Cheers and Tears

We find ourselves today in the eleventh chapter of Mark. (Mark 11:1-11) Like visiting an old friend, we find these words to be comforting. According to the text, it was time for the Passover. A time to remember their proud past as God’s Chosen People. The law required the people to attend within a certain radius, however no legislation was necessary. Everyone wanted to be a part of the great holiday. It was a time to do three things. First, they made their annual animal sacrifice at the temple. Second, they paid their annual taxes. Third, it was a time to reconnect with family and friends. It is for that reason that everyone wanted to be in Jerusalem for the Passover. Over the years, preachers, including myself, have emphasized the massive cheering crowd. Let me say this clearly.

It was a great crowd of people! The size of the crowd cannot be over emphasized. Mark says many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut palm branches from nearby fields. Some people followed Jesus; some people ran ahead of Jesus (Mark 11:8-9). Matthew calls it a very large crowd (Matthew 21:8). Luke says the crowd was so great that the religious leaders encouraged Jesus to rebuke them (Luke 19:39). John tells of a great crowd that had gathered for the festival (John 12:12). You cannot question the size of the crowd.

It has been estimated that the population of Jerusalem swelled to 2,500,000 on that Passover. That is based on the number of animal sacrifices made. That was a massive crowd at that time in that place in history. That was 1% of their world’s population. According to the United States Census Bureau, the total world population in the year 33 AD was approximately 285 million. If 2.5 million people were present in Jerusalem on the day Jesus entered, then approximately .9% of the world’s population was present. Those numbers are hard to comprehend, but it is safe to say approximately 1% of the world’s population was present in Jerusalem that day. (1% of the world’s population today is 7.8 million.) The largest Christian gathering in the history of the world is six million. That crowd gathered in 2015, when the Pope went to Manila. It was a great crowd of people. However, the size of the crowd was not everything. You can question the integrity of the crowd. They were selfish. They all wanted something from Jesus.

There is an old preaching story about a rabbi who was visiting a friend. He took the friend to a window and asked him what he saw. The friend replied, “I see men, women and children.” Then, he took his friend to a mirror and asked, “What do you see now?” The friend replied, “I see myself!” The rabbi replied, “That is the choice we must make in life! Are we going to look through the window and see others? Or are we going to look at the mirror and only see ourselves?” You are a disciple of Jesus Christ! You have no choice. Jesus looked through the window and saw the needs of this world. You must look through the window too. That was not the case of the crowd. That is not the case of many in our world. Selfishness blinds us of the real meaning behind Palm Sunday. Just think about it.

Some cheered for Jesus for political reasons! Some in the crowd expected a political Messiah. They had grown tired of foreign domination. They had grown tired of Roman ways and laws. They longed for independence and believed Jesus had everything needed to lead a successful political revolution. Just like their ancestors did in the past after a successful military campaign, they waved palms and chanted political slogans. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David.” Hosanna in the highest heaven.” They were not wrong. Jesus did have the right stuff for political success, but they missed the memo. Jesus did not come with a political agenda. Jesus came for spiritual reasons. Jesus came to be the bridge between mankind and God. Do you know of anyone who tries to use Jesus politically? They say true Christians are their political party.

Some cheered for Jesus for personal reasons! Jesus’s miracles were well known. They had heard how Jesus brought sight to the blind. They had heard how Jesus got the lame to walk. They had heard how Jesus had exercised demons. If Jesus could do that for others, then why not them, or a loved one? The crowd was filled with the blind, the lame, and the limited. They cheered for Jesus to get his attention because they wanted a healing. The problem is they did not get the memo. Jesus did not come to improve their health care system. Jesus came for spiritual reasons. He came to be the bridge between mankind and God. If you get the point say, “Hosanna!” Do you know of anyone who is mad at God because a sick loved one was never healed?

Some cheered for Jesus because Jesus was popular! In 1997, Hanson had their one hit wonder, MMMBop. The song was nominated for a Grammy because everyone was listening to that catchy tune and those clever words. Hanson even sang the National Anthem the 1997 World Series between the Indians and the Marlins in Cleveland. Their father predicted they would become more popular than the Jackson Five. He was WRONG! Their popularity faded and no one has heard from Hanson in years. Rumor has it they are singing at birthday parties and grocery store openings. However, in 1997, they were trending. On that first Palm Sunday, Jesus was trending.

On the lips of everyone was the name Jesus. Everybody seemed to have an opinion about him. Some believed and some did not believe, but everyone had an opinion. The problem is they did not get the memo. Jesus did not come to be a celebrity. Jesus came for spiritual reasons. He came to the bridge between mankind and God.Do you know of anyone who must be in the middle of the action?

For years preacher, including myself, have made a big deal about the size of the cheering crowd on that day. Perhaps, there is more. After all, the cheering crowd disbanded after a short time and the streets of Jerusalem grew quiet. However, the committed stayed near Jesus. It is safe to say a small minority in the crowd understood what was happening on that day. The Apostle Paul said it best nearly 30 years later in his letter to the Philippians. Speaking of Jesus, he said, “And being found in the appearance of a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross.” 

Annually, I attend the Mahoning Valley Spring District Conference of the United Methodist Church. It is not favorite part of my job. Our district is made up of 57 congregations. It is an afternoon filled with reports and voting. It is as exciting as it sounds. It never disappoints. The meeting rotates annually. This year, we host in on April 18. Several years ago, it was held at Warren Grace. On that day, a woman came up to me when the meeting concluded and asked, “Did you go to McKinley School?” I said, “Yes!” McKinley was my elementary school. She said, “I was your first-grade teacher!” I drew a blank. I had to look at her name tag. Her name is Mary Fuller. I thought, “Are you still alive?” I said, “You were a lot taller in those days.” We talked for a few moments about my experience in the first grade and then it was over. I enjoyed talking to her.

As I drove home, I thought about Mrs. Fuller. I do not have many memories. It was a long time ago. To be honest, I only have one clear recollection of the first grade. The date was November 22, 1963. The public address system crackled on. I can still hear our principle’s voice, Mr. Yerman, telling the school that President Kennedy (1917-1963) had been assassinated in Dallas. I remember looking at Mrs. Fuller. She seemed stunned. She walked out of the classroom and into the hall. She gathered with the other teachers. They were talking about the sad news, then something happened that caught me off guard.  I can remember one of the teachers began to cry. I do not think I will ever forget that sound. Those tears pierced my heart. Maybe we give too much time talking about the cheers of the massive crowd, and not enough time talking about tears of the committed minority? The crowd cheered on Palm Sunday. The committed cried on Good Friday.

On Friday evening we are going to gather at Green Haven Memorial Gardens. It is one of our local cemeteries. For what it is, it is a nice place. But what is it? It is a place for the dead. Some people will not go because it is a cemetery. They will be there soon enough. However, I think it is a place we must go. It underscores the fact that Jesus died. We will read the final words he uttered, and we will remember his pain. It is five days from now, but I know what I will hear when I leave. It happens every year. As I walk through the silent crowd after the closing words, I will hear someone crying. It will hit them like a ton of bricks, Jesus died for them! Jesus died for us! Jesus died for you and me. There will be no cheers on Friday evening, only tears. How many tears will you shed for Jesus on Friday? Rick Warren (born 1954) of the Saddleback Church in California said, “Nothing will shape your life more than the commits you make.” How committed are you?

So Close, Yet So Far

When I was in high school, football was a big deal. I never played on the team, but I was a fan. That was a good thing because I consider my high school years to be the zenith of high school football in my hometown. The players on those teams became local celebrities. It was common to see a Division One recruiter sitting in the stands on any given Friday night.

It was during my Sophomore year, the best player on the team was a boy by the name of Tyrone. He had all the skills needed for success. He was big, strong, fast, and quick. He drew a great deal of attention from college scouts. I will never forget the day he signed his National Letter of Intent. The local media was present for the announcement. He made that major announcement from the school’s library. (I believe, it was the first time he had journeyed into it.) Tyrone signed his National Letter of Intent and told the world he was going to Washington State University in Pullman, Washington. The whole community was so proud. One of our own was going to the great northwest to play major college football. Once he signed his name, the recruiter from Washington State gave him a Washington State team jersey, a Washington State baseball cap and a football with Washington State painted on it with the team colors, crimson and grey. Tyrone put on his jersey and baseball cap. He grabbed his football, and everyone cheered. The next day, he came to school showing off his new Washington State gear. As he walked down the hall, everyone congratulated him. When he passed by me, I was standing near a teacher by the name of Dick James. Mr. James yelled out to Tyrone, “So Tyrone, you are going to Washington State!” Tyrone grimed and broke into a Heisman Trophy pose. He yelled back, “Yes, sir, Mr. James. I going to be right there with the president.” The noisy hallway grew quiet. Tyrone was so close, yet so far away.

I will confess, I have told you that story in the past several times. I repeated that story today for three reasons. First, I like telling that story. It is fun. Second, people have asked me to retell the story. They like it. Third, the story makes a point. It is easy to be so close, yet so far away. That is what we find the in the scripture reading for today.

We find ourselves today in the second chapter of John. According to the text, it was almost time for the annual Passover. The law dictated everyone within a certain radius must attend the Passover in Jerusalem, but no legislation was needed. Everyone wanted to go to Jerusalem. It was a time to reconnect with family and friends. However, it was also time to pay their taxes at the temple. Jesus goes to the temple and cannot believe his eyes. There were people selling livestock and small birds. There were money changers. Do not miss the next line. They are not there to raise money for the local food bank. They are not there to raise money to pay off some temple debt. They are not there to raise money for the next youth mission trip. They are there for personal profit. So, to speak, they were selling salvation. The animals and birds were sold to be sacrificed. The foreign currency had to be changed into an acceptable currency. Everything was done at a tremendous profit. In the name of God, they were exploiting people. The money made the temple leaders blind to God and the needs of their own people. It is still true today. Money is the greatest obstacle to our spiritual development. It is more than Jesus can handle. In a moment of rage, Jesus scatters the animals and birds. Jesus upends the tables of the money changers. Jesus reminds the people the temple was a place of prayer, not profit. Each one of those temple leaders played the part of Tyrone. They were so close, yet so far away.

I hope that is not our story. We do not want to play the part of Tyrone, so close, yet so far away. It is one of the great challenges facing the church today. We can fill our calendars with important church work and forget why we exist. We exist to make disciples for Jesus Christ. Preparing for worship is time consuming and important, but it is more than just entertainment. Sending our young to church camps and mission trips is important, but those activities are more than wholesome activities. Fundraising is important because we can keep our church financially stable and helps the needy, but money will not save your soul. May we never forget, we are in the disciple making business. So, to keep you from being like Tyrone, so close, yet so far away, I challenge you to do three things today.

First, I challenge you to reaffirm your personal commitment to Jesus Christ! This is a fair question. How did you come to know Jesus Christ? Everyone’s story is different. Everyone’s story is important. There are no bad stories. It does not matter how you came to know Jesus. It only matters that you know Jesus personally. Your parents can not do it for you. Your grandparents can not do it for you. Your preacher can not do it for you. God wants to have a personal relationship with you. Do you want to have a personal relationship with Him?

When Michelangelo was a young boy, he went to a master sculptor, asking to be a student. As they talked about the commitment needed to be a great artist, the master sculptor said, “Michelangelo, it will take your entire life.” Michelangelo responded, “What else is life for?” It is not just true of art. It is true of discipleship. It will take your whole life, but what else matters. Anything less is to be like Tyrone, so close yet so far away.

Second, I challenge you to reaffirm your commitment to the Holy Habits! What are the Holy Habits? The list differs with every group. According to the Living Church, these are the five holy habits: worship, prayer, meditation, Bible study, and service. Others include communion and generosity. How much time do you spend practicing the holy habits? Your answer is very revealing.

There is an old preaching story about a man who bought a parrot at his local pet store. The man was excited about hearing the bird talk, but the bird never said a word. The man returned to the pet store and told the owner about his untalkative parrot. The owner of the store said the bird did not talk because the bird did not have a mirror in the cage. He said, some birds like to preen as they talk, so he bought a mirror for the cage. Still, the bird did not talk, so the man returned to the store. The owner said, you need to buy a ladder. Some birds like to exercise while they talk. Still, the bird did not talk. Next, the owner suggested the man buy a swing for the cage, so the man bought a swing. Some birds like to amuse themselves as they talk. The next day, the owner of the parrot returned to the pet store and announced the bird had died. Shocked, the owner of the pet store asked, “Did the bird ever talk?” The owner responded the bird only spoke once. Seconds before he died the parrot said, “Doesn’t that pet store sell any food?” If you do not practice the holy habits, then you are going to died spiritually. If you do not practice the holy habits, then you are going to be like Tyrone, close, yet far away.

Third, and Finally, I challenge you to reaffirm your commitment to love as a way of life! There is nothing easy about being a disciple of Jesus Christ. From the moment you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior, you must find a new way, every day, to thank God for saving your soul. The only way to thank God is by helping other people in the spirit of love. You are not just helping others. You are helping yourself. That is the magic of the Christian faith. Several years ago, Duke University released a study. They reported the most fulfilled people are those who live for a bigger cause. There is no bigger cause than God.

In the tenth chapter of Mark is the story of the rich, young ruler. You remember his story. He had it all. He was rich so he could buy anything his heart desired. He was young so his health was intact. If you have your health, then you have it all. He was a ruler, so he had influence in his community. He had everything, but he did not. The only thing he lacked with spiritual peace. According to the story, the rich, young ruler sought out Jesus to find that peace. He asked the question, we have all asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus asked him if he had murdered anyone, been sexually faithful, offered false testimony, and honored his father and mother.” His heart must have jumped when he answered correctly. His heart must have dropped when Jesus told him he lacked only one thing, sell his possessions, and give the money to the poor. He could not do it. The rich, young ruler walked away broken hearted because he was like Tyrone, so close, yet so far away.

Judas Iscariot is the most notorious traitor his history. For three years, he traveled with Jesus. He heard the lessons. He saw the miracles. He felt the presence of the Master. He was trusted and respected by his peers. He was their treasurer. He should have known better, but he betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. I do not know why. Perhaps, he tried to force Jesus’s hand, thinking he would fight back, but he did not fight back. Instead, Jesus goes to the cross and Judas hangs himself. It would have been better for him if he would have never had been born. Judas Iscariot was like Tyrone, so close, yet far away.

Pontius Pilot should have known better. He was the Roman Governor in that corner of the world. Jesus stood before him, as well as the common criminal Barabbas. Pilot has the power to saved Jesus’s life, but surrendered to public opinion. Instead of releasing the innocent Jesus. Pilot releases the guilty Barabbas. Pontius Pilot should have known better. He was like Tyrone, so close, yet so far away. This is the question you must answer?

Are you like Tyrone, so close, yet so far away? I hope not. I challenge you today to reaffirm your personal commitment to Jesus Christ! I challenge you today to reaffirm to the holy habits! I challenge you today to reaffirm your commitment to love as a way of life. Years ago, Jesus went to the temple and was shocked by their behavior. What would Jesus say to us? Do not be like Tyrone, so close, yet so far away.