sacrifice

What We Want

Mark 11:1-11 (NRSV)

When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,

“Hosanna!
   Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
   Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.


Throughout the Gospel of Mark, the crowd, while certainly varying in size and makeup, acts like an individual character in the story. Mark’s crowd also represents every person trying to interpret the nature and ministry of Jesus.

So, what does this teeming crowd of Jews gathered for the Passover want? And more importantly, what is the crowd missing as the day unfolds?

Instant Gratification

What the crowd wants is for Jesus to act—now! He has made clear his claim to be the Christ; this planned act to ride a donkey colt into Jerusalem screams out the prophecy the Jews knew from Zechariah 9:9.

These are for the most part an oppressed people who cry, “Hosanna,” which literally means, “O Lord, save!” There was an expectation that the messiah would do a lot of uprooting and overturning, leading a rebellion against the hated Roman Empire and their puppet Jewish leaders.

In other words, the people in the crowd wanted a messiah for their time. It is interesting how anticlimactic the end of this passage is in Mark. I get the impression that the crowd, having not seen fire fall from the sky or heard a call to arms, has melted away, perhaps more than a little disappointed.

In Mark, Jesus will continue to arouse people in Jerusalem from time to time, cleansing the temple and teaching lessons that anger the priests and other Jewish leaders. The crowd never gets what it wants, however, and likely is the same crowd eventually calling for Jesus’ death.

The Bigger, Bloodier Picture

Thank God, however, that the crowd did not get what it wanted, a worldly warrior king. A messiah for their time certainly would have affected us, but not in the powerful ways Jesus changes our lives. Jesus proved his kingship not with worldly might. Instead, he rose to the throne over all creation by making himself a sacrifice for sin, from a human perspective an almost incomprehensible strategy.

To understand the radically sacrificial nature of the messiah, we have to back up in the story and see some of the subtle signs Jesus gave as he made his journey.

We are told Jesus approached Jerusalem from Bethphage and Bethany, meaning he traveled through the Kidron Valley, entering Jerusalem through its eastern gate. Being the time for Passover, the trip itself abounds with symbols of sacrifice.

Animals destined for slaughter at the temple would have been driven along the same route, up from the fields where they grazed. The great sacrifice, the ultimate atonement for all people in all times, the Lamb of God, traveled the road with the little sacrifices of the day.

The Kidron Valley also reminds us what a bloody religion Judaism and Christianity are. What went up through the valley also, in a sense, came back down. The blood from thousands of lambs had to be flushed from the temple, and this blood mixed with water drained directly from the temple mount into the valley. Some Bible dictionaries suggest that the word Kidron may derive from a Hebrew word meaning, “to become black.”

That one great, bloody sacrifice—God in flesh, hanging on a cross—made possible salvation for all the world. God loves the Jews, but he was working through them to save the whole world, to do more than just prop them up as a dominant global theocracy.

The crowd expected God to do great things. They just couldn’t imagine how great.

Nothing New Under the Son

We are so often like the crowd in Mark. Even as followers of Christ, we limit our expectations of an infinitely wise and loving God.

Much too often, we root our church planning and even our theology in what we want, rather than what God seems to be planning for the world now that Christ has made possible salvation. We too often want Christianity for our time and place.

I see this on a small scale in the local church. On more than one occasion, as a congregation has prepared to make changes to better reach people for Christ, I have had members ask me, “Can you not wait and do that after I die?”

One member was in her 60s and in reasonably good health, and she asked the question without a hint of irony!

On a larger scale, denominations—especially our own—are wrestling with whether biblically based beliefs should be modified to better fit contemporary issues. When we do this, what we seek is a messiah for today, rather than a Savior for all times, one who guides us toward the holiness revealed to us through Scripture by an unchanging God.

We have to ask ourselves some hard questions: Do I think the work of the church is about me and the time in which I live? Or do I think the work of the church moves us toward a time God has promised us, a time when we are gathered from across eras and places to dwell with God forever?

When we were children, our parents taught us an important lesson: Running with the crowd can be dangerous.

Our parents were right.


The featured image is “Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem,” a fresco at the Nativity of the Theotokos Church in Macedonia.

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Misunderstood

Mark 11:1-11

Jesus’ final entry into Jerusalem looked and sounded like a celebration. It actually was one of the great misunderstandings in history, however, with none of the onlookers really understanding what Jesus was trying to communicate.

As Jesus passed through the gate into Jerusalem, all sorts of conflicting interests would have come together to watch the raucous scene. Some studies estimate Jerusalem’s normal population of 30,000 certainly doubled and possibly even tripled during this highest and holiest of Jewish holidays, the Passover. The formal city limits had to be temporarily extended, so travelers could say, “I was in Jerusalem for Passover this year.”

And in the midst of all of this, along came Jesus, riding on a donkey colt. It was a deliberate, overt act, one any good Jew would have recognized from prophecy. In particular, there were the words in Zechariah 9:9: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

The miracle man, the one who had already impressed so many with healings and feedings, was declaring himself king. The common people who gathered in the streets partially understood this sign, reacting by rolling out a palm-and-cloak carpet and shouting, “Hosanna!” Literally they were crying, “Save us,” although by this time “hosanna” was more a shout than words with real meaning.

Even his disciples failed to remember Jesus’ teachings, however, especially the one about his need to go to Jerusalem, die, and then rise on the third day. The disciples and the common people had their minds set on worldly salvation, failing to grasp how much more they could receive from God. They also missed the significance of the donkey, something a king would ride only if he came in peace. Their failure to understand what it truly means for Jesus to come in peace, readied to make the great sacrifice, would become evident as the week progressed.

And of course, there were others watching Jesus strike a match near what they considered a political powder keg.

There were the Sadducees, the Jewish faction in control of temple worship. They were experts at accommodation, fine with the system as it was, and they kept one nervous eye toward the Roman occupiers, hoping they weren’t picking up on the symbolism of Jesus’ ride.

There were the Pharisees, like Jesus reformers, but reformers deeply annoyed by Jesus’ constant criticism of their highly refined legalism and jealous of his miracles and popularity.

There were the Zealots, revolutionaries carrying sharp blades beneath their cloaks, hoping Jesus’ rousing of the crowd would lead to Roman blood in the streets.

And there were the Roman politicians and soldiers, fully armed and on high alert because of the crowds, determined to keep this backwater province under control.

Palm Sunday marks Jesus’ willing entry into the valley of the shadow of death, a place where worldly factions fall on you with little warning, and where those who cheer you on may call for your death just a few days later. And he entered it for us, to free us from the power of sin and death.

As Christ’s followers, we’re called to walk through this broken world in the same way. Philippians 2:5-8:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.

“Let the same mind be in you,” in whatever we do. In politics, we are to be little kings of peace, remembering the Sermon on the Mount. And where there is a thin understanding of Jesus Christ and his role as Savior, it may require deep sacrifices on our part to give that truth weight.

When we consider Jesus on the cross, our following his example almost seems like a losing proposition. It would be, except for what we celebrate next Sunday.

But that’s a story for next week. This week, remember the boldness, and the all-important death that cleanses us.

Saying It, Living It, Part 2

Matthew 16:21-28

“Get behind me, Satan,” Jesus said to Peter. Ouch.

Last week, we heard how Jesus declared Peter to be the rock, the foundation for the church that will exist for all time. That blessing was rooted in Peter’s declaration that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

How quickly the mighty can fall. To go back to a lesson we first learn in kindergarten, actions speak louder than words.

In defense of Peter, he was navigating uncharted theological waters. He was right to declare Jesus the Messiah, the Christ. His problem was that he had not fully grasped the role Christ plays in the universe. Like most Jews, Peter had reduced the expected Messiah to a warrior king, a recycled David who would form his army, take back Israel for the Jews and establish a physical, righteous kingdom for all the world to emulate.

It was a big, exciting concept, but it wasn’t big enough to capture the role Jesus came to play.

Matthew tells us that Jesus began speaking plainly, telling his disciples how his ministry would actually play out. Ultimately, he told them, he would suffer at the hands of the Jewish religious leaders of the day, be killed, and then be raised from the dead.

Peter responded like a tactful public relations manager. He didn’t confront the boss in front of others; he pulled Jesus aside to provide a little counsel. When he told Jesus, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you,” Peter was focusing on the torture and death part of Jesus’ prediction—none of that seemed to fit the clear path to victory he was envisioning. How could the masses get behind a warrior king who planned to lose?

And in a way, Peter was right, at least from a human perspective. The masses abandoned Jesus once the beatings began. In Matthew, only a handful of women followers are recorded as witnessing the crucifixion.

God’s plan was not dependent on human understanding or support, however. The last part of Jesus’ prediction, that he would rise again on the third day, came true, marking the great turning point in history. The inevitability of death ended on the first Easter Sunday. Christ’s resurrection made clear that death’s power was gone, replaced by eternal life through Jesus Christ. It is the core truth of Christianity sustaining us today.

We should also remember that Jesus didn’t call Peter “Satan” just to rebuke or insult the disciple. The phrase “Get behind me, Satan!” is there to remind us of an earlier story found in Matthew 4. There, the devil tempted Jesus to abandon God’s master plan and define his ministry in terms of worldly success.

As Peter argued there must be another way, a way fit for a warrior king, he reminded Jesus of his duel with the devil, and the very real temptation that went along with it. Peter was inadvertently tempting Jesus again. Jesus knew with his divine mind he needed to go to the cross for our sakes, but his very human side also clearly did not want to suffer. Midway through Matthew 26, Jesus’ prayer just before he was arrested makes clear his reluctance to suffer and die: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.”

After upbraiding Peter, Jesus went on to tell his disciples about the cost of following the Messiah, knowing they would face similar difficult choices themselves as leaders of the church. It’s a lesson for all of us. We could have our own bitter cup of death to drink; certainly, many of our brothers and sisters in Christ are facing such choices now. We all have our own crosses to take up. By that, Jesus meant we have to take up his cause and give up whatever causes or desires we may have that conflict.

In choosing Christ, there could be some sort of human glory, I suppose, but glory, riches, fame or other worldly goodies should not be counted on or even sought. There are preachers becoming rich by telling their followers that faith automatically begets worldly success. They are wrong, and they need to listen to Jesus’ teachings more closely.

The only glory we are promised—the reward for drinking from that cup, taking up that cross—is, of course, eternal life. The concept sounds vague and distant to us now, but on our deathbeds and beyond, nothing in this life will compare.

Wholly Thine

Usually when we talk about Old Testament sacrifices, we end up exploring how they are precursors to Jesus’ death on the cross. His is the ultimate, all-atoning sacrifice, covering sins for all time.

The kind of sacrifice we see described in Leviticus 1:1-9, what we sometimes call “the whole burnt offering,” takes us there, but in a roundabout way. Like the other sacrifices described in Leviticus, it is an ancient practice, a Bronze Age ritual filled with blood and fire. The only similar experience we might have today involves smell—at some point in the process, that bull on the altar must have given off an aroma like steaks on a grill.

The point of the whole burnt offering still resonates today, though. For the one making the offering, it was an act of deep commitment.

Note again what was required to make this offering: an unblemished bull, what today would be a prize winner at the county fair. (People also could bring a male sheep or goat, or if they were poor, a bird. We’re going to focus on the bull today, however.) Such a well-formed beast usually represented years of careful breeding, hard work and what we might call a little luck.

The bull was valuable, not just for what it represented on the hoof, but more for what it represented in offspring for years to come. Bred with the right cows, it could make its owner and his family comfortable, well-off or even wealthy. With such a bull roaming his fields, a man might feel a little more secure in his future.

Instead of leaving it to do what bulls do, however, the owner chose instead to take this prize bull and have it turned into ashes and smoke. Unlike the other types of offerings, there was not the opportunity for the owner or even the priests to consume any of the meat. The priests were entitled to the skin only.

When the time came, the owner would stand before the bull and lay his hands upon the animal’s head. There must have been a sobering moment when the owner could feel the life in the animal, its pulsing, its twitching, perhaps its nervousness at the strangeness of the surroundings. Then, if the ritual were performed as it was typically done throughout history, the owner would slaughter the animal himself, cutting its windpipe and esophagus quickly and deeply with a very large, sharp knife.

Blood would have flown, of course, with the priests catching it and flinging it against the altar. The bull, so alive in one moment, would have buckled and fallen before the owner who had fed it and tended it with such care. It would then be cut up and burned according to the prescriptive details we find in Leviticus.

Certainly, it was an act of atonement, but the whole burnt offering was different from the sin offerings in one particular way. It was far less about blood and much more about establishing a right relationship with God. Or think of it this way: It was less about what a person had done and more about how a person intended to live.

First, if you haven’t picked up on it by now, the bull was intended as a gift to God. It was turned to smoke as much as possible because that is how Bronze Age Israelites perceived offerings going to God, by way of smoke, up into the heavens. A gift was a formal expression of a desire for solidarity, or even friendship.

Second, it was an act of dependency. The one making the offering was saying, “God, I need you more than I need this bull. God, I trust you more than I trust in my own ability as a breeder,” or whatever other occupation might make a person well-off enough to own such an animal.

And despite the seeming primitiveness of the whole burnt offering, we should be able to connect with what was happening in the heart of the worshiper when such a sacrifice occurred.

In fact, it is easier for us to reach that place where we no longer stand in cringing fear of God because of sin. God has made it easier. We simply claim Christ as our own, and the claim sin has on us vanishes. Through Christ, the path to a loving relationship with God has been made clear and simple.

What remains for us is a response to the gift of eternal life we’ve been given. What kind of gifts do we give to the one who has done so much for us already? How do we acknowledge our dependency?

Perhaps we need to determine what our bull in the field is. What might we have bred and grown for our own security, and how might we release that to God, demonstrating our trust in him?

For each person, the answer will be different. The question is well worth considering, however, particularly when so much ministry in the world is needed.

Freedom from Death

Exodus 15:13-18

Last week, we heard how God overcame Pharaoh’s mighty army as he saved the Israelites at the edge of the Red Sea. Once God’s chosen people had crossed through the parted waters and saw God close those waters back upon their oppressors, they had much to celebrate.

The Israelites had learned, at least for a short time, to fear not. They had learned that when God is for us, who can be against us? And their response was appropriate—they worshipped.

Our text today is part of a song sung in that worship, that glorification of God. The song re-tells the miracle of what has just happened; at the same time, it declares truths about God’s loving, redemptive nature. It also is in many ways prophetic, predicting so much of the story to come, the story where God defeats death and changes the way we should view life.

Those of you who have declared yourselves followers of Christ know how the story goes. God’s exercise of power does not end with the defeat of great kings who oppose him. Just as God redeemed the Israelites from slavery, God has redeemed us from sin through Jesus Christ. Just as God moved the Israelites toward his “abode,” the place where he reigns “forever and ever,” God moves us toward eternal life in his presence.

The truth that we are freed from death’s bonds should change us from the very moment we grasp it. We should view everything in the light of eternity, and that light should shine in every corner of our lives now.

Note the “shoulds.” Realistically, I understand how much we struggle with the concept of death. The possibility of our own deaths naturally unnerves us. The possibility of losing those we love can rattle us even more.

If you look at the story of the Israelites, you don’t have to go far at all beyond the song by the sea to see where they wavered in their trust of Moses and God. And every time they doubted, it was the fear of death controlling them, despite the incredible evidence of God they had seen.

At this point, it would be easy to give what we called in seminary a “musty lettuce” sermon. That’s where the preacher says, “We must, we must, let us, let us.”

Simply telling you to trust God and get past the fear of death wouldn’t be helpful, however. Death is a troubling reality we contend with on an all-too-regular basis, despite an intellectual understanding that death has been overcome. I have struggled and continue to struggle myself.

As I pondered this sermon, some images flashed through my mind:

My granny’s passing. She died a very difficult death from a very painful kind of cancer when I was 14. Death seemed to have great power then, and how she died troubled all of us, in particular my mother, who had been my granny’s primary caregiver.

More than two decades later, while I was in seminary, my mother asked some very specific, metaphysical questions about where Granny is now. I knew she wasn’t talking about locating her in heaven or hell; we had seen my granny put her faith in Jesus Christ. The questions simply had to do with what Granny was experiencing in the moment.

As we discussed the fact that we’re promised an immediate experience of God at death, along with an experience of full resurrection at the end of time, I realized what my mother and I were doing. We were letting Granny go, placing her in the story of redemption and eternal life we had embraced as believers.

Those who handle death particularly well. There is Jesus, of course. He seemed to model how to handle grief in Matthew 14, when he learned of the senseless death of his cousin John the Baptist, the prophet who had announced the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Even Jesus needed to withdraw to a quiet place, taking time to process and grieve. When he saw there was work to be done, however, he quickly leaped back into ministry. Death could not stop the work of the kingdom.

I’m also reminded of a man who died in our church recently. He knew death was coming; he made the decision on his own to end medical care and let death come, telling me, “That’s about enough.” There’s a word for what he exhibited: aplomb. His confidence in what was coming was incredible, an inspiration to me.

Those who don’t handle death particularly well. My mind also went to a woman at a previous church I served who panicked when she learned she had cancer. She told me she had been in church all of her life, but had just then realized she had never taken her relationship with God very seriously. As she faced a grave diagnosis, she wanted to know how she could make up for all that lost time and really understand what her faith was about.

I would like to say she was able to absorb it all quickly, but that wouldn’t be true. She became very sick in just a few weeks. It’s hard to be an intense disciple when you’re desperately ill. Before she died, she did accept that all she had to do was trust God’s grace. At the same time, I so wanted her to have the comfort a lifelong walk with Christ could have given her.

Those images lead me to a renewed understanding of the importance of discipleship, in particular the time we spend in worship, prayer and Bible study. When preachers talk about discipleship, it often starts to sound like they’re giving you a set of rules for salvation that would make any Pharisee proud. But I’m reminded of the real reasons we spend time in discipleship activities—they give us repeated encounters with God.

When we see or experience God, we free our minds from this temporary world still bound by sin and death, and we live into the promise Jesus has made us. Yes, death still hurts. Yes, we still miss those who go on ahead of us, knowing we are apart for a time.

What we have, however, is perspective. Death has no power; death has been defeated. Ultimately, the grace of God prevails.