Day: March 15, 2008

Sermon for Palm Sunday, Mar 16, 2008: In the Name of the Lord

Blessed Is He Who Comes In The Name of the Lord
Matthew 21:1-111As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anyone says anything to you, tell him that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.”

4 This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:
5 “Say to the Daughter of Zion,
‘See, your king comes to you,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’ “[a]

6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. 7 They brought the donkey and the colt, placed their cloaks on them, and Jesus sat on them. 8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,
“Hosanna[b] to the Son of David!”
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”[c]
“Hosanna[d] in the highest!”

10 When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?”

11 The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Peace Comes To A Divided Nation

On Palm Sunday, April 9, 1865, General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, arrived at the McLean home at Appomattox Courthouse, not far from where we sit today. Lee arrived about 1 PM, Lt. General Ulysses S. Grant about 30-minutes later. Grant, the younger and smaller man, began the conversation by telling General Lee that they had met before in Mexico, and that Grant would recognize General Lee anywhere. To which Lee replied, that, Yes, they had met before, but that he — Lee — could not remember any detail of what Grant looked like. They talked on for a while, and then General Lee asked Grant to commit the terms of surrender to paper. Grant did so for the next minutes. As he concluded, Grant cast his eye upon the sword hanging by Lee’s side. Turning back to his paper, he prescribed that the sidearms of the officers, and the private horses of the Confederate soldiers were not to be included in the terms of surrender. The document was signed, and the Army of Northern Virginia surrendered.

At about 4 PM, the two men moved outside, where General Lee called for his horse. Seemingly lost in thought, Lee snapped back to the matter at hand when his horse arrived. Mounting sharply, General Lee began to ride slowly from the house back toward his troops awaiting his return.

As General Lee passed, Lt. General Ulysses S. Grant, removed his hat in a non-military salute to Lee. All of the Union soldiers standing also removed their hats as General Lee passed by. Peace had come at last to a nation torn by war, and Grant, by his gesture, acknowledged that Robert E. Lee had given the peace that to that day the Union forces had been unable to take.

Peace Rides Into Jerusalem

That scene played out in 1865, was eerily reminiscent of the scene that occurred on another day, long before anyone knew to call it Palm Sunday. Jesus, on a circuitous journey to Jerusalem, instructs his disciples only a few miles from Jerusalem, to go into the village of Bethpage and bring the donkey and her colt tied there to him. If anyone should ask them what they were doing, Jesus said, “Tell him that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.”

Then, Matthew takes a moment to explain to those of us looking on, what all this means.

4This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:
5“Say to the Daughter of Zion,
‘See, your king comes to you,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’ “

Matthew is quoting from Zechariah, one of the minor prophets of the Hebrew scriptures. Zechariah wrote in the days after the nation returned from the Babylonian captivity, about 500 years before Jesus’ birth. Even after the nation of Israel returned to their land and to Jerusalem, things did not go well. Old enemies reappeared, new enemies threatened to annihilate the weakened, chastened nation. The rebuilding of the temple lagged, the people still in shock over a lifetime of captivity in Babylon. Zechariah, Haggai, and other prophets both challenge and encourage the nation to rise to the moment, to again be faithful, to embrace the God of Israel who has brought them home.

Zechariah’s prophesy of hope extends from chapter 9 through 14. In chapter 9, verses 9-10, Zechariah speaks of the Zion’s King coming to his people –

9 Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion!
Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem!
See, your king comes to you,
righteous and having salvation,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey. 10 I will take away the chariots from Ephraim
and the war-horses from Jerusalem,
and the battle bow will be broken.
He will proclaim peace to the nations.
His rule will extend from sea to sea
and from the River to the ends of the earth.

The king is coming, to repeat that rousing song of a couple of decades ago. The king is coming, and when he comes he comes riding a donkey, more precisely a donkey’s colt. A young, unproven beast of burden known more for its sure-footedness than swiftness. Riding on a donkey was the king’s way of saying, “We’re not at war anymore. We no longer have to mount the horses of war. We can ride slowly, confidently, joyfully because I bring peace.”

But, Zechariah doesn’t stop there. He continues in this prophesy that covers chapters 9-14. Zechariah describes what happens when the Lord comes and reigns –

8 On that day living water will flow out from Jerusalem, half to the eastern sea and half to the western sea, in summer and in winter.

9 The LORD will be king over the whole earth. On that day there will be one LORD, and his name the only name.

Jesus Comes in the Name of the Lord

And so, here is Jesus, riding into Jerusalem, fully aware of the prophecy of Zechariah. The crowd also seems to understand. For their dilemma is not the rebuilding of the Temple. Herod the Great has already accomplished that. The dilemma of the nation in Jesus day is that they are in exile again. Occupied by Roman troops, whose headquarters abuts the Temple compound itself. Rome, with its despised Roman eagle insignia, holds the nation hostage in its own land, in its own city, Jerusalem.

Insurrections against foreign enemies had arisen quickly, but had ultimately been crushed. The latest and most significant was the Maccabean revolt, about 167 years before Jesus, which ended badly for the Jews. Pompey, in 63 BC, conquered Jerusalem and the puppet king Herod the Great was installed as ruler. Now the people again longed for a king, a popular figure, a person of the people, a common man who would be like King David. A king who could unite them, shepherd them with love, stand against their enemies, defend them in the face of foreign foes.

And in that atmosphere, Jesus comes riding into Jerusalem on a donkey’s colt. We do not know how it happened that the crowd began to shout and sing –

Hosanna to the Son of David
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.

But in those shouts, those accolades, those songs of triumph were the hopes of everyday people. People who were tired of living in fear. People who were weary of a religion that piled rule upon rule, law upon law, until it was all so heavy that no one could bear it. People who longed for hope and help and kindness and gentleness. People who wished for the impossible.

And yet, here he was. The symbolism of the animal upon which Jesus rode was not lost on them. They knew the scripture, too. His name was not lost on them either. This name which we pronounce ‘Jesus’ they knew as ‘Yeshua.’ In English, Joshua. And they needed a Joshua. Joshua who took the nation into the promised land after the death of Moses. Joshua, with his companion Caleb, who had been the only spies to say, “This land is ours. God gave us this land. We can cross over and take it.” Only that day, the people wanted nothing to do with Joshua. And so they all wandered 40-years until all the naysayers died. And it was left to the next generation to follow Joshua.

All of the people living were the children of the Maccabean revolt. It had been over 60-years since they ruled themselves. What their forefathers had only seized for a brief time — freedom — they wanted for a lifetime. Jesus, the new Joshua, seemed their best hope.

And so they sang, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”

Names Meant Something Then

Unlike today, when we name our children for rock stars, names meant something in Jesus’ day. The angels gave the name of John the Baptist to his father, Zechariah. And the angels gave the name Jesus to Mary for her soon to be born son. Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins. The same sins from which Joshua saved them — the sins of unbelief and faithlessness. The same sins for which they had suffered in recurring cycles throughout their history.

But, not only did the name Jesus mean something, the title Lord did, too. Jesus tells the disciples to explain that “the Lord” needs the donkey and colt, if anyone asks. Zechariah says that

“The LORD will be king over the whole earth. On that day there will be one LORD, and his name the only name.

Not only will the Lord be king, but his name will be the only name. So, he who comes in the name of the Lord, comes with the full authority of God the Father. God, whose name the Jews never pronounced until it was lost from any way to vocalize it, was always referred to as “Adonai” — Lord.

To come in the name of the Lord was to come in full authority of God, the God of Israel, the God of manna, and of freedom, the God of a thousand blessings, the God who shepherded his people with kindness.

And to come in the name of the Lord meant mostly to come bringing peace. Peace. Not power, not dominance, not wrath, but peace. Peace to a people who were weary of war. Peace to a people who had no means to fight. Peace to a people who could not seize peace, but who longed for it desperately.

To come in the name of the Lord meant to come bringing peace. On a donkey, without arms, without aggression, with no defense, to bring peace to the midst of chaos.

Just as God had spoken light into darkness at creation, so Jesus came bringing peace.

The King Comes To His Kingdom

Jesus entered Jerusalem as a king who has already won the battle. Peace is his now, and he can give peace to his people. Jesus’ ministry has been about the kingdom of God. His preaching announced it, his teaching explained it, his miracles demonstrated its power. The only thing left is for the kingdom to come in its messianic peace.

Momentarily, the people of Jerusalem think they understand. On that day, they believe that Jesus will bring peace, the kind of peace that means armies are defeated, governments overthrown, power shifted to the powerless. But, Jesus has already told them, “My peace I give to you. Not as the world gives…”

Later in the week, they will grow tired of this peace “not of the world” and will impatiently reject Jesus in favor of nothing. “No peace is better than this, they will reason. Peace can’t come if you don’t defend yourself, answer your critics, fight for your freedom. No, we’re better off with no hope than with this Jesus.”

But he who comes in the name of the Lord brings peace, just as surely as Lee brought peace to Appomattox 143-years ago. Peace is given, never taken. Peace is a gift, not a prize. Peace is an act of love, not the result of victory.

People of Peace

On Thursday, Debbie and I drove to Roanoke to attend the funeral of Donnie Bower’s father, Orville. Donnie grew up in the Old German Baptist Brethren Church, and his mother and father were faithful members of that group their entire lives. The Old German Baptists Brethren maintain some of the old traditions of our Anabaptist forebears. They wear long beards without moustaches, like some of the former ministers of this congregation. The men wear dark suits, but from an old pattern style — jackets without collars, white shirts worn without ties, matching vest and trousers. Women wear modest high-necked, long-sleeved dresses with low hemlines almost to the floor. A head covering of a white net cap tied tightly under their chin rounds out their wardrobe. Black bonnets are worn out of doors.

You might think that these folks would be joyless and stiff, dressed as I have just described. We arrived about 5-minutes late, because google maps sent us to the wrong road near Boone’s Mill. As we walked up to the meeting house door, the sounds of singing rang through the building. In unison and without accompaniment, as one great strong voice, the congregation was singing as we entered the meetinghouse. A bearded minister stood at the front of the large meeting room, “lining” the hymn — he spoke the verse, which the congregation then sang. The sound reminded me of vespers at a monastery retreat I took several years ago. Almost a chant, the melody soared and fell in a slow, deliberate cadence that was solemn, but not sad.

Debbie and I sat down, only to realize upon looking around that we were seated on the left section filled with men only. The center section contained families — husbands, wives, children — and the right section of pews seated only women. All the pews faced the front of the room, which could probably seat about 400. One group of pews on the left faced toward the ministers. Deacons occupied those pews, I was later told.

The meetinghouse was well-constructed, but plain — a wood floor, newly polished; white unadorned walls; flat ceiling about 14-feet high; and plain pews with no hymn racks. The rectangular room was lined with pews in three sections, all facing the wall opposite the door. The two entrance doors were on the south wall, the pews faced the north wall, both were the longest walls, so that the congregation was broader than it was deep.

As I looked at the front of the room, there was no platform and no pulpit. The ministers, who are elected by the congregation and are unpaid, sat on two rows of pews facing the congregation. In front of those pews, between the ministers and congregation, was a long wooden table. I had read that the earliest Baptist meetinghouses had a central table around which the congregation was seated. I was witness to that 300-year old arrangement at the Old German Baptist Brethren church today.

After the hymn singing ended — each person carried their own small hymnal with words but no music — a minister stood to speak. Although he used no microphone, his words resounded off the floor and walls with crisp clarity. “This is what a service must have been like 200-years’ ago,” I thought to myself, although the room did have plain electric lights hanging from the ceiling.

The service included two speakers, two or three hymns, two prayers during which the entire congregation of men knelt on the hard wooden floor, and the Lord’s Prayer followed each prayer. From 10 AM to 12 noon we sang, prayed, knelt, and listened as this funeral “meeting” offered words of comfort, and a community of support.

After the funeral, we drove the short distance to the church-owned cemetery. As we stood by the graveside, brief words were spoken. Then cemetery workmen lowered the casket into the vault, secured the top of the vault, and lowered both into the grave. As they did so, two of the Brethren came alongside with long tamping poles. As the vault was lowered, they inserted the poles down each side, guiding the vault away from the sides of the grave into the center. What followed was remarkable.

The gathered congregation began to sing. As they sang, bearded men in black suits picked up shovels and began to shovel dirt into the grave. These hands were not strangers to work, and as they shoveled, other men holding the tamping rods tamped the dirt vigorously as the grave filled. One song gave way to another as one by one, bearded men and family members shoveled dirt into the grave, and tamped it lovingly into place. Some tears were shed, but most wore pleasant expressions of seeing an old friend off on a long journey. As the grave filled, other men brought rolls of sod, covering the smoothed dirt with green grass.

The hymns ended. A minister spoke of the journey of their brother, a journey that had taken him safely home. A prayer was offered and then another minister thanked everyone for their loving kindness to the family.

As Debbie and I stood among these gentle people dressed in clothes belonging to another place and time, I marveled at how they had gathered to take care of their brother even to the duty of laying his body in the ground. This was a community of faith. A community carrying out centuries-old traditions, but not without meaning. This community gathered from all over the country, as automobile tags carried the designations of many states. They gathered, greeting each other with hugs and holy kisses, to do what communities do — to cry, to pray, to help, to support, to do the work that one friend does for another.

Most of those Old German Baptists were old. Gray beards and gray-bonneted hair were in the majority. I felt we were witnessing the passing of an era. An era when people believed together, worshipped together, mourned together, and rejoiced together. An era when life was simple, families were close, and faith was real. These were people who brought peace to a family. People who had come in the name of the Lord.