Christ, Our Meal With God

Christ, Our Meal With God
Exodus 24:3-11
Maundy Thursday
April 13, 2017
St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

The Temple in Jerusalem was a bustling place, especially during the high feast days like Passover. The priests who worked there filled their day by offering sacrifices on behalf of Israelite worshippers from sunrise to sunset. Every animal sacrifice had two significant parts: the flesh and the blood. The priests did different things with the flesh and the blood, depending on what kind of sacrifice was being offered. But the flesh and the blood were the key elements.

Each day began with a priest on duty offering a whole burnt offering, a sacrifice of an entire lamb. Since only one of these was offered each morning, a priest might only get to perform this sacrifice once in his life. The offering was called the whole burnt offering because the entire animal was sacrificed. The blood of the lamb was splashed against the base of the altar and flesh of the lamb was placed on the altar to be consumed by flame. None of it was eaten by the priest. None of it was eaten by the Israelite worshippers. None of it was used for anything. The whole offering was burnt on the altar.

This daily sacrifice was the divinely instituted means of grace that covered the sins of the people so that the holy God could dwell among them in the Temple. The burning of the meat on the altar would produce a pillar of smoke to remind the Israelites of the pillar of cloud that led them out of Egypt and across the Red Sea in the days of Moses. It served as a visual reminder that just as the Lord dwelt among his people in the pillar of cloud and fire during the Exodus, he was now dwelling among them in the Temple. It was the sacrifice of the whole burnt offering that allowed the people to live in the presence of God.

Once God was present among his people by virtue of this whole burnt offering, the priests would then offer the other sin offerings of the day. If a new mother needed purification after giving birth or if a soldier was returning from war with blood on his hands, their offerings would be offered at this point. Again, none of the flesh and blood would be eaten in these offerings. They were sacrifices that made atonement. They were sacrifices that covered the sins of the people. They were whole burnt offerings to the Lord. Day after day, year after year, lamb after lamb was sacrificed to cover the sins of the people, to reconcile God and man, to bring peace where there was division and hostility on account of sin.

Once all the whole offerings for sin had been made each day, once the entire congregation present had their sins covered in order that they could stand in the presence of the holy God, that’s when the peace offerings would happen. They were called peace offerings not because they established peace, but because they reflected the peace that had been brought about by that day’s sin offering. That’s when things really picked up at the Temple. That’s why there would be several priests on duty on any given day. While there may have been only one whole burnt offering each day, there were sometimes hundreds of peace offerings. Peace offerings were celebratory meals.  They were required for each family at the high feasts like Passover or Pentecost, but that’s like saying it is required that you have turkey and pie on Thanksgiving. Peace offerings could also be given throughout the year in thanksgiving for just about anything, like the safe return of a family member from war or the birth of a child.  Just like we celebrate significant events with a meal, the Israelites celebrated significant events with a peace offering.

As with the other sacrifices, the key elements to a peace offering were the flesh and the blood. The Lord’s institution of the peace offerings required that the blood of the animal be splashed against the altar, but the flesh would be consumed by the worshippers. Israelites rarely ate meat – it was expensive to buy an animal and if you killed an animal from your own flock you no longer had that animal for breeding, wool, or milk. Typically, the only time Israelites ate meat was as part of a peace offering. There, they ate the flesh of an animal, but they didn’t eat the whole thing. No, the priest got a small portion, and a small portion was left on the altar for God. God and the Israelite would consume the same animal. Just like your entire family eats one bird on Thanksgiving, God and his people would eat one lamb together. It was a holy meal, one that took place after a whole burnt offering had covered the sin of the people.

This holy meal at the Temple was foreshadowed by the holy meal described in today’s reading from Exodus. At Mount Sinai, God ate with his people. We are told that the there was pavement as sapphire stone under his feet, for Moses and the elders were truly in the presence of God. Yet even though they were in the presence of God, the elders of Israel were not struck down, for God covered their sin. They beheld God, and they ate and drank with him and with each other. In this meal with God on Sinai, like the meals with God in the Temple, the Lord first covered the sin of his guests. In the Temple, this was done through the daily whole burnt offering. At Sinai, we are told that Moses ordered burnt offerings to cover the sins of the people. Then he took half of the blood and threw it against the base of the altar, sprinkling the other half on the people, covering their sins with the blood of the lamb and bringing them into the covenant of God. Once God was present among them, they ate and drank with God.

All of this paved the way for the events we remember today. On the night when he was betrayed, our Lord Jesus instituted a new covenant. And the disciples ate with God. Like the sacrifices of the first covenant, flesh and blood are the key ingredients in this new covenant. Our Lord Jesus Christ took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples and said, “Take and eat. This is the flesh of the new covenant. It is my flesh. I give it for you to cover your sins. I give it to you as your meal with God.” This flesh was sacrificed on the cross as the whole burnt offering to cover the sins of the world. In that one offering, sin was covered once for all. The Temple curtain was torn in two. The earth shook. Graves were opened. God and man were reconciled.

And then he took the cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them saying, “Drink of it all of you – this is the blood of the New Covenant. My blood. I give it for you to cover your sins. I give it to you as your meal with God.” This blood was poured out on the cross. It dripped down our Savior’s back as he was whipped within an inch of his life, down our Savior’s brow as thorns cut into his scalp, down our Savior’s arms as nails were driven into his wrists. The blood was shed once for all. The Temple curtain was torn in two. The earth shook. Graves were opened. God and man were reconciled.

At the Temple, once the whole burnt offering had been made for sin, it was time for the peace offering. Now that God and man are reconciled by the sacrifice of the cross, we enjoy a meal with God. It is a meal of thanksgiving, which is why we call it a Eucharist. It is a meal hosted by God himself, which is why we call it the Lord’s Supper. It is a meal shared with God and with each other, which is why we call it a Holy Communion. It has gone by many names through the history of the church, but the dynamic remains the same: once God and man are reconciled, they share a meal. The did it at Sinai. They did it at the Temple. We do it tonight.

And it’s all because of Jesus. He is the fulfillment of the sacrifices of the old covenant. He is the true sin offering, the one who gave himself entirely, the whole burnt offering that covers our sin. On the cross, he offered himself as the sacrifice to forgive all your sin. The lying and lust and anger and bitterness that would separate you from God have been covered by the blood of Jesus. There is no longer any need for sin offerings or whole burnt offerings. God made him who knew no sin to be the sin offering for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God. The suffering and death of Jesus in our place put us right with God. There is no longer any sacrifice for sin. Jesus has done it. It is finished.

But not only is Jesus the true sin offering, he is the true peace offering, the Lamb of God who gives himself as the feast which we eat with God. The Israelites celebrated being reconciled to God by eating with him. So also, in this meal, because we have been reconciled to God by the blood of Christ, we now eat with him. We gather at the Lord’s table as if we were gathered around Easter dinner. The blood of Jesus and water of baptism has brought us into God’s family, and families eat together. We eat with God as part of his family. And as the family of God, we eat with each other.

So let us repent of our bitterness. Let us repent of our grudge holding. Let us repent of our gossip. Let us repent of the ways we drive wedges into the family of God. Let us repent of the ways we bring selfish division.  And let us rejoice in Christ, the whole burnt offering, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. Let us rejoice in Christ, the peace offering, the Lamb of God, who is the main course in this our meal with God. The sin offering is done. The peace offering in prepared. The feast is ready. Come to the feast.



Life in the Fray: Pride (Midweek Service – March 18, 2015)

Life in the Fray: Pride
 Kings 20:12-21
Midweek Lenten Service
March 18, 2015
Saint John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

             King Ahaz of Judah was a wicked king.  The kings of God’s people were supposed to rule in such a way that the people remembered that Yahweh was the true sovereign over the land, but Ahaz treated Judah as if it was any other earthly kingdom.  When King Ahaz was faced with the threat of invasion, he chose not to trust in God’s promise to keep Jerusalem safe. The prophet Isaiah explicitly told King Ahaz to trust God to defend Judah, but Ahaz did not listen. Instead, he sought protection at the hands of the Assyrians.  That’s like a mouse enlisting a cat to help him solve a dispute with another mouse. Assyria agreed to help Ahaz defend his throne from invasion, but only if Ahaz willingly agreed to make Judah an Assyrian province. That meant not only paying taxes to the Assyrian King, but also paying tribute to the Assyrian gods, setting up high places to sacrifice to the Assyrian deities, even performing such sacrifices on the Alter of Yahweh’s Temple in Jerusalem. King Ahaz wanted to do things himself. Too proud to trust God’s deliverance, Ahaz wanted to do things his way. He trusted earthly politics more than divine protection. He turned his back on the help that God offered and instead sought help from an earthly power, a power which quickly enslaved Ahaz and Judah. Ahaz was a bad king.

But King Ahaz did not live forever. After Ahaz died, Hezekiah took the throne. And according to the book of 2 Chronicles, Hezekiah was a good king. He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, much like King David had done. In the first month of the first year of his reign, he repairedhezekiahsmall the Temple doors. He restored proper Temple worship and destroyed the altars used for false worship that Ahaz had scattered throughout the land. He sent an invitation to the northern tribes of Israel to join Judah in celebration of the Passover, to return once again to the proper worship of Yahweh and to live as his people. But Judah was still supposed to be an Assyrian province as negotiated by King Ahaz.  When the King of Assyria heard that the new King of Judah was destroying the altars of the Assyrian gods and that he was not paying tribute as a province should, he sent an army to put Hezekiah back in his place. But Hezekiah and his kingdom had nothing to fear, for they were living in the proper place as the people of God. With the imposing Assyrian army encamped around Jerusalem, and with no hope for escape, Hezekiah did what a godly King of Judah should do: he prayed. He did not trust his own powers and abilities; he did not trust the strength of his army or the strategies of his military mind. He turned the problem over to the Lord, and the Lord answered. That night the angel of the Lord went out and struck down 185,000 in the camp of the Assyrians. The Assyrians left Jerusalem alone because they were afraid of Hezekiah’s God. Judah was a free people again.

Hezekiah’s humility had given Judah what Ahaz’s pride couldn’t: deliverance from the Assyrians. But after that deliverance Hezekiah grew deathly ill, so ill, in fact, that the prophet Isaiah returned to tell the king to put his affairs in order, for his death was imminent. In the face of his own death, Hezekiah once again humbly appealed to the Lord’s mercy to deliver him, and once again, the Lord obliged. Hezekiah was miraculously healed from the illness that threatened his life, and he was returned to the throne of Jerusalem to continue leading God’s people.

But pride is like a weed. As the snow melts and you look out on your lawn today, you probably don’t see any dandelions yet.  But just give it a few weeks.  Soon enough, those bright yellow parasites will be everywhere.  Pride works the same way.  While you Dandelion-emoedgars-sxc.jpg2_may not see evidence of it on the surface, you can rest assured that it is hiding just out of sight, waiting for the right moment to poke through. In the first case, Hezekiah remained humble and trusted God to deliver Judah from the Assyrians. In the second case, Hezekiah remained humble and trusted God to deliver him from his illness. But for pride’s assaults on Hezekiah, the third time’s the charm. In the third case, Hezekiah fell victim to the same pride that was Ahaz’s undoing. After being miraculously restored to health, Hezekiah was paid a visit by a special envoy from the King of Babylon. The king heard of Hezekiah’s sickness and recovery, and he also heard of Jerusalem’s miraculous deliverance from the Assyrians. He heard of the two great things God had done for Hezekiah. It is very likely that the reason the Babylonian king sent these messengers to visit Hezekiah was not simply to congratulate him on being restored to health, but to enlist him as an ally against Assyria. It was a political move, much like Ahaz had been faced with many years earlier. And like Ahaz before him, Hezekiah fell victim to his pride. He may have looked to the Lord for deliverance in times of need, but in times of peace he trusted the kings of the earth. He trusted the things of the earth. He took pride in the freedom and strength of his kingdom, so much so that he opened up his entire palace to the Babylonians, bragging about all his treasures and weapons and medicines. Rather than trusting that the same God who had granted freedom to Judah would keep Judah free, Hezekiah pursued a political solution to the problem at hand, a solution of his own devising. And that pride cost him. That pride cost Judah. That pride was the last straw, and God would put up with no more. So the prophet Isaiah was sent to inform Judah that the wealth of their palace would be carried off into Babylon, as would the sons of Judah. Pride goes before the fall, and the fall was coming.

These two kings of Judah demonstrate the danger that pride poses in the lives of God’s children, the way that pride poisons our actions. Sometimes, like Ahaz, pride shows itself in a brazen rejection of God’s will in favor of a different way of doing things. Sometimes, like Hezekiah, a person who has been faithful to God in times of distress falls victim to pride when the going gets easier. In either case, pride is idolatry of the self. That’s why C.S. Lewis called pride “the great sin,” because pride can lead to any other sin. Sinful pride is the poisonous belief that I know better than God, that my way is better than his. Sinful pride believes I deserve the best, better than anyone else. Or, to quote Lewis once more, “Pride takes no pleasure in having something, only in having more than the next person.”

The poison of pride will corrupt our every thought, word, and deed, but it is not without antidote.  The antidote to pride has several elements, starting with an honest confession of who Jesus is and what he has done. Jesus, who though he was by nature God was not so proud that he would refuse to submit to his Father’s will, took on human flesh.  He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the painful and humiliating death of crucifixion. He remained silent before Pilate, humbly abiding by his jesusandpilateFather’s will rather than defending himself or setting himself free. It was not pride that put Jesus on the cross, but humility. As Jesus prayed in the garden his refrain was, “Father, not my will but yours be done.” He humbly submitted to the Father’s will. He humbly washed the disciples’ feet. He humbly travelled the countryside without a place to lay his head. He lived his entire earthly life in humility, not letting pride lead him to demand that he get his way. Remembering how the Son of God lived when he was on earth is a powerful antidote to pride in our lives.

But an even more powerful element in pride’s antidote is remembering why the Son of God came to earth in the first place. He came to earth because of my sin. The wall of pride breaks down when we make honest confession of the reality that it is my sinful thoughts, my lies, my lust, my greed, my envy, my hatred that brought Jesus out of heaven and nailed him to a cross. Pride seeks to make excuses for sinful actions. Hezekiah and Ahaz both forgot that their time as king was a gift from God, and because they forgot this, they acted in prideful ways. So often we forget that each day of our lives is a gift from God. We forget that we don’t sustain our own life, and that without our Lord causing our hearts to beat and our lungs to work we wouldn’t have today, much less tomorrow. Yet in our pride we treat each day as if it’s ours by right, as if we deserve it.  We ignore our sin or excuse it away.  It’s easy to do because we live in a world so proud that all sin is simply explained away. Almost any behavior is treated as normal, and those that aren’t normal still aren’t your fault, they are the result of your upbringing or other social influences. But they certainly aren’t regarded as sin, and you certainly don’t need to confess them, not to in the eyes of the world at least. That is fertile ground for pride to fester.  But an honest estimation of ourselves based on the standard of God’s word tells us otherwise. There we see that we are by nature sinful and unclean. There we see the depths of our sin – so deep that pride cannot stand.

Remembering who Jesus was and how he lived is a powerful antidote to pride. So also is remembering that the reason he came to earth was to undo the evil that I have done. And yet another element in the antidote to pride is the means by which this forgiveness is brought into our lives. A splash of water. A small piece of bread. A sip of wine. A simple word. These simple gifts shatter my pride because while they do such great things, they are so common. They are available to everyone.  They are not so expensive that only the wealthy could be saved.  They do not give me access to a super-Word-and-Sacramentsecret club that exists solely to exclude others.  They are for everyone, rich or poor, smart or not, skilled or clumsy.  They are not so obscure that only those who live in the right region of the globe would have easy access to them. They are common, universal elements. Bread, water, wine, words. These common things crush my sinful pride, for if God chooses such simple means to accomplish such great things, why do I assume I must be something great before God will to give them to me? These are not prizes given out to the top one percent; these are God’s gifts for anyone and everyone who wants them. In humility, we recognize that though we are weak and helpless, our Lord is not. He is the one who accomplishes anything in our lives. And such a realization leaves no room for pride.

And ultimately, when our pride is knocked down, a true sense of self-worth can be built up. Pride is dangerous because it is idolatry of the self. But that doesn’t mean we have to hate ourselves. What it means is that the worth we see in ourselves doesn’t come from us – it comes from Christ who lives in us.  My sin was so great the Jesus left heaven and died for it – that reality crushes my pride. But the fact that Jesus loves me so much that he was willing to undergo such torture shows my true worth in God’s eyes. It is not a value I create for myself by the successes or accomplishments in my life. It comes entirely from being a baptized child of God.  Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord. Ahaz wanted his value to come from political savviness, so he ignored the identity God gave him and set out to make his own. Hezekiah, though he had been faithful in times of distress, still craved acceptance from the world so much that when he was finally approached by the cool kids, when he was invited to sit at the table with the global power Babylon, he turned his back on who God has created him to be.  Such is the danger of pride: it puts the self in the seat of God. May our Lord grant us repentant eyes and hearts of faith this Lenten season, that we might not fall victim to pride as these kings of Judah did, but that we would rather find our worth always in what Christ has done for us, and in who he has created us to be.

Cleansing Scraps (Sermon for March 1/2, 2015)

Cleansing Scraps

Matthew 15:21-28

2nd Sunday in Lent (Reminiscere)

March 1st/2nd, 2015

Saint John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

The Atkins Diet. The South Beach Diet. The 17 Day Diet. The Flexitarian Diet. Cleanses and Detox Regimens. There is no shortage of information and suggestion out there about the best way to lose weight, eat healthy, and feel better. Stores like Whole Foods exist solely so that people can have a place to buy all natural, non-processed foods. The dangerous effects of pesticides and preservatives fill blogs and discussion boards across the internet. School lunch programs are being redesigned to require Healthy-Eatinghealthier meals for the students. There seems to be more discussion than ever about the different ways that the food we put into our bodies affects us, either positively or negatively.

Jesus had a similar discussion with the Pharisees regarding what type of food was good for you and what wasn’t. Except they weren’t discussing the pros and cons of artificial sweeteners, they were discussing the levitical codes of the Mosaic Covenant handed down on Mount Sinai.  In fact, this section of Matthew seems to focus on food. Chapter 14 records Jesus feeding well over 5000 people with 5 loaves of bread and two small fish. From such meager supplies Jesus produces an abundance of food that filled the hungry Israelite bellies along with 12 baskets of scraps that were left over. Shortly thereafter, in the beginning of Chapter 15, Matthew records a complaint from the Pharisees that Jesus’s disciples did not wash according to the laws of Moses, and therefore were defiling the food they were eating, which would in turn make them unclean. Jesus responds saying that it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of it. Later in Chapter 15, Matthew records the time Jesus miraculously fed a crowd of over 4000 by turning seven loaves of bread and two small fish into enough food to satisfy the crowd and fill seven baskets with left over scraps.  The point is, the events read today are part of a larger section of Matthew which deals quite a bit with food, with what goes into our bodies.

0e1140933_blog-jesus-calls-a-canaanite-woman-a-dogThat might help us make some sense of this otherwise uncomfortable exchange between Jesus and the Canaanite woman. Having just challenged the Pharisees concerning clean and unclean foods, Jesus leaves what is generally considered Israelite territory and heads instead to Tyre and Sidon, regions that have been pagan lands for centuries.  While there, a woman relentlessly follows him and his disciples, nipping at their heels, pestering and badgering him to heal her demon possessed daughter. Unlike the Pharisees of Israel, she has not come to challenge or test Jesus, but simply to receive healing from him. When she won’t leave him alone, the disciples ask him to just give her what she wants so that she will go away and they can have some peace. But Jesus says that he is the fulfillment of the covenant God made with Abraham. He is the promised Messiah of Israel, not of the Canaanites. He then speaks of food again, saying that he has come to bring the bread of life to the children of Israel, and that it would not be right to take that bread and give it to others. After all, God’s covenant was with Abraham and was passed down through circumcision to Abraham’s descendants. It was not a covenant with the whole world. It was a covenant with Israel. The Israelites were the ones who were expected to keep the civil and ceremonial laws, and they, not the Gentiles, were the ones who face penalties for breaking them. The Israelites were the ones who were entrusted with guarding and protecting the scriptures and the promises of the Messiah, and they, not the Gentiles, faced the wrath of the Prophets if they failed. Now that Israel’s Messiah was here, why should he take the Israelites’ reward and give it to someone to whom it is not promised, and to whom it does not belong, especially an unclean Canaanite?

Jesus’ words are as blunt as they are jarring. Yet they are also true.  He was sent to the lost sheep of Israel. That’s why he was born in Bethlehem, an Israelite village. That’s why he was crucified outside Jerusalem, the center of the Israelite world. Jesus is the fulfillment of Israel’s Scriptures.  And as unnatural as this may sound to our New Testament ears, and as uncomfortable as it may make us in our age of cultural diversity and tolerance, somehow it all made perfect sense to this Canaanite woman.  She doesn’t get angry with Jesus. She doesn’t get offended at being called a dog. She doesn’t leave in a huff and accuse him of racial bigotry. She agrees with him! “Yes, Lord, you’re right,” she says. “It would be inappropriate to take the food from the children and give it to the dogs. I7404 know I’m not one of your people. I know I’m unclean, no better than a dog who scavenges through the garbage for food to survive.  Give the food to your people as you were sent to do, and I’ll be the dog, for I know that when the children eat there are always scraps that fall to the dogs, and the scraps are good enough for me. I just want something.”

What a tremendous statement of faith! What a model of faith for us to emulate! For while we may not often give it much thought, the reality remains that we too are not the lost sheep of the nation of Israel. I would be genuinely surprised if anyone here could trace his or her family tree back to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Rather, everyone in this room today almost certainly falls into the category of Gentile. Not only are we Gentiles by birth, we are unclean by the way we live. No one here today deserves to be fed the food from the Master’s table. We are each of us unclean, and the things that come out of our mouths prove it. We speak the pride of our hearts every time we ridicule those we deem idiotic. We speak the hatred of our hearts every time we insult the appearance of another person. We speak the lust of our hearts with each dirty joke or crass comment. We speak the greed of our hearts when we tell ourselves that we need our disposable income for the latest iPhone or the newest car more than the church needs our money to support the work of God in this place. Not only are we Gentile by birth, we are unclean, and our thoughts, words, and deeds make that so abundantly clear each and every day we walk this earth.  The things coming out of our mouths prove it.

But let us not forget the larger narrative, for this section is about food, about the things that go into our mouths.  Don’t forget that the conversation about the scraps of food that fall from the Master’s table is sandwiched between two different miraculous feedings. In each case, Jesus fed the Israelites who had gathered to hear him speak. In each case, the Israelites ate their fill. And in each case, there was an abundance left over. In the first case, there were twelve baskets left, in the second case seven. In either case, God’s provision was so abundant that there was too much for just the Israelites. In both cases, there was an abundance of scraps left over. The faith of the Canaanite woman rejoiced in those scraps; our faith does the same.  As the Apostle Paul wrote, salvation came first to the Jews, then to the Gentiles.[1] We, like the Canaanite woman, are those Gentiles, and while we may have been saved second, we are still saved. Salvation has come to us in the scraps provided by the abundance with which God blessed Israel, and through them the whole world.

Word-and-Sacrament            We are blessed today to gather together around these scraps. In a few moments we will feast on these scraps, a morsel of bread so small that it would hardly fill the belly of a goldfish, much less a grown adult. We will drink a sip of wine so small that it almost evaporates off the tongue before it can be swallowed. Like a dog under the chair of a toddler, faith eagerly devours whatever scraps it can.  And the great gift of faith is that through these scraps Christ now lives in us. Through these scraps of bread and wine, through the small splash baptismal water, through the seemingly innocuous proclamation of God’s Word, we are now adopted into the family of God. We who are Gentiles by birth are now fellow heirs to the promise of God.[2] We who were once far off have been brought near,[3] all because we ate the scraps that fell from the Masters table.  Now that we have been brought into God’s family through these scraps, we await with joy our seat at the Master’s table at the marriage feast of the Lamb in his kingdom that has no end.

Until that day, we rejoice that Israel’s Messiah came with such abundance that there is now more than enough for all who believe. Let us, with the Canaanite woman, devour the scraps that fall from the Master’s table, for these are the scraps that make us clean.

[1] Romans 1:17

[2] Ephesians 3:6

[3] Ephesians 2:11-13

The God of the Unexpected – Palm Sunday Sermon (April 13, 2014)

The God of the UnexpectedJesus

Matthew 21:1-9

Palm Sunday

April 13, 2014

St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

Expect the unexpected.  That’s a good rule of thumb when dealing with Yahweh, the God of the Israelites.  Expect the unexpected, for he is forever surprising us by the way he acts.  Well, it would be surprising, perhaps, if we weren’t so familiar with the stories.  We know that David is going to beat Goliath.  We know that Noah and his family will survive the flood.  We’ve been hearing these things since we were kids in Sunday School.  Now, don’t misunderstand me.  I’m not saying it’s a bad thing to be well informed about what takes place in the pages of Scripture; far from it.  But I do think that familiarity has desensitized us to the shocking nature of some of what’s in the there.  We barely shrug at the knowledge that our new born Lord spent his first night among the cattle sleeping in a feed trough.  It’s completely normal to us that Jesus spent his time with the outcasts, the tax collectors and the sinners, more than with the religious establishment or political big wigs.  While these things may have been shocking to first century Jews, they are not necessarily all that surprising to those of us who have heard them taught and preached since we were kids.

Yet the saying holds true: expect the unexpected, for that’s what you tend to get from the palm-sundaytrue God of heaven and earth.  The history of Palm Sunday is no exception.  Jesus rides into Jerusalem to thunderous cheers from crowds of people who line the street to greet him.  Here, the Messiah, the king of the universe, is finally getting the recognition he deserves.  This is not just hundreds of people in a group following him around the countryside.  This is not even the thousands of people being fed on the shores of the sea of Galilee.  This is Jerusalem, the center of the Israelite universe.  This is Passover, the center of the Israelite calendar.  And here comes Jesus, the rightful king, riding before tens, if not hundreds of thousands of Israelites, not on a stallion or war horse.  He’s not standing atop a pair of lions with one foot on the back of either cat.  He’s humble and mounted on a donkey.  Sure, the crowds are astonished by him, praising him, shouting hosannas for all to hear.  But they have no idea what he’s about to do.  They have no idea how he’s about to do it.  Their expectations are about to be shattered.  Never mind that just a few days earlier Jesus had told them “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. 32 For he will be delivered over to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon. 33 And after flogging him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise,”[1]  Even his disciples still don’t understand what is about to happen.

But that shouldn’t surprise us.  For if there’s one thing we can expect from God, it’s the unexpected.  The disciples’ expectations were wrong.  The Israelites’ expectations were wrong.  So often our expectations are wrong too.  But God is not interested in our expectations, he’s interested in our salvation – and he accomplishes it in ways that the world considers total foolishness.  The words that Jesus spoke to his disciples about his upcoming suffering, death, and resurrection were spoken as they were headed to Jerusalem for that fateful week.  Like many the other travelers, their journey took them through Jericho.  As you probably remember, Jerusalem was situated more-or-less at the top of a mountain.  Jericho was the city at the base.  Before pilgrims would undertake the somewhat difficult trek up the side of the mountain to Jerusalem, they would often stop for supplies and rest in Jericho.  It was during this particular stay in Jericho that Jesus healed blind Bartimaeus[2] and ate with Zacchaues.[3]  Even though Jericho is the setting for these and some other well-known stories in the New Testament, the city is mostly remembered for the story of Joshua and the Israelites entering the Promised Land.  That’s another story filled with the unexpected – trumpets and shouts and walls that come tumbling down.  But there’s one more element of that story that I find even more surprising, and it’s one that usually gets glossed over in Sunday School.

You see, as soon as the Israelites had miraculously crossed the Jordan River they set up camp on the plains of Gilgal at the eastern border of Jericho.  There, they gathered their forces and prepared to wage war on the Promised Land.  Picture the forces of Rohan gathering to ride off to aide Gondor in Lord of the Rings, or the Allied Forces gathering together on the Western Front.  Here was the army of God’s people within shouting distance of their enemies who were barricaded behind Jericho’s massive walls.  And what was step one in the Israelite’s battle plan?  What was the first move that this army made?  Circumcision.  Yup, that circumcision.  And we’re not talking about just the baby boys, either.  We’re talking every male in Israel, every soldier, every man of fighting age who had been born during the days of wilderness wandering.  Not one of them had been circumcised during that 40 year mini exile.  Now that it was time for them to take possession of the Promised Land as God’s people, they had to be made God’s people once again.  The promise of the Land made to Abraham and was passed down to his descendants through circumcision.  If these Israelites weren’t circumcised, the promise didn’t apply to them and they had no claim to the land.  So in view of their enemies, enemies who were so afraid of the Israelites and their God that they were ripe for the taking, God incapacitated the whole army for a few days, made them incredibly vulnerable to enemy attack, but in so doing made them his chosen people once again.  The rest, as they say, is history.[4]

joshua-wallsThe unexpected continued from there.  After this brief stopover in Jericho, the Israelites continued on to take possession of the Promised Land as God interceded for them by causing Jericho’s walls to fall down[5] and causing the sun to stand still and giant hailstones to crush the retreating enemies at Gibeon.[6] It may not have been the battle plan that the great military minds in history would have drawn up, but it certainly worked.  Even though it seemed like foolishness to take time for circumcision on the doorstep of battle, that proved to be the deciding factor in how the war turned out.

There is a picture here of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.  After his brief stopover in Jericho to dine with Zacchaeus, Jesus now rides into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey.  Sure the crowds embrace him now and rejoice in his presence, but that would be the same as the Israelites rejoicing and the Canaanites cowering in fear as the Priests triumphantly entered the Promised Land by walking the Ark of the Covenant across the Jordan River on dry ground.  What comes after both of these triumphal entries is shocking vulnerability and weakness – but it makes all the difference it the world.  Just as the Israelites did not ride the wave of intimidation into the Promised Land after their God miraculously stopped the flow of the Jordan River, so also Jesus did not ride the wave of popularity with the masses.  Instead, he became vulnerable like the Israelite army had done through their circumcision.

Jesus’ weakness and vulnerability came in the form of being betrayed by one of his own, captured and arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane.  He was bounced around a kangaroo court, being beaten each step of the way, before being sentenced to death and scourged within an inch of his life.  He was then crucified and hung out to dye as travelers mocked him on their way into the city.  To any onlookers, he certainly would have appeared defeated.  But he is no ordinary man.  He is the God of the Israelites, he is the true and living God, the God of the unexpected.  jesus-fallsHe is the one who did not consider his rights and privileges as God something to be clung to, but mad himself nothing, taking the form of a servant.  And being found in human likeness, he became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.  And he did it for you, to redeem you, so that you could spend eternity with him in paradise.  Just as the shedding of Israelite blood through circumcision on the plains of Gilgal ensured their victory over the nations of the Promised Land, so also the shedding of Jesus’ blood was the victory over sin, death, and the devil.  God worked through the unexpected to do something miraculous for you.

And now he continues to do the same.  We have our own expectations of how a God should act.  We want him to be powerful and majestic.  He should be lofty and above the fray of this world.  We so often act as we expect his holy things to glow or float or be surrounded with angelic voices.  We have a hard time picturing him encumbered in the mundane things of day-to-day life.  Civilizations throughout history have invented for themselves gods who fit this description, gods who are above the normal things of this world.  But we have the God of the unexpected.  He is not above the normal things of this world.  He created them, and he uses them to save us.  He brings his gifts of life and forgiveness to you in unexpected ways.  Simple words, spoken from the mouth of ordinary people.  The same voices that tell their kids when it’s bedtime or order French Fries at the drive through also proclaim your sins forgiven in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  A splash of water on a baby’s forehead.  Normal water.  Not special water that has been imported from the Jordan River, but rather plain water that came from the tap in the kitchen or bathroom.  A wafer of bread or a sip of wine.  Not special bread made from select wheat grown only in the Holy Land.  Not special wine fermented from grapes grown in vineyards in Israel.  Simple bread and wine that were bought from a distribution Word-and-Sacramentcompany somewhere.  It’s no accident that the Christian Church for centuries has used the words of the Jerusalem crowd to greet our Lord’s arrival in the sacrament of the altar.  After the words of institution are spoken, the congregation responds by singing, “Blessed I he who comes in the name of the Lord!  Hosanna in the highest!”  He who once arrived in Jerusalem on the back of a donkey now arrives among us in, with, and under the bread and wine.  With God, you expect the unexpected.  Don’t be bored by the simple gifts; these completely mundane and normal things are the means of your salvation.  These are the unexpected ways that our Lord comes to you today.

This coming week we will hear again the story of our salvation, the same story that we heard at this time last year, and the year before, and the year before that.  But don’t let familiarity with the story blind you to the unexpected and miraculous within it.  Don’t let the cross become the great, “of course.”  Rejoice in the God of the unexpected, and rejoice in the unexpected things he has done for you.  For they are your salvation.

[1] Luke 18:31-33

[2] Mark 10:46-52

[3] Luke19:1-10

[4] Joshua 4-5

[5] Joshua 6

[6] Joshua 10