, “My non-violence does not [involve] running away from danger and leaving dear ones unprotected.  Between violence and cowardly flight, I can only prefer violence to cowardice.”

Like Jesus’ approach, it requires the willingness to give of one’s self and even sacrifice oneself.  As a result, practitioners of Ghandi’s non-violent approach, including Martin Luther King Jr. and others, gained respect, power and influence by being willing to do what Jesus did:  give their lives in the name of divine truth.

Jesus’ life and death were the ultimate example of that willingness.  And not just in front of Pilate, either.  Jesus’ path of non-violence and self-sacrifice began long before he surrendered himself to the authorities.  It began when he surrendered himself to God.

As he told his disciples early on, his purpose was to do God’s will and complete God’s work.  Only by surrendering his will to God could he give himself sacrificially for others.

Friends, that’s the lesson for us, too.  Only when we surrender our will to God can we do the self-sacrificing work God calls us to do.   

It’s difficult, for sure.  But that’s where the power comes from.  And it is the greatest power this world has ever known.  It’s the power of love.

As Ghandi himself put it, “Non-violence is a power that can be wielded equally by all - children, young men and women or grown-ups, provided they have a living faith in the God of Love and . . . equal love for all mankind.”

But before we can use this powerful tool, we have to put God’s agenda ahead of our own.  That requires us to actually know what our agenda is. What things do we consider essential for happiness and well-being? 

Most people would probably say that list includes good health, personal and family contentment, peace of mind and emotional well-being, a comfortable life, financial and physical security, fulfilling friendships and stimulating experiences, and actualizing our potential.

These are probably the most common goals people have.  God wants these things for us, too, but his plan may well conflict with our plans.  It may very well be that in order to really flourish, we have to postpone or even sacrifice some of the things on our agenda.  That may be what doing God’s work requires of us.

But it will be worth it.

If we are willing to commit to his plan by serving others, there is no greater happiness.  Henri Nouwen, one of the most prominent and compelling modern Christian writers, said “Our greatest fulfillment lies in giving ourselves to others.”

Friends, we may worry that following God’s plan means depriving ourselves and our loved ones of happiness, but, in fact, it’s just the opposite.  It sounds counter-intuitive, but by sacrificing for others, we are enriching our own lives, too.

All those goals we have, and all the things we consider essential to happiness are important.  But, they may conflict with God’s goals.  When they do we have to ask ourselves a question:

Can we hold onto what we want loosely enough to let it go when God asks us to do what he wants? 

May it be so.

Last Published: March 29, 2021 10:19 AM
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