A.J. Thomas serves as the pastor of Morehead United Methodist Church in Greensboro, NC and shares these sermons with you.
You can join the Morehead congregation for worship on Sundays at 9 am (informal/contemporary) or 11 am (traditional). We're located in Northwest Greensboro at 3214 Horse Pen Creek Road, 27410.
When Jesus and his followers approached Jerusalem, they
came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives. Jesus gave two disciples
a task, 2 saying to them, “Go into the village over there. As
soon as you enter it, you will find tied up there a colt that no one has
ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 3 If anyone says to you,
‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘Its master needs it, and he will send it back
4 They went
and found a colt tied to a gate outside on the street, and they untied it. 5 Some
people standing around said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” 6 They
told them just what Jesus said, and they left them alone. 7 They
brought the colt to Jesus and threw their clothes upon it, and he sat on it. 8 Many
people spread out their clothes on the road while others spread branches cut
from the fields. 9 Those in front of him and those following
were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessings on
the one who comes in the name of the Lord!10 Blessings
on the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest!” 11 Jesus
entered Jerusalem and went into the temple. After he looked around at
everything, because it was already late in the evening, he returned to Bethany
with the Twelve.
One of the formative
experiences of any trip to the Holy Land is to walk the Palm Sunday road, from
the top of the Mount of Olives, down into the Kidron Valley, and up into the
city of Jerusalem.Not surprisingly, at
the top of the route and really all along it, vendors are waiting to sell all
sorts of things to the religious pilgrims walking that route.For a few bucks, you can have your picture
taken riding a camel or donkey, and the vendor who seemed to get the most
business was the one with the best sense of humor.He led his donkey through the crowds,
shouting, “Donkey rides, taxi! Ride Jesus’ taxi!”
I don’t remember my first
parade.But I know I love parades, and
can’t remember a time when I didn’t.What I always loved about the parades were the vehicles.Red and yellow fire trucks with lights
flashing, blaring their horn as they passed, volunteers from some organization
riding on the back and pelting the crowd with as much candy as a kid could
grab.I loved all the special interest
cars, from the shiny new convertibles (though I could care less about the mayor
or city council member riding on the back), to the muscle cars and classic cars
and antique cars that made their way through.
We lived in a small town
in Oklahoma until I was about 3, and our friend and neighbor, Seymour, owned a
restored Ford Model ‘A’ truck, which I thought was the coolest thing in the
world, especially the “ahooga” horn.Seymour’s truck appeared in just about every parade in town, and I have
the vague recollection of riding in a parade with him, where he let me sound
that “ahooga” horn all over the entire route, and I relished every single
minute of it.
Another parade I have an
early memory of is the palm parade every Palm Sunday.As a child, I remember waving my branch high
and shouting, “Hosanna,” much as we have already done, with our children
leading the way, at the beginning of today’s worship service.
Palm Sunday is the
beginning of the Holiest week in the life of the Church, and it moves in roller
coaster fashion for Jesus and his followers from the highest highs to the
lowest lows, and then back up again.The
traditional images of Palm Sunday with which we are so familiar – smiling
crowds, fuzzy donkeys, colorful cloaks laid along the road – may lull us into
the sense that what took place on this day in Jerusalem so long ago was a
matter of child’s play, when the reality is that things of the utmost
importance were in play, setting in motion a clash of forces that would lead to
Jesus’ execution on the cross.Let us pray.
It was the beginning of
the Passover week, the highest and holiest of Jewish religious festivals.During Passover at the time of Jesus, the
population of Jerusalem would swell from 40,000 to 200,000, drawing religious
pilgrims from around the known world together into one place.
But their minds were not
only on things religious.Several came
with political agendas as well.Passover
celebrated the Hebrew liberation from the Egyptians, and during the time of
Jesus, the people found themselves occupied by the Romans.Passover parties of the past had proved to be
a political problem, the perfect staging ground for rebellion and
Picture Jerusalem as the
center of a busy intersection.Jesus’
ride on the stolen donkey was not the only parade taking place that day.As he descended the Mount of Olives and
entered the city from the East, another parade entered the city from the
West.This other parade was led by the
Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, atop a beautiful and powerful warhorse, with
the reigns of worldly power held loose, but firm, in his hands.600 Roman soldiers followed behind to
reinforce Rome’s rule during the festival, accompanied by all the symbols of
military might we would expect – flags flying, trumpets blasting, drums beating,
armor clanking, spears gleaming in the springtime morning sun.
The Romans reinforced their occupation forces on Jewish high holy days to
discourage any attempted insurrection by rebel leaders who might take advantage
of the swelling holiday crowd. Pilate wanted to be close enough to the Temple
complex with a strong display of Roman force to ensure the “Pax Romana,” Rome’s
version of peace. And Rome had the cross, an intimidating execution device, to
enforce Roman authority with any who would question it. Thousands of criminals
and perceived enemies of the state were executed along the main roads so that all
could witness the penalty for insurrection.
The cross was a particularly cruel device of both torture and
execution.Not only did it ensure that
people died in the most painful and excruciatingly long way possible, but it
dehumanized the crucified in a way we cannot imagine.We picture crosses as high in the air, but
the reality is that the crucified typically hung a few feet off the ground,
next to a main road, close enough for people to insult and degrade them
In contrast to the display of Roman imperial power, Jesus, who came with no
sword, rode into the city on a donkey from the east with a group of ordinary fishermen
and farmers and day laborers, tax collectors and prostitutes and sinners, the
least and the last, the lost and the lonely, the downtrodden and the forgotten.
The Roman legion symbolized power and privilege; Jesus represented its
opposite.He was born as an oppressed
minority.He spent the first two years
of his life as a political refugee in Africa, escaping Herod’s infanticide in
Bethlehem.Wherever you consider to be
the most backward, middle-of-nowhere place on earth, that’s where Jesus grew
up, as some had commented about his hometown, “Can anything good come from
Nazareth?” (John 1:46).
Pilate and the kingdom of the world came from one direction; Jesus and the
kingdom of God from the other, and there in the middle, caught between the two,
was a third force: the compromised religious institution. The institution was
more concerned with maintaining the status quo than with caring for the poor
and marginalized.They were intent on personal
gain and institutional security, with no concern for God’s redemptive mission
of justice and righteousness in the world.More concerned with self-preservation than witnessing to God’s love for
those beyond themselves, they had become, as some describe, “so heavenly bound
they were no longer any earthly good.”
On Palm Sunday, the crowds who lined the road and greeted Jesus shouted
“Hosanna!” literally, “Save us,” but those in the crowd were asking for
salvation from different things.Those
with political aspirations were seeking salvation from the Roman
government.They had on their mind a
coup d’état in which Jesus would overthrow the Romans and establish a regime of
his own.Those with religious sensibilities
were seeking salvation from the misguided, self-serving religious establishment,
in the hopes that Jesus would establish a new one in its place.
In either case, first on everyone’s minds were their own aspirations or
desires – whether political or religious.Those looking for a political Messiah greeted Jesus as the new king – of
the old kingdom.Those looking for a
religious Messiah greeted Jesus as the new priest – of the old religion.
And though Jesus is king, he came neither to take over the old kingdom or
to establish a new one, which disappointed those with political hopes.And though Jesus is priest, he came neither
to take over the old religion or to establish a new one, which disappointed
those with hopes for a new religious institution.
Jesus is always a great disappointment to those who wish to use him to
advance their own agendas. Whatever the
disciples expected to happen, and whatever the crowds expected, just didn’t
happen. Their expectations and Jesus’ agenda are worlds apart.That explains how he lost the support of public opinion
by the end of the week, and how the very crowds who exultantly shouted
“Hosanna!” on Sunday, would, by Friday, in blood thirst be yelling, “Crucify
Nothing about the story suggest child’s play.Jesus, riding a donkey, enters the Holy City
from the east. The Roman contingent parades into the city from the west. In the
middle were the compromised religious elite. It became known as Palm Sunday –
when kingdoms collide.
When Jesus came to earth, he brought with him the reign of God, which
uproots self-serving systems of greed, corruption, abuse, and exclusion,
whether political or religious in nature.The reign of God is always a threat to those who benefit from
maintaining the status quo.
Friends, I wonder where we would place ourselves in the crowd.In my own hand, there is a palm branch.Today, we have waved these branches high and
greeted Jesus with shouts of, “Hosanna!”Have we done so in the hopes that Jesus will advance an agenda that
reflects our own?The temptation is always there to co-opt God to
legitimate our vision of utopia, but today, shouts of “Hosanna” can be our cry
for Jesus to save us from our own misguided, small-minded, self-serving,
status-quo-preserving thinking and desires.
Today, as I wave my branch and greet Jesus as king, I do so with the
whole-hearted desire to be a citizen in his kingdom, to pledge my allegiance to
him alone, to bow my will and desires to his.I may not fully understand his kingdom all the time, may not recognize it
when it’s in my midst.I may, at times,
cheer for the wrong reasons, or have expectations for Jesus that reflect my own
thinking rather than the mind of Christ.
Yet, Jesus has so much more in store than my little mind can fathom, and my
limited understanding and misguided expectations do not diminish or dictate
what God is up to.
When my expectations collide with those of Jesus, my waving branch
indicates my desire to do it his way, rather than asking him to promote
mine.This branch is a reminder to me,
to all of us, that there can only be one king, and that position has already
been filled by Jesus.
So lift your palm high and greet him as King.Hail Jesus as the King; love and serve him as your
13 It was
nearly time for the Jewish Passover, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 He
found in the temple those who were selling cattle, sheep, and doves, as well as
those involved in exchanging currency sitting there. 15 He made
a whip from ropes and chased them all out of the temple, including the cattle
and the sheep. He scattered the coins and overturned the tables of those who
exchanged currency. 16 He said to the dove sellers, “Get these
things out of here! Don’t make my Father’s house a place of business.” 17 His
disciples remembered that it is written, Passion
for your house consumes me.
18 Then the
Jewish leaders asked him, “By what authority are you doing these things? What
miraculous sign will you show us?”
answered, “Destroy this temple and in three days I’ll raise it up.”
20 The Jewish
leaders replied, “It took forty-six years to build this temple, and you will
raise it up in three days?” 21 But the temple Jesus was talking
about was his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his
disciples remembered what he had said, and they believed the scripture and the
word that Jesus had spoken.
If you pay too much
attention to Jesus, he will speak hard words that make you rethink your
priorities.Our purpose as a church is
to love people into God’s family, and if we pay attention to Jesus today, we
have the opportunity to love people for who they are, not for what they can do
Now, you’ve shown up on a
Sunday during Lent, when everything is draped in purple as a reminder that we
are moving toward the cross, and that something within each of us needs to die
so we can experience new life in Christ.Indeed, any time you show up and see purple, get ready to ponder hard
words about hard things; Jesus might make you angry enough to go Hulk and start
turning over some tables yourself.
For those who grew up
singing, “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild,” you may treat the incident we read
about in today’s Scripture as an anomaly in the life of Jesus – that “one time”
when an otherwise polite and quiet person just snapped and lost it – going into
the temple and turning over tables and driving out those who were buying and
selling.How out of character for gentle
Jesus to show both such white hot anger and brute force – he must have been
under tremendous stress to act out in such a way.Jesus is perfect, after all, and this
behavior is not how good boys and girls resolve their differences, and so for
centuries, preachers and teachers have tried to rationalize and smooth over the
implications of an angry Jesus turning over tables in the temple.
What I would like you to
consider today is that this incident is actually quite consistent with Jesus’
character, not the anomaly we might suggest.For one thing, this is not an isolated incident.This is not the only place where Jesus shows
some anger or aggression, though it is perhaps the most memorable display of
both.To be sure, Jesus will say and do
plenty that will anger the religious establishment, the political
establishment, the rich, and generally upset the status quo.
For another thing, this is
not an accidental incident.All four
Gospel writers include some version of Jesus getting angry and turning over
tables in the temple, and driving away buyers and sellers.They all found it important to let us know
that Jesus got angry, so what exactly is Jesus so angry about?
During the time of Jesus,
the temple was the hub of religious activity for the Jewish people.It is the second temple, the first having
been built by Solomon, and this one having been built by King Herod The
Great.Herod built the temple, not because he was a
particularly religious man – he wasn’t – but because he was a smart
politician.He built the temple to keep
the religious Jews happy, to curry their favor and support.
The temple was the center
of worship for the Jewish people.Now,
when we think of worship, we think of certain acts like singing and praying and
reading and preaching.All of that took
place at the temple, but the central act of worship was sacrifice – the giving
of valuable animals to be slaughtered and burned as an offering to God.
The altar was the place of
sacrifice.Sometimes, we refer to the
table or the kneeling area in our worship space as “the altar.”But, the activities around the altar are more
like what would take place in a slaughterhouse than a quiet place to pray.
The Law required Jews to
pilgrimage to the temple for at least one of three major festivals each
year.When they came, they were required
to pay their temple tax and offer a sacrifice.
At the time of the
festivals, the temple buzzed with activity 24-7.It took a small army of priests constantly on
duty to facilitate those sacrifices and continually offer prayers.Don’t forget priests who were constantly
burning incense through the whole thing – more for practical reasons than
theological ones – after you’ve burned a few thousand animal sacrifices, see if
the stench doesn’t encourage you to light some incense or spray a can of
That’s worship at the
To be sure, the giving of
things of value as a sacrifice to God is still an important part of our
worship.Only, for practical reasons, we
don’t offer animals, but offer things that have value to us in our context – we
offer gifts of our time, our talent, and our treasure.One key difference between the sacrifice and
generosity of our worship and that of the temple worship is that what we offer
is voluntary, whereas what was offered at the temple was required by law.We teach generosity, our leaders model
generosity by giving 10% of their income as a tithe to God through the church,
we encourage and expect that kind of generosity from every single one of our
members, but we don’t go as far to legalistically require it – because what
anyone gives should always be voluntary, given freely and without compulsion,
given because it’s what you want to give, not what anyone tells you have to give.
Further, we encourage it
as a way of growing as disciples – we are made in the image of a generous God,
and when we give generously, we reflect God’s image and grow in God’s likeness,
and so we encourage generosity for your own benefit and growth as a follower of
But at the temple, you
were required under penalty of law to
give, and the temple officials told you what you were expected to give.It was a sliding scale based on your income –
a pair of bulls or oxen if you were wealthy, a pair of doves if you weren’t.
When the sacrificial
system was established, you raised your own animal for sacrifice.But by the time of Jesus, you could purchase
your sacrifice when you got to Jerusalem.The whole system of buying and selling at the temple developed for very
practical reasons – if you’ve travelled hundreds of miles on foot to make your
sacrifice during the festival, you can see how expensive and cumbersome it
would be to bring your bulls or your oxen with you – cleaning up after them,
feeding them along the way, ensuring that they arrive at the temple unblemished
after such a long and difficult journey, why it would be near impossible!
And so, the whole system
of buying and selling at the temple developed out of a real need, and a sense
of convenience to facilitate everyone’s sacrificing.Now, convenience is never free.When we go to the beach for a week, we do our
grocery shopping once we get there, knowing that we’re going to pay a little
more in the grocery store there than we do here.We willingly pay the price for the
convenience, however, of not having to pack our milk, eggs, and meat in ice to
make the journey down.Convenience and
location always has a price – buy a hot dog in the stadium, and it will cost
you twice what it costs from a vendor outside, and it’s more than a whole case
of hot dogs will cost you in the store.But again, we pay a premium for convenience.
It was the same situation
at the temple.For the convenience of
purchasing your animal sacrifice right there instead of having to bring it
several hundred miles, you paid a little more.Honestly, it wasn’t the buying and selling itself that caused the issue
– it was the predatory abuse of the system, that made dishonest profit off
those who were there to worship God, that was the problem.
Imagine this scenario: you
are a poor farmer, just arrived in Jerusalem to make your sacrifice.You are devout, you genuinely love God and
want to please God, whether the law says you have to or not.Outside the temple, you purchase two
unblemished doves to offer as sacrifice. They would cost you $5 at home, but
here in the big city, you pay $10.You
go through the temple gates into the outer court, and get in line to see the
priest who is inspecting the sacrifices, who happens to be a buddy of the guy
who sold you the doves outside.The
inspecting priest finds a defect on the doves you just bought – even then,
everything depreciates the moment you drive it off the lot – and so they are
unsuitable for you to offer.
Fortunately for you, right
over here, inside the courts of the temple, the priest’s cousin is selling
pre-inspected doves, but again, location and convenience has its price, and
these doves will cost you $100, and to you, they look just like the doves you
paid $10 for 10 minutes ago.But, what
choice do you have – you have to make the sacrifice, you fork over the $100,
and the guy says, “If you want, I’ll give you $5 for those defective doves [the
ones you just paid $10 for] just to take them off your hands.”
Disgusted, and pretty sure
you’ve just been had, you walk around the corner, and the dove seller in the
temple walks over to the priest and gives him $30, and then goes and gives the
dove seller outside $30 as well as the defective doves to sell to the next
unsuspecting worshiper, which will start the whole scenario over again.Repeat that a few hundred times, and imagine
the piles of money that have been made by the sellers, and the inspecting
priest, all at the expense of those who have come, as required by law, to worship
It’s a similar scenario
with the money-changers.Again, people
have come from all over the world, carrying their local currency.Most of that money had inscriptions and
images of the local leader, many ascribing qualities of divinity to these world
leaders.The temple treasury couldn’t be
defiled with these graven, idolatrous image coins, but fortunately for you, you
could exchange your money into a temple-approved local currency, and there just
happened to be a currency exchange on site.
Those of you who’ve
travelled internationally know the rule that you lose money every time you
exchange currency – true today, true then.A modest administrative fee for the troubles of the money changer,
again, multiplied several thousand times, makes the money changer wealthy, off
the backs of those who have come to worship God.
A whole economic system
had developed around the temple.It
wasn’t bad in and of itself – it developed for very good reasons, convenience
being one of them.An economic system was
necessary for the buying and selling that facilitated people being able to
worship by offering sacrifices, and so it’s not the system itself that Jesus
took issue with.What got Jesus angry
were the abuses in the system, as personal profit and gain were pursued at the
expense of those who had come to worship.Jesus loses it because a system for relating to God was now getting in
the way of people actually relating to God, and so the whole business of buying
and selling and money changing was counter-productive to the overall endeavor.
Barbara Ludbland, a
Lutheran pastor, grew up in the Midwest at a time of great animosity between
Protestants and Catholics.She said they
didn’t know much about Catholics, other than they played BINGO on Tuesday nights,
and she and her friends were sure this passage was a condemnation of
BINGO.They expected Jesus to show up in
the Social Hall some Tuesday night, turning over tables, sending cards flying,
the cage crashing open, and little white balls in every direction over the tile
floor.His anger would be reserved
exclusively for the Catholics; they were pretty sure that Jesus would be okay
with their chili suppers and youth car washes and fall festivals, because the
money went to missions.
But Jesus’ anger isn’t about
BINGO or car washes or fall festivals or hot dogs, unless – and hear this
carefully – we begin to value people primarily in terms of an economic
transaction and not as precious children of God.
Jesus wouldn’t be down on
fund-raisers, per se, but the Jesus who turns over tables would take great
issue with interacting with our neighbors in a way that suggests our primary
interest in them is for their money, or nickeling and diming people to death
with one fund-raiser after another and sending the impression that the church’s
hand is always open.He would be angry
with fund-raisers that take time, energy, and effort away from our core
mission, as well as fund-raisers and events on Saturday that leave people too
tired to come to worship on Sunday.He
would be appalled when a church’s motivation for reaching out and seeking new
members is that they need their money to fund the budget, and I can’t see that
he’d be pleased if we only offered our neighbors a snack, for a fee, while
ignoring our call to offer them the Bread of Life or a drink from the streams
of Living Water.
Jesus got angry, turned
the tables, and cleansed the temple.His
anger burned because a house of worship was overshadowed by a marketplace,
where dishonest dollars were made by means of buying and selling and money
changing, where people’s value was calculated solely in terms of what could be
taken from them and how those in power could benefit from the vulnerable.Jesus was angry with a system that took
advantage of the poor, the outsider, the marginalized, the widow, the orphan,
the foreigner – all within sight of the altar, where the smoke from the
sacrifices rose toward heaven, and the holy of holies, where the very presence
of God was said to dwell.When Jesus got
angry in the temple, he was turning the tables on a corrupt, abusive,
self-serving system that kept people from experiencing God.He turned the tables on that whole system of
With those with ears to
hear, Jesus is still cleansing the temple.But the temple is not a building.We are the temple.Jesus is still
cleansing us – driving away self-interest and greed and dollars that can only
be made by taking advantage of others, turning over our tendency to value
people based on economic factors rather than as children of God.What does it profit us to gain the whole
world and lose our soul?From a
spiritual perspective, we can make a few bucks, but at what cost?Jesus was angry because the price was too
31 Then Jesus
began to teach his disciples: “The Human One must suffer many things and be
rejected by the elders, chief priests, and the legal experts, and be killed,
and then, after three days, rise from the dead.” 32 He said
this plainly. But Peter took hold of Jesus and, scolding him, began to correct
him. 33 Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, then sternly
corrected Peter: “Get behind me, Satan. You are not thinking God’s thoughts but
calling the crowd together with his disciples, Jesus said to them, “All who
want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and
follow me. 35 All who want to save their lives will lose them.
But all who lose their lives because of me and because of the good news will
save them. 36 Why would people gain the whole world but lose
their lives? 37 What will people give in exchange for their
lives? 38 Whoever is ashamed of me and my words in this
unfaithful and sinful generation, the Human One will be ashamed of that person
when he comes in the Father’s glory with the holy angels.”
As president of my college class, one of my responsibilities was to plan
and organize the senior class trip.Previous classes had gone to such exotic locations as New York City,
Washington DC, Myrtle Beach, and Hershey, PA.Each destination was a direct reflection of the fund-raising prowess and
leadership of the particular class.
As I did the research, comparing prices and seeing how far I could stretch
our fund-raising dollars, I raised the bar and set a higher standard for senior
class trips – taking 36 college seniors on a cruise to the Bahamas.Those few days were a welcome relief to a
bunch of college students in upstate New York, where even by March, we were
still up to our hindparts in piles of gray snow.To say that I earned the title, “class
president for life,” because of that cruise would not be an understatement!
Has anyone here ever been on a cruise?Cruises make their reputation on service and attention to detail.If you get on a cruise ship, prepare for a
few days of rest and relaxation that is focused all around you.Prepare to be entertained, prepare to be
pampered, prepare to be well-fed.
One of the oldest images of the Church is of a ship.It’s an image that suggests the Church is a
place of safety and refuge from the storms of life – something about how we’re
all in this boat together.The technical
name for the part of the sanctuary where the congregation sits is “nave,”
derived from the same word we get “navy.”And indeed, if you look at the inside roof of many church sanctuaries,
including ours, you can imagine that you are sitting inside hull of a ship
So, the church is a ship, but what
kind of ship?Within every church,
there are those who will act like it’s a cruise ship – where other people do
the work so we can relax and be entertained and pampered and well-fed, which
would be very comfortable and pleasant, to be sure, but it doesn’t square very
well with the Jesus who tells us, in today’s Scripture reading, that those who
would want to come after him must say no to themselves, take up their cross,
and follow him.
For those who would like a life of ease and comfort and power and prestige,
Jesus is making it very clear that following him will not get you there – news
that is perhaps as unsettling to us as it was to his first disciples.
Peter, James, and John, and the other disciples had been among the first
ones to follow Jesus, to respond to his invitation to “Come after me.”They had already left behind much – their
family, their friends, their careers.They left much because following Jesus promised much more.He was performing signs and wonders, healing
and casting out demons, walking on water, raising the dead – gaining more fame,
more prominence, more popularity with each move.
A movement was forming around Jesus, and these disciples were right in the
middle of the action.They had hitched
their star to Jesus, and as he rose into positions of power and influence, they
would be there at his right and left hand – the power next to the power, as it
Peter went as far to call
Jesus, “the Messiah.”Jesus said he was
correct, but shocked them all by teaching that the Messiah would be rejected by
anyone with any shred of power.He would
suffer and die a criminal’s death - naked & humiliated, hanging upon a
cross for all to see.Distressed, Peter
took Jesus aside and said, “Say it ain’t so.I was hoping for smooth sailing from here on out, and a cross just isn’t
part of my plan.”
Jesus turned to Peter and
said, “Get behind me, Satan!For you are
thinking human thoughts and not God’s thoughts.”Then Jesus called the rest of the crowd
together and said, “Listen up, people, and listen good!If any of you would be my follower, if any of
you would be my disciple, if any of you wants a place in my kingdom, let them
deny themselves and take up their cross - this emblem of suffering and shame -
let them take up their cross and follow me.”
Peter, you see, wants and needs a strong God.Peter wants a strong God...and who can blame
him. Are we any different? When the crushing weight of hardship bears down upon
us, when the voices of despair drown out all others, when it's one
disappointment after another, don't we also want a strong God to avenge our
hurts, to right all wrongs, and to put us back on top of things?
Except...except that it's precisely when I'm down and out, when life's
setbacks and disappointments have conspired to make me feel like I'm nothing,
that I wonder what a God of might, strength, and justice--the God of winners,
that is--has to say to me, an ordinary schmuck and everyday Joe, who often
feels far closer to defeat than to victory.
I think this is what Jesus means in his rebuke to Peter by contrasting
divine things and earthly ones. By our human reckoning strength is everything,
might makes right, and the one who dies with the most toys wins. But God
employs a different calculus and measures strength not in terms of might but of
love, not by victory but vulnerability, not in possessions but in sacrifice,
not by glory but by the cross.
Following Jesus is not
comfortable.It’s not a golden ticket to
an easy life.Following Jesus is going
to require more than just knowing things about Jesus.Following Jesus means going where he went,
doing what he did.It means dying to
self so we can be part of God’s greater life, submitting our will to Christ’s
will.“Take up your cross and follow me”
– Jesus poured out his life, his access to power, wealth, prestige, comfort –
in order to give life to others.We are
called to nothing less.
You see, there’s a big
difference between a cruise ship and disciple-ship.You climb aboard a cruise ship, and someone
will hand you a cold drink and a hot towel.Follow Jesus and pursue a life of discipleship, and he hands you a cross
and says, “Here, you’re going to need this. And in the meantime, grab an oar
and start rowing, or grab a net and start fishing, or grab a tool and start
fixing, or grab a map and start navigating.”
To be part of the church,
to be aboard this ship means to be put to work and service in some way.Now, many churches operate on the 80/20
rule.80% of the load is carried by 20%
of the people.In such churches,
everyone’s favorite person to do a task is “Someone Else.”Who will teach the children?Someone Else.Who will sing in the choir?Someone Else.Who will lock up
the building?Someone Else.Who will lead the outreach effort?Someone Else.
Can I let you in on a
secret?Someone Else already has enough
on their plate.In reality, Someone Else
probably doesn’t have the time or energy to get to that project, and so it’s
probably just going to go undone.
Friends, the church is at
its best when all of its members are at work in loving service in some
way.You see on the front of the
bulletin, under the staff listing, “Ministers – all who lovingly serve God and
Neighbor.”The reality is that not just
pastors, but all Christians are called to ministry, it’s just that many fail to
claim that call.Important, life-giving,
life-changing ministry never takes place, for want of servants who get it all
done.We have important work to do, and
it will take all hands on deck to get it done.I can’t do it all.Our staff
cannot do it all.Our leaders and
committee chairs can’t do it all – each of us has a role to play, each of us
has work to do.
The exception to that is
when we’re going through a season in life where we cannot contribute, in terms
of time, talent, or treasure, like we might want to.Maybe a health or family situation or some
other circumstance that is a barrier to us doing everything we’d like to or
feel we should – friends, that’s where the rest of the church has a vitally
important role to play.That’s when
those of us who can, who are able, need to step it up all the more to stand in
the gap on behalf of those who can’t in any given season.
That’s something I stress
to people who are preparing to join the church as members.To every person who joins, it’s more than
just about having your name on the roll, it’s about making a commitment to the
ministry God is doing in and through this church.Membership is a way to say, “This is my
church, I am responsible for it.I am
committed to it.I will give of my best
– my time, my talent, and my treasure – to see God’s purpose through this
Yes, it’s fun and safe and
comfortable and easy to simply be along for the ride.It’s nice to let everyone else do the work
while we are pampered and entertained, relaxed and well-fed. It’s nice, but
following Jesus calls us to more.Jesus
calls us to follow him, which will always come with personal cost and
The difference between the
cruise ship and disciple-ship is the difference between being served and being
a servant.Don’t settle for just being a
passenger.Jesus needs us all to join
Praise God in his sanctuary!
Praise God in his fortress, the sky! 2 Praise God in his mighty acts!
Praise God as suits his incredible greatness! 3 Praise God with the blast of the ram’s horn!
Praise God with lute and lyre! 4 Praise God with drum and dance!
Praise God with strings and pipe! 5 Praise God with loud cymbals!
Praise God with clashing cymbals! 6 Let every living thing praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord!
believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to
their shared meals, and to their prayers. 43 A sense of awe
came over everyone. God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles. 44 All
the believers were united and shared everything. 45 They would
sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone
who needed them. 46 Every day, they met together in the temple
and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity. 47 They
praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily
to the community those who were being saved.
Over the last several weeks, we’ve been in a series of messages looking at
the not-so-obvious ways we hear from God.We begin the premise that God is still speaking, right now, to ordinary
people, like us, but that our ears and hearts need to be tuned in so we don’t
miss out on hearing from God.
Over the last several weeks, we’ve seen how God speaks to us in silence,
through other people, through dreams, through donkeys, and through wrestling.If you’ve missed those messages and want to
hear more in detail, we have video of all our previous sermons on the church’s
Today, we’re wrapping up the series by exploring how we can hear from God
through worship.Now, maybe you’re
thinking, “Wait a minute, I thought you said we were looking at the
not-so-obvious places we hear from God, and now you’re ready to talk about
hearing from God in worship.Shouldn’t
worship be one of the obvious places?”
It should.But often it’s not.I say that because what I’ve observed is that
much of what we focus on in worship itself and in our conversations about
worship are much more about us than about God.
I’m keeping it real simple and straight-forward today.Worship is about God.Worship is not about me.Worship is not about you.Worship is about God.
In fact, repeat that after me:
·Worship is about God.
·Worship is not about me.
·Worship is not about you.
·Worship is about God.
If you remember nothing else from today’s message than that worship is
about God, then it will have been a good day!
That’s hard to remember, because so much of what we talk about in relation
to worship has to do with our tastes, our preferences.We come to worship with expectations about
what we want to hear, see, and experience.What is the right way to worship?The right words?The right
songs?The right instruments?The right time?Guitars or organ?Choir or band?
Personal tastes and preferences are not a bad thing, so long as they are
not the main thing.We,
or more to the point, me is not the
main thing in worship; God is.Worship
is not about me.Worship is not about
you.Worship is about God.
If you’ve followed the
worship wars that characterized much of American Christianity over the last 30
years or so, you’ll notice that sort of heart was sorely lacking from the debates.We think of these divisions as being
primarily about traditional worship vs. contemporary, but the issues are bigger
than that.In reality, Christians have
been bickering with each other about worship since the very beginning, and we
forget that many things we take for granted were divisive and controversial in
their day, and many of the hallmarks of what we consider “traditional” were
cutting-edge contemporary when they were introduced.
air-conditioning in churches across the South, evidence that we were getting
too soft and worldly.Hymns were
controversial, people finding their tunes to be vulgar and more appropriate to
the tavern than to the church.Services
being conducted in the native language rather than Latin was a sore spot for
many.Choirs were too showy.The organ was considered more appropriate for
carnivals and street fairs, stained glass was too decadent, and even having
seats in the worship space – be they chairs or pews – were incredibly
controversial to people who wanted to preserve the tradition of standing
through three-hour Latin masses with no instruments, the Psalms only chanted
and no hymns sung, in dark, gloomy sanctuaries, crowded in summer heat pressed
up against strangers who only bathed once a year whether they needed to or not.
Things we take for granted
were controversial enough in their own day.
There were fights –
battles in the worship wars – over each one of these innovations.We can look back on these things and think to
ourselves, “How silly,” but at the same time, I suspect Christians in 100 or
500 years will look back on us and our fights between contemporary and
traditional forms of worship – which will all be traditional, by then – and
think the same thing about us.
Where we make worship about
us instead of about God is when we allow our individual tastes and preferences
to take priority over God.We worship
the instrument, the style, the format, or whatever else instead of worshipping
God with and through those things.That
is just one more way we make worship about us instead of God.
It’s silly and sad and
destructive to see people dividing churches over personal preferences, and
choosing sides based on matters of style, fighting against each other and
failing to realize, in the grand scheme of things, that we’re all on the same
Worship invites us to put
aside our preferences and consider God’s preferences.The most important instrument in the worship
of God is a heart tuned for praise.A
heart more oriented toward pleasing God than pleasing self.
The Psalm we read a few minutes ago, Psalm 150, is a classic psalm of
praise, a blueprint for worship, if you will.Let everything worship God.In
the Hebrew, it is not so much granting permission for everything to praise and
worship God so much as issuing an imperative.“All that has life and breath, come now with praises before him” – or to
employ local idiom, “Worship, y’all.”It
is the final psalm, an exclamation point of praise at the end of the Bible’s
hymn book, one thunderous Doxology that wraps up the whole thing.
That the Psalms end with praise is a theologically significant point – a
solid reminder that whatever else we go through in life – the ups and downs,
the joy and tears, the dancing and mourning, the lamenting and loneliness, the
thrill of victories and the agonies of defeat – all of it, in God’s time and
according to God’s purpose, wraps itself up in praise and worship.
Now, it takes 150 psalms to get there.We don’t get there because we
worshipped in the right way.If you’ll
notice the details in Psalm 150, it describes worship that transcends the
divisions of style and preference that so often characterize our worship
debates.God could care less about how we worship, so long as God remains
the singular focus of our worship.Indeed, authentic worship includes the blast of the trumpet.It includes the lute and lyre – that’s a
guitar and a harp.It includes drum and
dance – not the devil’s work, folks, but part of God’s orchestra.It includes strings and pipes – cello and
organ, maybe?Authentic worship includes
all things that breathe praising God in their own unique and beautiful way,
coming together into a chaotic cacophony of praise that is bigger than a style,
bigger than a preference, bigger than individual taste – friends, bigger than
you or me.
One way to tell if we’re
doing that is to check our pronouns when we talk about worship.See if you use a lot of “I” statements – “I
like,” “I prefer,” “I want” – when we do that, we may as well be singing, “Me, me,
me,” and folks, “Me, me, me” is hardly an appropriate warm-up for the worship
of God.Worship is not about you.Worship is not about me.Worship is about God.
The life of faith must be
bigger than our differences of opinion and preferences and matters of personal
style.God’s desire for the Christian
community is one of unity in the Spirit – Jesus prayed as much in the Garden of
Gethsemane on the night in which he gave himself for us, as recorded in John
17, and we see a glimpse of that community in the 2nd chapter of
Devotion to the apostles’
teaching, prayers, meals shared, fellowship built.A sense of awe, a sense of unity and purpose,
connections across lines of personal property and individual ownership.A community marked by simplicity and
generosity, joy and gladness, love and grace that was so tangible it drew
people in each and every day – and it lasted exactly five verses.
Unity in the body of
Christ is hard work, but friends, it is essential work.We are all strong-willed, opinionated people
with our own preferences, tastes, and styles.But in the body of Christ, we must be vigilant to keep the me out of we, and if we manage to do that, to keep it from becoming us vs. them, for we are all on the same team.It’s not about you.It’s not about me.It’s not about us.It’s not about them.It’s about God.
Worship is the first and
last place we discover that.Now, yes, we have a
vitally-important role to play in worship.We offer our best to God in worship.We sing.We pray.We listen.We build up.We encourage.We inspire.We challenge. But anything we do is in
response to God.Worship is first a
gift from God, and then quickly turns into a response of praise back toward
We can make worship about all sorts of things, but to what end?
I think of the lady who
got up and walked out when the youth praise team led us one Sunday
morning.When I called her later in the
week to ask about it, she fumed about the guitars and said, “I come to church
to hear pure music,” which, when I pressed her on what that meant, was
apparently anything written between 1700 and 1850 by a white, European man, and
played on the organ.
I couldn’t help but wonder
how her life might have been different if she had come to church to worship
rather than to hear “pure music.”She’s
gone on to her reward, now, and I wonder how the music in heaven has since
expanded her understanding of what is appropriate in worship.
I think of the couple who
sat about halfway back on my right side.Every Sunday, she talked, loudly, through the entire service, when she
wasn’t looking around to see who was there and make sure they saw her, or
working on her to-do list for the coming week.Her husband would return to his seat from his ushering duties, sit down
in the pew, and turn off his hearing aid just before the sermon began.
I couldn’t help but wonder
how their lives might have been different if they had come to worship with the
expectation that God might have something to say to them, that God might speak
to them, somehow, through what happened in worship.What was even sadder was that they had no
sense of expectation that God might have something to say to anyone else
sitting near them, either, based on the constant distraction they
provided.Sadder still, no one in that
church loved them enough to tap them on the shoulder and simply say,
“Shhhh.There’s a worship service going
on right now.Pay attention, God might
have something God wants to say to you.”
These instances beg the
question from each of us, “Why are you here?What do you expect to happen in worship?What are you looking for?What do
you hope will take place?”
I’m a firm believer that
our expectations set the stage for what we experience.The invitation today is fairly straight-forward.Today, I invite you to step into worship with
a sense of expectation that you are entering into an encounter with God.Every time you worship, you are expecting to
meet with God, to hear from God, to offer your best back to God, and to be
changed in the process.
Today, I invite you to
never again approach worship as a critic, or a consumer, or a connoisseur.Do you see how much more likely it is that
we will hear from God in worship when we lay those other expectations aside?How much more likely that we will encounter
God in worship when we expect to do so?How much more likely that we will hear from God about what God wants,
when we’ve stopped obsessing over what we want?
Thank God, God is bigger
than any of our personal preferences.Our worship of God needs to be, as well.Regardless of the format, the style, the instruments, the music, worship
is about God.When we stop focusing on
those other issues, we can experience worship for what it is and was always
meant to be.
Today, I simply invite you
to remember that worship is not about you.Worship is not about me.Worship
is about God.