Jesus Needs Your Ass…Again!

So, this Sunday is Palm Sunday. Because I have several things going on this week, and in honor of Palm Sunday, I’m digging back into the archives of my previous blog, theunexpectedds.com for a replay of one of the most read blogs from that site. This post originally appeared March 21, 2013. Eight years seems like a generation ago. I’ve made a few edits, but enjoy the repeat! 😉

It really is dawning on me that I have to start preaching again every Sunday. I’m preaching this Sunday, and I’ve returned again to the lectionary to begin preparations. It should be easy, shouldn’t it? After all, it’s Palm Sunday. But, then again…it’s Palm Sunday. How does one remain fresh on a passage of Scripture that is preached every year at this same time. What is God saying to us this year that He hasn’t said for over two thousand years? Yes, I feel the pain of all my sisters and brothers who are busy preparing for their Palm Sunday sermon.

I have often sought to title my sermon and have the title serve as the “big idea” of the sermon. I try to let the Scripture guide me to the point of the message and then formulate a title around that point. That’s what I’ve been trying to do this week (while spending long hours in the Cabinet room dealing with appointments) and it’s a little more difficult because it’s Palm Sunday.

There is rich fodder in Luke 19:28-40. Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem for the final week of his earthly ministry is filled with imagery for good sermon titles, and points to make. Of course, there is the whole matter of expectations. The crowd had their expectations of Jesus. The disciples had their expectations of Jesus. The Pharisees had their expectations of Jesus. Jesus had his own expectations of what the week ahead was to be like, and he was the only one who knew what lay at the end of the week.

Imagine how our lives would be different if we expected that next week would be our last. I am reminded of what Steve Jobs said after he discovered he was dying with cancer: “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.”

Yeah. I could do something with that. I might title it “Expecting the Unexpected” or “What Did You Expect?” That could work.

I might make something out of the whole idea of Jesus as Messiah. After all, that’s what this whole scene is about, isn’t it? I mean donkeys and palm branches take us back to prophetic readings in Zechariah and the Psalms that deal with the Messiah. Jesus was making a great proclamation by choosing to enter Jerusalem this way. We could talk about that, and I could have a title like “A New Kind of King.”

Let’s see…there’s the issue of Jesus crying. How about “From Cheers to Tears”?

Or, Jesus talking to the Pharisees about the rocks crying out in praise. Maybe “The First True Rock Star”?

I think what I really like is the part about Jesus, his disciples and the donkey. That’s an interesting account. Jesus simply sends his disciples to get the colt. “Go over there and get it. You’ll know it when you see it.” And, the disciples go, and sure enough they find the donkey, and sure enough, the owners asks the disciples, “What are you doing with my ass?” I can imagine the disciples’ response being, “The Lord needs your ass.”

Well, now, that’s a loaded question, and the response is equally as loaded. I can probably get a lot of mileage out of this point. Do we all have an ass Jesus can use? Not quite sure how the folks this Sunday would respond when they show up and the title of the sermon is printed across the bulletin “Jesus Needs Your Ass.” I suspect it would be somewhat akin to the reaction of the Pharisees when Jesus came riding into town that day. Hm? Maybe I’m on to something here.

This is a confusing scene for us who live in 21st century North America. Seriously, think of it this way. Two guys walk up to your garage, jump in your brand new Ford F-150, start it up and begin to drive away. You look at them and ask, “What are you doing with my truck?” One of the guys responds, “The Lord needs it,” and you just look dumbfounded as they drive away. If you’re like me, I’m calling the police to report a stolen vehicle. Not these owners on this day.

So why would they let the disciples take the donkey? Well, there might be this whole hospitality thing going on. Remember, it’s the beginning of the Passover week, and the city is teeming with activity. Travelers from all over the ancient world are making their way to Jerusalem. Hospitality was a big thing in 1st century eastern culture. To be known as inhospitable was one of the worst things you could be. To lend the donkey was seen simply as a way to help another.

Another reason may be pride on the part of the owners. Jesus was in town. I don’t think there would have been too many folks in Bethany or Bethphage that would not have known who Jesus was. Remember again, that it was only a couple days earlier that Jesus was in town doing a little thing like raising a guy named Lazarus from the dead. Recall the scene from John 11…there are a lot of people who witnessed that miracle, and word got around pretty fast. Jesus had made quite the name for himself in that little miracle. He was a famous rabbi now. There would have been honor in allowing a famous rabbi to ride my donkey.

Then again, some have suggested that Jesus had pre-arranged this scene. Perhaps the animal belonged to Mary, Martha and Lazarus, and Jesus had already made preparations with them for the disciples to come get the donkey. I don’t believe this to be the case, otherwise, Luke, the historian, one who is intentional in giving us details, would have given us a clue that this was what had happened. Surely this was not simply some pre-arranged business deal on Jesus’ part.

Perhaps there’s another reason. Perhaps the key is found in the use of the term “Lord.” Perhaps the owners knew who Jesus was, and when the disciples referred to “The Lord,” there was little doubt in the owners minds that Jesus was who he claimed to be. If Jesus needed something they had, to offer it to him would be an act of devotion and love. No, it became an act of worship.

Here’s why I believe this is the case. Two significant pieces of evidence: One, no questions on the part of the owners. What questions would you and I ask? 

  • What are you doing with my donkey?
  • Who is “the Lord?”
  • How far will you take him?
  • Will you bring him back when you’re done?

Again, these are not details Luke is likely to omit. But he does.

The second significant piece of evidence Luke gives us is the telling of the story of the king and the ten servants immediately preceding this scene. Jesus tells the story of the nobleman who went away to be crowned king, but before he leaves he entrusts his silver to ten of his servants. Upon his return he calls the servants to give account of his silver. The first two return the king’s silver with interest. The third, because he was afraid of the king, simply returned what had been given to him. The story is about stewardship. 

Then, Luke gives a living example of the parable…a man with a donkey, offering what he has to the Jesus. It was an investment, and no small one at that. This was a valuable asset for the owners. Think about wealth in the 1stcentury…often measured by the ownership of livestock. The ass was referred to as a “beast of burden,” meaning it was used to transport things…it was the 1st century equivalent of a moving van. But, the ass was used for various tasks around the family farm and so it was also the equivalent of the modern day tractor. And, then, like Jesus does in today’s passage, people would use the ass as a means of transportation…the equivalent of a car. A moving van, a tractor, a car…a very valuable animal indeed, and here, Jesus commands a brand new one, one that has never been ridden. This was no small request on Jesus’ part. This was a sacrificial gift.

The ass was a gift given to Jesus to help usher in the Kingdom. This was the dawning of the Kingdom. This unknown, unnamed person probably had little clue what he was involving himself in, but he knew Jesus, and he trusted Jesus, and he gave to Jesus…and literally, he helped usher in the Kingdom. His gift changed the world.

What is Jesus asking for from us? What do we have to offer that will usher in the Kingdom? What resource is available to be utilized to literally carry Jesus down the road?

“Sometimes I get the impression that God wants me to give him something and sometimes I don’t give it because I don’t know for sure, and then I feel bad because I’ve missed my chance. Other times I know he wants something but I don’t give it because I’m too selfish. And other times, too few times, I hear him and I obey him and feel honored that a gift of mine would be used to carry Jesus to another place. And still other times I wonder if my little deeds today will make a difference in the long haul.

Maybe you have those questions, too. All of us have a donkey. You and I each have something in our lives, which, if given back to God, could, like the donkey, move Jesus and his story further down the road. Maybe you can sing or hug or program a computer or speak Swahili or write a check.

Whichever, that’s your donkey.

Whichever, your donkey belongs to him.

It really does belong to him. Your gifts are his and the donkey was his. The original wording of the instructions Jesus gave to his disciples is proof: “If anyone asks you why you are taking the donkeys, you are to say, ’Its Lord is in need.’”

Max Lucado, And the Angels Were Silent, pg. 54

Our resources, our time, our money, our talents, our jobs, our families, our homes…our lives are gift from God for God. What has been entrusted to you for Jesus to use? What ass is Jesus asking for?

Nah! I probably won’t use that title. A bit too shocking. A bit too much to leave to the imagination. A bit too much to be misconstrued. It’s a novel thought, though. Maybe it’s time we were a bit more shocking in our preaching. After all, it will be a shocking end to the week when Jesus rises from the grave.

My! My! My! The task of preaching on Palm Sunday and Holy Week. What’s a preacher to do? I suppose it’s time to live into the reality that Jesus needs my ass.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Learning to Love (Part 2)…

There is a passage in 1 John that haunts me often: “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen” (1 John 4:20). It haunts me in light of the second part of the “Great Commandment” that Jesus stated in response to a lawyer’s question in Mark 12:

28 One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” 29 “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

Mark 12: 28 – 31

I know that I love that which I’m passionate about, and as I’ve contemplated the first part of Jesus’s great commandment, I pray that I’m passionate about God, and that to love Him passionately is to desire Him, to devote ourselves to Him, and to discipline our lives to be with him through windows of grace like prayer, fasting, bible study, worship and others.

There is, then, this second part that troubles me–love my neighbor as myself. As Jesus gives the commandment, it seems as though the two are eternally woven together, that there cannot be the one without the other. It seems as the Apostle John views them the same way.

The starting place, perhaps, is to love myself. That seems a bit selfish on its face. Love myself? That seems too deep a subject to delve into in this blog. There would be too much navel gazing that would, in fact, become self-centered. Regardless, we are commanded to love our neighbor. Let me focus on that one…

Jesus Tells a Story

The thought makes me like another lawyer Jesus encountered. We read that story in Luke’s gospel. You can read the encounter here, but let me offer the Lynn paraphrase. We know it as the story of the Good Samaritan. Jesus tells the story to a lawyer who wanted to know how to receive eternal life, and he answered his own question with a reciting of the Jewish Shema of Deuteronomy 6—“love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind.” Then, he adds, “love your neighbor as yourself.” Luke adds in verse 29 that the lawyer wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”

He wanted to justify himself. After all, you really don’t expect me to love everyone, do you? If we want to justify what we do, we can simply define people and circumstances using our own definition and thereby absolve ourselves from any guilt for not doing what we knew we should do, or for doing something we knew we shouldn’t. We’ve all got a little bit of lawyer in us, don’t we?

In response, Jesus tells the story: A Jewish man was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho and was attacked by bandits. They beat him up, stripped him and left him for dead beside the road. We could stop right there and say the man had no business going from Jerusalem to Jericho alone. It was a road known to be frequented by bandits. See, it was the man’s own fault. He should have been smarter. He took a risk and the risk didn’t pay off. Certainly, that’s what those who stood around Jesus listening that day would have thought initially. It’s the man’s own fault. How often have we seen someone broken and beat up by life, and we thought, “Well, they made an unwise decision. They made their bed, now they have to sleep in it?” Probably, much too often.

Jesus continues by saying a Jewish priest came along, but saw the man and passed by on the other side of the road. Next, a Levite (or Temple assistant) came by, and likewise went around the man on the other side of the road. The good Jews listening to the story would have said, “Yup. That’s what I would have done.”

Neither a priest nor a Levite could sully themselves with the blood of a beaten man. It would have rendered them unclean and they would not be fit for service in the Temple. They would have to go through a drawn-out cleansing process, and it simply was not worth the effort. They made a prioritized decision. They had more pressing business to which to attend.

Then, Jesus says, a dreaded (Jesus’s word–not mine) Samaritan came by. Jesus is setting his listeners up, and he’s also setting up this lawyer. Samaritan’s were hated by Jews, and no good Jew, would want a Samaritan to help even if they were lying in a ditch dying. That’s exactly what the listeners and the lawyer are thinking, but Jesus’ story reminds us our neighbor isn’t necessarily who we think it is.

So, this Samaritan sees the man, and Jesus says, “he felt deep pity.” So, the Samaritan kneels, soothes and bandages the wounds. He puts the man on his donkey, takes him to an inn and cares for him. The next day, he offers the innkeeper money to take care of the man. He does, after all, have to go on about his business, but he tells the innkeeper, “if you have any other expenses beyond what I’ve paid you, when I come back, I’ll settle up with you.”

Jesus asks the lawyer, “Now who was a neighbor to the man attacked by bandits?”

The lawyer replied, “The one who showed mercy.”

Jesus said, “Yup. Now, go and do the same.”

Love IS Emotional

So, what can I learn from this encounter about showing love to my neighbor? First, I can acknowledge that love engages me on an emotional level. Certainly, that’s true with romantic love, but I’m reminded that we’re not talking about romantic love. We’re talking about “agape” love—that sacrificial, self-denying kind of love. Yet, even agape love engages us on an emotional level.

The Samaritan, Jesus said, “felt deep pity.” In other words, he felt compassion. Pity and compassion are both emotions, so love is emotional, but it isn’t ONLY emotional. It is the emotion, the compassion that motivates us to act, so even though it may be emotional, it becomes tangible. Compassion was the Samaritan’s motivation, and it had nothing to do with the fact the man should not have ventured down the Jericho road alone. We think, for some reason, that because a person has made a decision that led to bad consequences that we should have less compassion for them. Nothing could be further from the truth. If a person is broken and battered, we have a responsibility to love them the more. 

We should have compassion because Jesus had compassion on the crowds who sought him:

Jesus traveled through all the cities and villages of that area, teaching in the synagogues and announcing the Good News about the Kingdom. And wherever he went, he healed people of every sort of disease and illness. He felt great pity for the crowds, because their problems were so great and they didn’t know where to go for help. They were like sheep without a shepherd.

Matthew 9: 35-36

The NIV says, “he was moved with compassion.” Jesus, moved with compassion, healed, restored, forgave and died. He did it all for us because he loved us. What started in the heart of God as compassion, mercy and pity ended at the cross in deep love and grace, and from that came the forgiveness of our sins and the restoration of our souls.

Love IS Tangible

So, love is rooted on the emotional level, but quickly becomes tangible. If we love others, it will begin as we connect on an emotional level with others. We must remove ourselves from the center of life and feel compassion and concern for others. Else, we’ll be like the priest and the Levite. We’ll say, “I’ve got other things that demand my attention. I have my agenda. You’re not a priority right now.” To love others is to see a need and to be moved with compassion so that we desire to see lives different, better, more whole.

Emotion sustains us as we move to action. Without emotional engagement, the commitment to act will wane. Love is both emotional commitment and tangible action—the action is like that we see in the Good Samaritan. The Samaritan knelt, bandaged the wounds and carried the man to safety. The tangible act confirmed his compassion.

Love IS Sacrificial

But, this love was also sacrificial. The Samaritan had already invested his time by stopping, bandaging and carrying the man to the inn, and yes, even he took the risk of being rejected. Some Jews would rather die than have a Samaritan help them, much less touch them. It’s possible that the beaten man could have said, “Get away from me. I’ll die first!” I think, though, that only healthy people are quite so stubborn. When we’re desperately clinging to life, we’ll grasp at any straw, accept any help. The prospect of terminal circumstances changes our perspective rather quickly. Yet, rejection remains a real possibility. The lesson? We should never let our fear of rejection keep us from loving others.

We should never let our fear of rejection keep us from loving others.

The Samaritan not only sacrificed his time and energy, but he sacrificed his money, as well. He paid the innkeeper to care for the man. His money became a tool he used to demonstrate his love for others. Money is amoral. Our morals determine how we utilize the resources entrusted to us. If we ever get to the point that we see money as anything other than a tool for promoting life-transforming ministry, that’s the day our discipleship begins to die because that’s the day we turn inward and become selfish. 

Financial resources can be blessing, or they can be curse. Giving generously is a core value of a disciple of Jesus Christ. It is a means of showing our love in tangible ways. If we utilize money as a means of glorifying God, we’ll discover His blessings in ways we can only begin to imagine. But, if we grasp tightly to money in fear of losing it, we’ll discover that it will soon vanish, and we’ll be left wondering what happened, and why God seems so far away.     

One more thing I see, and that is that love is on-going. Loving others is not a one-time endeavor. Love is lived in relationship, and the Samaritan said to the inn keeper, “When I come back…” He gave money to the inn-keeper, and he had every intention of returning to check on things.

Life transformation happens in relationship. That’s why a church’s mission outreach must be more deep than broad. We can do a little good in a lot of places, but little transformation takes place, either for others or for us. Or, we can do a lot in a few places, and thereby build relationships that begin to transform the world, one relationship at a time.

I’m not sure that I’ve really learned anything about loving my neighbor as myself or not. Most days, I don’t even really know where to start, but if I’ve learned nothing else, I’ve learned maybe I need to start with the person in front of me.

Until next time, keep looking up…

All I See is Trees…

Helen Keller said, “It is a terrible thing to see and have no vision.” Those of us who follow Jesus often have this problem. We just can’t seem to see what Jesus is doing in us, or what he wants to do through us.

Jesus’ first disciples were that way, too. They could see all that Jesus had done, but they could not see the greater vision Jesus was casting among them. So, what does Jesus do? Jesus uses a man with a vision problem to demonstrate to his disciples (and, I might add, the Pharisees) that they had a vision problem. Maybe I can use their experience to correct my vision. Their encounter with Jesus is recorded in Mark 8:

14 But the disciples had forgotten to bring any food. They had only one loaf of bread with them in the boat. 15 As they were crossing the lake, Jesus warned them, “Watch out! Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and of Herod.”

16 At this they began to argue with each other because they hadn’t brought any bread. 17 Jesus knew what they were saying, so he said, “Why are you arguing about having no bread? Don’t you know or understand even yet? Are your hearts too hard to take it in? 18 ‘You have eyes—can’t you see? You have ears—can’t you hear?’ Don’t you remember anything at all? 19 When I fed the 5,000 with five loaves of bread, how many baskets of leftovers did you pick up afterward?”

“Twelve,” they said.

20 “And when I fed the 4,000 with seven loaves, how many large baskets of leftovers did you pick up?”

“Seven,” they said.

21 “Don’t you understand yet?” he asked them.

22 When they arrived at Bethsaida, some people brought a blind man to Jesus, and they begged him to touch the man and heal him. 23 Jesus took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village. Then, spitting on the man’s eyes, he laid his hands on him and asked, “Can you see anything now?”

24 The man looked around. “Yes,” he said, “I see people, but I can’t see them very clearly. They look like trees walking around.”

25 Then Jesus placed his hands on the man’s eyes again, and his eyes were opened. His sight was completely restored, and he could see everything clearly. 26 Jesus sent him away, saying, “Don’t go back into the village on your way home.”

Mark 8:14-26 (New Living Translation)

Seeing Without Seeing

The Gospel of Mark is unique in that it is not a biography of Jesus, like Matthew or Luke. It does not dwell on the family history with all the begets and genealogy. Mark’s Gospel is a record of Jesus’ actions. Mark’s action-packed Gospel is the only one that records the healing of this blind man, and it is the only recorded miracle in the Bible where progressive healing was used.

The background for the encounter is important to understand. At the end of chapter seven, Jesus and the disciples are in the region of the 10 cities, and while there he heals (instantaneously) a deaf mute man.

While still in the region, a large crowd gathered. It reached dinner time, and just as on another occasion when a crowd was gathered at dinner time, Jesus tells his disciples to feed the crowd. This time, the disciples take their seven loaves of bread, Jesus blesses it and commences to feed 4,000 men…not counting women and children…so roughly 8,000. When the meal is done, the disciples pick up seven baskets full of left overs. They all get in a boat and head over to a place called Dalmanutha.

In Dalmanutha a group of Pharisees come to argue with Jesus, demanding that he give them a sign from heaven. Jesus told them he wasn’t going to give them a sign, got back in the boat and headed back across the Sea of Galilee. It’s then the disciples discover they’ve only got one loaf of bread. Who knows what happened to the seven baskets of left overs, but they only have one loaf of bread between them.

Jesus overhears their conversation and tells them, “Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and of Herod.”

Well, the disciples think Jesus is talking about them not having any bread, so they start arguing among themselves. Jesus just looks at them and says, “Seriously, guys! Don’t you get it? You can see, but you don’t have vision? You have ears, but you can’t hear? I fed 5,000 men and 4,000 men with a few loaves and a couple of fish. Don’t you think I can feed you?” The disciples could see, but they lacked vision. They could see, but only partially.

It’s then that the blind man is brought to Jesus. Going into great detail, Mark describes how Jesus whisks the blind man out of the village, spits into his eyes and meets with only partial success. For the first time, Jesus asks an afflicted person about the success of his healing attempt. The man replies, “Well, I think I see people, but they look like trees.” Jesus touches the man’s eyes again, and then his sight is fully restored. It’s a two-stage miracle, but with immense significance. The miracle is significant because it is a paradigm for the spiritual healing of the disciples’ sight which, as Mark gives evidence, comes gradually and with some difficulty.

We find Mark’s evidence in what follows the healing. While walking along the road with his disciples, Jesus asks the question, “Who do people say I am?”

The disciples answer, “Some say John the Baptist, some say Elijah, and others say one of the other prophets.”

Jesus changes the question, “Who do YOU say I am?”

Peter answers, “You are the Messiah!”

With Peter’s declaration, the eyes of the disciples were opened more to the vision of who Jesus was, but as we read the rest of Mark’s Gospel, we discover they still had some healing to do as they caught the vision of Jesus’ mission. They saw something, even if there weren’t quite sure what it was.

Seeing Without Vision

I, too, often have a vision problem. I have eyes yet I can’t always see the vision God is laying out before me. I catch glimpses of what God is doing in the world, but I don’t always recognize the totality of its scope. Being able to see what God is doing and where it will all lead is like being able to visualize the building of a church (or any building, really). An architect can step on to a piece of property and can see where the sanctuary will be, and in it, the choir loft and pulpit. It’s just there in the architect’s mind. The person who is just tagging along with the architect only sees bushes and rocks and trees.

Jesus had a vision of what the kingdom of God looks like. The disciples, no matter how hard they strained, could only see a barren landscape. They couldn’t see the people for the trees, yet Jesus doesn’t give up on them, and he calls them to continue to trust him. They may doubt because their resources seem so slim (after all, we’ve only got one loaf of bread), even while forgetting God’s bounteous provision they enjoyed only a short time before. They may even become like the Pharisees who wanted a sign and will hold back any commitment until they get the sign they seek. “Let me see the evidence and then I’ll believe.”

That’s the way I am, too! My prayer is forever and always, “Lord, don’t let me become a Pharisee.” In praying that prayer, I fear already have.

Instead of simply seeing trees, I want desperately to trust Jesus so much that I follow Him anywhere. I want to see the vision of His Kingdom fulfilled, and I want to trust Him enough to abandon everything to participate with Him in its coming. I want to trust Him enough to risk failure for doing what is right rather than succeeding greatly accepting what I know is wrong. I wonder if my lack of vision is rooted in my lack of trust?

Belief is not trust, friends. Belief can exist and not affect our conduct. We can believe the statistical evidence that says flying is far safer than traveling in a car, but fear of flying still prevents us from ever booking a flight. Trust, however, issues forth in action because trust is a voluntary act of the will.

I know I need to trust Jesus more, even when all I see is trees.

I’ve said as long as I’ve been in ministry that I’m not afraid to fail (I’ve said it, but I haven’t always lived it). What I am is afraid not to try. I’ll try some things that won’t work. Hopefully, I’ll learn and move on. And, I’ll keep looking for the Lord’s vision, trusting he will reveal it to me, and the trees I see now will become the people in need…in need of God’s saving grace in Jesus Christ.

Until next time, keep looking up…