Into the City

I’m grateful to Pastor Sultan Cole who invited me to preach today at his church, The Word Church – FW.

Here is the text of the sermon.

Mark 11:1-11
Palm Sunday
April 14, 2019
Brent Beasley

The story actually begins earlier and miles away, in Galilee, where Jesus of Nazareth lived and for three years taught in the synagogues
in the fishing villages around the lake and
on the hillsides and
on the roads.

He had gathered followers, disciples, men and women who accompanied him, and as his reputation as a gifted rabbi and healer grew, so did the concern of religious and political authorities all the way down to the capital city of Jerusalem.

Delegations were sent from Jerusalem to investigate: they
challenged him,
argued,
tried to bait him.

But, as John Buchanan retells this story, Jesus was safe in Galilee, really, because he was with his own people—
rural,
small-town people mostly,
poor people mostly,
people who would not have been much
impressed with these delegations of educated,
sophisticated, big-shot, experts from the big city,
having come all the way up here to harass and
implicate one of their own.

But now Jesus has decided to go
to them,
to the city,
to Jerusalem. His closest friends advise him not to do it. It’s a big mistake. Why in the world would you want to go to the capital city where, under the watchful eyes of the occupying Romans, a peasant from Galilee could get in a lot of trouble?

When he rejected their advice and “set his face toward Jerusalem,” they followed, reluctantly, frightened about what might happen to him—to them, for that matter.
[John Buchanan, “Spellbound,” Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago, Illinois, April 1, 2007]

I preached last Sunday at Rising Star Baptist Church, and I talked about the time the Jesus went into the wilderness. Remember, he was baptized, he heard that voice of blessing: You are my beloved son/daughter. With you I am well pleased.

And then what happens after that? He is led straight into the wilderness for 40 days. Jesus goes into the wilderness.

Today, Jesus is not going into the wilderness. Today, Palm Sunday, Jesus is going into the city.

Why did he have to go to the city of Jerusalem? He didn’t need to do it. He was doing fine, he was doing really well, actually, in Galilee. Having a lot of success.

But here he goes, walking right into the city.

We might wish that he had not gone to the city, but he did. We might wish Jesus had just gone to the temple. But he didn’t.

The late Lord George MacLeod, House of Lords, Church of Scotland minister, founder of the Iona Community, said something that I have taken as central to my calling:
I simply argue that the cross be raised at the center of the marketplace as well as on the steeple of the church. I am recovering the claim that Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles, but
on a cross between two thieves;
on a town garbage heap;
at a crossroad of politics so cosmopolitan that
they had to write his title in Hebrew and in Latin
and in Greek . . . and
at the kind of place where cynics talk smut and
thieves curse and soldiers gamble.

Because
that is where he died, and
that is what he died about. And
that is where Christ’s people ought to be and
what church people ought to be about.

Jesus didn’t just go to the temple. He went to the city.

On the road to Jerusalem, they joined large crowds of people, all walking in the same direction, for the same reason. It was the Passover, the central celebration of the year for the Jewish people, a celebration actually of their liberation from enslavement in Egypt centuries before. It was a time of
religious fervor and
passionate patriotism.
Every Jew was supposed to celebrate Passover in Jerusalem at least once.

It all made the occupying Romans so nervous that the Roman governor, a man by the name of Pontius Pilate, moved his headquarters to the capital city and brought along a troop of elite Roman soldiers to keep order and to deal with any dangerous outbursts of enthusiasm that might escalate into an insurrection, an interruption. It was a city surging with religious expectation.

It was a walk of several days, and near the end, when they arrived at the small town of Bethany, a few miles outside Jerusalem, Jesus told two of his friends to bring a donkey, specifically a colt, and although no one had ever seen him ride a donkey, he allowed them to set him on it, and they resumed the journey.

Now when the others on the road saw it, saw him bumping along on the back of that little donkey, it stirred their passion. They knew exactly what was happening. Their favorite scriptural promise was from the prophet Zechariah: Lo, your king comes to you, triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey (Zechariah 9:9).

It was particularly powerful as they walked toward their capital city, where there already was a king, and
not a humble and lowly one, but
a powerful, brutal king
who was allowed to remain in power because he collaborated and cooperated with the Romans. Herod was his name.
[John Buchanan]

But on the road, here was
Jesus,
their own king,
the promised Messiah,
the Son of God.
They erupted in joyful exuberance. Some of them cut branches from the trees and spread them out in front of Jesus and the donkey– a kind of poor man’s red carpet treatment. Maybe they were palm branches. The Gospels don’t say what they were exactly.

Some of the people who were there got so carried away by what was happening that they took the clothes off their backs and spread them out on the road in front of him along with the branches. So there were
shirts and
shawls and
cloaks
spread out there in the dust.

And maybe you and I would have taken off our blue blazers and sweaters and jackets and spread them out there with everything else, if we had been there, because it was such a moment of hope and passion.

Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!

When they proceed over the final hill, the city is there, looming ahead, a sight most had only dreamt of:
the walls,
the towers,
the winding streets,
Herod’s grand palace, and
the temple, first built by Solomon, rebuilt
carefully after the exile.

And we know what happened once he entered that city—this drama of Holy Week that we are entering into now. When Jesus enters Jerusalem,
he interrupts Temple practice and indicts those
associated with it.
He undermines the authority of the authorities.
He accuses the Sadducees of ignorance of both the
scriptures and God’s power.
Finally, he predicts the destruction of the Temple
itself.

This is what happens when Jesus enters the city. He disrupts everything. The people of Jerusalem roll out the red carpet, only to discover that Jesus has come to challenge all that they value most.

The problem, of course, is that the Jesus the crowds welcome and want is not the Jesus they in fact get. They welcome the kingdom of David but do not understand what that kingdom means. And the unfulfilled expectations turns to
misunderstanding, which turns to
rejection, which turns to
betrayal,
arrest, and
crucifixion.
[Texts for Preaching, Year B: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV edited by Walter Brueggemann, Charles B. Cousar, Beverly Roberts Gaventa, James D. Newsome Jr., p. 248]

And all of this because Jesus was compelled to leave his place of comfort and go to the city, no matter what. And Jesus is reminding us today, on Palm Sunday, that his business, the business of the church, is not the church but the world. Jesus reminds us today, particularly those of us who
love the church,
work in and for the church,
maintain the church,
support the church,
that our business is the world God loves and the people of the world God so loves and for whom Jesus Christ died.

This is why the work that Pastor Cole does with Read 2 Win is so important. When he leads people into our schools to help our children to be better readers, he is going with Jesus into the city. He is taking the gospel out of the church and into the city, because these are the children God so loves.

We love our church, but God so loved the world. We love our city and the people in it.

What if instead of measuring our church by its attendance, we measured it by its love for the city?

Now I’m about to say something that is easy for me to say, since I am not the pastor of a church anymore. Maybe Pastor Cole would rather I not say this; I don’t know.

But what if,
instead of trying to get more people to attend church
more of the time,
we tried to get people who attend church to do so
only as much as is necessary to get filled up and prayed up
so we could spend more time entering our own
city and loving the city where we
live?

Writer Brian McLaren talks about this and says that one of the greatest enemies of evangelism—one of the greatest enemies of our doing what Jesus did— is when the church becomes either a fortress or a social club; it sucks Christians out of our
neighborhoods,
clubs,
workplaces,
schools,
social networks and
cities
and isolates us in a religious ghetto—our own city within the city. And there the church entertains us and holds on to us by any means necessary.

Henri Nouwen, the late Catholic priest and writer, spent many hours at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, studying the great paining by Rembrandt, The Return of the Prodigal Son.

While staring at this painting, Nouwen gained a new insight into the parable of the prodigal son. The insight he gained was the idea that Jesus became somewhat of a prodigal for our sakes. Jesus
left the comfortable home of his heavenly Father,
came to a foreign country,
gave away all he had for the welfare of the people,
and returned through a cross to his Father’s
home.

All of this Jesus did, not as a rebellious son, but as the obedient son, sent out to bring home all the lost children of God.

What would happen, do you think, if we followed Jesus to the point that we gave ourselves away out of love for the city in which we live?

To raise the cross at the center of the city.

Because
that is where Jesus died, and
that is what he died about. And
that is where Christ’s people ought to be and
where the church out to be and
what church people ought to be about.

Jesus didn’t just go to church. He went to the city.

Now it should be acknowledged that this is risky. I mean, look what happened to Jesus when he went to the city. It only took five days for him to arrested and crucified.

But you know what? The major themes of the Christian life—
caring,
giving,
witnessing,
trusting,
loving,
hoping—
all of these are high-risk behavior.

When you set your face toward Jerusalem, when you enter the city, you risk something.
When you give to the city, you risk.
When you trust the city, you risk.
When you love the city, you risk.
When you hope for the city, you risk.

It’s risky.

Albert Schweitzer was born in 1875 in Germany. He was a pastor and a brilliant scholar. He earned
a doctorate in theology in 1899,
a doctorate in philosophy in 1900, and
a doctorate in medicine in 1913.

He was also a world-renowned authority on the music of Bach, and he was a celebrated concert organist.

Schweitzer set out on an academic quest to find the historical Jesus, as opposed to the Christ of faith. He wanted to discover academically and rationally who the historical Jesus of Nazareth really was.

Albert Schweitzer learned that he could not totally understand who Jesus is by studying about him. He learned that you don’t discover who Jesus is by any way other than a decision to follow him—to do what he says.

It is in doing what he says, following him, that you discover who he is. There is no other way to go about it.

This discovery changed Schweitzer’s life. At the height of his career, he entered medical school and established a hospital, which he helped build with his own hands, in remote Africa.

He remained there the rest of his life giving medical care to those who were helpless. And the world was so impressed with Schweitzer’s desire to follow Jesus that in 1952 he was given the Nobel Peace Prize.

But when Albert Schweitzer first made his decision to go as a missionary to Africa, it wasn’t so popular with his friends. He communicated his decision to his friends by letter. He was astounded to receive their replies, as they counseled that for a man of his prodigious gifts and abilities to go as a missionary in a primitive land was an incredible waste of talent.

Schweitzer said: It moved me strangely to see my friends, all of them Christian, so far from perceiving that to be a follower of Christ may well sweep a person into an entirely new course of life.

Missionary David Livingstone was once asked, Have you found a good road to where you are? If so, we want to know how to send other men to join you.

Livingstone responded, If you have men who will come only if they know there is a good road, I don’t want them. I want men who will come if there is no road at all.

On Palm Sunday we are reminded that it is a risk to follow Jesus where he goes.

Fred Craddock, who is a preaching mentor of mine, tells the story of when his wife was away for a few days and he was going to fix one of his big meals for himself. He stopped off at the Winn Dixie to get a jar of peanut butter.

He was in a hurry; you know when it’s a big store and you don’t really know where things are you can spend your whole afternoon looking around. So he saw a woman who was pushing a cart along, and he thought, She looks like she’s comfortable here, she’s right at home. I’ll ask her.

He said, Um, lady, could you direct me to the peanut butter.

She jerked around, stared at him, and said, Are you trying to hit on me?

He said, I’m looking for the peanut butter.

As he backed away from there, he saw a worker stocking the shelves, so he said, Where’s the peanut butter?

Aisle five, I think, way down on the left.

He went down there, and halfway down on the left were big jars of peanut butter. He took one. As he turned to leave, that woman was there, and she said, You were looking for the peanut butter!

He said, I told you I was looking for the peanut butter.

She said, Well, nowadays in this city you can’t be too careful.

And he said, Lady, yes you can. Yes you can.

You can be too careful.

I simply argue that the cross be raised at the center of the marketplace as well as on the steeple of the church. I am recovering the claim that Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles, but
on a cross between two thieves;
on a town garbage heap;
at a crossroad of politics so cosmopolitan that
they had to write his title in Hebrew and in Latin
and in Greek . . . and
at the kind of place where cynics talk smut and
thieves curse and soldiers gamble.

Because
that is where he died, and
that is what he died about. And
that is where Christ’s people ought to be and
what church people ought to be about.

It’s Palm Sunday. There goes Jesus, on a donkey, riding into the city. I can see him now.

Can you see him?

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