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Sunday, March 17, 2013

Footsteps of Jesus in the City (Matthew 14:43-65; 15:1-20; Luke 19:41-42)


Through our worship in this Lenten season, we are re-tracing the footsteps of Jesus.  The backdrop for these sermons in this series is my recent trip to the Holy Land.  From January 29 - February 7, I travelled with a group of young United Methodist clergy from around our conference, all of us age 35 or under, and our bishop, on a spiritual pilgrimage where we walked where Jesus walked.  My hope for each of us is that we will step out with a holy boldness and courage to follow in the life-changing way of Jesus.

First, we followed the footsteps of Jesus in the wilderness.  We remembered that even when we walk through barren and difficult and dry places in our lives, Jesus has already been there, and indeed he still walks with us in those places.

Then, we followed the footsteps of Jesus at the sea.  We remembered that Jesus is walking the shores of our lives, calling us continually to follow him, to feed his sheep, and to fish for more friends and followers to join us in the boat.

Today, we follow the footsteps of Jesus in the city.  The footsteps of Jesus in the city are hard, partly because we can recognize our own footsteps in the story and realize that we have a part to play in his death.  Today, we are challenged - to look to our own hearts, examine our own motives, to become less like those who, whether out of anger, fear, or sport cried out for blood, and more like the one whose humble footsteps led him all the way to the cross.

Suddenly, while Jesus was still speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, came with a mob carrying swords and clubs.  They had been sent by the chief priests, legal experts, and elders.  His betrayer had given them a sign, “Arrest the man I kiss, and take him away under guard.”

As soon as he got there, Judas said to Jesus, “Rabbi!”  Then he kissed him.  Then they came and grabbed Jesus and arrested him.  One of the bystanders drew a sword and struck the high priest’s slave and cut off his ear.  Jesus responded, “Have you come with swords and clubs to arrest me, like an outlaw?  Day after day, I was with you, teaching in the temple, but you didn’t arrest me.  But let the scriptures be fulfilled.”  And all of disciples left him and ran away.  One man, a disciple, was wearing nothing a linen cloth.  They grabbed him, but he left the linen cloth behind and ran away naked.

They led Jesus away to the high priest, and all the chief priests, elders, and legal experts gathered.  Peter followed from a distance, right into the high priest’s courtyard.  He was sitting with the guards, warming himself by the fire.  The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for testimony against Jesus in order to put him to death, but they couldn’t find any.  Many brought false testimony against him, but they contradicted each other.  Some stood to offer false witness against him, saying, “We heard him saying, ‘I will destroy this temple, constructed by humans, and within three days I will build another, one not made by humans.’”  But their testimonies didn’t agree even on this point.

Then the high priest stood up in the middle of the gathering and examined Jesus.  “Aren’t you going to respond to the testimony these people have brought against you?”  But Jesus was silent and didn’t answer.  Again, the high priest asked, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the blessed one?”

Jesus said, “I am.  And you will see the Human One sitting on the right side of the Almighty and coming on the heavenly clouds.”  Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “Why do we need any more witnesses?  You’ve heard his insult against God.  What do you think?”

Then they condemned him.  “He deserves to die!”

Some began to spit on him.  Some covered his face and hit him, saying, “Prophesy!”  Then the guards took him and beat him.

It was the night of what we call the Last Supper.  Jesus has just shared the Passover meal with his disciples in the Upper Room.  They sang a hymn, and went out into the garden.  This was no short walk.  Rather, they walked down from Mount Zion into the Kidron Valley, and then partway up the Mount of Olives to the Garden of Gethsemane.  Gethsemane is a word that means “olive press,” and appropriately enough, Jesus pressed himself down and poured himself out in prayer in the garden.

While he was praying, he was arrested, betrayed into the hands of the religious authorities by one of his closest friends.  And so, back down into the Kidron Valley, and up Mount Zion again, to the home of Caiphas, the high priest, where low and behold, the ruling religious council, the Sanhredrin, had been called to order in the middle of the night.

Over the site of Caiphas’ house, the Church of St. Peter has been built, because we remember that Peter denied knowing Jesus three times in the courtyard of this house.  At Caiphas’ home, at this secret meeting of angry religious folks in the middle of the night, gripe after gripe was brought up against Jesus - no formal charges, really, just that some of these folks hated Jesus and wanted to get rid of him.

Have you ever thought about where Jesus spent the night before the crucifixion?  After his arrest and condemnation before the Jewish council, but before he was taken to the Roman governor, Pilate?  I never had really given it much thought.  But, under the Church of St. Peter, built on the site of the house of the high priest, is a cave, a dungeon, a pit.  It is likely the place Jesus spent his last night before the crucifixion.

We went down into this pit.  Stairs have been built into it, but at the time of Jesus, there were no stairs.  Through a hole in the ceiling, those being placed down there would have been lowered down with ropes, and brought back up the same way.  And so I want you to imagine Jesus - with ropes being placed under his arms after he has been arrested, and condemned, spit on, hit, mocked, and beaten - being lowered down into that deep, dark, pit.  No way out.  Alone, and abandoned.

We know that Jesus knew the Hebrew Scriptures.  His teaching throughout his life referenced them extensively.  Later that day on the cross, he would quote parts of several Psalms.  Down in that pit, our group gathered, and we read the words of Psalm 88 - words I had read so many times before, but never really heard until I heard them in that space.

Read Psalm 88.

Can you feel the abandonment and despair in those words?  But, that feeling was nothing, compared with what was to come when daybreak came and Jesus was lifted out of the pit:

At daybreak, the chief priests - with the elders, legal experts, and the whole Sanhedrin - formed a plan.  They bound Jesus, led him away, and turned him over to Pilate. Pilate questioned him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”

Jesus replied, “That’s what you say.”  The chief priests were accusing him of many things.

Pilate asked him again, “Aren’t you going to answer?  What about all these accusations?”  But Jesus gave no more answers, so that Pilate marveled.

During the festival, Pilate released one prisoner to them, whomever they requested.  A man named Barabbas was locked up with the rebels who had committed murder during an uprising.  The crowd pushed forward and asked Pilate to release someone, as he regularly did.  Pilate answered them, “Do you want me to release to you the king of the Jews?”  Pilate knew that the chief priests had handed him over because of jealousy.  But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas to them instead.  Pilate replied, “Then what do you want me to do with the one you call king of the Jews?”

They shouted back, “Crucify him!”

Pilate said to them, “Why?  What wrong has he done?”

They shouted even louder, “Crucify him!”

Pilate wanted to satisfy the crowd, so he released Barabbas to them.  He had Jesus whipped, then handed him over to be crucified.

The soldiers led Jesus away into the courtyard of the palace known as the governor’s headquarters, and they called together the whole company of soldiers.  They dressed him up in a purple robe and twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on him.  They saluted him, “Hey! King of the Jews!”  Again and again they struck his head with a stick.  They spit on him and knelt before him to honor him.  When they finished mocking him, they stripped him of the purple robe and put his own clothes back on him.  Then they led him out to crucify him.

We had been down in the dungeon under the house of Caiphas, the high priest, for probably only ten minutes or so.  We ascended the stairs and walked out in the bright sunshine, and perhaps only then I realized how dark it had been down there.  Not so much physically dark but spiritually dark, as we felt the abandonment Jesus must have felt - abandoned by his friends, abandoned by his family, abandoned even by God, condemned to death by good, righteous, religious folks.

I blinked at the rude and intrusive sunshine.  Now, I happen to love sunshine.  Always have.  Ashley and I vacation at the beach, not the mountains - we love sunshine.  Yet, on that particular morning, the sunshine was so bright it was almost rude.  How dare the sun shine - I wasn’t ready for sunshine yet, because the darkness of the pit, that emotional anguish, was still clung close around me.  The brightness of the sunshine seemed so - unaware - of where we had just been.

And it wasn’t only the sunshine.  The rest of the world was just going about its normal business as well.  The sounds of traffic on city streets was all around.  Laundry was flapping in the warm breeze.  People were on their way to work, or home, or lunch with friends.  The squeals of children’s play drifted up from the schoolyard in the valley below us.  It was just an ordinary day.

I wondered if it was also similar for Jesus when he came out of the darkness of that pit of despair.  If, on what would turn out to be the day of his crucifixion, was it simply another ordinary day for everyone around him - children going to school, people on their way to work or to have a meal with friends?  I wondered if, while Jesus’ world was crashing down around him, if the rest of the world just went on with business-as-usual?

Ever been there?  Where, emotionally or spiritually, you are down in some dark place, some lonely place, some hopeless place, some painful place, and all around you it seems like everyone is just oblivious to you and your predicament - just hustling and bustling about in the sunshine of an ordinary day?

If you have, the good news for you today is that we have a friend in low places; Jesus has been there too.

We went down under some buildings which looked pretty old in their own right to a place where you could see the original floor of the courtyard of the governor’s headquarters, or the Fortress Antonia.  Etched in the stone pavers were the markings of some sort of game - no doubt some well-known game the soldiers would play to pass the time and keep themselves amused as they stood watch for hours on end.

As the soldiers took him out into the courtyard to have a little fun with him, a new game was developing, one called “Hail the King.”  Everyone wanted to play.  Everyone wanted to win.

“They say this nutjob says he’s the king of the Jews!”  “Oh, is that right?  Well, that gives me an idea.  You can’t be a king without a proper robe!”  So someone went and got a purple robe, and they hung it over Jesus’ bloodied back, but they weren’t done.

“Well, hang on a second, where is this king’s crown?”  Someone ran and cut some thorny branches from a plant in the yard, twisted it into a rude crown, and jammed it down on his head so that the thorns pierced the skin around his temples and the blood began to flow, but still they weren’t done.

“A king needs a scepter, a sign of his authority and wealth, and power, and I’ve got just the thing for this king,” one of the others said as he took a cattail reed and thrust it into Jesus’ hand.  A few minutes ago just another prisoner, but now, a proper king of fools.  They gathered around him in mock acclaim, bowing down and saluting him, “Hail, King of the Jews!”  They struck him, and spit on him.  What a fun game - everyone got a good laugh.

Does this scene break your heart?  To think of the suffering of Jesus our Lord being turned into a game and something that gave everyone a good laugh - does that break your heart?  It should.  But even more heartbreaking are times when we continue to play games while the body of Christ and the cause of Christ suffer, or worse: that the games we play are inflicting the pain.

There was plenty of game-playing going on that day, and Jesus was the gamepiece in all of them.  Soldiers playing “Hail the King,” the governor playing to public opinion rather than what he knew was right, religious folks, stirring up dissent among the crowd after yet another secret meeting at someone’s home to get rid of someone they didn’t like - games, games, games - and Jesus feels the pain.

Friends, the body of Christ is suffering, and if you are playing the games that are causing the pain, then his precious blood is on your hands.  It’s enough to bring Jesus to tears.

As Jesus came to the city and observed it, he wept over it.  He said, “If only you knew on this of all days the things that lead to peace.  But now they are hidden from your eyes.”

The Palm Sunday tradition is that Jesus processed from the Mount of Olives down into the Kidron Valley and then up into the city of Jerusalem.  He rode a donkey, a sign of his humility and that all those who follow him are called to lives of humble service.  Partway down the Mount is the Church of Dominus Flevit, meaning, “The Lord has wept,” and on this site, the tradition of Jesus shedding tears for Jerusalem is remembered.

From this site, the city of Jerusalem is in full display just across the valley.  There is one window in the chapel, over the altar, and it perfectly frames the city.  You are far enough away that you can more or less see all of it, yet close enough that you feel like you could reach out your hand and touch it.  Here, tradition remembers that Jesus wept, because they didn’t know of the things that lead to peace.

Too much chaos, too much violence, too much hatred and strife, too much game-playing.  You know, things haven’t really changed that much in 2000 years.  It seems that the more things change, the more things remain the same.  So long as we are people given to these things, like ancient Jerusalem, the things that lead to peace will remain hidden from our eyes, and our lives will never be the instruments of healing for this broken world God desires.

Friends, God needs us to do better.  God has called us to better.  Being a follower of Jesus teaches us in the way of things that lead to peace, and then putting those things into practice as peace-makers.  We are to be both students and teachers of peace.

This week, our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters have elected a new pope, who has chosen for himself the name, “Francis.”  I hope and pray that his choice of name is a solid sign that the global church is about to take a crash course on peace, and I will thank our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters - and their new pontiff - for leading us in the way.  My prayer is that Pope Francis will lead us and teach us and guide us, as Jesus has and will continue to lead him, in the way of things that make for peace.  If his life up to this point is any indication, we should expect nothing less, and based on the name he’s chosen, he’s pretty much sealed the deal.

What could be if we made the prayer of St. Francis our prayer (UMH 481):

Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace;
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light:
and where there is sadness, joy. 

O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. 

There is enough violence, enough hatred, enough strife, enough chaos, enough game-playing in the world; Jesus weeps when we who claim to be his followers simply add to it.  The footsteps of Jesus in the wilderness, at the sea, and in the city guide us in the way of peace.  He is faithful; may our feet find his way.

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