Text: Matthew 21:1-14
In some ways, this time of living under the stay-home order is a gift. Of course, there is great suffering and sorrow and every indication that it will get worse before it gets better. But in terms of bringing clarity to life and faith, it is a gift. There is so much that can ACCUMULATE in our lives and in our faith. It is so easy for things to slide in under the guise of religion and faith and actually get in the way of what is most important.
Then, in a matter of days, we can’t gather, we can’t use the building, we have to figure out what being church means in a period of stay-home and don’t congregate. Don’t congregate?? You know they call what we are a congregation?!
So while I would not wish COVID-19 on anyone and I pray for God’s mercies on us, I don’t want to miss any lessons along the way. And one of those, I think, is to be reminded of why we are here. Funny, right – why we are HERE, when we aren’t HERE? I mean why we exist as the church.
Today’s Palm Sunday text is a great focusing text on why the Church exists. And it’s such a hard message to receive most years. But I think maybe we are ready to hear it now.
The Savior We Want
Matthew 21:1-11 is the great Palm Sunday text, where the people welcome Jesus with shouts of “Hosanna!”
The crowds were welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem as a King and hero that day, shouting for him to save them (that’s what ‘hosanna’ means). The people were waiting for a Savior-King, and thought Jesus might just be that one who would set them free from the oppression and rule of the Roman army. People were looking for a political Savior rather than a personal and spiritual Savior.
There are a hundred ways we do this today. We deem one political party or the other to be “God’s side.” We are superstitious rather than faithful, praying harder or showing up more when we need a divine favor. We start to believe that the place and the programs – good as they are – are the point rather than all-out love and service to the One who is at once Creator of the Universe, Shepherd of the Sheep, and Abba Father.
You know I think the people meant well. They had read their scriptures. They knew a Messiah was coming. Who can blame them for projecting all their deepest wishes onto that Messiah. Rome was a beast of an Empire. Taxes were ridiculous, the occupation was real, and Caesar was no friend of the Jewish people. They were just a few degrees off God’s reality.
It’s why the triumphal entry story is connected to the one that follows. I think the people in the Temple also meant well.
Get Out of the Building
Just like a similar Temple scene recorded at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in the Gospel of John, there is the same situation with the buying and selling of animals in the temple and the changing of money. Again we read of Jesus overturning tables and driving out the offenders. But this time, we have him speaking scripture to them. Mashing together Isaiah 56:7 and Jeremiah 7:11, he says, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a ‘robber’s den’.” (v. 13)
It makes sense to me that it started with good enough intentions. People were expected to keep the Law and offer sacrifices at the Temple, birds and small animals. And they had to be a certain quality – unblemished and all. Much easier to buy the animal you needed there at the Temple than to travel miles and miles and days and days. It was surely a service to the people.
But it had become a business and market eclipsing the true reason for the Temple – prayer, sacrifice, offering oneself to God. And on top of that the business had turned dishonest, with sellers taking advantage of travelers to turn a profit.
So Jesus drives them out of the building. Maybe they and all those witnessing will remember the real reason they come to the Temple. It is to pray; it is to offer themselves in service to God. And like that, the story moves on to children who know enough to offer praise in that holy place.
What Can We Learn?
I want to ask what we can learn in this time away from the church building. Are there things we confuse with the real reason we exist as the Church? Isn’t that one of the things we are realizing… that we can pray and serve the Lord even when we can’t come to the church building? We are also thrown back on scripture, faith, and prayer to sustain us. What if this is what we were supposed to focus on all along, with the added blessing of getting to do those things in community and in person?
I wonder how our spiritual life and church life will be different when we return. I surely don’t think the lesson is that we don’t need to gather. We certainly need one another in community and scripture teaches us not to forsake gathering. But maybe we will return to a streamlined, more focused expression of faith. Maybe we will enter the sanctuary in six or eight or twelve weeks and encounter God with a new clarity and focus, asking what it is that He wants us to be and do.
That is my prayer. These are certainly not idle or unproductive days. They are days in which we have the opportunity to dig in freshly to scripture, to pray with new habits and commitment, and to listen and look diligently for God in the world and in our life.
Zach has introduced a short daily scripture devotion on our website. I’d encourage you to use it as a great tool.
I often talk about loving our neighbors beyond the walls of the church and now we have a literal opportunity to do that. In fact, in my neighborhood, though we do not congregate or come physically near each other, I have seen and spoken to more neighbors in the last two weeks than cumulatively in the last two months (or more). Many are out walking, doing yard work, sitting on porches, and more active on the neighborhood online groups. Have you seen more of your neighbors? It’s a prime opportunity to BE the church. Say hello, see if any at-risk neighbors need a grocery run (if you are not at-risk). Ask how they are doing with all this. Pray for your neighbors! Those things are not down-time, filler-activities… that’s actually why we are here on this earth, what it means to serve God and follow Jesus.
That day in the temple Jesus re-claimed the scripture that said the temple was to be a house of prayer. With Jesus’ death the temple became portable. We became temples for God’s Holy Spirit. So whether you are physically in the church building – which we are not – are under stay-home orders – which we are – our lives are to belong to God in worship and in prayer. This we can do!
Jesus, by his very being and by his teaching call us to return to why we are here… on earth, with life and breath. Let us return to God with all that we are and all that we have. Hear, people of God, for the Lord is God. Amen.
Some Music Used
- Hosanna, Loud Hosanna (ELLACOMBE)
- Hosanna – Praise is Rising (Baloche)
- CHOIR: Hosanna to the King (Courtney) – recording from 4/9/17
- Hosanna (Ligertwood)