Something to Hold Onto
© copyright 2013 Robert J. Elder
Sunday, March 24, 2013
It is the Lord GOD who helps me;
who will declare me guilty?
Every time I hear this line from Isaiah, I think of several things. The first, of course, is that these are words of an innocent man. Secondly, I also see Jesus, having recently made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, hanging on the cross, also an innocent man, holding onto the Lord God with an innocence that no one in the mob that day seemed to recognize. And then I hear in my mind the words of Paul in Romans 8, uttered at so many services held at the time of death: “Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies.”
Palm Sunday and Easter are so very different, separated by a wide week of suffering and death. The difference between Palm Sunday and Easter is something like the little boy who had a ticket to the circus, who went into town and saw the great parade of wagons, clowns and exotic animals, and then went home because he thought that having seen the parade, he had seen the circus. We know this isn’t so. And if we think about it at all, we know Palm Sunday is not a little Easter. In some churches where folks receive palms to wave, they fold them into litte crosses. This is where Palm Sunday is headed, toward the cross.
The justification of God, given to us, free of charge in Christ, that is something we can hold onto.
Why is this so? The apostle Paul had an answer to that question. He said that though Jesus was in the form of God, he set that aside in order to empty himself, take the form of a slave, and be born as a human being. He said Jesus became the sort of servant for whom a call to face death was not regarded as too great a task for one seeking to be faithful.
What does it mean to be a slave or a servant – they are the same word in the original language – what does it mean to be a slave or servant who is willing to be obedient even to death? Few of us would have any idea. The “Suffering Servant” depicted bythe prophet Isaiah is the prime Old Testament witness to a calling to pursue freedom through servanthood. And as Jesus rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, he was preparing to perform the greatest service ever done for humanity.
Hearing the Word of God
Speaking the words of God’s suffering servant, Isaiah said, “Morning by morning he wakens – wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught. The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious…” Have you ever thought about the need for our ears to be “wakened”? I have often been asked by friends and family, on workcamps, retreats, and vacations, how I can sleep through my own snoring. It’s easy for me, I say, my ears are asleep along with the rest of me! What a great image Isaiah uses for preparing to hear the Word God has to say to us: that God wakens our ears to hear. Before telling, God makes us ready to hear. We may think our ears work fine already, but reflect on how often our pre-set opinions can block out a new thing, especially a new thing God would have us hear. We are so accustomed to listening for what we already think that a new word might well pass us by, it’s just not familiar enough.
Remember the old story about the man with beans in his ears. His friend tells him, “You’ve got beans in your ears,” but he responds, “What?” So his friend repeats his words a little more loudly, “I said, you’ve got beans in your ears.” But the man responds again, “What?” So the friends shouts now, “YOU’VE GOT BEANS IN YOUR EARS!” and the man responds, “Sorry, I can’t hear you, you see, I’ve got these beans in my ears…” It’s a silly story that points out two things: our need to hear, but also that often the very thing we need to hear is something we already know. Like an old commercial for corn flakes that urged us to taste them again for the first time, many times the words of our faith are something we need to hear again for the first time.
I once got a letter from a young friend of mine who is a pastor. He was preaching his way through the lectionary, the three year cycle of scripture that many of us use to organize our preaching. By the time he reached his seventh year of ministry, he had been through the readings twice before. He wrote to ask what I thought he should do. This was going to be his third time through the same readings. His question made me think, “How many times have I heard the parable of the prodigal Son? How often have I been instructed by the incomparable words of the Sermon on the Mount? How important is it to remind ourselves of the truth of John 3:16, that God loved the world enough to send a savior to us?” I think I remember writing to him something like, “The difference between hearing and hearing again is not as great as you might think. Those very same worshipers have heard most of those Bible passages many times, long before you began reading them with them.” When God opens our ears, as Isaiah said, it may not be something entirely new that we are to hear, but something familiar that strikes us in a new way this time around.
One of the significant aspects of discipleship involves hearing the Word of God, even if, as in the traumatic events of Holy Week, that Word seems destined to shake us up.
Doing the Word of God
You may recall that the letter of James is the one that declares that “faith without works” is just about as good as no faith at all. One of the jokes that perpetually makes the rounds in churches depicts a person dying and finding himself in hell. He looks around and sees Martin Luther and John Calvin standing nearby. He is deeply troubled. His own life was not that exemplary, but how can these two great figures of the Protestant Reformation have found themselves on the wrong side of the Pearly Gates? So he asks them. Calvin responds, “I’m afraid it’s some bad news, really. Apparently works do matter.”
That story may seriously overstate the case for the importance of the doing of the Word of God, but it highlights the fact that coming to church, hearing about the content of our faith is only part of the disciple’s task. It is good to know the content of the truth about salvation. But knowing the work of salvation rightly leads to doing the work of salvation. Isaiah wrote words concerning the work of discipleship which line up so readily with our anticipation of the events of Holy Week: “I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame.” Jesus set his face like flint – to give his life away.” Jesus has been described in many ways, but one appealing way is as “a man for others.” How does that square up with a descriptive phrase like, “I have set my face like flint”? It means that his course to the cross, though made in humility, was undeterred. He was a self-emptying servant who taught and lived the truth that greatness comes only in service, that true greatness resides in those who give of themselves without thought of return.
In one of his books, concentration-camp survivor Elie Wiesel recalled the day when he, still merely a teenager, along with his fellow inmates, was finally liberated from the Auschwitz death camp by allied soldiers. On that day, powerful, strong men broke down the hated fences of the camp, and released the emaciated prisoners. Wiesel remembers being struck by the reaction of one African-American soldier who, upon seeing Wiesel and his fellow prisoners, was overcome with grief. He fell to his knees, sobbing at the sight of them. At this, the newly-released prisoners walked to him, put their thin, starved arms around his burly shoulders, and comforted him.
I have seen people have such reactions to Michaelangelo’s statue of the Pietá in Saint Peter’s cathedral in Rome, the statue of Mary, holding her dead son in her arms. They weep at the sight of the dead Jesus, and yet, at the end of the long, horror-filled week, it is Jesus who puts his bloodied arms around us, to comfort and restore us.
Doing the Word of God involves an attitude of self-giving service which itself is an unequaled gift of God to those who would follow Christ.
This coming week represents the church’s annual celebration of the greatness of the gift of Christ to the world. The tragedy of it is that many will not hear. On Good Friday evening, when we worship here together and recall the cost of the servanthood of Jesus, there will be but a handful of us present compared to those on the bandwagon on Easter morning. It is so hard to fully comprehend and live the life of resurrection – to receive the embrace of the crucified and resurrected Christ – unless we have first heard the truth about the cost of salvation.
If you are planning to come to only one service this coming week, I would pray it would be on Friday, and if you can come to but two, make it Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. I will pray for you in your knowing and doing God’s Word this week, as I hope you will pray for me, so that we may come to know that the faith we hold onto, in reality holds onto us.
Copyright © 2013 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved