The Unfinished Journey


Here is the message that I gave on Palm Sunday, 28 March 1999, at the Neon (KY) United Methodist Church.  The Scriptures I used for this Sunday were Isaiah 50: 4 – 9, Philippians 2: 5 – 11, and Matthew 27: 11 – 54.

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This has been edited to remove some bad links.

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We are a society that most definitely likes a winner. The effort put into the NCAA basketball tournament, the Super Bowl, and the buildup to a NCAA football championship are indicators of this. And with the same fervor that we put in pushing our team to number 1, we often try to get rid of the coach or team when the effort fails.

Back in 1989, one of the high schools in the town where I lived was not only the best in the state of Texas but also ranked as the number 1 high school football team in the whole country. At the end of that season, the head coach moved to a position with a nearby university football program and it was up to the new head coach to continue the tradition of winning.

Unfortunately, when the 1990-football season opened, this team was put on probation for holding illegal practices during the summer. And when the team lost its first game of the season, the anger of the fans boiled over. The Saturday morning after the loss, a number of for-sale signs appeared in the front yard of the coach’s house and a number of realtors, not ware of the lose or the situation, called with serious offers to buy the property.

We do like our winners and we hate losing with the same passion. This is not something unique to our society or our times. The same people who cheered Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem were probably among the crowd who called for his crucifixion several days later.

There have always been a number of questions raised about what happened that week in Jerusalem. Why did the crowd change its attitude? Why were those who on Palm Sunday the entrance of the new king willing to doom their own lives for the crucifixion of Jesus just a few days later?

When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!”

All the people answered, “Let his blood be on us and on our children!” (Matthew 27: 24 – 25)

Why was Jesus willing to go through the trial without saying anything?

When he was accused by the chief priests and the elders, he gave no answer. Then Pilate asked him, “Don’t you hear the testimony they are bringing against you? But Jesus made no reply, not even to a single charge — to the great amazement of the governor. (Matthew 27: 12 – 14)

Why was Jesus willing to die on the cross, perhaps the most painful method of torture and death ever devised by man? Why did Pilate, knowing that Jesus was innocent of the charges, still have him crucified?

The season of Lent is one of preparation, one of a journey. The end to Jesus’ journey began with his entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday but it could not end with the celebration that the people wanted. For Jesus knew that His journey could only end with His death on the cross. I think that, for us, this is the hardest thing we could ever conceptualize. Why should Christ give up His life; why should He give up everything in heaven to die for us? As Paul wrote,

Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, (Philippians 2: 6)

Jesus did not consider the high position that he held in heaven to be something he could not give up. In today’s society, giving up the ultimate in success, being number one, is something that is just not done. No wonder people, both in Jesus’ time and today have difficulty with what Christ did for us. We are taught from the beginning that success is all that counts and here we have the Son of God giving it up.

That Jesus would give up everything for us explains a lot about what transpired during that week so many years ago. After Jesus challenged those in church authority to be more responsive to the needs of the people. Jesus’ place in heaven was secure but he was willing to be our servant, to humble himself by a death on the cross.

But made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.

And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross! (Philippians 2: 7 – 8)

The idea of being a servant to the people is a very difficult one for us to understand. After all, having fought and scrapped, we want to keep what we have gained; we don’t want to give it up; we don’t want to be the servant for others when we are on top.

When I was a senior in college, I invited the new president of the college to be my guest for dinner in the cafeteria where those in my dormitory ate. You should have seen the looks on the faces of the students and workers when they found out that the man eating dinner with me was not my father but rather the president of the college. The previous two presidents would never have consented to such a thing and it was assumed that all presidents would do this. This president did not play by the rules of his predecessor and it should be noted that changes begun under his administration have lead to Truman State University being a better university today.  (This is probably the first time that I told this story but I first published a more detailed story in “What I See”.)

The crowd could not see Jesus as a servant, one willing to humbly serve the people. They wanted a king to lead them, to show strength and power just as the Romans showed strength and power. Many of the people never understood the message that Jesus gave.

But what can be gained when we seek a life of power, strength, and wealth? All that we gain from a life in sin is death while a life in Christ is an eternal one. There is nothing wrong with seeking what others called the good life but it must be a GOOD life in all senses of the word.

Some years ago, when I received the call to the ministry, I struggled with just what it was to be a Methodist. I was comfortable with the notion that the United Methodist Church was a liberal church with a progressive social policy. Now, I can’t say that the United Methodist Church is as liberal as some might think because I know quite a few preachers who are very (very!) conservative.

And I have come to learn that the social awareness of the church is only possible when we have first come to Christ. As Wesley pointed out, once one comes to Christ, it is our duty to become more like him. While can actually never be like Christ, the Christ-like qualities he showed are still something to be attained, like a prize we do not yet posses.

Christ’s death on the cross changed the world and the way we look at things. By accepting Christ as our Savior, we can know God as a loving father, accessible to us all. It was noted in the Gospel reading today,

And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.

At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks split. (Matthew 27: 50 – 51)

The tearing of the curtain in the temple is symbolic of the removal of the barriers that would keep us from God. And in knowing God, we gain the strength we need to overcome obstacles. Jesus said nothing during His trial because there was nothing He could say. After all, the authorities wanted Him dead and were going to do it, no matter what. When we are faced such pressures, what can we do. The Old Testament reading tells us what Jesus was thinking that night so many years ago.

The Sovereign Lord has given me an instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary. He wakens me morning by morning, wakens my ear to listen like one being taught.

The Sovereign Lord has opened my ears, and I have not been rebellious; I have not drawn back.

I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard; I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting.

Because the Sovereign Lord helps me, I will not be disgraced. Therefore have I set my face like flint, and I know I will not be put to shame.

He who vindicates me is near. Who then will bring charges against me? Let us face each other! Who is my accuser? Let him confront me!

It is the Sovereign Lord who helps me. Who is he that will condemn me? They will all wear out like a garment; the moths will eat them up.

What would have happened if Pilate had had the strength to go against the crowd. Pilate knew that Jesus was innocent but he also knew that if he had done what he knew was correct, the Jewish authorities would have complained to his bosses and not only would Jesus still have been crucified, he (Pilate) would have also be punished. Just like today, Pilate took the action that was the safe route rather than the correct route.

For us, this week can mark the end of one journey and the beginning of a new one. By accepting Christ as our savior, our life in sin is over and a new life can begin. Christ’s commitment to us, his desire to save us from sin and death, was so strong that even in the pain of his own death, he sought to save others.

One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t’ you the Christ? Save yourself and us!”

But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”

Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23: 39 – 43)

It has always been a mystery when the centurion was included in the story of Christ’s death.

When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God!” (Matthew 27: 54)

Did the centurion begin to understand the truth of who Christ was? Or did he take the next step in his own journey of life and become a Christian knowing that Christ died for his sins, just as he died for our sins?

That day some 2000 years ago, the centurion began a journey. That journey is our journey as well. But while there may be doubts as to what the centurion did, there are no doubts about where that journey will lead us. Christ died for us; our journey can be finished when we accept Christ as our Savior. Christ’s journey had only one ending, the cross. But His journey changed the way our journey could end. What path will you take; how will your journey end?

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