Saturday, April 16, 2011

Undercover God

Philippians 2:5-11; Matthew 21:1-11; 26-27
Palm/Passion Sunday
April 17, 2011

If we’re not careful, we can suffer whiplash from the readings and events of today. We move from the waving of palms and celebration to tears of despair as we end worship with the story of the Passion. Jesus goes from Red Carpet Celebrity to Gossip Newspaper Scandal in just 60 minutes.
If we were just casual observers, we might compare Jesus to Charlie Sheen – who has gone from being a star of the most popular sit-com on TV to the laughing stock of the whole country in just a few weeks.
But we’re not causal observers, and what happened to Jesus matters mightily to us. Jesus arrives in Jerusalem, riding on a donkey – and a colt, as Matthew misinterprets the Zechariah poetic text.  This is a momentous moment; a highly political moment. Zechariah’s prophecy is that the messiah would enter Jerusalem and reclaim it for God’s people. Many remember this prophecy and celebrate – they can hardly believe it’s about to happen in their lifetimes! They can hardly wait for Jesus to gather his army and get rid of the Romans, once and for all!
But, wait! That isn’t what God has in mind at all. God has in mind a messiah who does not fight his way to victory, but who wins by losing everything.
There’s a popular TV show running on Sundays called, “Undercover Boss.” In the show, a CEO or other important corporate leader gives up the fancy car, the fancy home, the fancy office, the well-paid staff, and the fancy clothes, and enters the workplace as a “regular” person for a week. The boss goes into several work situations to learn what life is like and how the company operates at the street level. The boss learns a lot about how real people live – a life he has never known, or with which he has lost touch.
... In a sense, this is what Jesus did for us. Jesus is God with human skin on; not the human skin of the wealthy and honored among us, but the real people who just get by, people who can’t possibly have even a month’s worth of cash set aside in case of emergency, people whose life choices aren’t perfect.
The difference – aside from the divine and human aspect – is that the undercover bosses get to go back to their regular lifestyles a week later; they are a bit smarter and wiser, more aware of the workings of their corporation, and grateful for the advantages their position and wealth have afforded them.
Jesus spent 30 years being an Undercover God. He was born in a stable, raised by a father who worked with his hands as a carpenter or stone cutter, and by a mother who wasn’t married when she became pregnant. Hunted by the king, they were exiles, and returned to a homeland still controlled by the Romans, who ruled with frequently violent military might. As a young adult, he would have known of 2,000 fellow Jews crucified for attempting to rebel against the power of Rome. As an observant Jew, he would have seen the inequality of women and men, the disdain for non-Jewish people, and the rejection of those who were considered less than perfectly righteous.
Jesus, the Undercover God, knew what it was like to be a regular person of his time. He knew there might be a Red Carpet for a short time, but that confronting the powers of Rome and the leaders of his own people would mean death for him. There was no doubt in his mind about that!
Those who expose the misdeeds of the powerful, those who intend to upset the current balance of power, will not have an easy time. 2000 years after Jesus it is no different. The martyrs of our time, including Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Archbishop Oscar Romero, and four Women Religious serving in El Salvador, (these martyrs of our time) knew their days were numbered because they proclaimed an unfavorable message to the powerful.
Jesus, the Undercover God, accepted the adulation of the ticker tape parade, the waving banners, the joyous songs. But he didn’t let it stop him from doing what he came to do. He proceeded until his arrest to heal those who needed healing; to challenge those who profited unfairly from the Temple dealings; to tell barely disguised parables about the abuse of power by the current leaders; to warn about the destruction of the temple – which meant the destruction of a whole way of life and religious practices. He celebrated the Passover with his disciples, like any observant Jew would have, but he gave it new meaning.
We know how it ended, but those living in the moment did not. Judas couldn’t guess that the part he played was part of God’s plan. In the moment, those who were healed, those who were given unexpected respect, those who were fed and nourished, understood that Jesus was infused with God’s power. In the moment, everyone struggled to think about God in ways different from their religious tradition and teachings, but couldn’t imagine what was about to happen.
Jesus hinted at it; he tried to tell his disciples about it. But, no one expected Jesus to be raised from the tomb. No one really believed him. The cross had always been the end of the road before. Why should they think any differently in that moment?
I hope to see you at worship this week as we taste the mystery of the last supper and feel the horror of Good Friday. We remember once more the price that Jesus, the Undercover God, paid so we would know how much God loves us. In case you don’t attend worship Thursday and Friday, we end today’s worship with the reading of the trial and death of Jesus from Matthew.
As you listen, try to put yourself in the place of the real people around Jesus, those who watched in dread as their very human plans for the future were crushed. Feel the fear, feel the pain, feel the regret and powerlessness of those around Jesus.
Observe how the Undercover God handles this time of suffering, and remember that it’s this God whom we worship and adore; this God for whom we wave our palm branches; and this God whom we celebrate next week, because we know the next part of the story and that the death isn’t the ending. Let’s wave our palm branches one more time for our Undercover God as he enters our life this week in triumph.
Please pray with me: Lord, this week is often more than we can handle. We’d prefer to skip the pain and jump right to the good part, the joy of resurrection. Help us realize that the joy isn’t true joy without the pain of the crucifixion. Be present with us this week, as we struggle to face this week with you. Amen