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Edward F. Markquart

Misunderstanding the Promise 

Palm/Passion Sunday     Matthew 26, Mark 14, Luke 22

Have you ever had this experience? It is the Fourth of July. You take a firecracker, a nice big one.  You take your match and you light the thing. You throw it over there, wince your body, cover your ears, wait, and…nothing happens. So you walk over to the firecracker, kick it with your feet, look at it a little more carefully, you sense it is out, so you pick it up, break it in half and you know for sure it is a dud. Have you ever had that experience? I am sure many of you pyromaniacs have.

Or, have you ever had this experience? It is the Fourth of July, and you go to one of those firework stands in the neighborhood and you spent some ten dollars for this special rocket. You have never spent that kind of money before for a rocket. This one goes three hundred feet into the air, explodes, and makes an enormous sparkle. This is the best rocket you have ever purchased in your whole life.  You go to your favorite beach for setting off firecrackers and rockets; you put it into the rocket launch; you strike the match; you are as nervous as a cat as you light the wick. You spin away; and you watch and watch and watch and then it goes up about ten feet and goes sssssssssssssssssss and all the sparkles just sparkle on the ground. What a dud! Have you ever had that experience? Several here today have.

Well, that is what Palm Sunday is all about.  Jesus came into town riding on a donkey and it all ended up being a dud, just a plain fizzle.  Let me explain.

I would like to tell you the story of how it happened.  It was a very usual day, but unusual in that it was Passover time.  Jesus came riding into town on this jackass and he was at the head of the processional.  There were literally millions of people in Jerusalem at that time. The rumors about Jesus had spread; that he was coming to town and soon. As Jesus slowly entered that city, there were millions jamming the streets and they were yelling, “It is the Messiah. It is the Messiah.  The coming Messiah promised in the Old Testament.” Soon their million voices became one and they chanted together, “Hosanna to the Son of David. Hosanna to the Son of David.”  They ripped the clothes off their backs and tossed their clothing on the ground. They grabbed palm branches from the palm trees and were waving their palms with holy hilarity. They took the blankets off their mules and laid them on the dirt roads in front of them, in order to make a carpet for his feet. And the millions chanted together, “Hosanna to the Son of David. Hosanna to the Son of David.”  They knew the promised Messiah would bring them peace and freedom and justice. Jesus approached the center square of the city. The crowd was intense, shoulder-to-shoulder and arm-to-arm; they could hardly breathe, they were so tight together in that hot Palestinian sun. Jesus got down off the donkey, and the crowd became eerily silent.  The crowd was wondering, wondering what he was going to say. Wondering what he was going to do next. Wondering if all the angels from heaven were going to come down right now. Wondering if the heavens were going to open up right above them. Jesus simply got off his donkey, and then walked into the Temple where he had taught so many times before. “Ha, that’s good,” they said to one another. “Maybe the temple will fall apart; maybe it will explode. Who knows what will happen?” He went into the temple; all eyes were watching; all eyes were on him.  He looked around. He came back out of the temple.  And did nothing. He looked around, got up onto his donkey and said to his twelve disciples, “Let’s go to Bethany.”  He left.

What a dud.  What a dud!  Here they were expecting the promised Messiah, the promised Messiah to save them.  And nothing happened.  What a dud!  The crowd slowly began to leave, one by one, and there came an eerie silence, and that silence started to get angrier and angrier and angrier. The next day, it started as a whisper, “crucify him, crucify him, crucify him,” and by Good Friday, they were all shouting at the top of their lungs in unison, “Crucify him, crucify him, crucify him. Crucify that common and ordinary carpenter. He is no Messiah. He is a dud.”

So it was on that first Palm Sunday.  What happened? Why did it turn out to be such a fizzler? Why did it turn out to be such a dud?

It seems as if once again, the people of God had misunderstood the promises of God. This has happened throughout history, and it happens again today. Once again, we misunderstand the promises of God.  We think we understand those promises; we then twist those promises to meet our needs; we hear those parts of the promise that is pretty; we hear those parts of the promise that meets our expectations.  And so when the promise of God is actually fulfilled, we never see it because we have so twisted the promises of God that they are no longer recognizable.

Let me explain this, about twisting the promises of God. In the Old Testament, God promised the people to give them the Promised Land.  Doesn’t everyone agree? God promised to give his people the Promised Land. A good land. A beautiful land. A lush land.  God made that promise, and everybody agrees. But what did the Promised Land turn out to be? It was filled with giant Philistines and it took 200 years of warfare to conquer the land.  200 years of fighting to conquer that land.  Well, was that part of the promise? The Jews heard only the part of the promise that they wanted to hear. The pretty part. God will give you the Promised Land. The Jews didn’t hear the part or want to hear the part that it would take 200 years to conquer it.

Let me give you another example.  The Jews were in Babylonian captivity.  God promised them a New Jerusalem.  The New Jerusalem was to be their new shining capital. All the people of the world would be drawn to this New Jerusalem and they would stream into this new capital city to marvel at its beauty. This is what God promised them, right? Do we not all agree, that God promised them a New Jerusalem and the entire world would flock to it? What did the New Jerusalem turn out to be? A trip across a hot desert and what did the New Jerusalem turn out to be? A new glass cathedral, with a spire shooting into the air? A new temple with vaulting walls and a vaulting ceiling? Is that what they found? No. The temple was in ruins, flat on the ground; the capital city was in ruins, flat on the ground; and it took them 300 years to rebuild the temple and the city.  Now, was that part of the promise? Why is it that the people of God always hear the pretty parts of the promise? We twist the promises of God and only hear what we want to hear, omitting the hard parts of the promise.

Let me give you a third example. Everywhere in the Old Testament there is a promise of the coming Messiah; was there not? Does everyone agree? The Messiah was going to be a wonderful counselor, mighty God, an everlasting father, and the prince of peace. This new Messiah was going to bring justice and peace to the land. Does everybody agree? Yes, I think we all agree. And so this new Messiah came riding into town on a donkey, just like the prophets foretold. But what did the promise turn out to be? Did this person riding into town on a donkey turn out to be a wonderful counselor, mighty God, everlasting father and prince of peace? No. This Messiah turned out to be a carpenter who rode on a jackass and got himself killed by Friday afternoon.  What a dud! Truly a dud! It didn’t work at all. He did not meet their expectations. Once again, the Jews picked only the pretty parts of the promise, the pretty parts of the passage, the pretty parts of the rose, the pretty parts of the Bible, omitting all the other parts of the promise.

So what have we always done throughout history? We take the promises of God and twist them to meet our own ends; we twist the promises of God to meet our own happiness. We twist the promises of God to meet our own middle class expectations. 

Why do the promises of God turn out to be dust and ashes in our mouths? Because God is a liar? Because God baits us with false promises? Because God tricks up with pretty words? No. The problem is that we misunderstand the promises of God. We distort the promises of God so they meet our needs and private pleasures.

So what do we want? We want to avoid anything, and I repeat, avoid anything, that has to do with suffering, death, struggle or sacrifice. No suffering. No death. No struggle. No sacrifice. We omit all those parts of the promise. I can use a common analogy: that is, we want the rose blossom but we don’t want the thorny stem. We want the top glorious red blossom, and even the leaves and we will live with its roots, but we do not want the thorns. Give us a rose without the thorns. 

It is not unlike a young couple who are getting married. Do you remember when you got married? Do you remember that? You got married and heard the promise that you would live happily ever after. Do you remember how that was implied; marriages are to live happily ever after? It is a phrase we all use. Well, what did “happily ever after” turn out to be? A stubby beard. In the old days, a woman with hair curlers and curling irons. No make-up in the morning and they both looked like you know what. Hot tempers. Kids vomiting in the toilet. Eighth graders looking surly. Teenagers mouthing off . Bills, bills, bills. A shortage of money. Then strokes and heart attacks and cancer. Aging together and Alzheimers together. As they say, growing old is not for wimps. I ask you: is this what God intended to be? Is this what God intended to be in a great marriage? You better believe it. Yes, you better believe it and be grateful if you live in such a great marriage. A great marriage has all these struggles and more. Vomiting in the toilet, rebellious teenagers, a shortage of money, growing old together.  It is all part of the package.  But we want only the pretty parts of the promise and not the problems that go with the promise. We want the rose but not the thorns. We want the blossom on top but not the prickly stem.

In other words, we always want Palm Sunday and not Passion Sunday.  That’s what happened on that first Palm Sunday.  God promised Passion Sunday but the people wanted the circus of Palm Sunday.  Anything that had to do with executions and crosses and suffering and death, the people of God did not want.

What are some of the other pretty promises that God makes to his people? God promises peace, does he not? God promises the abundant life, does he not? God promises freedom, does he not? Let us briefly talk about each of these promises.

God has promised us peace. The promise of peace permeates the whole Old Testament and the whole New Testament and its promises. We are promised peace, are we not? We all agree. But does this promise mean that you will never fight with your brother or sister; that a husband and wife will never have a fight?  Does this promise mean that you will never experience a divorce? That life will be organized in such a way that you will never have conflicts with other people? Is that what it means to live in peace? My goodness, peace for the Apostle Paul was to argue with people every day of his life; he was in perpetual conflict with his opposition all the time. Can you tell me of a day or time in the Apostle Paul’s life where he didn’t have conflict with people?  Anytime you are passionately involved for truth and justice, you get into conflict with others. To be involved with the peace of God is to be embroiled in conflict with other people. … Peace is not some inner tranquility within my inner self? Peace is not an escape to Mount Rainier and all the hassles of the world. Peace is not sinking one’s head into the sand and escaping the awfulness of the world around us. That’s not peace. When you live in the middle of a sick society and corrosive culture such as ours, working for the justice and peace of God will inevitably bring you conflict. If you think peace is escaping to Mount Rainier and escaping all the troubles of the world, you had better go there alone. Because if there are other human beings there, you eventually will find trouble.  So we twist the promises of God’s peace and convert it into a false inner tranquility that is found only in some rich walled off suburb, and even in that rich, walled off suburb, there won’t be much peace. In fact, the divorce rates may be higher behind those rich high walls.

Let’s talk about God’s other promise of the abundant life. Jesus promised his disciples the abundant life, and he promises you and me the abundant life. Isn’t that correct?  Isn’t it true that we are promised the abundant life in God? We all know what that means. The abundant life is to live here in America. It is coming to America. The abundant life is to have life abundantly: health, wealth, happiness, a husband or wife, happy kids, a house, a color TV, dishwasher, microwave, video games, computer, and a new car.  We all know what the abundant life is here in America. Fed, fat, feeling good, living in America. But in the New Testament and the book of Acts, Stephen had the abundant life and he got killed. The abundant life for Stephen was to be the first martyr. The abundant life for Nelson Mandela, one of the greatest human beings of this generation is almost everyone’s estimation; the abundant life for Mandela was twenty-seven years in prison in South Africa. The abundant life for Martin Luther King, Jr. was an assassin’s bullet. We know that the abundant life for the majority of Christians today is to live in Africa. The majority of Christians in the world are black, is that not right? The majority of the Christians in the world today are black and living in Africa, our brothers and sisters, and so the majority of Christians in the world today go to bed hungry and lacking the basic necessities of life. Isn’t that correct? Do these Africans live the abundant life?  Do they have the abundant life? Right now?  Yes, you had better believe it. They know God; they love God; they walk with God.  All the members of our congregation who visit our sister church in Haiti, the poorest land in the Western hemisphere, say that they have never met so many happy and Spirit filled people; that these Haitian Christians have something that we do not have on this richer side of the border. The abundant life is not to live a middle class life, but we somehow twist the promises of God. And if I don’t have a middle class life, or it is taken away from me, God is cheating on me. God is not good if I don’t live a middle class life in America, so some people think within themselves. So we twist the promises about the abundant life.

A third promise that God has made to us is freedom.  Doesn’t everyone agree? Jesus said, “If you know the truth, you shall be free.” “The Son shall make you free and you shall be free indeed.” Everybody agrees with that. God has promised us freedom. What does God mean by that? As in the past, we hear only the pretty parts of the promise and we distort the promises to meet our own expectations.  What does it mean to live in freedom? It means to live in a democracy, right? God has promised all people everywhere that they are going to have the privilege of living in the United States, Canada, or some other democracy on earth.  God promises us that we would be free and that means to live in a democracy. If that is true, how come the earliest Christians in the first two hundred years of Christianity were being killed by Roman emperors like Nero, Vespasian, and Caligula who had never heard of democracy?  How come Christians through out all generations have been killed and murdered by dictators who oppose the faith? In Russia, the great author Solzeneitzen lived in prison camp for decades, but while in was in prison camp, he was a free man. Meanwhile, his prison guards were the slaves to the Soviet system. Mandela in prison was a free man, while his guards were slaves to an evil political system called apartheid. Many Christians who are politically free are slaves to their bellies and beautiful suburban lives.  So, the people of God are consistent: we twist the promises of God to meet our own personal expectations, and then are disappointed when these promises do not meet our own private expectations.

We distort and misunderstand the powerful promises of God in other ways. A close-knit family becomes upset and cannot understand why the family is riddled with cancer. A teenager cannot understand why his parents are getting a divorce. A child dies of leukemia at age four. There is a severe car accident that results in severe brain damage.  There are heart attacks, strokes, and loss of jobs.  You name it. Life is painful, and we say, “God has promised to protect us. God has promised to protect us from these things. How can bad things like this happen to us who are good people?”

So many people become disillusioned with God because they misunderstand what God has promised. God says in the Psalms that God will protect us from the wickedness of life, and we hear only the pretty side of the promise. We hear only the side about the rose blossom and nothing about the stem with all the thorns. I never recall anywhere that God promises to protect us from all the evils of this world. To be privileged to be a human means to live with inordinate pain throughout our whole life. 

It seems to me that the fulfillment of God’s promises always involves suffering and struggle, whether it is a promise about peace or the abundant life or freedom.  All these great promises from God involve struggle, suffering, discipline, death, and injustice. There are always big thorns on that rose bush, and we the people of God intuitively want to avoid that. We want to delete that part of the promise.

We want Palm Sunday.  O Lord, give me a life of Palm Sundays but I don’t want to have a Passion Sunday. But…people discover the mystery of the passion: the suffering in marriage, the suffering with children, the suffering with friends, the suffering with refugees, the suffering with the starving, the suffering that goes with peace, the abundant life, and freedom. All the great things in life involve suffering. There is no exception.

Today, is it Palm Sunday?  Today, is it Passion Sunday? Passion Sunday is every Sunday and every day for those who believe, who walk the way of the cross. Amen.

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