What follows are two Sunday messages the first shared in Meeting for Worship on March 29 by Keith Sellers and the second was shared by Nick Block on April 5.
Like the tattoos I spoke about with the kids, scars are a permanent mark. I have an elderly friend named Joe who carries a long scar on his left thumb. We worked as a forester on the mountains of Northern Idaho his entire career. His main tool was a hatchet where he used it to mark out trees to be felled by the logging crews. One day he almost took off his thumb with that hatchet. And he lost use of his left hand for months because of it while it healed. That was 50 years ago. For Joe he can look at his scar and it becomes the physical reminder of his entire career. It has become a permanent reminder of that time in his life. Most of us have scars, or tattoos, and they usually contain great or regrettable stories that go along with them They are physical marks that carry a greater meaning. They have shaped out outlook and our personal narratives.
But what of the marks of God?
A reading from Jeremiah 31: 31-34
“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband. 33But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”
For a bit of context, Jeremiah prophesized from around 628 BC until around 580 BC. The Hebrew people had been split into two Kingdoms, the Kingdom of Israel in the north and the Kingdom of Judah in the south. Israel had been destroyed by the Assyrians years ago. Judah had been left in a precarious position. A small Kingdom in between the Babylonians and the Egyptians, if it got into a war with either it would be destroyed. Early on in Jeremiah’s ministry Josiah was King of Judah and that plays an important part in this text.
Josiah is known for instituting numerous religious reforms. In the 7th century BC the Hebrew temple was in disarray. It was old, damaged, and most importantly, it contained pagan idols, altars and prostitutes. What is not taught a lot is that the Hebrew people worshiped many Gods at this time. They were polytheistic. You could go and worship God at the temple but you could also worship the God of the harvest named Baal to help your crops or any other religion in that area. Josiah ordered a refocusing on worshiping the Hebrew God alone. A part of this was a clearing of the temple of pagan altars and idols. He also revived the need to care for the poor and the needy amongst them and was considered one of Judah’s most just kings.
God had given Jeremiah a very unpopular message by God. The Kingdom of Judah will be conquered unless it returned to the way of God. Josiah was doing that so Jeremiah supported him. But, in 609 BC Josiah died and his successors overturned many of his reforms. Particularly they reinstituted the worshiping of many Gods that Josiah had outlawed. For the next ten years Jeremiah prophesized the destruction of Judah by the Babylonians unless they returned to the reforms of Josiah. Jerusalem would be sieged in 598 BC by the Babylonians and most of the individuals in power were taken to Babylon. It was attacked again 9 years later and this time the city, and most importantly the temple was destroyed. It is during this time of religious and political break down, between Josiah’s death and the destroying of the temple that our text today comes from.
It is difficult to find a modern day analogy for what Jeremiah was seeing lie ahead. The Hebrew people were going to either be killed, held in captivity or dispersed. Their place of worship were going to be destroyed and their priests either be killed or carted way to Babylon. What could the people possibly hold on to?
For centuries the Hebrew people had lived by the covenant created during the time of Moses. In it God saves the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt, promises to make them God’s special people if they obey the law handed down by Moses. The foundation of which is the ten commandments.
I want to stop here and say something about this law handed down by God through Moses. The law gets a bad reputation in Christianity because Jesus is always battling the Pharisees and other religious leaders in regards to the interpretation of the law. In reality it was intended to give the people of Israel a way of living in a way filled with love, community, justice, worship of God and forgiveness. The word is Halakha, literally translated, the path or the way of walking. But the people refused to follow the law. They refused to walk the path God had laid out for them and honor their side of the covenant.
The priests who were to be teaching the law to the people and living the law out themselves were doing a bad job of that. Yet Jeremiah can see a time when the structures that taught and called the people to God’s will would no longer be there.
Jeremiah sees a new way. He was being told that God was creating a new covenant with his people. Unlike the previous covenant built around the 10 commandments God decides this time that the law will be written not on stones, not on something external, but it will be written inside, deep inside the people. It will be written on their hearts.
The heart is an important part of this new covenant. We tend to think of the heart as the seat of emotion. Our hearts are warmed, we have changes of heart, we also have broken hearts.
The 7th century BC world had a different view of the body. The nose represented anger, the right arm strength, the throat greed and the HEART represented will power, intelligence or intention. Your heart was the seat of action. It was where decisions were made. We can best understand it with the saying, “Is your heart really into it?” The assumption being that the objective for action comes from the heart.
Jeremiah saw the people as having grown used to turning away from God and the law that they had lost the ability to choose God. Sin was too easy to choose. With God writing the law on the peoples’ hearts they will be able to do God’s will because they will know God’s will.
God is creating a new covenant. Australian theological puts it this way, “This change in imagery represents the new covenantal relationship with God as an internal matter rather than an external one. Each one, regardless of social status, will have a personal knowledge of God, not dependent on the instruction of another.” The old covenant was a reminder of the peoples’ liberation from slavery in Egypt as a whole. Now, each person will know liberation individually. Wallace goes on to write, “ No longer will they need to be taught the law by another. It will all be part and parcel of their own being – both the experience of forgiveness, and the desire to live out the way of God.”
The people will know the will of God so personally that it will be like that of a lover. Jeremiah uses a husband and wife metaphor here for good reason. The noun form for “know” the verb means friend. The people will know the law, or the will of God like they know friends know each other, like committed partners and married couples know each other. God is done acting through intermediaries. Before God and God’s law had to be taught to the people but now God’s people we will know God’s will themselves.
This covenant marks us like a tattoo, a scar or a brand, as “God’s people.” It is an internal identity that will be evidenced by external behavior. We will live God’s loving, community and justice focused will not because we are obliged to but because we want to, because our hearts are shaped that way. The capacity to be faithful and obedient will spring from the inside. The Hebrew word for “put” also means “give” — God will give his will to the people, and our hearts will recognize, accept and live up to the gift. Stacey Elizabeth Simpson
With Jeremiah’s focus on inward teaching and knowing the will of God, it is not surprising that this passage from Jeremiah was important to early Friends.
George Fox, spent most of his early life searching and questioning. He came to a similar conclusion as Jeremiah did. Having explored various sects and listened to an assortment of preachers, he finally concluded that none of them were adequate to be his ultimate guide. People had no need for any teacher but the Inner Light or what some refer to as the Holy Spirit. God “was in the in the hearts of his obedient people not in churches or temples. What he was searching for was already in him.
How is this different from what Jeremiah is saying?
Fox felt that God wanted him to teach others that they need not depend on human teachers or guides either, because each one of them could experience God directly and hear his voice within. He wrote in his journal, “I was glad that I was commanded to turn people to that inward light, spirit, and grace, by which all might know their salvation, and their way to God; even that divine Spirit which would lead them into all Truth, and which I infallibly knew would never deceive any.”
It is why we sit in silence. In the silence, we turn our will towards God’s, listen, and respond.
We believe not only that individuals can be guided by this Inner Light, but that Friends might meet together and receive collective guidance from God by sharing the concerns and leadings that he gives to individuals.
When we sit in the silence we live out this passage. We listen to the words God has written on our hearts. It is what binds us to God and how we minister to one another.
I want us to enter into the silence again. Keep in mind this question, “What is God willing you to speak today?”
Palm Sunday: 5 April
Given all that the disciples had been through, and with their own secret hope that Jesus would be a political success on whose coattails they would ride to prominence, I think you can imagine how the disciples may have looked at the Triumphal Entry and thought, “Now this is more like it!” The people cried “Hosanna,” which means “Save us!” As much as all that hoopla fits with our world, our convoluted notion of triumphal Christianity, it fails to address the problems that needed solving in that day and which plague us today. The hard fact is that there was no salvation for anyone on Palm Sunday.
The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord— the King of Israel!” Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written: “Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!” His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him. John 12:12-16
When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he (Jesus) sent two of his disciples 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. Mark 11:1-11and 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!”
Perhaps we wish that the lauded and feted Jesus of Palm Sunday represented the real us. We wish our lives and human history generally looked like a happy series of good events. But we know that is not so. We can’t stop with Jesus’ triumphal entry into the center of Jewish life and faith. Jesus did not stop there. In fact Holy Week begins here.
To be sure the dimensions of the event have clearly gotten out of hand. If we imagine that the city stopped and everyone crowded to see the spectacle of a triumphal parade of a Jewish leader into Jerusalem we have to explain why there was not an immediate intervention by the Roman authorities. Hailing Jesus as Messiah was to court retaliation from both Roman and Jewish leaders. The passion is about one who is executed as ‘king of the Jews’, made to wear a crown of thorns, mocked as a king, set between other revolutionaries and made subject of barter with Barabbas.
All four Evangelists are familiar with traditional beliefs that present us with a Jesus who is going up to Jerusalem to perform a sacrifice for sins through offering his own body for execution, and we can testify how this perspective has often taken over the story when it has been retold. The fact is that such traditions are largely absent in the passion narratives. They appear mainly in the traditions that have grown up about the last meal. Instead, the narrative plays with competing expectations of hope and humanness, Messiahship, discipleship, and ultimately, of God.
The familiar call to pilgrims ‘Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’ Mark drew from the Psalms 118:25-26 and has the crowd directing it to Jesus; the messiah, ‘the king of Israel’. He drew on the same psalm for the image of Jesus as the rejected stone who becomes the cornerstone of a new temple (Mark 12:10-12). Mark indicates that it was some time after Easter before the disciples came to interpret the event symbolically as they recalled what happened and found familiar Old Testament references in it, coming from places like Zechariah 9:9. Irony is at work. John is fond of having people state the truth without knowing it. Here the crowd hails Jesus as Messiah, probably for all the wrong reasons.
Finding ourselves in the story is made increasingly difficult as we come to grips with the Gospels. As we pointed out a couple of weeks ago, John places Jesus’ cleansing of the temple as the first public act of his ministry, Mark, along with the other synoptic evangelists, have that as the big event occurring the day after Palm Sunday. Jesus’ visit to the Temple that day takes on quite different meanings. When, as Mark says, Jesus went in and look around at everything, one could imagine that he was casing the joint, planning his next day’s disruptiveness. Or was it knowingly his last long look at a place that had been for him both a treasured place of connectedness with God and yet the very institution that historically had been the within the heart of Jewish religion, within the council of priests and the elders, the very place where God’s best servants had for centuries gone to bleed and die?
When the disciples recalled Jesus’ final days the images they drew upon were the images of faith, for them this was sacred story. Their traditional messianic hopes merged with their memories and sacred poetry of suffering that it would be forever tangled.
Is what lies behind our accounts of this event devoid of an historical basis? Has it become a selective and embellished memory of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem infused with competing theological notions? John, in his presentation seemingly senses the potential disconnect. This one whom God will raise from the dead is not the splendid hero, not the valiant warrior nor a placation to divine blood lust but rather the lowly one who seems least suitable as the focus of human hope and expectation.
Both Mark and John teach us to be cynical about a display of popular support. Yet both also want us to see the profoundly symbolic meaning of the event. We need to be cautious Friends. In one sense the ambiguity of this event is ever present wherever Jesus is hailed in adulation, at least that’s what the history of the Christian Church teaches us. The ears of faith know however that in a different sense what the crowd proclaims is true. It is all part of the greatest irony of all: the true king, the true Messiah, the great human being and Son of God becomes a tragic figure on a cross. In this story compassion and lowliness confront human preferences for power and success. The ‘failure’ of Jesus is his success. His truth is faithfulness to love and compassion without bowing to convention.
To make Palm Sunday a simple and happy event is to get ahead of our Lord and set ourselves up for disappointment come Friday. Yes, we’ve read the last chapter of the book. We know Easter is coming. We know how this Holy Week ends. We live in and by the strength of the Resurrection and are blessed to know that through God’s redemptive action Jesus is the final victor. But knowing that ahead of time can make us impatient. In our impatience we are tempted to turn Palm Sunday into something that is only happy. Instead of that we need to nurture the patience and maturity required to keep following Jesus, step by step, even though we know full well where his journey into Jerusalem leads. We need to keep patiently following him not just when the crowd seems enthusiastic but also when he slips out of the city anonymously and enters the garden with no onlookers to cheer him. We need to follow Jesus’ tortured route to that terrible place. Rushing to Easter can make us blind to seeing that Jesus’ death sets the stage for the redeeming act of God as the source of our salvation.
What does hearing glad hosannas do in you? What feelings are invoked? Triumph or somber cynicism? Jubilance or imminent despair? For Jesus and his disciples, walking in Jerusalem is perilous. His disciples became such the result of a reshaping, a turning away from certain attitudes and turning toward Jesus and his message. It wasn’t just about knowing about Jesus, academically, theoretically, biblically or theologically. Theology alone cannot make disciples. Jesus makes disciples by encountering people. The Apostle Paul’s experience is instructive. Even though he never met Jesus in the flesh he wrote: “I know the one in whom I have put my trust (II Tim 1:12). What Jesus offered his followers and us is a relationship though it is what relatively few Christians understand or aspire too. As Karl Rahner observed, unless we learn to become mystics—people with an experience of and a relationship with God—we will simply cease to be Christians, except perhaps in name. That to which Jesus invited them and invites us is to a relationship that is direct, experiential and unmediated.
If we try to make Palm Sunday a simple and happy event as a way to ignore for a while the darkness that is all around us–then we too well may be observing this day in the wrong way and for the wrong reasons. Palm Sunday can’t be a pre-Easter Easter celebration. Avoiding this is almost as impossible as avoiding Bunny Rabbits and Rudolf. As Fred Craddock has written, in some churches it is difficult to tell the difference between Palm Sunday one week and Easter the next. The tone of worship is identical, the only real difference is the foliage: palms or lilies.
Jesus will walk out of Jerusalem and the Temple when the darkness of evening falls. He will return the next morning to cleanse it. He will spend time with his closest associates and share meals with them. In the Garden he will experience a sorrow that nearly breaks his heart. What he asks of his disciples to remain awake with him, to share his sorrow and join him in his need for companionship and unity. He asks of us the same. Holy Week begins here.