(Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29; Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 19:28-40)
I have a confession: I don’t like to clean and organize in the house. I enjoy cleaning and organizing in the yard, but I do not enjoy doing the same in the house. In fact, the wood that needed to be moved from the front, side yard to the wood pile on the deck has been moved and stacked; the leaves that needed the to be raked from the gardens have been raked; and the decorative grasses that needed to be cut down to allow new growth to show have been cut down, but the Christmas decorations that were removed and placed on a couch in a rarely used room in our house are still on that couch. It would probably take me an hour or two to pack up those Christmas decorations and put the boxes in the attic, but I just haven’t had the motivation or energy to do so. I know – it makes no sense! The bottom line is that working inside the home drains me, while working outside the home energizes me. So, my mother’s Christmas Mickey Mouse doll that decorates our home during the Christmas season greets me every time I take the dog out the back door. [Show Mickey Mouse to the congregation.]
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 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 the directions he needed to follow on his journey. 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 the directions God gave him, setting his face to Jerusalem even while knowing that a violent death awaited him at journey’s end. In obedience, Jesus followed the directions God gave him 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, Jesus followed the directions God gave him, 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. The directions God gave Jesus’ on his journey are to become our own.
We have an example of what following God’s directions 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 meant carrying THE cross. Our obedience 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.
We may think we are nothing, that we are so small that it doesn’t matter what we do as we live our daily lives. But that’s not true. We are something: We are so large that it does matter what we 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.
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. What are we to do when we know God’s will but don’t want to do it? 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. In the same way, when we discern what God requires of us, we are to do it. When we do so, we are adding our small obedience to Jesus’ large obedience. We are adding our small obedience to God’s large plan of redemption. We are adding our weight to “peace on earth” and “good will to all people.” We are making the hope and promise of Christmas a reality. We are tipping the scales in God’s favor.
Spring is here, Easter is around the corner, and I know I must put those Christmas decorations away soon! As I pack them up and put them in the attic, I hope that the message of Christmas will make more than a fleeting impression on me. I hope that it will remind me to be humbly obedient all the way through Holy Week, tipping the scales in God’s favor with my small acts of obedience so that the Christmas message becomes more of a reality as the world celebrates the new life of Easter and the Resurrection. Amen.
Sermon preached by the Rev. Amy Johnson at the Canton Community Baptist Church, Canton, CT, Sunday, April 10, 2022, Palm & Passion Sunday.