Caught Up in the Crowd

Read Luke 19.28-40

As Jesus enters Jerusalem and the crowd begins to form, the great celebration begins. What is it that draws the crowd? Some may be looking for a healing. We know that throughout his ministry, Jesus faced crowds that were pressing in on him to receive the strength of his healing grace. 

But most, I suspect, were caught up in the spirit of the day, hoping that this entry meant that the Messiah had arrived and the days of Roman rule were numbered. They were looking to Jesus as a great political leader, one who could lead the people into power. Even if he is riding a colt, look at how the people are drawn to him!

As I read through the story in Luke this week about Jesus entry into Jerusalem, I was caught up in the sights and sounds the text contains. I began to wonder how someone there might describe the events. I let my mind wander into the text and wrote this piece I’d like to share with you from the perspective of a fellow caught up in the crowd. Imagine yourself in first-century Jerusalem, a part of the crowd that day as I share this with you.

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There was quite a stir near the Mount of Olives today. I was traveling along the path to Jerusalem, weary from my travels, thinking about my trade business and how things have gotten better since I opened a booth near the temple. In the distance, I noticed a crowd starting to form. At first there was just a handful, maybe 10 or 12. They were following someone on a colt, or a donkey, I couldn’t quite tell. I hurried along, thinking I might unload some religious relics.

As I approached the crowd, I could hear the singing. People were taking off their cloaks, spreading them along the road and shouting, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” Could this be Herod? But why would Herod be riding a colt? What sort of king is this? Certainly a strong man, to keep that colt moving forward with all those people crowding in on him.

I asked someone who this man was and they told me his name was Jesus and he was a prophet from Nazareth, that he had been traveling the countryside healing the sick and talking about the kingdom of God.

The kingdom of God? What sort of kingdom is that? Is he some sort of revolutionary, I asked? The fellow responded, “Some believe he is. Some believe him to be the promised Messiah, the one sent by God to establish God’s reign on earth.”

I looked up to the man on the colt. The crowd continued to shout, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” Again I wondered what sort of king is this? I looked at his face and saw a simple man, with rugged features, a man well traveled. He looked more like a peasant than a king. I looked in his eyes and saw a calm, a peace that I’d not seen before. As the crowd pressed in around him, shouting and signing, he seemed to look straight ahead as if he were focusing on something in the distance. A vision. Maybe a vision from God. This prophet, a king? What sort of king? It seemed to me this parade was little more than a farce, people just having a good time, making fun of the processions that Herod, the real king, would have.

And then I heard a voice from the crowd. Some religious leaders, who looked disturbed by the singing and shouting called out to Jesus, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop!” There was a pause as everyone waited for his response. He answered them, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

To hear his voice was something. He spoke with authority. The complaints of the religious leaders didn’t seem to phase him. He answered them and continued to ride into Jerusalem, looking straight ahead, with shouts all around him, “Blessed is the king, who comes in the name of the LORD!”

Now I’ve never been a religious sort, but I have to admit this Jesus is something special. If he is the Messiah, the one promised by God, you’d never know it just to look at him. Still, there is that look, that gaze, that voice. Some say he is nothing more than a false prophet trying to stir up trouble. I don’t know what to think, but something stirred inside me and without thinking, I grabbed my cloak and laid it down and joined in the singing, “Hosanna, Hosanna in the highest, blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord.”

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The Road to Jerusalem

Read Isaiah 50.4-9a & Matthew 21.1-11

Imagine yourself part of a crowd camped along the road to Jerusalem, at the foot of the Mount of Olives. Passover is near. Pilgrims from many lands have gathered at this holy city. You have come to remember how God delivered our people from slavery in Egypt. You gather to watch for God to come again in a Savior the Messiah. Somewhere in the crowd, a young woman rises from her restless sleep. She looks at the huge stone ramp that leads to the mighty gates that mark the eastern city limits of Jerusalem. She closes her eyes and remembers the words of a Psalm she had learned as a child.

“Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the LORD.”

Just on the other side of the gates is the temple courtyard. It was there that she first really felt the presence of God. She was a young girl, in the middle of a large crowd of people singing “Save us, O God of our salvation.” She had felt a warm tingling sensation that spread from the tips of her fingers into her bones and throughout her body like a familiar, warm, loving embrace.

She opens her eyes and looks over at her child. “He looks so much like his father,” she thinks as she wipes a tear from her cheek. Their last trip to Jerusalem, she was expecting. Her husband took so much care to see that she was comfortable that she had plenty to eat, that she was warm, that she didn’t get overtired.

Now he was gone and she misses his loving attention. For the first time since his death, she has come to this holy city hoping somehow to find him here, hoping to find the courage to carry on alone, hoping to find some hope to pass on to this child who looks so much like him.

The sun peeks over the horizon and with a loud trumpet sound, the gates are opened. She lifts the child to her breast and repeats the words of the Psalm, “This is the gate of the LORD; the righteous shall enter through it.

From the hills, a crowd of pilgrims rise and join the woman and her child in procession up the stone ramp in through the gates of the city. Women, men and children walked together—some chanting psalms of praise and thanksgiving, some talking and laughing with friends and strangers, some yawning and stretching from a long journey and restless night’s sleep. A sound comes rumbling in from the distance. The crowd turns and sees a small donkey, with a strong young man on its back come riding up toward the stone ramp. Some people follow along, waving palm branches and singing.

“Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD!’

Others join in and suddenly, there is a great procession of pilgrims waving branches and placing their cloaks on the ground, singing “Hosanna-Save us, God of our Salvation.” The man riding the donkey stares straight ahead as he steers this wild donkey through the crowds with so much commotion going on around him. The sun glows from the Eastern sky and beams a bright ray that embraces him.

One older man, still asleep on the ground rolls over just as the crowd files past him. “What’s going on?” he yells as he stumbles to his feet. He looks up and sees the man on the donkey and the people waving branches and singing. He smiles with disbelief and wonders, “Who is this?” He overhears some people in the crowd saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

“So this is Jesus,” he says to himself as he wipes the sleep from his eyes. He had heard stories of healing – of the blind receiving sight, of lepers restored to health, of crazy demoniacs suddenly acting normal. Throughout the countryside, people told stories of this special prophet Jesus, about how he had been an answer to prayer for so many people. “So this is Jesus,” The old man said to himself. “I wonder if he could heal me? He quickly gathers his things and hurries as fast as his sore joints will carry him, following the sight of waving psalms and the growing sound of praise, “Hosanna, God saves.”

In the middle of the crowd, near the donkey a woman waves huge palm branches and sings at the top of her lungs. She sings and waves and pauses only long enough to hand her branch to someone else who has joined the procession and go cut another. This is the great moment. Her teacher had kept quiet up to now, though great things were happening. She had been with Jesus from the beginning. She was there at the wedding when Jesus turned the water into wine. She had seen him stand up to religious leaders and leave them speechless. She had eaten with thousands others the few loaves of bread he had blessed. Jesus is the chosen One! She knew it with all her heart and now the world would find out. Now all Jerusalem would stand up and take notice.

She is filled with joy, such joy that she completely put out of her mind those strange things Jesus had said the past few days about suffering, about death. Her mind is filled with visions of power as all these people gather around and join in singing. “The God of Salvation has come. Look out Jerusalem! Look out Rome! Jesus has come to set things right! The Messiah has come to save God’s people!”

What a great celebration this is. After years of struggle, of hard labor with little to show for it, God answers the prayers of God’s people. The Messiah has come. God has sent the Savior to restore her people, to overthrow the forces that held them back. The power of God has come in a humble servant – the Prince of Peace. The hope of Israel has been realized.

Jesus smiles as he sees the faces of the people, as he hears their song. It was a great day. And yet, even the great noise of the crowd could not tune out the disturbing voice ringing in his ears. Even the sight of so many people, with so much hope, could not block the vision that was forming inside his head. This great parade would lead into a dark tunnel. The road to Jerusalem would lead to the cross. In the sound of the loud hosannas, Jesus heard a faint echo of the later cry, “Crucify him.”

Jesus yanks the reigns of the donkey, steering it through the gates and down the steps into the temple courtyard. A priest comes up to him and urges him to silence the crowd. “Listen, Jesus…they think you are the Messiah. What will happen if Rome hears? What about Caiphus, the high priest? If you don’t silence them, Jesus, someone will get hurt.”

Jesus turned and looked at the priest. He was right, someone would get hurt. The hope of the people would soon turn to disappointment, frustration, anger. These life-giving shouts would soon turn to demands for death. The spirit of truth would clash with the powers of darkness and someone would have to pay. Jesus knew this, and he was willing to take the risk. The time was right. Things were set in motion. Jesus answered, “If I tell them to keep quiet, these stones would shout.”

In the temple courtyard, the old pilgrim with the sore joints makes his way through the crowd and fell to the ground in the shadow of the donkey. The young woman with her child resting on her shoulders kneels on the ground beside him. The child looks up, into the eyes of this bearded stranger riding a donkey and smiles.

Jesus looks down. He sees in the faces of the child, the woman and the old pilgrim that things are not right. The world is broken. Though this road to Jerusalem leads him to the cross, he would follow it. God had chosen him. The world needs him.

With a hand from a faithful disciple, Jesus gets off the donkey, kneels beside the woman and the old pilgrim and smiles back at the child. And the child sings,

“Hosanna! Hosanna! Hosanna!”

Lost and Found

Read John 20:1-18

He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”

Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” (John 20:15)

“The resurrection completes the inauguration of God’s kingdom. . . . It is the decisive event demonstrating that God’s kingdom really has been launched on earth as it is in heaven. The message of Easter is that God’s new world has been unveiled in Jesus Christ and that you’re now invited to belong to it.” — N. T. Wright

When Mary Magdalene first saw the empty tomb, her heart sank. The one man who believed in her; the one who had helped her believe, the one she had trusted, now was humiliated even beyond death. 

Mary cries. With her tears, she no doubt recalls the time she had spent with Jesus. The way in which he had received her. He respected her, like no man had done before. To so many others, she was a common prostitute, but to Jesus, she was a child of God. He could see in her the desire for change, the thirst for a new life and he helped her along this path.

Now he was gone. But not for good.

Easter Sunday, 1987. I was driving around aimlessly. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed a woman, scarf tied around her head, carrying a large bag. She didn’t know where she was going. I didn’t know where to take her. We were both lost. 

I took her to a downtown church,still smelling of exhaust with the woman in tattered clothes beside me. When we got inside I could feel the stares on us. An elderly gentleman in fine Easter attire ushered us to a quiet space, sat down with us over coffee. You could see the tension slowly lifting from the woman’s face as she began to feel welcomed. He was able to help her find her way home.

I walked out of church that day in tears. I, too, had found my way home. I found Christ not confined to a tomb. I found Christ living in the community of faith, ready to embrace me into his family.

Money Trap

Read  Mark 10:17-30

Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:23-25)

 

When a man becomes a Christian, he becomes industrious, trustworthy and prosperous. Now, if that man when he gets all he can and saves all he can, does not give all he can, I have more hope for Judas Iscariot than for that man!” ― John Wesley

When I first read the sharp warnings of Jesus about riches the first time, I got up from my desk, ran over to Mom and desperately, half out of breath, asked her repeatedly, “Are we rich, Mom, are we rich?” She assured me that we had nothing to worry about as far as that goes.

The story of the wealthy man who goes away grieving rather than letting go of his possessions and following Jesus can teach us something no matter how rich we are. We may be hiding behind any number of things…the security of our wealth, our position in the community, our insistence that we aren’t good enough, that we can’t possibly meet the demands of the Gospel. Many things can prevent us from coming out of hiding — our fear that the punishment might be too great; images of God as only angry ruler bent on revenge; ideas that forgiveness is all well and good, but can’t possible meet me where I am.

The good news is that in Christ, God comes to us where we are. In Christ, we are found no matter how much or how little we own.  We are loved not because of what we own, but in spite of it.

Paradise Lost and Found

Read Genesis 2,3

And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” (Genesis 2.16-17)

“Our fall was, has always been, and always will be, that we aren’t satisfied in God and what He gives. We hunger for something more, something other.”Ann Voskamp, One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are.

When I was a boy, my Grandmother used to read me a Bible story book, complete with color pictures. I remember the Garden of Eden. The rich greens. The bright red of the apple. The glaring stare of the serpent. I would eagerly pluck the book off the shelf and quiet my heart to hear God’s Word in the voice of my grandmother.

Adam and Eve had it made. God had made them for each other. They were living in a beautiful garden with plenty of good food to eat. They were at peace with themselves, with their world and with God. They had everything. What could possible go wrong?

And then, the serpent. The most subtle and beguiling of all God’s creatures. The serpent entices Adam and Eve to disobey God. This act of disobedience severs their relationship with God. And this separation from God is passed one from one generation to the next.

The taste of original sin is on our lips. How can we wash it out? The first step toward knowing that we depend on God in Jesus Christ. The faithfulness of Jesus reverses the bitter curse we have inherited.

Adam and Eve were in a lush garden paradise. Christ was in the wilderness. Adam and Eve had all they could ever want to eat. Christ had fasted forty days and was very hungry. Adam and Eve gave into temptation and ate of the fruit. Christ resisted, and remained in communion with God.

Jesus Christ leads us home to the plush garden paradise God created for us. This is more than a children’s fairy tale. It is the Truth the leads us along the Way to Life.

Rich Man, Poor Man

“The rich and poor have this in common: the Lord is the maker of them all.” (Proverbs 22.2)

What is the difference between King Solomon and the beggars gathering around the temple? Donald Trump and a migrant worker? From a worldly perspective, there is much difference. There is a chasm between the rich and the poor from a human perspective. But, both rich and poor are made in the image of God. If we believe this, the ways we live in the world are bound to change. To live in a world obsessed with wealth, with the belief that all are creatures of God, no matter what you have, is to challenge the way things are.

There is a church I know built in a city neighborhood that had once been full of upper-middle class homes. In time, there was urban flight and many church members moved to the suburbs They considered selling the building, but instead were led to redirect their mission and ministry and focus on the needs of this changing community. They set up a food bank, a clothing shelter. They offered programs for single parents. Developed 12-step groups. Folks from the neighborhood came to receive services, and stayed to serve others.

One day I overheard a member from another church commenting on the growth of this inner-c church. “Sure they’re growing,” she said, “but with the wrong kind of people.” I shared this with the pastor and he got a big smile on his face, “Well then, we must be doing something right.”

Praise: Past, Present, and Future

Read Psalm 13

… I trust in your unfailing love;

my heart rejoices in your salvation.

I will sing the LORD’s praise,

for he has  been good to me.  (Psalm 13.5-6)

For over three years now, my son Caleb has been struggling with a rare, debilitating condition that has been found in only a few dozen children with Down Syndrome as they enter puberty. He has gone from being the life of the party to a social recluse. He has lost the ability to perform most every daily tasks (except eating… he still loves to eat. 🙂

Caleb has the medical professionals shaking their heads. Even the Johns Hopkins head of neurology for developmentally disabled persons can’t find suitable treatment beyond some pills that may help some, but not much.

Spiritually, Caleb is battling enemy attack. While it’s impossible to know how much he can process, it’s clear he is frustrated by his inability to express himself. As he wrestles with this hidden enemy, our own faith is tested.

In Psalm 13 and elsewhere, David prays to God not so much to destroyed the enemy, butto frustrate his plans and give us strength that we might endure, that we gain an infusion of life through the Holy Spirit so we can enjoy God and glorify him forever, no matter what our level of functioning.

Because David knows God’s saving love so deeply, he praises God even before his enemy is defeated. David has the faith to be strong in times of trial. He knows God is listen and will rescue us from the grip of our enemies, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

I thank God for Caleb’s affection, for the way he has brightened my life and the lives of many others. I thank God that Caleb still has a sense of prayer, a connection to God. And I thank God for the promise that Caleb will continue to grow in grace, no matter what lies ahead.