Sunday, March 29, 2015

Sunday's Sermon: Hosanna - Save Us! (March 29, 2015)

Hosanna – Save Us!
Mark 11:1-11
March 29, 2015[1]

The word “Hosanna.”  We think of it as a word of praise—an equivalent, maybe even a synonym, to “Alleluia.”  Since early Christian times, it has been used in that way.  But the word’s origins go far deeper.

Let’s look back at Psalm 118 for a moment—the Psalm from which we read earlier in the service.  Verse 25 of Psalm 118 says the following:  “Save us, we beseech you, O Lord.”  In ancient Jewish tradition, the Priest would process around the altar during certain feast days while this verse was being repeated.  Save us.  Save us.  Save us.  These two words in Aramaic sounded like this:  hoshi ‘ah na.  Over time, those words were conflated into hosha ‘na, which was then transliterated into “hosanna.[2]  In the same way that people today no longer remember that our phrase “good bye” was a conflation of the prayer “God be with you,”[3] so too the Jewish people had long forgotten that the word “Hosanna” was not just an enthusiastic way of saying “Hello;” it also was a cry for help.

On that day when Jesus was riding from Bethany to Jerusalem, the crowd may have thought it was shouting a jubilant greeting; whether they realized it or not, they also were calling out, “Save us!”  “Save us!” 

Depending on who you were and the context you were coming from, you could listen to those words and hear it differently.  If you just happened to be out and about that day, you would simply join in the shout as an exclamation of praise.

But if you were politically active, you would hear that cry as a cry to be saved from the oppressive rule of Rome.  If “Hosanna” was the cry you uttered that day, you were taking a chance; Rome was pretty sensitive to any hint of trouble.  The roads throughout Judea were littered with crosses showing the destiny that Rome promised to those who would dare to take them on. 

There may have been a hint of crying out against social oppression.  After all, Jesus had announced that he had come “to bring good news to the poor.”  (Luke 4:18).  That message wasn’t received any better then than it is today.  Think back to the days of the Civil Rights marches in the United States—men, women and children marching down the streets with arms linked together, singing “We shall overcome.” 

If you were a Scribe or a Pharisee, you would be on high alert.  Not only because of the religious implications; you didn’t want anything to upset the uneasy peace that reigned in the country.  Rome could be merciless; but its wrath was generally kept in check, as long as you didn’t cause any trouble.  Luke’s Gospel tells us about a Pharisee watching the parade who was so concerned that he asked Jesus to tell the people to keep quiet.  Jesus replied, “if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” (Luke 19:40).

I doubt that very many heard or shouted “Hosanna” as spiritual cry.  I doubt that many, if any, raised their voices—pleading with God to bring reconciliation, forgiveness, and peace to the hearts of humankind. 

Hosanna.  Save us.  Words that may have welled up from deep within them, just like the groanings of the Spirit that cry out on our behalf when we cannot utter words of our own.  (Romans 8:26).  Save us.  Whether they meant, “save us from Rome,” or “save us from ourselves,” or “save us from sin,” it is a cry that resonated deeply within the hearts of minds of those who were marching and those who were throwing their cloaks down on the road and those who were waving their palm branches.

But our God is a God of surprises.  The Jewish idea of “save us” seems to have been completely different from what God had in mind.  After all, this notion of the Suffering One who gives himself to safe the many was part of ancient Jewish prophecy.  Long before, the prophet Isaiah had written:

But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.  (Isaiah 53:5)

Jesus would later tell them, “my kingdom is not of this world.”  (John 18:36).  They shouldn’t have been surprised.  After all, Mark’s Gospel records three different occasions in which Jesus foretold his crucifixion and resurrection.[4]  “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.”  (Mark 10:33-34).  You can’t be much clearer than that!

Save us.  That was exactly what Jesus had in mind, but the crowd didn’t understand.  It seems so ironic that just a few days later, a crowd—perhaps some of the same people, although we don’t know that for sure—but a crowd will cry out again before Jesus, but this time with the words “crucify him, crucify him … crucify him!”  (Mark 15:13-14).  Little did they know that their cry to “crucify him” was part of God’s plan to answer that first plea that they had not understood; for God used the tragedy of crucifixion as part of His plan to save us.

Our world today is very different.  We have progressed so far in so many ways; and yet we still need saving.  If Jesus were to ride in a procession through the downtown mall in Charlottesville, we may still cry out, “Hosanna.”  Would we realize, any more than did those people along that road from Bethany to Jerusalem, what we were saying?  Would we understand what we were asking for? 

Perhaps.  But I fear that most of us, if not all of us, would be oblivious to the way God, through Jesus Christ, had offered Himself to save us.  Even today, two thousand years later, I can only stop and gaze in awe and wonder at the One who was “wounded for my transgressions and bruised for my iniquities.

O sacred Head, now wounded, with grief and shame weighted down,
now scornfully surrounded with thorns, thine only crown: 
how pale thou art with anguish, with sore abuse and scorn! 
How does that visage languish which once was bright as morn!

What thou, my Lord, hast suffered was all for sinners’ gain;
mine, mine was the transgression, but thine the deadly pain. 
Lo, here I fall, my Savior!  ’Tis I deserve thy place;
look on me with thy favor, vouchsafe to me thy grace.

What language shall I borrow to thank thee, dearest friend,
for this thy dying sorrow, thy pity without end? 
O make me thine forever; and should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never outlive my love to thee.[5]

On this Palm Sunday we, too, cry “Hosanna.”  Save us, O Lord.  Help me to give up my own selfish notions of how you will do this.  Open me heart to receive your precious gift. 

Jesus Christ does save us; but He also extends an invitation to us—asking us to walk with Him, to follow Him, all the way up a hill called Calvary.  And He invites to take up our own crosses as we follow Him.

Are we … am I … willing to travel along with Jesus, to follow him to a nearby hillside?  Am I willing to take up my cross and follow Him? 

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.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
    and gave him the name
    that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
    every knee should bend,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
    that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.  Philippians 2:5-11

[1] Preached at Cunningham United Methodist Church in Palmyra, Virginia on Palm Sunday.
[2] Craig A. Evans, “Hosanna,” in Katherine Doob Sakenfeld, Gen. Ed., The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible:  D-H, Vol. 2 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007), 894.
[3] M. Eugene Boring and Fred B. Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 153
[4] Mark 8:31; Mark 9:30-31; Mark 10:32-34.
[5] Anon.  Latin; trans. by Paul Gerhardt, 1656, and James W. Alexander, 1830.  Printed in The United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989), 286.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Friday Devotion: Do You Believe This? (March 27, 2015)

Do You Believe This?
John 11:1-27
March 27, 2015

Today, we read Part I of the Lazarus Story.  Jesus has escaped from the hands of the religious leaders and has fled Jerusalem.  He is beyond the Jordan River when he receives the message that Lazarus is ill.  To return to Bethany in order to help Lazarus would mean heading right back into harm's way.  Jesus tarries for a while before suggesting that he and his disciples return to Lazarus's side.  By the time Jesus arrives, Lazarus has been dead for four days.

Jesus tells Martha (sister of Lazarus) these memorable words:  "I am the resurrection and the life.  Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believe in me will never die."   He does not leave things there.  He then turns to Martha and asks her, "Do you believe this?" (John 11:25-26),

Martha says "yes."  Instead of stopping there, she goes on to explain her answer.  She sees Jesus as "the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world."  (v. 27).  Her answer sounds academic to me; it's technically correct; but I don't hear the "trust" in her voice.  

Having right answers is good; but we need to go beyond the right answers into the area where we will be our very lives on the life offered by Jesus.  

Today we live in a very different world, but Jesus still turns to each of us and asks, "Do you believe this?"  How do you respond?

Pray:  Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.  Amen.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

A Tuesday Meditation: One Thing I Do Know (March 24, 2015)

One Thing I Do Know
John 9:18-41
March 24, 2015

You probably know this story.  One Sabbath, Jesus is walking along the road and he encounters a man who was blind from birth.  Jesus spits on the ground, makes some mud, spreads it on the blind man's eyes, and instructs him to wash the mud off at a nearby pool.  The man follows instructions, and he discovers that he now can see!    

So far, so good.  But some of the religious leaders are upset because all of this took place on the Sabbath, in violation of Jewish law.  The leaders interrogate the man with the recovered eyesight twice, as well as his parents.  During the man's second interrogation, the religious leaders tell the man--who still is rejoicing in his newly found vision--that Jesus, the one who healed him, is a sinner.  The healed man replies, "I do not know whether he is a sinner.  One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see."  (John 9:25).  

I can learn a lesson from this man.  When he is confronted, he tells his story.  He doesn't engage in a lot of speculation (at least not at this point) on the accusations the religious leaders are making about Jesus.  He simply points to the way Jesus changed his life.  "Though I was blind, now I see."

God encounters us each day of our lives in a myriad of ways.  So often, I fail to notice.  I can get distracted by all the theological arguments, the hidden agendas, the many things on my "to do" list.  I need to be reminded now and then to pay attention!

God, give me the vision to see your hand at work in my life, and the courage to tell my story!

Monday, March 23, 2015

Sunday's Sermon: The Time Has Come (March 22, 2015)

The Time Has Come
John 12:20-33
March 22, 2015[1]

One of the funniest moments in television came on Monday, January 19, 1953 at 9:00 pm.  That was the time that CBS aired the 21st episode of “I Love Lucy.”  Lucy is nine months pregnant.  While Lucy is resting, her husband Ricky rehearses with Fred and Ethel Mertze the roles that each will assume when Lucy needs to go to the hospital.  Ethel will telephone Dr. Harris’s office.  Fred will get Lucy’s suitcase.  Ricky will get Lucy’s coat and then lovingly walk her to the door and to the cab.  The rehearsal starts with Ricky, in his Cuban accent, playing the role of Lucy in announcing solemnly that “The time has come.”  Each of them then calmly go through the motions of what they will do—they accomplish their tasks in a matter of seconds.  But then, Lucy appears and says, “Ricky, this is it.”  All of their preparations go out the window and absolute panic follows.  If you haven’t seen that episode, it’s really worth watching.[2] 

“The time has come,” vs. “Ricky, this is it.”  Two very different ways of saying that something very important was about to take place.

It didn’t take long for other time-related quotes to start popping into my head.

"The time has come," the Walrus said,
"To talk of many things:
Of shoes--and ships--and sealing-wax--
Of cabbages--and kings--
And why the sea is boiling hot--
And whether pigs have wings."[3]  Lewis Carroll, Alice through the Looking Glass. 

“These are the times that try men’s souls.”[4]  Thomas Payne, writing in The Current Crisis in December 1776.

Some of the time references are stated in different words.  Take Frank Sinatra’s song, “My Way,” (actually written by Paul Anka[5]) which begins with this phrase:  “And now, the end is near, and so I face the final curtain.”[6]

Or there are the words uttered by Shakespeare’s Macbeth when he learns of the death of the Queen: 

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle![7]

Did you notice the time-related words in our Opening Hymn?  You might look again at the words to “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.”  Look at some of the different ways that Isaac Watts refers to time:

o   “Ages past” and “years to come.”
o  “Before the hills in order stood.”
o  “From everlasting” to “endless years”—that is, from eternity to eternity.
o  “A thousand ages,” “an evening gone.”  “The watch that ends the night.”
o  “Time like an ever rolling stream.”  “A dream dies at the opening day.”
o  “While life shall last.”
o  “Our eternal home.”[8]

I was struck by the notion of time when I read the Scripture Lessons for this morning.  In John 12:23, Jesus says “the hour has come.”  That is a fairly literal translation; a number of English translations (such as the Common English Bible) translate it as “The time has come.”  And the passage that we read from Jeremiah 31:31, that introduces God’s “New Covenant,” begins with this phrase, “The time is coming, declares the Lord.”

As I looked into this question further, I began to find a number of different ways that the Bible speaks about time. 

There is what we call “chronos” time.  Chronos time is chronological—as in calling to your children at the beginning of a day, “it is time to wake up.”

But notice how those same words mean something very different when we speak poetically about the daffodils poking through the ground, “it’s time to wake up.”  We are referring now to a season—something that recurs over and over.

And yet that same phrase still means something very different when spoken to a teenager who needs some motivation:  “it is time to wake up.”  Same word, but we are no longer talking about a clock.  We are talking now about “kairos” time—God’s time, appointed time.  This is the time about which Frank Sinatra sang when he crooned about “the end is near.”

One way is that I am starting to think of chronos time as a segment of kairos time.  What do I mean by that?  We have a limited portion of eternity in which we enjoy this physical life.  In the overall span of eternity, our little bit of kairos time is our chronos time.  Our chronos time corresponds to our finiteness, our limits as human beings. 

God’s kairos time is unlimited.  “A day with the Lord is like a thousand years and a thousand years is like a day.”  (2 Peter 3:8).  Maybe that is why the Gospel of John can begin with those poetic words:  In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. (John 1:1).

Or maybe, to continue the geometric metaphor, our chronos time runs parallel to God’s kronos time.  And every once in a while, they intersect.  Maybe even run together.

We see this in the life of Jesus.  Frequently in the first third of the Gospel of John, we hear Jesus using another time word when he says, “my hour has not yet come.”  (See John 2:4). 

What spiritual lessons can we draw from all of this discussion about time?

1.   First, we can remember that Jesus, as the Christ, the Word, was with God in eternal time.  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.”  (John 1:1-2). 

2.   When God became man, incarnated in Jesus of Nazareth, God entered chronos time.  That is why we can read in Luke 2 that “the child grew and became strong…”  When we live in chronos time, we are subject to the finiteness of being human.  But that is not all bad; because with chronos, with our humanity, we have opportunity for growth.  We can look at freedom.  We can look at love.

3.   Living in chronos has its challenges.  We also are subject to weakness.  We are subject to fear.  For example, Jesus pointed out in today’s reading that he was troubled by the approach of His “hour.”  “Now I am deeply troubled.  What should I say?  ‘Father, save me from this hour’?  No, of this is the reason I have come to this time.”  (John 12:27).

4.   Jesus was very conscious of his mission and his allotted time.  He knew when his hour had not yet come; but he also knew what it had arrived.  In John 17, when Jesus offers his prayer for his disicples, he begins with the words “Father, the hour has come.”  (John 17:1).  It was His appointed time.

5.   When Jesus’ hour had come, he did not run away from it or evade it.  He did not pray to be saved from it; rather, He prayed, “Father, glorify your name.”  (John 12:28). 

6.   There is another time word that we should consider.  The Greek word, nyn, means “now,” “at the present time.”  This is the word that is used in John 12: 31:  “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.”  Jesus knew that there are “now” times on God’s timeline.  There were “now” times for him and there are now times for us.

What is your “now” time?  Perhaps it is a time to go on a diet, to lose weight, to let go of something that is no longer quite so important.  Or to escape from the grasp of an addiction.  Perhaps it is a time to pray.

Let me suggest that “Now” is the time to be reconciled to God.  “Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation!”  (2 Corinthians 6:2).

And each NOW in our lives is the time to walk with Jesus.  In a few moments, we will sing an African-American spiritual:

I want Jesus to walk with me.
I want Jesus to walk with me.
All along my pilgrim journey,
Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.[9]

Notice the “time” words in this song—especially the words “all along my pilgrim journey.”  Each “now” in our lives is the time to be walking with Jesus, receiving His love and forgiveness, and sharing His love with the world around us.

I love this hymn.  But there is one thing about this hymn that strikes me as slightly backwards.  We sing that we “want Jesus to walk with me.”  But so often, we (like the two disciples on the road to Emmaus[10]) remain oblivious to the fact that He already is walking with us.  This is an example of God’s grace—what we call prevenient grace—God loves us even when we don’t think we need God.  It is not a matter of whether Jesus will walk with us; rather, it is whether we are ready to acknowledge His presence.  Will we walk with Jesus?  He is already here.  Remember His words to His followers, just before He ascended.  He assured them, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  (Matthew 28:20).  

Thanks be to God.

[1] Preached at Cunningham United Methodist Church in Palmyra, Virginia on the Fifth Sunday of Lent.
[2] “Lucy Goes to the Hospital,” viewed on the internet on March 22, 2015 at
[3] Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There (1872), viewed on the internet on March 13, 2015 at
[4] Thomas Paine, “The Crisis,” viewed on the internet on March 22, 2015 at
[7] William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 2, viewed on the internet on March 22, 2015 at
[8] Isaac Watts, “O God, Our Help in Ages Past,” in The United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville:  The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989), 117.
[9] Afro-American spiritual, “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me,” in The United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989), 521.
[10] See Luke 24:13-25.