Great Expectations – a sermon

Sunday, April 13th, 2014 – Palm Sunday
Scripture: Matthew 21:1-17, Matthew 26:17-29, Matthew 26:47-56
Hymns: “Hosanna, Loud Hosanna”, “All Glory, Laud & Honor”, “Ride On, Ride On in Majesty”, “Alas, and Did My Savior Bleed”
Special Music provided by the Church Mice and JYF youth groups

“Great Expectations”
It was with shouts of acclaim and triumph that the man entered the great city, mounted astride a means of conveyance meant for one far more humble. Followers surrounded him, proclaiming him the next great thing and believing that he would lead them into a time of victory and prosperity.
But alas, almost as soon as he had arrived triumphant, the tides turned against him. To the dismay of the zealots, he had come not for warfare and vengeance, but for peace and justice. And to make matters worse, one of his dearest friends turned against him, giving him over to the authorities who believed that only his death could settle matters.
However, in the end, Captain America triumphed, overcoming the Winter Soldier, bringing down the corrupted leadership of S.H.I.E.L.D., and protecting the good people of Washington, DC, from the evil forces of HYDRA. Truth, justice, and the American way prevailed, and he rode his Harley-Davidson off into the sunset.
Wait, who did you think I was talking about?
In all seriousness, though.
How often do we see somebody or something that seems to be the next truly great thing and then have that person or thing not live up to our expectations? It could be a pastor. It could be a president. It could be the latest phone from Apple or Samsung. It could be the newest hybrid car to come out of Detroit. It could be a football team that starts the season 8-0, then goes 3-5 the rest of the way and blows a 28 point lead on the way to losing its first round playoff game against Indianapolis.
Still too soon?
Let’s take a look at Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. His entourage, as it were, consisted of many more people than just the twelve Apostles by this point. Matthew 21, verse eight, says that a “very large crowd” prepared the road for him. As he headed into Jerusalem, he had all these people following him, from all across Galilee, convinced that he was the Messiah. And while they weren’t wrong, it’s likely that they had a very different idea of what the Messiah was supposed to do than what Jesus was interested in.
If you’ve ever seen the musical Jesus Christ Superstar, you know that there’s a scene in it where Simon the Zealot – one of the twelve – reveals himself as one of those folks with the wrong idea about Jesus. To be sure, it’s a fictionalized account of Holy Week, but not far off base – Simon the Zealot attempts to incite Jesus to revolution, to overthrow Rome, promising the support of all those following him.
And perhaps, perhaps at first, he gave folks the wrong idea. Reading on in Matthew, the very first thing that Jesus does after the triumphal entry is to cleanse the temple. He goes marching in and forcefully tells the moneychangers and merchants – crooks, all of them – to GIT OUT. Imagine what those following him must have thought – Step 1, cleanse the scum of the earth from the temple! Step 2, cleanse the scum of Rome from Israel! Hallelujah!
But that wasn’t why Jesus went to Jerusalem. He wasn’t there for warfare, and so he didn’t live up to that expectation.
The funny thing is, Christians have been TRYING to force Jesus into that box of their expectations for CENTURIES. “Christ the Conqueror”, we call him. “The Warrior Christ. The Conquering King.” Have you checked out the patriotic section of the hymnal lately? There’s a hymn in there called, “The Son of God Goes Forth to War!” My goodness gracious. Or heck, take a look at some Christian fiction – a certain series of novels about the end times in particular. I sometimes feel like if certain Christian authors had their way, then when the day comes for Jesus to return, he’d be piloting an M1A2 Abrams main battle tank!
And as a caveat, let’s be clear: Jesus HAS THAT POWER. When he’s arrested he says, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to God, and at once be sent more than twelve legions of angels?” If he had wanted to, Jesus could have called down a holy army and laid waste to Rome.
THAT was not the mission of Jesus of Nazareth. You have to remember, this is the man, the prophet, the rabbi, the Son of God who had, in his teachings, said things like, “Love your neighbor as yourself”, “Love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you,” and “Blessed are the peacemakers.” He came with a message of peace, a message of love, a message of reconciliation. He was not there to make war on Rome; he was there to tear down an old way of life, one based on a strict and unforgiving adherence to rules, and replace it with a new way – one based on love and respect for one’s fellow human beings, on following in the paths of grace and mercy, and on living as members of the community of God.
For some people, Jesus just didn’t live up to expectations.
But you know, I have to imagine that, as disappointed as the people were in Jesus for failing to live up to their expectations, he may well have been just as disappointed in them. If you read the account of the triumphal entry in Luke 19, after Jesus has passed by the legions of adoring followers on the road and sees the city of Jerusalem, he begins to weep at the city’s despair. “If you had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace!” he agonizes. As much as the people expected Jesus to be a liberating warrior, so too did he expect them to recognize that he had come to bring peace, not war. That they did not see the ways of peace, that they rejected the peacemaker, that they embraced rebellion, would eventually lead to Jerusalem’s utter destruction.
Over the following few days after his entry into Jerusalem, Jesus continued to let down the worldly expectations of his followers – and, for that matter, his enemies – and feed them a sizable and, in many cases, unwanted dose of Godly reality. Hot button issues, too. Taxes, for example. The Pharisees came to Jesus and asked if it was alright with God for them to pay taxes to Rome. Jesus’ answer? “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s.”
Then the Sadducees. They asked Jesus about a woman stuck in levirate marriage – her husband dead, she was obliged to marry his younger brother in order to provide the family a child; if that brother died, the next one down, etc. – to a series of seven brothers. They wanted to know, when the resurrection of God’s people occurred, to which of those men she would be married. Jesus’ answer? None of them. “For in the resurrection, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like the angels in heaven.”
And then, later, he goes on to say that #1, the temple here in Jerusalem is going to be destroyed – which it would be about thirty or so years later – and #2, you can just stop asking me about the end times, because I don’t even know when the day of the Lord will be.
So, to recap, he had the people expecting that he would gloriously triumph over Rome. He had the religious leaders – the Pharisees – trying to entrap him by getting him to give them a religious reason to rebel against Rome. He had the legal leaders – the Sadducees – trying to entrap him with a question related to how Mosaic law would function in the realm of God.
And what did Jesus do? He dashed everybody’s expectations. He didn’t overthrow Rome. He didn’t fall into the traps of the Pharisees or the Sadducees. Instead, he went about doing what he had been doing for three years – teaching his followers how to live better lives, lives pleasing to God, lives beneficial to those around them, living in a way that would show others by their love that they were, indeed, followers of Christ.
Unfortunately, sometimes the people whose expectations are left unfulfilled will make you pay the price. Whether your name is Richard Nixon or Todd Haley, when you fail to live up to expectations, there are consequences. And as we see in the story of Christ’s final week, one of his followers decided that there had to be consequences.
Oh, we all know how Judas Iscariot failed to live up to Jesus’ expectations – how, as one of the twelve Apostles, he was supposed to be a friend and supporter of Jesus, and how he completely eradicated the trust that Jesus had in him by betraying him for a bag of money.
But what did Jesus do? How did he fail to live up to Judas’ expectations? Well, while we don’t know for sure, Judas was probably one of the Jewish people who expected Jesus to be the liberator. He probably looked down upon Jesus for consorting with “lesser” individuals such as Zacchaeus and Mary Magdalene. He probably thought that he was following the conquering king, and when he realized that Jesus came not to conquer, but to love, he probably himself felt betrayed.
Maybe, though, the greatest failure of Judas’ expectations came at the Passover meal itself. Jesus tells the Apostles that one of them will betray him. They fight amongst themselves, noting at once the failure of one of their own to live up to their collective expectations – but Judas asks Jesus, “Surely not I, Rabbi?”
It’s almost as if he was trying to get out of it, as if he really didn’t want to do it, and here he was trying to get Jesus to give him an out. I can just imagine the way he looked at Jesus, a pleading look on his face, his words begging for mercy, and Jesus, his face filled with sorrow, looked back and, instead of as Judas hoped, saying, “Not you, Judas, not tonight,” Jesus said to him, “You have said so.”
It truly is a tragic thought, the idea that it was the failure to live up to expectations that led Judas to betray Jesus. But it was not up to Jesus to live up to the expectations of the people. Their expectations were not of God, they were of the world, and the failure of those expectations was what led to the condemnation of the rabbi that they had so recently glorified.
Still today, we see it, and still today, we expect worldly things of God when instead we should live for only that which God desires. Let us remember that it is not God who is responsible to fulfill our expectations. It is us who must do our best to fulfill God’s.


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