In my home office, I have the Christmas cards we received this past Christmas in a pile on a bench. After Christmas had passed, I put them into a book bag and put them in my office, intending to go through them again, decide which ones to save, figure out who we would be adding to our Christmas card list for the next Christmas, and so on. But, then, I needed to use the book bag, so the Christmas cards migrated to my desk; then, I needed room on my desk, so they migrated to the bench. Every time I look through the pile of things on the bench, I see that the Christmas cards are there, waiting for me to deal with them!
It’s odd to think of Christmas during the season of Lent. During Christmas we receive cards that say the familiar words from the Gospel According to Luke: “Glory to God in the highest! Peace on earth! Good will to all people!” We sing carols announcing “peace on earth” and proclaiming, “God and sinners are reconciled.” We gather with people we love around fires in fireplaces, drinking cider and eating cookies, celebrating the season and giving each other gifts in honor of the gift from God of the infant Jesus. It is a warm season, full of hope and promise: “Glory to God in the highest! Peace on earth! Good will to all people!”
But just a few months later we are into the season of Lent, during which we are asked to reflect on all the ways in which we are not reconciled to God, on all the ways we do not foster peace on earth and good will to all people. The hope and promise of Christmas lands in our very real world and gets lived out in our everyday lives. We would like to stay gathered together around our Christmas fires in our cozy homes, but we must go out into the world and try to live into the hope and promise of Christmas.
When Jesus was born the angels sang, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors (Lk 2:14).” And when Jesus rode into Jerusalem the disciples sang, “Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven (Lk 19:38)!” The same song, sung first at Jesus’ entrance into life; sung last at Jesus’ entrance into death.
You see, the hope and the promise of Christmas come with a Good Friday price. If “peace on earth” and “good will to all people” are to become realities they must be heard as more than easy expressions of cheer and fleeting good intentions. They must be heard as commands, given not just to summon a good mood but to summon a steady and faithful obedience, an obedience that will fulfill the hope and promise of Christmas at any cost – even the cost of Good Friday.
These phrases – “Glory to God in the highest! Peace on earth! Good will to all people!” – marked Jesus’ life from beginning to end. They were the bookends of his life, determining how he would live – and die – in between them. He heard them as commands and understood that they were his marching orders. And the amazing thing is that he was obedient to them from birth to death. As the passage from Philippians says, “And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross” (2:7b-8).
Jesus rode down the Mount of Olives and entered Jerusalem as a king, with the disciples shouting, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord” (Lk 19:38a)! But he redefined what it means to be a king. Kingship is not about pomp and power but about humble obedience to God. In obedience Jesus followed his marching orders, setting his face to Jerusalem even while knowing that a violent death awaited him at journey’s end. In obedience he followed his marching orders as he traveled along the way, eating and drinking with sinners and remaining faithful to God’s desire to gather the rejected and lost. In obedience he followed his marching orders, finally entering Jerusalem to make peace with the offering of his own life.
As Jesus’ present-day disciples we are called to follow the pattern of his obedience. As we happily and readily accept the joyous proclamations of Christmas – “Glory to God in the highest! Peace on earth! Good will to all people!” – we are to happily and readily accept the posture of humble obedience that is required to make the proclamations a reality. Jesus’ marching orders are to become our own.
We have an example of what following our marching orders as disciples of Jesus looks like in the behavior of his disciples as he prepared to enter Jerusalem. In the midst of the overarching story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, Luke gives us a rather detailed account of the preparations for the pageant. Jesus chose two of his disciples and instructed them to go into the village and get a colt that had never been ridden and bring it to him. He even told them what to say if anyone asked them what they were doing. The disciples did as they were told, right down to saying exactly what they were supposed to say when they were asked what they were doing. As a result, Jesus rode down the Mount of Olives and into Jerusalem as he was supposed to, fulfilling God’s plan. Because the disciples were obedient to Jesus, Jesus was able to be obedient to God. Their small act of obedience contributed to Jesus’ large act of obedience. Their small lives thus became part of the large life of Jesus. Their small lives were thus caught up into the large life of God. Their small lives thus became part of God’s large plan for the redemption of the world.
Jesus’ obedience to his marching orders meant carrying THE cross. Our obedience to our marching orders means lifting many little and daily crosses in the complexities and demands of our everyday lives. In deciding whether to be obedient, we are deciding whether to become part of Jesus’ obedience; thus we are deciding whether to become part of the life of Jesus; thus we are deciding whether to become part of the life of God; thus we are deciding whether to become part of God’s plan for the redemption of the world.
You may think you are nothing, that you are so small that it doesn’t matter what you do as you live your daily life. But that’s not true. You are something – you are so large that it does matter what you do. Every person who decides to be obedient to Jesus and so to God tips the scales in God’s favor. And God’s favor is that there be peace on earth and good will to all people. God’s favor is that the hope and promise of Christmas become the reality of our everyday lives. And, for that to happen, we need to be obedient to God’s will.
Sometimes it’s difficult to know what to do to be obedient to God’s will. It’s one thing to want to do God’s will; it’s another to know what God’s will is. If we look to Jesus for guidance, we immediately get some insight into what God’s will is. Jesus taught that the greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind. And he taught that the second commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself (Lk 10:27). Love God, love self, and love neighbor. Love, love, love. God’s will always has to do with love.
It is, however, possible to be faced with a situation in which there is more than one loving way to resolve it. It is also possible to be faced with a situation in which there is no absolutely loving way to resolve it. In such a situation, whatever you decide to do someone will get hurt. So then what? Again, if we look to Jesus for guidance, we see what we are to do. When Jesus needed guidance, he prayed. For example, when faced with having to choose disciples he spent the night before in prayer (Lk 6:12-13). Jesus prayed when faced with serious decisions. He discerned God’s will for him and his life through prayer. We are to do likewise.
Even if we know God’s will and want to do it, we can be fearful about doing it. As I said before, the hope and promise of Christmas come at a Good Friday price. There is often some trial to go through when we do God’s will. Perhaps you’ve done someone wrong and you have to admit it, but admitting it makes you feel vulnerable and you hate to feel vulnerable. You know that God’s will is to take responsibility for what you’ve done and make amends – that is the loving thing to do – but every fiber of your being says, “No, no, no – I don’t want to do it!” What are you to do when you know God’s will but don’t want to do it? Again, if we look to Jesus for guidance, we see what we are to do. When Jesus needed the strength and courage to do God’s will, he prayed. For example, when faced with his impending arrest, trial, and crucifixion, Jesus prayed to God for support (Lk 22:42-44). We are to do likewise.
He also surrounded himself with his disciples and asked them to pray while he was praying. In his time of need, he surrounded himself with the community of people who loved him and loved God and asked them for their prayers and support. We are to do likewise.
God doesn’t leave us hanging out here by ourselves when he asks us to do his will. He provides us with what we need: his teachings, his guidance, his support, and a community of support. The Isaiah passage for today points this fact out, stating,
The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near . . . It is the Lord God who helps me . . . (Is 50:7-8a, 9a)
Jesus set his face, like flint, for Jerusalem, knowing that he would not ultimately be put to shame, knowing that the God who would vindicate him was near, knowing that it was the Lord God who would help him. And so, he was obedient. He did what was required of him, as did his disciples when they went to get the colt that they were instructed to get. So, when you discern what God requires of you, when you are asked to go get a colt, do it. You will be adding your small obedience to Jesus’ large obedience. You will be adding your small obedience to God’s large plan of redemption. You will be tipping the scales in favor of God. You will be adding your weight to “peace on earth” and “good will to all people.” You will be making the hope and promise of Christmas a reality.
I will, someday, go through the Christmas cards that Brian and I received this past Christmas – I swear! And, when I do, I hope that their proclamations will make more than a fleeting impression on me. I hope that I will read them as commands and take them as my marching orders. I hope that I will get up and go get a colt! Amen.
Sermon preached by the Rev. Amy Johnson at the Canton Community Baptist Church, Canton, CT, Sunday, March 20, 2016, Palm & Passion Sunday.