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FIRST PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH DR. STUART R. GORDON PALM/PASSION SUNDAY, APRIL 14, 2019 When the Angels Did Not Come Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16; Matthew 26:47-56 If it’s true, and I think it is, that in his temptation Jesus endured everything we do, then this must have sliced him in two. How do you tell someone who steps up for you, who puts his life on the line, to step back? How do you tell someone who is willing to risk death for you that his zeal is misplaced? I guess there was no easy way. It would take years for Jesus’ followers to understand why he had to say, “Put your sword back.” After all, the Palm Sunday crowds who welcomed Jesus to Jerusalem likely didn’t understand. No matter how well they may have known the scriptures, it’s unlikely that they were expecting him to go quietly with an arrest party. I say unlikely because it’s not as if there were pollsters milling around Jerusalem, approaching people and asking, “So, are you looking for a military Messiah who will rise up and conquer Rome, or would you prefer a suffering servant?” When they were shouting “Hosanna/Save us” they didn’t realize the irony. They didn’t know that Jesus would do just that – save them – but in a way that didn’t look like salvation at all. So, Palm Sunday is a tricky day. It’s tricky because we process with palms, led by little children. We sing happy songs even as we know, in the backs of our minds, that this week will not go well. How on earth do you involve children in irony? How do you explain bittersweet? How do you explain Jesus loving his disciple and painfully telling him to put his sword back? It’s so complicated emotionally. I get why this Friday, when churches offer worship services, the crowds won’t be large. Who wants to follow a sword-wielding mob to a trial? Who wants to be reminded that our salvation happens in ways that don’t look like salvation at all? It must have sliced Jesus in two, when he had to say, “Put your sword back.” In our Lenten study, Craig Barnes concludes his treatment of Jesus’ temptation by reflecting on what happened after the devil left him: “Suddenly angels came and ministered to him.” It’s a reflection on the times in life when all of us need to rest, need to stop achieving and start receiving. It’s a declaration that even Jesus, in all his humanity, could be worn out by spiritual struggle and need refreshment. Surely, if Jesus could need refreshment, so do we. But to everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven. And during this Holy Week, we remember that there was a time for Jesus to be born, and a time for him to die. He knew that God could send twelve legions of angels to save him. But that was not to be. That is not how he would save us. This had to be a day when the angels did not come. Philip Jenkins says that Psalm 91 enjoys unprecedented popularity around the world today, for much the same reasons it did in Jesus’ day. Early Christians knew fear just as well as we do, if not better. They knew anxiety; they knew what it’s like to feel threatened by outside forces and hounded by inner voices. So, they had these words inscribed on amulets and wore them around their necks. They had these words inscribed over the doors of their homes. Jenkins says, “Legends told of pious Christians who used the prayer to survive epidemics that killed thousands. As the Psalm promises, ‘A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you,’ and so for obvious reasons, this is also known as the Soldiers’ Psalm.” To this day across the world, Christians cite it for assurance of God’s protection. Maybe even Jesus’ own follower had it in mind as he drew his sword; who knows? All we know is that Jesus refused to claim its assurance, either in the desert where Satan quoted it, or in the Garden of Gethsemane, when he could have asked the Father. Jesus knew how our salvation had to happen. Throughout Lent, we have explored the depths of Jesus’ humanity. He was willing to feel hungry, willing to live with uncertainty, willing to take the long road of obedience instead of shortcuts. The faith he showed in the wilderness is the same faith that will be tested his last week. And if we learn anything from that faith, surely we learn this: life on earth can be bittersweet. Life in the midst of human frailty, fallibility, is bittersweet. You and I are capable of the finest courage and of shameful cowardice. We can be incredibly loving and remarkably callous. We can be thoughtful and we can be blind. God’s decision to become flesh for us, and Jesus’ actual life, offer an invitation. Come and see life in its complexity, its irony, its paradoxes. Come and see all of it swept up in God’s grace. Jesus never stops being human. He won’t pull up short of the finish line of our struggle. He won’t exempt himself from the depths of our pain. No. He goes the distance, and that is why he is our Savior. Maybe you’re a reader of biographies. I haven’t read many, but I’ve read enough to be aware of a common theme I see in them. Biographers often describe their subjects as “studies in contrast” or “complicated figures” or “living paradoxes.” To be honest, I think that’s true about all of us. And I think that we all live more graciously and abundantly as we acknowledge this. Frankly, it’s harder to bear with life emotionally in this way. It’s far easier, emotionally, to look at people as all bad or all good, friend or foe. It’s demanding of us, emotionally, to hold in tension the good and the bad. It’s hard on Palm Sunday to think about what approaches on Good Friday. It’s hard to welcome your Savior while admitting that he came to suffer with you and for you. And it’s hard to put your sword back, when what you really want to do is cut off someone’s ear. But Michael Crosby, a priest, believes that there is a profound spiritual lesson that all of us can learn at this moment. Just as that sword-bearing believer needed to hear what Jesus said, so do we. “We will never experience the angel of comfort,” he says, “until we can enter into the [grieving].” We cannot experience the fullness of our humanity, the depth of our communion with other people and with God, if we always draw our sword and go to battle. Sometimes, we have to put our sword away, and grieve with those who grieve. There have to be some days when the angels do not come. One item from the news that I’ve been pondering is the story about celebrity parents who paid bribes to universities in order to gain admission for their children. It would be easy to frown on them, but let’s not. Let’s try something else: identifying with them. What is it that might have tempted fabulously successful people, with enormous resources, to cheat? What sorts of lies were they believing, to seek admission by dishonest means? What sorts of fears did they harbor about themselves, or for their children? What insecurities did they battle when they became snowplows, trying to clear a path for their children by unscrupulous means? If we try just a little, I bet we could name them, because we have felt them. I want to believe that no one brings a child into the world and says, “I’m going to plow over everyone who gets in this kid’s way.” I want to believe that everyone who looks into the eyes of a newborn child does so with nothing but overflowing love. But I also believe that even overflowing love for our children does not cleanse us of sin. Sin has a remarkable power to taint even our best instincts, our purest emotions. And, tragically, we find ourselves plowing over others in order to pave the way for ones we love. Some of Jesus’ own followers draw swords to protect him, rather than watching as he goes the distance for us. We draw our swords to fight for justice, or just to defend ourselves, when perhaps we should simply grieve with those who grieve. And so Jesus has to show us a better way. Put your sword away, and watch me. One way you might put it is this: Jesus shows us how to let God be God. It’s the lesson we’ll learn a thousand times in life, if we’re paying attention. The Devil would rather we not. The Devil would rather we play God – turn stones into bread, perform miracles, bring the kingdom ourselves – but Jesus shows a more excellent way. He lets God be God and he trusts God to make us fully human as only God can. In the face of our fears and anxieties and our overflowing love that get tainted and end up distorting us, Jesus invites us into this more excellent way, by going willingly to the cross. Sam Wells says it’s the question the whole Bible is trying to answer: “Is love as strong as death” (The Christian Century, 04-25-18)? If Jesus had asked for legions of angels, we would not have God’s answer. If the Father had sent in Special Forces, you and I would be left with bad options for times when we feel powerless, overwhelmed, tempted to do the wrong thing. If the Father had intervened like that, all we could ever hope for would be daily miracles, or something worse: drawing our own swords in an effort to survive, only to die by them. But God did not intervene like that, and so we have our answer to the question, “Is love as strong as death?” Tom Currie says “It’s important to remember that Christ’s victory took place on Good Friday. We are sometimes tempted to think that Good Friday was a tragic loss, which a glorious Easter surprisingly transforms into a victory. Not so. What Easter does is reveal the Crucified as Victor. The defeat of the power of evil and death took place on Friday. That is why it is called, quite un-ironically, ‘Good Friday’” (From newsletter of the Foundation for Reformed Theology). All of us need our days when the angels do not come. All of us need our times when we enter into the grieving, finding our humanity in communion with others, and with our suffering Savior, before we receive the angel of comfort. Love is stronger than death. The victory does come on Friday. And you and I, who share humanity with the Lord Jesus, have this blessed assurance: nothing in life, nothing in death, can separate us from the love of God. It’s stronger than a sword, stronger than legions of angels. And now is the season to come and see.
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