3-25-18 “Finding Your Purpose: Listening to Your Heart”
‘Hosanna’ is strange word with which to greet someone. How many of you, when you run into someone you know at the grocery store smile and say, “Hosanna!”? Scholars don’t know exactly what the word meant, but they believe that it’s a contraction of a couple of Hebrew words, one meaning to save or deliver, and the other meaning to beseech or pray. So their best guess
at a translation is “We beseech you to save us.” So, as one word “Hosanna” sounds like a greeting, but when we consider what it means, it comes across more as a desperate plea for help.
But this is kind of a strange story anyway, so I suppose this strange greeting fits right in. It’s certainly familiar - one of those stories that sticks with us from our childhood palm-waving days until now with a degree of familiarity that helps us believe we know this story pretty well. We’ve heard it so many times that we’re apt to look right past the glaring fact that Jesus set up this whole scene for a reason. To understand the parody you have to consider the context.
And we’ve talked about this aspect of the story before. When Jesus enters Jerusalem, two very different things are happening at the same time, according to New Testament scholars Marcus Borg and Jon Dominic Crossan.
First, Jesus is claiming the authority of the Messiah.
And second, he is enacting a piece of political theater, perhaps making a joke at Rome’s expense - even thumbing his nose at them - by staging a parody of an imperial parade. He’s demonstrating that his power is not at all the kind of power that the mighty Roman military exercises in its occupation of Israel, and not exactly the kind of power anyone expected in a Messiah. There is a sort of perceived foolishness in the image of a king who enters the city riding a donkey and not a big war horse, straddling the beast, trying to balance himself and sit upright. But it’s the image Jesus intended, they suggest.
But Carol Miller, the author of our Wednesday morning Bible Study resource on John’s gospel, offers another understanding of Jesus’ entrance to Jerusalem, writing,
“In 12:12-19 Jesus acts out a living parable of sorts to show the world (the crowds who came for the Passover and those who followed him after having seen the raising of Lazarus) who he is. A king who was not yet in possession of a city entered in only on a warhorse with a contingent of armed soldiers.
He did not yet have control of the city.
A king, however, who had already conquered a city could ride in on a donkey, with no military guard, showing that he was confident of his place as the one in control.
John quotes Zechariah 9:9 in 12:15. John, and with his love of irony, puts the truth of the event into the mouths of Jesus’ opponents as the Pharisees say to each other, “See! You’ve accomplished nothing! Look!
The whole world is following him!” (12:19).
As the true king, Jesus had no need to throw his weight around or to threaten violence. His power is the power of self-giving love. That love brings those who accept him to their knees in thanksgiving and service.” - (Carol Miller, Immersion Bible Studies - John, pg. 53)
Jesus’ power was the power of self-giving love. Pilate, who believed he was in power in this city, rode in on a war horse. Jesus, who knew his was the ultimate power in this city, rode in on a donkey. Jesus enters the city with purpose, Pilate enters deluding himself. “The whole world,” the Pharisees confess, is following Jesus.
And among those worldly were two Greeks, who approached Philip and asked to see Jesus. Jesus hears their request, but not willing to be distracted from his purpose says,
“The time has come for the Human One to be glorified. 24 I assure you that unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it can only be a single seed.
But if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25 Those who love their lives will lose them, and those who hate their lives in this world will keep them forever. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me. Wherever I am, there my servant will also be. My Father will honor whoever serves me.
So, putting his Greek visitors off, Jesus begins to speak about his purpose, why he has come, what he is doing, what is about to happen.
“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” A seed sown in the soil does not literally die when it germinates; but it does transform into something other than a seed. As the new plant begins to take form, the husk is burst, and the nutrients stored within are transformed to become part of the growing plant’s body. The seed must cease to be a seed in order to become the kind of plant that it was created to be; ceasing to be one thing in order to bear fruit as a new thing, dying to it’s old way of being in order to experience rebirth or transformation into a new creation is a kind of death and resurrection, a perishing and re-constitution. Resurrection is never about just “coming back to life,” - that’s resuscitation. Resurrection always includes transformation.
Then Jesus says, “Those who love their lives will lose them, and those who hate their lives in this world will keep them forever.” The Greek word translated here as “life” also has meaning-overtones of “soul” or “self” or “center of personal identity,” so that the saying is not so much about one’s physical life and death as it suggests that the essence of our very being is diminished by self-centeredness and expanded by self-giving. That’s worth hearing again: the essence of our very being is diminished by self-centeredness and expanded by self-giving. Jesus is saying that when we allow ourselves to be transformed in him, when we’re willing to die to our old way of being, changing who we are and how we are in order to become his disciples, we will gain eternal life, not only in the hereafter, but now. Jesus knows that they can follow and understand him when he uses these agrarian images. The leap is a little bigger, although not too big, when he suggests the idea that “those who love their lives will lose them, and those who hate their lives in this world will keep them forever. Whoever serves me must follow me.” That is, they must go where he goes, walk where he walks. And implicit in this statement is that his followers must also die as he dies. Not a literal death - although that will eventually come for all of us - but death to our old ways that leads to resurrection, and with it transformation.
The transformation of the world is Jesus’ purpose. It’s the calling he received from God. It’s the message he preached from the very beginning, that in following his teachings, in being his disciples, in living the life he modeled for us and in believing that he came from God, we would receive eternal life - not later, but now - not maybe, but guaranteed. That was his purpose - it’s why he came!
Several years ago, Rick Warren made a splash with his book A Purpose Driven Life. And in the aftermath of that discussions around “purpose” were all the rage. But purpose is still important, with or without Warren’s book. Simon Sinek approached the subject through the lens of why an organization does what it does. Not what it does, nor what the results are, but why do we do what we do in the first place, what is the purpose, the goal. What is our purpose as a church? Why do we do what we do? What is your purpose as a Christian? What is it that God desires for us to do, and why? What is the mission or ministry or calling that God planted within you? Who are the persons that God has brought into your life so that they might experience the love of Jesus Christ through you? How do you need to die in order to be resurrected into new life in Christ now? Is it the cynic in you that must die? Is it the naysayer in you that must be transformed?
Those who organized and participated in the March for Our Lives yesterday know that there has been enough dying without transformation. As they marched all over the world on Palm Sunday weekend they had a purpose, to end gun violence. We talked before about how prayer works; that we pray about something and then we do something. We pray for an end to hunger, then we feed people. That’s how it works. The “thoughts and prayers” that are lifted up in the aftermath of every one of these tragic events is not enough, we must do something. It’s time, these marchers, these kids, are telling us, to give up our idols, to give up our golden calf of guns and be the people of peace that God created us to be. If we want peace in the world, we must die to our old way of being and be transformed as peaceful people. I applaud them, knowing that Jesus Christ walked alongside them all around the world.
For resurrection and transformation to take place there must first be a death. There is no separating the one from the other. But like the old barbershop song says, “Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.” But die we must if we want to live in Christ. Are we living our lives with purpose, do we know our why, or do we simply exist?
Coincidentally, or perhaps ironically, it was thirty eight years ago yesterday, Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated in El Salvador. I’ve spoken of him many times because I see in him a role model for the kind of faith I would like to have. In fact, I keep two likenesses of him in my office as inspiration. The last sermon Romero ever preached was on this very same passage of Scripture that we consider today. It was Monday, March 24, 1980. And in that message he had this to say:
"Those who surrender to the service of the poor through the love of Christ, will live like the grain of wheat that dies. It only apparently dies. If it were not to die, it would remain a solitary grain. The harvest comes because of the grain that dies. We know that every effort to improve society, above all when society is so full of injustice and sin, is an effort that God blesses; that God wants; that God demands of us.”
A short time before his death, Romero had offered these words in response to a question about whether he feared for his life: “I must tell you, as a Christian, I do not believe in death without resurrection. If I am killed,
I shall arise in the Salvadoran people.”
And so, in dying to his old way of being, Jesus of Nazareth was transformed from a Galilean rabbi on a donkey, susceptible to pain and torture at the hands of an earthly empire, into Jesus the Christ, the Messiah that nobody expected but who would change the world and subvert all empires and all kingdoms but one, God’s kingdom. When we decide we will follow Jesus, really follow Jesus, Jesus rises in us. And that’s what Palm Sunday is all about. The palm branches are nice, the songs are pretty, the parades are fun. But Jesus, in John’s Gospel, was all about the business of transformation - that was his purpose, his why. Jesus was about challenging us to sit up, to take notice, and then to decide - will we simply stand along the route watching the parade go by, living our life as a single seed, or will we follow him, let him transform our hearts and our lives, and bear much fruit?
I want to conclude today with a poem by Archbishop Romero that I shared with you a few years ago, but that seems appropriate for our message on “Finding Your Purpose: Listening to Your Heart.” If you would like to know more about Oscar Romero, who it was just announced by the Vatican will be beatified as a Saint later this year, I will be screening the acclaimed film “Romero” here at the church on Sunday, April 8th, following worship. I hope you’ll join me.
“A Future Not Our Own” by Archbishop Oscar Romero
It helps, now and then, to step back and take the long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about:
We plant seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for God’s grace to enter and do the rest
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders, ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.
May it be so. Amen.