Seward United Methodist Church
Tuesday, December 11, 2018
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Jesus, the Revolutionary

Luke 19:28-40 and Luke 23:26-43

 Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem was the most politically charged event of his life.  The Jewish people were, for the most part, clamoring for change, eager for revolution.  For most of the previous 600 years, they had experienced some form of foreign domination.  At Passover, those revolutionary feelings rose to a pitch.  Passover remembered how God had delivered them from foreign captivity in Egypt, and each year the hope was renewed that maybe God would do it again.  And Rome knew it.  Each year they would increase the number of soldiers in the city because of riots and protests.  And Jesus’ triumphal entry fit right into that revolutionary fervor.  

 He rode on the back of a donkey, just as the prophets foretold that a king would one day do.  Zechariah 9:9 said, “Rejoice, O people of Zion!  Shout in triumph, people of Jerusalem.  Look, your king is coming to you, righteous and victorious, riding on a donkey.”  The people responded predictably.  They took off their coats and laid them on the ground in front of Jesus, as one would do for a king.  

 Luke’s Gospel doesn’t mention it, perhaps because he was writing to a Gentile audience who would probably not understand the implications, but we know from the other Gospels that people also waved palm branches and laid them on the ground in front of Jesus.  Some scholars doubt that part of the story, pointing out that palms do not naturally grow in Jerusalem.  Others say they were probably brought to Jerusalem specifically for the Passover.  

 You see, the palm had a symbolism behind it.  When the Temple was rebuilt after the return from Babylon, palms were used in the dedication of the new Temple.  After the Temple was desecrated by a foreign rulers, a king named Antiochus, palms were used to rededicate and purify it.  So the palm became a symbol of Jewish nationalism.  When the Romans allowed the Jews to mint their own coins, they used the palm on their coins, until Rome figured out its meaning.  

 So Jesus sets himself up as a revolutionary figure.  But then, just five days later, the same crowds that praised Jesus on his way into Jerusalem turned on him and demanded his crucifixion.  We understand that the primary motivation behind this reversal of public opinion is that Jesus was not the Messiah they were looking for.  They were looking for a king, a military hero, a revolutionary who would overthrow the foreign oppressors.  And Jesus was not that Messiah.

 Does that mean that Jesus was not a revolutionary?  I would suggest to you that Jesus was the most revolutionary figure in human history, just not the revolutionary people were expecting.  

 Jesus revolutionized our understanding of greatness.  

 He revolutionized our understanding of greatness when he carried a cross.  The cross was an emblem of shame and scorn.  Crucifixion was called “the slave’s death.”  It was seldom used for free people, but almost always for slaves.  When they hung Jesus on the cross, they put a sign above his head saying, “King of the Jews.”  That was meant as an insult to the nation.  Pilate was saying to them, “This is the only kind of king you’ll ever have.”  The irony, of course, is that it was true.  Jesus is a king, a king on a cross.  

 In the ancient world, greatness was measured by things like noble birth, wealth, and achievement.  The “great men” of the day were men like Herod and Caesar Augustus, noble men of great wealth who crushed their enemies.  Jesus had none of those things, by their standards.  But today, we know he has changed the world far more than those other men.  

 He gave us a new definition of greatness:  The greatest of all is a servant of all.  Jesus exemplified service, even serving humanity on the cross.  

 Jesus revolutionized our understanding of the dignity and worth of all human beings.  

 Luke notes that there were women who followed Jesus.  His male disciples ran away in fear, but it was his female followers who stuck with him to the end.  We know that Jesus frequently challenged the conventions of his society in his treatment of women.  It was often a scandal for him.  People questioned why he allowed women to follow him, why he spoke to them in public.  Those were things most men did not do.

 Not just in Judea, but all throughout the ancient world, women were regarded as second-class citizens, at best.  In most places, they were not educated.  They were regarded by the law as property, not people.  If a man harmed another man’s wife, it was not considered a personal offense.  It was considered a “property crime.”  Often women were not allowed to testify in court, but Jesus called them to be the first to testify about his resurrection.

 Many women never even had the chance to live.  Male children were valued over girls, so many infant girls were “exposed.”  Roman law required only that the firstborn daughter be allowed to live.  And most families followed suit.  Any other daughters would be taken to the town dump and left to die.  As a result, the population of the Roman Empire was such that

there were 140 men for every 100 women.  Not all the baby girls who were exposed died.  Many were picked up off the garbage piles by slave traders, eventually becoming child prostitutes, sold to wealthy men.  

 But Jesus treated women as equals to men.  He praised Mary for “sitting at his feet,” for desiring to become a disciple.  The early church had many women in prominent positions.  

 And it wasn’t just women that Jesus treated as having equal worth.  He also considered “outsiders” to have equal worth to “his own” people.  He ministered in Samaria and Phoenicia and in the Greek cities of the Decapolis.  He even ministered to a criminal, a man condemned to die for his crimes, as he hung on the cross.  Even he was considered by Jesus to have sacred worth.

 All ancient societies had hierarchies.  In Roman society, the top of the hierarchy was the emperor.  Below him were senators.  Then there were the rest of the nobility, which made up less than 2% of the population.  Below the nobility were the free men, who made up half of the population.  In Latin, free men who were not noble were called “mediocre persons,” insignificant, average.  And then there were the slaves, the other half of the population.  Slaves were called “people without a face,” non-persons, less than fully human.

 Today, many societies that have been touched by the Christian faith lack hierarchies altogether.  Our society does, at least officially.  George Washington was offered the title of king but turned it down.  By tradition, American presidents do not bow to foreign kings because we believe all men are created equal.  

 Why has this change happened?  It’s not so much that our Christian faith has “lowered” the king as that we have “raised” the value of those at the bottom.  In Christ, we are all “royalty.”  We are all children of the King.  Before we put somebody down, stop and remember that he or she is a prince or princess by virtue of being a “child of God,” made in the image of God, the King of the universe.  

 There were stories from the early Church about slave owners coming into worship, washing the feet of their slaves, and being taught by their slaves.  That was a revolution.

 Jesus revolutionized how we treat our enemies.  

 Jesus loved his enemies, and called his followers to do the same and to forgive them, just as he forgave those who hung him on the cross.  Forgiveness of enemies has been called a “distinctively Christian innovation.”  In societies outside of Christian influence, you simply don’t

find the idea of forgiving those who have harmed you.  The norm is retribution, revenge, or at least some form of restitution.  The norm outside of Christian influence is either to kill your enemy, or at least to humiliate or punish him.  When I was in college, I took a course in cultural anthropology.  It was interesting, especially to see how the idea of “reciprocity” shows up across cultures.  Reciprocity says, “If you do something good to me, I’ll do something good back.  If you do something bad to me, I’ll do something just as bad back.”  Only in Christianity do we find a revolutionary idea, “If you do something bad to me, I’ll do something good back.”  

 I recently read a story about two people named Mary and Oshea.  When Oshea was a teenager, he murdered Mary’s only child in a fit of drunken rage.  Twelve years later, Mary, a Christian, found that she had still not truly forgiven Oshea, and it was eating her up inside.  So she went to the prison and sat down with him.  Over the course of several months, she learned to forgive him, and he learned to forgive himself.  When he was released from prison, she invited him to live next door to her and helped him find a job.  Today they are best friends.  In many ways, he became the son that he took away from her.  I’ve never heard of a story like that other than one that has happened by the influence of Jesus Christ.

 And finally, Jesus revolutionized our understanding of how we come to God.  

 Up until the coming of Jesus, almost everyone understood “salvation,” in whatever form that happens, essentially as a human achievement.  A person is saved either by doing certain good works or by gaining certain knowledge.  But Jesus taught a different way.

 As the thief on the cross next to Jesus was dying, he said to him, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  Did he have sufficient good works to be saved?  No, he was being crucified for a reason!  He was a murderer.  Did he have sufficient knowledge of Jesus to be saved?  It’s hard to know what he knew of Jesus, but I’m willing to bet he could not have written a systematic theology.  So why was he saved?  Because he acknowledged his need of a savior and he cried out for help, putting his trust in Jesus.  He was saved by grace, not by his knowledge or his works. 

 That’s a revolution we can all be thankful for.  

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