“Turmoil”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

April 9, 2017 (Palm Sunday)

Matthew 21:1-11

 

When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the gospel writer says, the whole city was in turmoil.

Turmoil.  That word leapt off the page at me as I studied this familiar Palm Sunday narrative again in recent weeks.  Jerusalem was in turmoil.  Don’t we know a thing or two about that?

Don’t we know a thing or two about the kind of turmoil that stalks nations worldwide, but seems to find its preferred habitat in the cities and countries of the Middle East?  About how intractable conflict there seems to be, how many sides there are to every story, how no one is innocent and everyone is afraid…  About how elusive peace seems in Jerusalem, in Israel/Palestine, in Syria, in Iraq, in Egypt, in that whole fiercely-loved and brutally-contested region.

Don’t we know a thing or two about the kind of turmoil that comes from living in a time like ours, when the news comes as fast as the bits of data that fly invisibly across our airwaves at the speed of light?  About living in a time when simply keeping up with current events feels like a full-time job, let alone figuring out what you think or how you might respond…  About waking up each morning wondering what new dread will appear when you pick up your phone or fire up your computer or turn on the radio or open the newspaper.

Don’t you know a thing or two about the kind of turmoil that lurks in a too-quiet house where a beloved spouse or parent or sibling or child no longer lives?  About waiting for a diagnosis, waiting for a surgery, waiting for a treatment to work… waiting for an employer to call back, waiting for a check to clear, waiting for benefits to come through…  About receiving a phone call that shatters your heart and sends your mind spinning out of control.

Don’t you know a thing or two about turmoil?

 

When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the gospel writer says, the whole city was in turmoil.  The word used there in the original Greek actually means shaking, agitation, trembling.  Other translations read:  “The whole city was stirred up.”  “The whole city was shaken.”  “All the city was moved.”  That same Greek root has made its way into English in the word seismic.  And whether or not you have experienced a physical earthquake, a seismic event, don’t you know a thing or two about what it feels like when your very foundations have been shaken?

When we humans find ourselves in that kind of heart-shaking, soul-shattering, spirit-agitating turmoil, it is our basic, instinctive response to grope for a way out, to hold on to something solid, to search for someone to help us.  We look for a savior.

And pleading for help, looking for a savior, is exactly what those parade-goers were doing as they laid their cloaks on the road and cut branches from nearby trees to adorn the path, crying out, “Hosanna to the Son of David!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!  Hosanna in the highest heaven!”  In the Aramaic dialects of the day, Hosanna was a plea for help, a prayer for God to save the people.  And in the context of the Hebrew scriptures, the Son of David was none other than the Messiah, the anointed one who would come to lead God’s people.

 

When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the gospel writer says, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?”  The people who heard those pleas for help, those prayers for salvation, would naturally have looked at the one who came riding down that palm-strewn path, and wondered about his identity.  Who is this?  This thirty-something itinerant preacher, riding a beast of burden into the city, cheered by a ragtag band of followers—who was this man?  What importance could he possibly have?  What help could he possibly offer?  What salvation could he possibly bring?  Wouldn’t those poor peasants do better to look to the real powers—the legions of Roman soldiers, the religious and legal authorities, the ones whose strength was readily apparent?

But what those onlookers did not know was that God’s way of salvation does not look like the power of this world.  God comes, without fail, into situations of turmoil—on that you can rely.  But the way in which God enters in has a logic of an entirely different sort, a power all its own.

It turns out that the word translated as turmoil shows up twice more in Matthew’s gospel.  Once, at the moment of Jesus’ death, when he cries out from the cross in a loud voice and breathes his last.  And again, on the first day of the week, at dawn, when the women go to the graveyard, and an angel rolls back the stone to reveal an empty tomb.  These three seismic moments reveal the shape and form of God’s presence in turmoil.  And what they show us is as revolutionary today as it was two thousand years ago.

On Palm Sunday, Jesus rode into the turmoil of Jerusalem, astride not a splendid, battle-hardened war horse, but a humble beast of burden, and a young one at that.

On Good Friday, Jesus accepted the turmoil of suffering, and he died in the same spirit in which he had lived, with vulnerability and self-sacrifice, even to the end.

On Easter, God transformed the turmoil of death and defeat into a glowing, radiant, world-changing triumph.

When God enters into our trembling, shaken, stirred-up world—into your trembling, shaken, stirred-up heart—God does not arrive brandishing weapons like a Roman soldier.  God does not come armored and defended against the suffering and pain of this world.  God does not use intimidation or shock and awe.  Not pomp and splendor.  Not bravado and self-aggrandizement.  Not might.  Not violence.  Not power asserted through force, not ever.

When God enters into our trembling, shaken, stirred-up world—into your trembling, shaken, stirred-up heart—God comes as Jesus came:  humbly, gently, compassionately, tenderly, bringing nothing but mercy, carrying nothing but peace, offering nothing but unmerited, unconditional, unbreakable love.

And if we recognize such a Messiah, if we understand that our salvation comes in the most counterintuitive way possible, that in our vulnerability we find our greatest strength, then how can we help but love God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our strength, and with all our mind, and our neighbor as ourself?  How can we help but enter into the turmoil of our lives, the turmoil of our world, as Jesus did, bringing nothing but mercy, carrying nothing but peace, offering nothing but love?

It might not look like much in the eyes of the world.  It might not make any sense according to the prevailing logic of might-makes-right.  It might not seem reasonable.  It might not seem rational.  It might get us into trouble.

It might just save the world.

 


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