Saturday, April 3, 2010

No Better Grave

He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth. (Isaiah 53.9)

Pressing Matters

After spending yesterday with our attention firmly fastened on Christ and the cross, today affords a chance to consider family and followers who survive Him. One of the first things we note is the timing of events convenes against them almost as cruelly as Christ’s enemies conspire to kill Him. Before they can absorb the maneuvers leading up to Jesus’s murder, He’s gone. Then, before they can find a moment to grieve together, pressing matters steal their attention. Matthew, Mark, and Luke clock Jesus’s time of death at “the ninth hour,” or 3 PM. At this time of year in Jerusalem, the sun sets around 7 PM, an inconsequential detail on any other weekday. With Christ’s execution on Friday, however, sundown halts all activity for Sabbath. This gives the disciples four hours to: wait for Jesus’s removal from the cross; secure His remains; find an empty tomb; locate a place to wash, anoint, and dress Him for burial; transport His body to the tomb, lay it to rest, seal the entrance, note the location—and still have time to return to their lodgings, prepare for Shabbat, the Sabbath rite, and have everything in place, ready to begin exactly at sundown.

Postponing burial until Sunday is unthinkable. Deuteronomy 21.22-23 declares, “If a man guilty of a capital offense is put to death and his body is hung on a tree, you must not leave his body on the tree overnight. Be sure to bury him that same day.” Now, add these factors. 1) All negotiations occur face-to-face and every task is carried out on foot. 2) The rapidity of events catches the disciples totally off-guard; there are no “burial plans.” 3) Not one of Jesus’s close associates hails from Jerusalem, This puts them at the mercy of local sympathizers who, given official and public hostility toward Jesus, are few and far between. Imagine a beloved relative or friend suddenly murdered in a foreign capitol—during peak tourist season, no less—and and you’ll get a sense of what Christ’s family and followers contend with.

Changed by Calvary

With little time to spare, a prominent citizen with local connections steps forward. “As evening approached,” Matthew 27.57-58 reports, “there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus. Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body, and Pilate ordered it be given to him.” Combining various details spread across the Gospels, we learn Joseph was member of the Sanhedrin Council, Israel’s Supreme Court. According to Luke 23.51, he dissented from the Council’s decision to try Jesus, although he didn’t disclose his loyalty to Christ “because he feared the Jews.” (John 19.38)

Appealing to Pilate for Christ’s body places Joseph in great jeopardy by openly acknowledging his discipleship. Undoubtedly he’ll be ousted from the Council, losing his social and financial connections. Why doesn’t he continue to follow Jesus discreetly, as he’d done before? He’s been changed by Calvary. He’s witnessed the incomprehensible lengths Jesus goes for him. Toppling his pillars of security and overcoming his personal fears for Christ’s benefit are the least he can do. Joseph of Arimathea essentially comes out of his closet. According to John, his bold act inspires another closeted Council member, Nicodemus—the Pharisee who in John 3 visits Jesus “by night”—to come out.

The two men take Christ’s body, dress it in fresh linen and preservative spices, and lay it in an unused tomb. John says, “This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs.” (19.40) What he doesn’t say is these two widely respected lawyers consciously (and conscientiously) break Mosaic Law: “Whoever touches the dead body of anyone will be unclean for seven days.” (Numbers 19.11) They defile themselves in service to Christ. And they don’t do it in the shadows. They touch Jesus’s corrupt flesh without apology during the height of Passover. After this, they will be barred from the Temple and disqualified to lead family rituals for the rest of the week.

Claiming Christ

Whether or not Joseph’s aware of Christ’s promise to leave the tomb, he and Nicodemus know they’re laying Jesus in a temporary grave. After Passover, Mary and Jesus’s relatives are required by Law to move His corpse to the family crypt in Nazareth. This is why we find Mary Magdalene and others present as Joseph and Nicodemus inter Christ; they need to know His grave’s location to claim His body later on. It’s also why the women are eager to refresh the preservative spices on Sunday morning—preventing putrefaction is of utmost importance to ease the transport of His corpse. Finally, it’s why Christ’s enemies urge Pilate to place a guard at the tomb. They’ve heard about Christ’s promised resurrection and it’s in their best interests to see He isn’t moved. (Isn’t it ironic how quickly legalists can ignore some laws that get in their way while twisting others to trip people they want to control?)

So Jesus’s body rests exactly as prophesied: “He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth.” (Isaiah 53.9) Yet the prophecy’s doleful tone no longer applies. Even Christ’s lifeless physical state somehow changes lives. After three years of constant battles with legalism, what could be more perfect than two nationally prominent lawyers boldly claiming Christ? What could be more powerful than inspiring them to come out of their closets of fear? What could be more eloquent than requiring them to defile themselves in His service? What could be more appropriate than laying Him in a temporary tomb? What could be more right than involving Christ’s women followers in the ministry of His resurrection? This story overwhelms us with examples and lessons. Yes, Isaiah’s prediction paints a grim picture. But, no, there could be no better grave.

Two lawyers come out of hiding to claim Jesus, unafraid to be seen in the company of His women disciples as they bury Him in a temporary tomb. (Carl Heinrich Bloch: The Burial of Christ)

Postscript: Meanwhile…
While all these magnificent turns in Jesus’s story take place on the ground, below the surface, Christ storms Death’s gates, releases its prisoners and defeats its purpose. From Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor: The Offering—Domine Jesu and Hostias.

Friday, April 2, 2010


Jesus said, “I am thirsty.” A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips. When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. (John 19.28-30)

Le mot juste

After several trips to Paris, Walt and I decided it was time to stick with French and fall back on English only when absolutely necessary. We’d settled into a groove—same hotel, restaurants, shops, etc.—and become familiar faces. Expecting desk staff, waiters, and merchants we knew by name to speak our language felt less polite with each return. Having dinner one night at a favorite brasserie, Gérard, who’d waited on us a least a dozen times, dropped off the dessert carte. I groaned, “Merci, mais non. Je suis fini.” (“Thank you, but no. I’m finished.”) Gérard smiled and said, “Non, non, mon ami. Vous n’êtes pas fini. Vous avez terminé.” (“No, no, my friend. You aren’t finished. You have ended.”) Unsure I gathered the difference, he explained it in English. “You are at the end of dinner, not life.” That’s when I learned the chief difference between the languages. English, the offspring of Germanic Anglo-Saxon and Romantic Norman French, has at least two words for everything. French, having a single parent (Latin), is more precise. Closer attention is paid to exact meaning; hence le mot juste, the perfect word.

I’ve been mulling my tabletop French lesson in light of Jesus’s last words, “It is finished.” Today, six English-speaking people may very well sit side-by-side in a Good Friday service, hear the phrase (arguably the most important Christ spoke), and infer six entirely different things: “It’s finished… done… over… ended… completed… concluded.” The nuances will be lost, however, because we tend to lump synonyms together to mean the same thing. But which is le mot juste? I opened my French Bible to Jean 19.30: “Quand Jésus eut pris le vinaigre, il dit: Tout est accompli.” (“When Jesus had taken the vinegar, He said: “All is accomplished.”) Accomplished—not just “it,” meaning the ordeal of the cross, but all of it. The mission is completed, prophecy fulfilled, and objective realized.

Four Acts, Four Principles

Matthew, Mark, and Luke honor their task as biographers by documenting the crucifixion in detail. But John approaches the story from a unique angle, condensing the Life to distill its Essence. He declares his findings at the outset: “In the beginning was the Word” (John 1.1)—logos, i.e., the creative Command, the kept Promise, and the articulated Ideal. Consequently, John presents the crucified Word in four acts. First, he focuses on the title, JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS. Pilate hand-writes this in Aramaic, Latin, and Greek, and orders it to be affixed to the cross. Second, he notes soldiers charged with Jesus’s execution strip Him and gamble for His clothes. Third, Jesus makes sure His mother will be properly cared for by “the disciple whom He loved” (i.e., John). Lastly, He records Christ’s only request for comfort while on the cross, “I’m thirsty,” which is answered with a vinegar-soaked sponge laced with hyssop, a purgative. On completion of these four acts, Jesus says, “All is accomplished.” His spirit departs His body. The Word made flesh will dwell in human form no more.

John concentrates on these four acts to convey four principles, all of them directly linked to Christ the Word more so than Jesus the Christ. In terms of Pilate’s inscription, it’s significant that John alone refers to it as a “title.” (Mark and Luke use “inscription,” while Matthew chooses “accusation.”) For John, this is a worthy acclimation, even if its pen is dipped in sarcasm aimed at Messianic promises. Its trilingual translation confirms Christ’s complete sacrifice for all, Jew and Gentile, in writing. The Word is given for everyone.

Next—despite reverent artists, who modestly cover Jesus with a loincloth—John implies He’s forced to hang fully unclothed expressly to humiliate Him. Once again, this inadvertently confirms completion of Christ’s mission by exposing Him as the articulated Ideal, Adam as God made him to be, unashamed, without sin. Creation comes full circle. While both gestures ultimately display God’s universal acceptance and forgiveness, the gamblers’ obliviousness signifies humanity’s preoccupation with worthless pursuits at the expense of invaluable grace. John views this not only as a literal fulfillment of Psalm 22.18—“They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing”—but also prophetic foreshadowing of our materialistic blindness to the power of the cross.

The third and fourth acts also fulfill prophecy while ratifying the Word. Jesus hangs between an all-powerful Father Who won’t respond and a mother without power to intervene. As she watches her Son’s anguish, no doubt Mary’s thoughts return to Simeon’s prediction when she and Joseph present the Christ Child at the Temple: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul, too.” (Luke 2.34-35) For all His agony, Jesus identifies with Mary’s piercing pain. At the height of His rejection, He speaks His concern that Mary not be cast aside. The Word exemplifies His command to love others as we love ourselves—even when we’ve never felt more unloved.

Finally, Christ’s excruciating, emotional isolation forms the bridge to Act Four, as foretold in Psalm 19.20-21: “Scorn has broken my heart and has left me helpless; I looked for sympathy, but there was none, for comforters, but I found none. They put gall in my food and gave me vinegar for my thirst.” John suggests Jesus is conscious this prophecy must be realized, as though it were the last on a very long list: “So that the Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, ‘I am thirsty.’” (John 19.28) Thus the Word speaks, less on His own behalf than ours, seeing that no unturned prophetic stone remains as a stumbling block to our faith. Rather than the salutary sip of wine commonly offered to expiring criminals, Jesus accepts a wicked concoction that drains His last ounce of strength and sends Him from the world with bitterness in His mouth. After this last scornful affront, there’s nothing else to be done, no prophecies left to fulfill, nothing more to say. The Word departs for the grave, leaving the flesh riveted to the cross. All is accomplished.

Alive to the Cross

On this most holy day that brings us to Calvary, we grieve in knowing the disobedience and selfishness that drives us so far from God drove Him to suffer agonizing humiliation in our flesh. But as we look at our crucified Savior through tear-clouded eyes, it’s essential we remain alive to the cross and all Christ accomplished there.

The lifted Word forever struck down any standing prohibitions to God’s love and acceptance. He calls to each of us, in every language, drawing us out of every corner and closet. The Promise Incarnate assures us His promises are true—including John 6.37: “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away.” This He accomplished.

We gaze upon the stripped Christ, yet find no disgrace. Instead, we see the Ideal, the fully exposed, perfect image and likeness of God. And the Word speaks to our hearts, inviting us to see ourselves the same way, innocent and unashamed, radiantly clothed in invaluable grace. This He accomplished.

His care and concern for Mary stuns us. Even though political and religious enemies torment Him, friends betray and deny Him, and His Father turns away from Him, He loves exactly as He taught us to love. He proves the power of His commandment. This He accomplished.

His thirsty cry only brings bitterness. Yet He drinks it anyway, removing every doubt He is the Word—the creative Command, the kept Promise, the articulated Ideal. He takes the foul drink, swallows its poison, and endures the lacerating sting as it spills over his chapped lips and open wounds for our sake. This He accomplished.

The mission is complete. The prophecy is fulfilled. The objective is realized.

All is accomplished.

Postscript: Who Am I?

This superb juxtaposition of Casting Crown’s “Who Am I?” with clips from The Passion of the Christ (minus a few confusing moments from Left Behind) is exactly what I mean by remaining “alive to the cross.” I pray Calvary’s accomplishments will be more vividly real than ever to all of us.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Repost: Broken

When he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” (1 Corinthians 11.24)
Born to Break

The King James Version of 1 Corinthians 11.24 slightly alters Christ’s statement. But it’s a rich enhancement. There, He says, “This is my body, which is broken for you,” stressing a one-to-one correlation: as bread is broken, so the body of Christ is broken. The double emphasis adds profound nuance to why God elected to dwell with us in flesh. Surely He had other means. He could have pronounced His New Order via a phenomenon like the burning bush. He could have revealed it by prophetic edict. Using the physical body as His redemptive medium suggests He intended to be broken—the Christ Child was born to break. Of course, we say; He laid on the cross’s altar as the final sacrifice for sin. But equating sacrifice with breaking mixes metaphors and misses the beauty of the bread. If Jesus were speaking of sacrifice, wouldn’t He have cited the Paschal lamb, the Passover meat offering? He’s specifically talking about His body as bread. The reference is more than a precursor to His death. It points directly to us. “This is my body, which is broken for you,” He says.

Hungry No More

In John 6.35, Jesus declares, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry.” Unbroken bread appeals to our senses. It looks and smells lovely and feels warm and substantial in our hands. But without breaking, bread’s value is fleeting. It quickly goes stale and hard, making it too difficult to swallow and, eventually, microbes and maggots nesting inside it make it indigestible. Bread must be ruined—torn open, pulled to pieces, and consumed—to experience its true benefits. The broken body of Christ is no different. It enables us to enjoy and experience the life He gives. His blood brings our atonement. This is why Jesus tells the disciples, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.” (Luke 22.20) Hebrews 9.22 confirms this: “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” The new promise of God’s mercy is in Christ’s blood. But His body is broken to grant us life.

“If you come to me,” Jesus says, “you’ll be hungry no more.” The breaking of the Bread of Life nourishes us twice—in this existence and the next. In John 10.10, Jesus defines His mission very succinctly, saying, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” And every Sunday school student can quote His definition of God’s plan: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3.16) The sacramental bread we eat—the broken body of Christ—endows us to live fully now and assures us we’ll live again. We take the bread in remembrance of Jesus’s willingness to be broken. Yet we also cherish its reminder that Christ’s breaking fully satisfies our hunger for life, now and forever.

In the Body

Paul writes in Galatians 2.20: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Being crucified with Christ means being broken with Him. We set aside concerns about appearances and appeal to give Him free access to our minds, hearts, and spirits. We allow ourselves to be ruined—torn open, pulled to pieces, and consumed—by His Spirit. The life we live, we live by faith. We look beyond what we see. We believe what we can’t prove. While unbroken minds crave definitive knowledge and evidence, we trust in Christ, who loved us and gave Himself to be broken for us. While they wrestle with “the meaning of life,” we live. We live confidently now because we have absolute confidence Jesus was broken in death and resurrected to new life so we can live forever.

On this Maundy Thursday, Christians everywhere will commemorate the Lord’s Supper in services expressly focused on the sacramental elements. Sadly, the vast majority will gloss over the nuances differentiating the bread from the wine, reducing them to: bread is to body what wine is to blood. They’ll quickly combine the two to equal sacrifice. And, basically, they’re correct. The breaking of His body and shedding of His blood both contributed to His death. Yet each element also carries unique meaning we shouldn’t overlook. His shed blood brings our full, eternal forgiveness of sin. His broken body provides our full, eternal life. “This cup is for you. This bread is for you,” He says. We are forgiven. We have received life.

Originally posted April 9, 2009.

Just as forgiveness is in Christ’s shed blood, life springs forth from His broken body.

Postscript: You Are the Living Word

Fred Hammond is my favorite contemporary gospel singer. His songs are unadorned with fancy stylistics and clever lyrics. Fred distills a thought into a few phrases that function closer to meditative prayer—he repeats them until they enter the heart. (It helps that he’s a master of musical “hooks.”) Like all his songs, “You Are the Living Word” builds by repetition until it bursts heart, mind, and spirit wide open. Bread of Life, Bread of Heaven, Jesus, You are the Living Word!


Bread of Life

Sent down from Glory

Many things You were on Earth

A holy King, a Carpenter

You are the Living Word

Bread of Heaven

Sent down from Glory...

Awesome Ruler

Gentle Redeemer

God with us, the Living Truth

And what a Friend we have in You

Jesus, Jesus

That's what we call You

Manger-born but on a tree

You died to save humanity

Oh, You are the Living Word

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Identity Switch

Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. (Hebrews 2.14-15)

Transition to the Dark Side

The further we go into Holy Week, what’s actually transpiring becomes more mysterious. In a way, these days approaching Christ’s execution serve as a transition to the dark side of everything we celebrate at Christmas. The fulcrum of time has been repositioned so the emphasis of John 1.14—“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us”—shifts from “Word” to “flesh.” The innocent Babe asleep on the hay is a full-grown Man facing certain death. His days are numbered. Yes, one might say, they’ve always been numbered. He’s always known this. So have we. Yet, as we do with everyone, we set aside this eventuality to appreciate His life. Now, as we watch the rapid spin of events intended to destroy Jesus, we fear for Him. We flinch at every caustic encounter with the powers that be. We tense up when Judas is mentioned. We get frustrated with the obtuse lack of vigilance in the other disciples.

Jesus will defeat death. His mortal body will be transformed in the grave and He will be resurrected as The Eternal Christ. Even so, this week, cognitive belief and spiritual insight fight hard against natural, subconscious fear of death. What we’ve acknowledged in an abstract manner grows more palpable by the minute. We’re increasingly aware of the mystery taking shape before us. The God Who elected to become like us suddenly, irrevocably is us. He will not escape sin's death penalty. His flesh will tear, His bones will ache, His blood will flow, and finally, His heart will stop. The identity switch will be complete. The bright night and angel song that started the process will give way to a black afternoon. From the darkness a barely recognizable voice will cry, “It is finished!” And while we track the divine logic of this, its reality eludes us. Clarity of the transition gets lost in an impenetrable murk of anguish and amazement.

Metaphors for Metamorphosis

The mystery of Christ’s Incarnation—God lowering Himself to become flesh so we can rise above it, submitting to death to defeat it, bearing our resemblance to restore our reflection of Him—thwarted the prophets who foretold it as well as New Testament writers charged with unraveling it. We repeatedly find them grasping at metaphors for metamorphosis. Isaiah 11.1 compares Him to “a Branch” that grows from “the stump of Jesse.” Paul calls Him “a servant, being made in human likeness.” (Philippians 2.7) In numerous places, Jesus is the Lamb of God Who assumes mortality to die as the ultimate sacrifice for sin. In Hebrews, He takes on dual roles—the High Priest Who officiates the sacrifice and the Offering itself. Before delving into interlaced complexities of these two metaphors, however, the writer establishes the fundamental metamorphosis by dispensing with metaphor altogether.

Referring to our mortal condition, the writer says, “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity.” The reason for removing the metaphorical filter has nothing to do with inability to find a suitable one. (If you’ve spent any time in Hebrews, you know keeping up with its similes and cross-metaphors is a quite a job.) The writer wants us to absorb the identity switch in the baldest, most literal terms, just stopping short of asking us to pinch ourselves and feel the same flesh Christ wore, to see the same blood rise to the surface of our skin. The author explains why literal transformation is necessary: “So that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by fear of death.” This week, more than any other, exacts physical identification with Jesus. We anticipate His suffering in our flesh the same way He empathizes with our frailty through His flesh. Hebrews says the mortal link we share to the death allows Christ to destroy the power of death that enslaves us with fear.


Some may question if it’s really that important to grasp the identity switch in such a literal, tactile way. And it’s possible many may come nearer to comprehending it metaphorically. But I personally believe, yes, it’s really that important, which is why metaphors don’t work as well for me. I need to feel Christ “in the flesh” to vivify what’s involved in sharing my humanity—the bow to suffering, the endurance of emotional and physical torment, the doubt in God’s love and wisdom, the agony of injustice and rejection, and the lonely fear of finality. I don’t need a palpable comparison to appreciate the extremity of Christ’s sacrifice, however. That requires no amplification. As the week progresses, it’s important for my physical connection with Jesus to intensify so I can internalize the final exchange—natural extinction replaced by supernatural existence—in my flesh, my mind, my being.

“I want to know Christ,” Paul writes in Philippians, “and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.” (3.11-12) Knowing Jesus and the power of resurrection comes when we switch identities with Him by sharing His humanity via fellowship with His suffering. Rising trepidation of what He will battle in His flesh is more than guilt-infused dread. It’s an autonomic key to knowledge that somehow destroys fear of death with confidence in resurrection. Somehow. This mystery we’re privileged to explore is one we’ll never solve.

The mortal link—the shared humanity between Christ and us—enables us to internalize the final exchange of death and its fears for life and its hopes. ("Metamorphosis" by The Journeys Project.)

Postscript: The Old Rugged Cross

There’s a reason why this country gospel standard is one of the best-loved hymns of all time. John Barry sings “The Old Rugged Cross.”


On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross

The emblem of suffering and shame

How I love that old cross where the Dearest and Best

For a world of lost sinners was slain

So I'll cherish the old rugged cross

'Til my trophies at last I lay down

I will cling to the old rugged cross

And exchange it some day for a crown

Oh that old rugged cross so despised by the world

Has a wondrous attraction for me

For the dear Lamb of God left His glory above

To bear it to dark Calvary

So I'll cherish the old rugged cross...

Then He'll call me some day to my home far away

Where His glory forever I'll share

So I'll cherish the old rugged cross...

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Teaching Kind

As he taught them, he said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it a ‘den of robbers.’ (Mark 11.16)

Righteous Indignation

Last week, a very dear Jewish friend asked to attend Palm Sunday service with us. As we walked to church, she said, “Yesterday, there was this preacher in the subway saying the meanest things.” Being well acquainted with the type, I said, “Everybody’s going to Hell, right?” She answered, “Everybody. If you smoke cigarettes, you’re going to Hell. If you drink, you’re going to Hell. If you’re gay, you’re going to Hell. He had me on the first two.” Being so close to Walt and me, we laughed he also had her on the third by proxy. As we walked on, it occurred to me since she’d never visited the church, she might be a tad wary of a similar spew-fest. “This won’t be like that,” I promised.

To my delight, the sermon surpassed “not like that” by such a wide margin it poised at the doomsayer’s polar opposite. Even though neither Heaven nor Hell came up, the polarity emerged in its righteous indignation. The pastor began by confessing she’d been in “a Lenten bubble,” and not heard much on the bilious accusation “social justice” is leftist theological code for communism—until a blogger cited the church’s Website as an example. She used this recent outbreak of ideological slander as a contextual bridge to Holy Week. “I am painfully aware that poisonous public discourse… has its place in the unfolding drama of this week,” she said, adding Jesus wasn’t crucified because He healed and fed people, told nice stories and gathered children around Him. “Jesus was crucified… because he was in every fiber of his being advocating SOCIAL JUSTICE,” telling us she’d typed the phrase in all-caps. Her indignation intensified as she debunked this newly hatched myth that compassion and concern are politically minted ideas. They’ve always been Christianity’s definitive markers, she insisted, with plenty of historical documentation backing her up. Near the end, she asked, “What might it mean to live so loud that the impact is felt everywhere we step, not because we are stepping on things or people, not because we are shouting at people, but because the stride in our steps [is] beating down the path toward the poor, the hungry, the disenfranchised, the ones who need Jesus’ SOCIAL JUSTICE?” After the sermon—titled “Living Out Loud”—our friend said, “That was amazing!”

Political Suicide

I awoke yesterday with the story of Christ clearing the Temple in my head, as we’re told it’s the first thing He does on Monday. I wanted to write about it, yet outside its overt aspects, I couldn’t figure out what to make of it. It happens so abruptly, without a hint of what lit teachers used to call “an inciting incident,” it doesn’t make sense. After Jesus and the disciples retire to outlying Bethany on Sunday evening, they return to Jerusalem the next day and go to the Temple. Immediately on entering, Jesus “began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts.” (Mark 11.15-16) We understand why He does it. The Temple has turned into a bazaar, where opportunistic tellers charge fees to make correct change for monetary offerings and wranglers sell sacrificial animals at pricey mark-up. This is common in pagan temples, which also sell meat presented to idols as convenient take-away. So commerce within its courts twice desecrated the Temple by gouging worshipers and mimicking idolatry. But none of this explains why Jesus clears the Temple now.

The commercialization of Temple property isn’t new. Jesus has seen it all His life and never (to our knowledge) reacted unfavorably before. Of all the times to vent His displeasure, none could be worse. The prior day’s coronation parade has ramped up alarm among Temple authorities. Opposing their policies in such a volatile way is political suicide. Not only does Jesus enrage them, He infuriates influential merchants and insiders by disrupting their businesses. Why doesn’t He meekly enter the Temple, don His rabbinical shawl, take a seat, and wait His turn to speak? For some time, He’s been clued into the formulating conspiracy against Him. And there’s our answer. Realizing Sunday’s public acclaim has increased the urgency to be rid of Him, Jesus takes His first chance to correct these intolerable practices because it may be His last chance to do it. Then, after Palm Sunday’s sermon, I have a better idea of the full scope of what He does.

High Melodrama

Most of us have heard this episode preached and seen it dramatized more times than we can count. And it’s a safe bet that it’s always been presented as high melodrama. Jesus storms into the Temple, knocks over a lot of furniture, and once He’s got everyone’s attention, bellows a scathing indictment that lashes Isaiah 56.7 to Jeremiah 7.11: “Is it not written: ’My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it a ‘den of robbers.’” (Mark 11.17) His words tremble with fury and the people quake with fear. This doesn’t square with Mark’s report, though. After Jesus overturns the merchants’ stations and halts the flow of merchandise, there’s a cooling off period. Mark prefaces Jesus’s statement with, “As he taught them, he said…” He taught them. That’s the difference between undignified condemnation and righteous indignation, poisonous discourse and constructive criticism, a preacher’s rants and a pastor’s restraint—the difference between harsh judgment and gentle justice.

Jesus was the teaching kind. Discipline and care governed His every word and action. What we witness in the Temple is a Teacher willing to risk His personal safety—His very life—to demonstrate a forgotten principle. What we don’t see is an angry God, frustrated Rabbi, or crazed Provocateur. And we understand Jesus uses this scenario not merely to right an overlooked wrong, but also to teach us how to teach. It’s His last chance, and He does it in the most memorable, atypical manner imaginable. When we trim back the fatty melodrama and cut into the meat, it’s not that hard. If necessary, we must sacrifice personal comfort and safety to demonstrate our point. But we prove it by teaching. Mark ends saying the Temple authorities “feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching.” (v18) When we’re the teaching kind, the consternation of adversaries and amazement of listeners separate us from every other kind.

All this melodrama layered on the cleansing of the Temple misses the teaching that follows.

Postscript: I’m Trying to Be Like Jesus

Being taught isn’t something we sing about very much. Yet we can’t be the teaching kind without learning from the Master. This popular Latter-Day Saints’ children’s song touches me deeply with its message—so simple on the surface, yet so complex and richly nuanced through and through.


I'm trying to be like Jesus

I'm following in His ways

I'm trying to love as He did

In all that I do and say

At times I am tempted to make a wrong choice

But I try to listen as the still, small voice


"Love one another as Jesus loves you

"Try to show kindness in all that you do

"Be gentle and loving in deed and in thought

For these are the things Jesus taught."

I'm trying to love my neighbors

I'm learning to serve my friends

I watch for the day of gladness

When Jesus will come again

I try to remember the lessons He taught

Then the Holy Spirit enters my thoughts,


"Love one another..."

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Join the Procession!

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD. From the house of the LORD we bless you. The LORD is God, and he has made his light shine upon us. With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession up to the horns of the altar. (Psalm 118.26-27)

The Right People

Today’s post begins with a confession. For years, I’ve regarded Palm Sunday with a degree of ambivalence and skepticism. I know why this is, and I’ve accepted it as a by-product of knowledge that can’t be erased. Still, when I revisit the Triumphal Entry, the hosannas ring hollow and the praise clangs with insincerity. I see a crowd caught up by excitement, yelling and chanting mindlessly, throwing their coats down to carpet Christ’s passage and waving palm boughs with wild abandon—just to take part in the scene. To use a crude analogy, they remind me of red-carpet fans: frenzied people eager to fawn from the sidelines one day and no less eager to hiss from the balcony the next. If I could only free my mind from recognizing familiar faces at Friday’s trial and execution. If I could only block voices shouting “Hosanna!” today from filtering through the cries for crucifixion five days hence.

This year, I’m struck by the conviction I’m focusing on the wrong people. In part, it’s because I overlooked John’s comment that connects the raising of Lazarus a few days earlier and Palm Sunday’s turn-out: “Many people, because they heard that he had given this miraculous sign, went out to meet him.” (John 12.18) Aha! Many have come because they already believe what the world will learn next Sunday: Jesus is The Christ, the Sovereign Lord Whose compassion and power defy death and decay. I flash forward to scan the belligerent mob in Pilate’s court and along the Via Dolorosa. While I remember many of them, there are just as many, possibly more, from Sunday’s crowd I don’t see. I don't reencounter the sincere followers until Calvary, where they stand together, holding fast to their faith in the face of such horror. I notice someone nod toward Lazarus, living proof of Christ’s resurrection power. I catch snippets of disciples recalling Jesus said He would be killed, but would rise to new life. An occasional breeze carries a softly murmured “Hosanna!”—“Save us!”—spoken as prayer more than praise. And now I’m back at the Jerusalem gate, in the company of faithful believers, rejoicing with them, waving my palms, and shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” I’m seeing the right people, and Palm Sunday never looked or felt more alive with joy and hope.

Pivotal Praise

While hindsight obscured my view of the many faithful in Palm Sunday’s throng, their praise alerts me to their prescient awareness of what's occurring. The Gospels offer minor variances in the syntax, yet with the exception of Luke, they center on three praises: “Hosanna,” a praise that denotes Christ’s singularity as their Savior; “Blessed is He Who comes in the name of the Lord,” which ascribes divine authority to Him; and “Blessed is the King of Israel,” declaring Jesus as the Promised One, the Messiah. These are not ad hoc approbations invented on the spot. They’re either lifted directly from Messianic prophecies or definitively referential to them. Of the three, I find the second most fascinating, as its original context in Psalm 118 captures the full essence of what is happening at the moment, as well as what will happen in the coming week.

Before the psalmist confirms the Messiah’s arrival, he/she exults in resurrection and acceptance. “I will not die but live, and will proclaim what the LORD has done,” verse 17 reads. Next we hear a declaration of welcome: “Open for me the gates of righteousness; I will enter and give thanks to the LORD. This is the gate of the LORD through which the righteous may enter.” (v19-20) In verses 22 and 23, we find the prophecy Jesus refers to soon after His triumphal entry to Jerusalem: “The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the LORD has done this and it is marvelous in our eyes.” Bolstered by assurance in God’s providence, the psalmist breaks out in praise that presages the spirit of Palm Sunday and its hosannas: “This is the day the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. O LORD, save us; O LORD, grant us success.” (v24-25)

All of this serves as groundwork for the climactic anthem and invitation. “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD. From the house of the LORD we bless you. The LORD is God, and he has made his light shine upon us. With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession up to the horns of the altar.” (v26-27) Therefore, “Blessed is He” is pivotal praise. It worships Christ as the Capstone established by God despite social and religious rejection. It proclaims His resurrection in advance. Acclaiming these miracles as accomplished facts hardly suggests resting on their laurels, however. The psalm pushes ahead, urging us to pass through “the gate of the Lord,” with palm boughs in hand as we join the procession to Calvary’s altar. But note: it’s a festal procession, a joyful march. The triumph we celebrate today shouldn’t dissipate as forthcoming sorrows mount. We see through the cross to new life that is born from it.

A Day of Invitation

Palm Sunday launches a movement that can’t be stopped—not by religious conspiracy, not by unjust police action, not by popular opinion, not even by death. Like any movement, its ranks not only include sincere followers, but also hypocrites, mockers, hangers-on, and Pharisees. And yes, as it’s amassed power and popularity through the centuries, corrupt minds and evil hearts have misappropriated its title to advance hatred, injustice, and prejudice. Hebrews 6.6 says “they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.” Once again, if we fixate on them, we focus on the wrong people. We’re blind to how many come to meet Jesus because they truly believe He is The Christ, the Lord of Life and Victor over Death. Most importantly, not joining the procession because of its negative elements keeps us from reaching the cross of forgiveness and resurrection that waits on the other side. Palm Sunday is a day of invitation. Join our shouts of “Blessed is He Who comes in the name of the Lord!” Bring your palms along as we follow our King through the gate.

It’s a mistake to permit the insincerity of some to obscure the faith of others and, worst of all, let that discourage us from joining the procession.

Postscript: “Hallelujah”

Yes, I know, Handel’s “Hallelujah” is traditionally an Easter song—but today I hear a clarion call that anticipates Christ’s triumph: “Join the procession!” André Rieu conducts his chorus and The Harlem Gospel Choir, accompanied by the Johann Strauss Orchestra (Radio City Music Hall, 2004).