On the Verge of a Miracle

Sermon for Palm Sunday

March 25, 2018

Philippians 2:5-11

Mark 11:1-10

I have intense aversions to two things: snakes and heights. So it made perfect sense to me that I felt a call to go on a mission trip to Africa. God certainly has a sense of humor. See the place I went, Zimbabwe, has 17 different species of snakes – only 16 of which are poisonous. Zimbabwe also has Victoria Falls and the Zambezi River, one of the most breathtakingly spectacular places on the planet. It is also very high. I was faithful, though, and went where I felt called. By God’s grace I never saw a snake the entire time I was there. The heights were another thing altogether. Towards the end of our trip, our group went to Victoria Falls where we could spend a couple of days being tourists. One of the options available to us was bungee jumping off the bridge over the Zambezi between Zimbabwe and Zambia. To this day, I am not sure what possessed me, but I ended up signing on for the jump. Here I am, a guy who does not like heights, attaching a bungee cord – a glorified rubber band – to myself and jumping off a bridge. I couldn’t believe it. I got there, with all my gear on, ready to go, and I stepped to the edge, and looked down, and that was it. I was done. I couldn’t go through with it. I was one step away, but it was a step too far.

I see a reflection of myself in the crowd that surrounds Jesus as he makes his way into Jerusalem. For whatever reason, be it his preaching, his teaching, or his miracles, the crowd of people around him hail him as a king. They accompany him as he fulfills the prophecy of Zechariah, who delivered an oracle that promised Israel a triumphant and victorious king whose feet would stand on the Mount of Olives[1] and who would arrive “humble and riding on a donkey.”[2] They wave branches and throw their garments before him, reenacting royal processions from their history. They sing songs fit for a king. And they pray. They pray, “Hosanna!” Which means, “Save now!” “Hosanna!” Save us now!

This crowd has some serious expectations, some serious hopes. They parade with Jesus as he makes his way to Jerusalem, and they parade with purpose. Like me standing on the bridge, believing I could overcome my aversion to heights, the crowd believed things could change for them. They believed the powers that controlled them, oppressed them, humiliated them, exploited them could be defeated, that change could come, and that Jesus was going to be the one to bring that change.

This crowd surrounding Jesus is not unlike the hundreds of thousands of people who banded together across the world yesterday to march in their own parade. Led by teenagers, those who took part in March for Our Lives Rallies assembled to proclaim that things need to change. Those students from Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High, and the countless others who joined them, marched because they have a hope and an expectation that things can change. They would not be out there otherwise.

I believe the crowd around Jesus possessed the same fervent hope and expectation. Yet in just a few days’ time, their adoring and expectant cries of “Hosanna!” will be replaced with shouts of “Crucify him!”[3] Jesus failed to live up to their hopes. Jesus did not perform the way they wanted him to or expected him to. However, Jesus still answered their prayers. Jesus still saved them. Jesus offered them freedom from their captivity – not their captivity to Rome, but their captivity to sin. Jesus offered them abundant and eternal life – not a path around suffering and death, but victory through them. In short, Jesus offered them a miracle, but like me on the bridge, they could not take that final step, for it was a step too far.

It reminds me of a story from John’s Gospel. Jesus’ friend Lazarus had died and had been in the tomb four days before Jesus arrived. Lazarus’ sister, Martha, goes out to meet Jesus as he gets closer. “Lord,” she said to Jesus. “If you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus goes on to tell her that her brother will rise again, but she thinks he is talking about a far distant time when all the faithful dead will rise. Jesus, addressing her misconceptions, says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live…” When Jesus finally arrives at Lazarus’ tomb and orders that the stone be rolled away, Martha intervenes and tries to prevent Jesus from doing exactly what he promised he would do. “Lord,” she says. “already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”[4] Martha, justified by faith, assured of the promise, expectant and hopeful stands right on the verge of a miracle, and then tries to stop it from happening. She steps right to the edge of the bridge, and is ready to step back, because that next step is a step too far.

We, like Martha, like the crowd around Jesus as he enters Jerusalem, like the students who organized yesterday’s march, like me standing on the bridge – we all have hope for a better life, a better existence, a better future for our children, and a better world for all people. Yet, do we expect it? Are we willing to leave everything behind in order to go after it? Are we, like Martha, willing to abandon our grief and run to meet Jesus as he approaches? Are we, like the crowd, bold enough to cheer for a new king when the Roman governor, who represents the status quo powers that be, is just on the other side of the city gate? Are you like me, bravely standing on the edge of the bridge? If so, then we are all on the verge of a miracle, and we just need to take one more step. Yet, too often, we back away, we throw up our hands at the last possible moment and say, “No God, I’m comfortable in my old life; I don’t need a new one. Don’t go in my tomb! It stinks too much in there!” And if God persists, we are likely to put our foot down and cry, “Crucify him!” Because the truth is Jesus shows us that the last step really is a step too far – it is walking into death – death to self – in order to inherit new and everlasting life. And who in their right mind wants to die?

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” Paul tells us this morning. Right there is death to self because we are giving up our own mind, our own will, to allow the mind and will of Christ to operate in us. But he doesn’t stop there, for having the same mind as Christ means that we are willing to humble ourselves and become obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. My friends, Paul is not messing around here. It takes serious commitment to live the Jesus way. The same kind of commitment we saw demonstrated this past Friday by Lt. Col. Arnaud Beltrame, a French police officer who swapped places with a hostage during a terrorist attack, and who was later fatally wounded because of his willingness to intervene on behalf of the woman he saved.

We may not all be called to give up our physical lives for the sake of Jesus, yet one thing is clear and consistent throughout the gospels – if we want the new life Jesus offers us, we must sacrifice our old life. We must get out of God’s way and take that last step off the bridge, because that’s what Jesus did. He enters Jerusalem hailed as a king, but by the end of this week he will be betrayed, abandoned, scorned, mocked, humiliated, tortured, and executed. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” says Paul. For in the end, God highly exalted him, resurrecting him and giving us the hope and promise of resurrection life as well.

My friends, we have hope – like Martha, like the crowd outside Jerusalem, like a bungee-jumping Jack. We have gospel hope that defies the doom and gloom that is all around us, that infects our very lives. We have gospel hope that defies death, the worst of all our enemies. We have a gospel hope for ourselves, our children, and all people – a hope that is not in vain. God understands and encourages our hopes and aspirations, wanting to bring them to fruition, so that we can show the world that we – and all of creation – are not going nowhere, but somewhere – a destination that is the fullness of God’s glory. My friends, we stand on the verge of a miracle. It’s one more step. Will you take it?

[1] Zech 14:4

[2] Zech 9:9

[3] Mk 15:13

[4] Jn 11