Sermon Title “What Have You Got to Lose? by Pastor Rosanna McFadden
Hosanna! Our prayers have been answered, we have a hero who is going to save us: a Messiah — no the Messiah — God’s Chosen One. Jesus healed a man born blind and raised his friend Lazarus from the dead. We’ve seen Lazarus with him. A guy with power like that, no telling what he could do. He’s not just a prophet, he’s not only speaking for God, he’s out there doing real stuff. Maybe he can liberate us from the Roman Empire. He might even give the Pharisees a poke in the eye. I get that the Pharisees aren’t exactly behind this guy, but come on; we all know how self-righteous the Pharisees can be. It’d be good to take them down a notch. We’re good people and we tried to be good Jews, but it seems like everybody is trying to keep us down: the Romans, the Pharisees, everybody. It’s good to let them know there’s a new prophet in town who might be able throw his weight around a little.
Not so impressive as parades go — Jesus could’ve chosen a flashier ride than a donkey to come into the city, but hey, this crowd is making up for it. There must be hundreds, maybe even a thousand people lining the streets of Jerusalem, showing up to cheer and to say that we’re ready for a change. It is great to see one of our own finally being lifted up. We’ve had to put up with Roman soldiers for so long — we’re second-class citizens in our own country. Jewish Lives Matter, right? We’re tired of having to carry Roman military gear, being detained for no reason and seeing our young men arrested and beaten or killed with no justice. Where has God been while Rome is standing on our backs? We can’t even go where we want to in our own country. We’re not even safe in our own homes. It’s time we came together to take back our nation, our heritage, our birthright. We have been looking for a hero and Jesus is our guy. I don’t know where he’s going from here, but I’ll be right behind him. Because if he’s the Messiah, that means he is the Anointed One and that means God is with us; God is on our side. If violent revolution is what we need, now we have the guy to take us there. Save us, Jesus! Hosanna! Let’s go! What have we got to lose?
I hope you detected a heavy does of irony in that first meditation on Palm Sunday. We can’t know for sure what was in the minds and hearts of the people lining the streets of Jerusalem welcoming Jesus with their cloaks and woven branches, but it was almost certainly political. These were folks who had been living under Roman occupation since 63 BCE — almost one hundred years. No one in the crowd that day remembered life without Roman soldiers and Roman oppression. Some of the Jewish leaders, the hierarchy of the Temple, the Sanhedrin, had made alliances with Rome in order to preserve their own power. Jesus entered Jerusalem with a large following and the potential to light the fuse of a political powder keg.
Philippians 2 gives us a version of what happened the week which began with Palm Sunday. This the poetic, not the political version. It is literally poetry, and scholars believe that the Apostle Paul is quoting one of the earliest Christian hymns. We have no way of knowing what the music may have been, but the words are powerful. If you have your Bible, I invite you to turn to Philippians Chapter 2. Paul invites his readers to have compassion and sympathy to look to the interests of others, and to have the mind of Christ who did not exploit his equality with God, but humbled himself and was obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.
There is no way to separate Jesus’ triumphal entry, subsequent arrest, trial, crucifixion and death from the political climate of the time, but this hymn from Philippians tells us why Jesus was so much more than a political hero. Jesus was God in human form: a human body which could be — and would be — beaten and tortured and nailed to a cross. Jesus had a much larger project than Jewish revolution. Jesus’ project was the redemption of all people, and the defeat of death itself. He would succeed in ways we are still talking about two thousand years later. The hymn from Philippians proclaims that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.
I have been reading Dancing in the Darkness: Spiritual Lessons for Thriving in Turbulent Times, by Otis Moss III, pastor of Trinity United Church in Chicago. We are in turbulent times: there is violence on our streets and even in our schools; there are criminal indictments of political figures, and political parties and even churches which are increasingly partisan and polarized. We need a hero to guides us through this mess, but maybe not the kind of hero we imagine. Rev. Moss is a fan of comic book superheros, and here’s what he says about supernatural power:
Superhero stories echo the story of Christ. . . As a matter of pure supernatural strength, Jesus always had the power to wipe out the armies of the Roman empire that was oppressing his people . . . the beauty of the narrative is His choice to restrain his power and say instead: I will bleed, I will cry, I will hurt, and I will die. Jesus restrained himself so extremely in order that God’s love would cease to seem some mysterious force, difficult for humans to understand. Instead, He presented the divine example through a human life in human terms . . . Jesus restrained his power, not to show weakness or accept humiliation, but because it was the only way to achieve the greater good.[i]
This is challenging stuff. If Jesus had used divine power to defeat his political enemies he would have been just like the Romans — only with way better weapons. Defeating violence with bigger violence escalates the violence but does not transform it. By choosing to empty himself and not use divine power, but to die a human death instead, Jesus chose a radically different approach to power, with a remarkably different outcome. Instead of claiming what he was entitled to — equality with God — Jesus gave up everything, including his life. It is because of Jesus’ willingness to be emptied out and obedient to the point of death, that he was honored by God. Philippians 2:8 says “he was obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross” and verse 9 says, Therefore — because of that — God also exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name. Jesus Christ is Lord — not just a great teacher, not just a great example, but Lord and Savior, because he showed us God’s love in human form. And that love meant asking “What do I have to lose?” and the answer was: everything.
Losing everything may not sound that impressive — people do it all the time; usually unintentionally. Investors in risky financial ventures, people whose addictions take away health and jobs and family, people who hold on to resentment rather than relationships. The children and grandchildren of the Jews who cheered Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem — some of them supported a violent revolt against the empire of Rome in AD 70. It failed tragically. They lost everything: their property, their wives and children, their lives. They lost everything and got nothing in return, except mention of a failed uprising in the historical record.
Philippians challenges us — you and me — to have the same mind that was in Christ Jesus, to share in the Spirit of compassion and sympathy by asking “What do I have to lose?” Compassion literally means “to suffer with.” Jesus, one with God, was willing to suffer with us by taking on human form. Paul is challenging Christians to look after the interests of others by being willing to suffer with them. Compassion is the power — I’d say it’s a super-human power, because to practice it we have to channel something greater than ourselves — compassion is the power which has can transform violence. Compassion is why Jesus allowed himself to be crucified on a cross. It is that compassion, the love for God’s people even at the cost of his own life, which purchased our redemption and transformed death into eternal life.
I mentioned that this poem from Philippians chapter 2 was an ancient hymn. I want to end by referencing another hymn which was written more than a thousand years later. This is one we know a tune for, and we’re going to sing it at the end of the service. The words were written by Sir Isaac Watts, and although they are probably familiar to you, I want to leave you with the words of the last verse and the question: What do we have to lose?
Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were an offering far too small.
Love so amazing, so divine
Demands my soul, my life, my all. Amen
[i] Otis Moss III, Dancing in the Darkness: Spiritual Lessons for Thriving in Turbulent Times Simon & Schuster, New York, 2022 Chapter 3, pp 36-37.