What a difference a week makes …

5th April, 2009 @ St Barnabas and St Michael

Readings – Romans 6:15-23; Mark 11:1-11

What do all these people have in common? Dwain Chambers, Bill Clinton, Ian Holloway, Gary Glitter, Jesus? One’s an athlete, another a politician, another a pop-star, while Ian Holloway needs no introduction around here … and Jesus, well, just who was Jesus? On that day when he rode into Jerusalem on the colt, people called him a prophet, the king sent by God, the King of Israel, a miracle worker …

What a difference a week makes … less than a week later, the same crowd are the ones shouting, ‘Crucify him!’ And that’s the link I was looking for … each of these – Dwain Chambers, Bill Clinton, Ian Holloway, Gary Glitter, Jesus – were popular one week, and despised the next.

What went wrong? Well, I don’t need to go into why Bill Clinton, Dwain Chambers or Garry Glitter are now objects of public derision … but what did Ian Holloway actually do wrong? He said he’d stay as Plymouth manager and changed his mind when he was offered double the money – which of us would be able to resist such a temptation without regret? So why was the public reaction so strong, why were people so angry with him when he resigned from Home Park? Because people felt betrayed, let down … they had hoped he would lead Argyle to victory and promotion …

When Jesus rode into Jerusalem the crowds that greeted him had hopes, too … release from Roman rule, evidence of God’s favouritism towards their nation, perhaps simply more miracles, more healings … But when you read on in Mark’s gospel, that’s not quite what happened. Let’s take a look.

Jesus arrived in Jerusalem late in the day, so after visiting the temple he left to go and stay with his friends outside the city in the village of Bethany – you may know their story, they were called Mary and Martha. Mark continues his story … Mark 11:12-14 …

The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it.

In this country, there is only one crop of figs a year, but in warmer climates, at the end of the growing season any figs that remain on the tree survive through the winter to ripen in spring when the leaves come out and before the new fruit for the following season begins to develop. Which is why Jesus expected to find some figs to eat …

So, still hungry, Jesus returned to the temple … he’d always made himself unpopular with the temple authorities, usually by preaching and gathering a crowd and performing miracles. If that’s what they were expecting this time, they were in for a big surprise!

Instead, Jesus began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. (Mark 11:15,16) The area of the temple known as the court of the Gentiles was used as a market place for animals suitable for sacrifice, or to exchange foreign coinage from the many pilgrims … doves are specifically mentioned as they were the usual offering of the poor, of which, of course, there were many.

I love the next verse, verse 17 … And as he taught them, he said, (‘as he taught them’ – while he’s throwing the tables over?!) “Is it not written: ” `My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’ ? But you have made it `a den of robbers.’ “ The court of the Gentiles may have been used as a market place, but the intention was that it would allow any non-Jews to come and worship the one, true and living God. The purpose of the nation of Israel was to glorify God to the nations, that all may come and worship him. Instead, their actions kept God firmly in a box … he was their God, and only theirs. And it made God so angry. So Jesus demonstrated that anger as he turned over the tables … can you imagine the confusion … and as he quoted their own scriptures at them.

They could have stopped him of course, he was only one man … but they were afraid, because they could sense the attitude of the people, the crowd, who were still buoyed up by the euphoria of his arrival the day before … the people who then listened to his teaching all that day until it was time once more to go home. So they waited, and plotted … but their decision as to how to deal with Jesus was taken out of their hands.

Jesus slept at Bethany again that night … it was only a few miles out of the city … and he was welcome there. But he came into the city each day … and the morning following the incident in the temple, as they walked again into the city the disciples noticed the fig tree … now withered and dead (Mark specifically says ‘from the roots’ to emphasise it wouldn’t recover). Jesus uses it as illustration of the power of prayer, but the way Mark weaves it into his story, both before and after the cleansing of the temple, suggests he saw it also as an illustration of judgement on the unfruitful – the temple authorities who knew the scriptures inside out yet were unable to pass on the good news of God’s love for all people.

This time when Jesus arrived at the temple, the chief priests and elders were waiting for him and came to him to question him …

“By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you authority to do this?” Jesus replied, “I will ask you one question. Answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. John’s baptism – was it from heaven, or from men? Tell me!”

They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, `From heaven,’ he will ask, `Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, `From men’ . . . .” (They feared the people, for everyone held that John really was a prophet.)

So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.” Jesus said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.” (Mark 11:28f)

Then in Mark’s gospel we have two chapters … and probably two days … of Jesus teaching and answering questions in and around the temple courts. He starts with a parable, that the chief priests and elders knew was directed against them … the Herodians and Pharisees and even the Sadducees – religious groups that usually concentrated on their differences – all join in together to try and find a way to undermine Jesus’ teaching, to destroy Jesus’ authority and influence with the crowds who were in Jerusalem for the Passover.

And each time Jesus wins an argument or makes a point there is a subtle change … it’s as if he’d goading them, and the authorities get more and more angry and the people begin to realise that Jesus isn’t interested in healings or miracles any more …

And then in Mark 13, probably at the end of the second day of teaching, on the Wednesday, we read,

As (Jesus) was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!”

“Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” (Mark 13:1,2)

and he began to teach those who were with him about the ‘last days’, the time when as the prophets had foretold, God would come in final judgement of his enemies and to bring his people all the blessings he had promised so long ago …

And as they listened, the penny finally dropped that Jesus had no intention of overthrowing the current regime, the Roman occupation … that all their expectations of what this prophet would achieve were mistaken … and later that evening, Judas slipped away to the chief priests and agreed to betray Jesus for money …

We’ll leave the story at that point – we’ve done enough to set the scene for Maundy Thursday, and we’ll come back to it then.

But let me ask you, what were your expectations when you first put your trust in Jesus, if indeed you’ve already made that decision … it seems to me that often when things get tough in the Christian life, Christians find it easier to let go of God than of their expectations … or to put it another way, we tend to blame God for things rather than checking out and correcting our assumptions about what ought to have happened.

A heartfelt prayer remains unanswered, suffering or grief comes along, or financial difficulties or family issues … and God gets the blame. Rather than reading and rereading our Bibles to see where we’ve gone wrong or misunderstood something, we turn away, give up, let go. We stop praying, or rather, we stop expecting prayer to make a difference … we go to church only if it’s a service we enjoy or we have nothing better to do … we stop making time to read the Bible – after all, we know what it says anyway, we’ve read it before …

Trouble is, we often only remember part of the picture … look again at our reading in Romans 6, and verse 16,

Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey – whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness?

We don’t often think of our Christian life as slavery, do we? It’s not slavery under a harsh, uncaring master, though is it? But slavery under the God who loves us totally, who knows us through and through, who loves us enough to die in our place, who longs for us to know him better and better …

But slaves we are, whether we realise it or not … Romans 6:17 & 22 …

But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching to which you were entrusted.

Now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life.

You see when things get tough for the Christian … as they always will … our expectations shape our reactions. And if our expectations lead us to think that we will live in a state of feeling blessed (at least, most of the time), or our prayers will always be answered, and our worship should always be uplifting … then we will be disappointed, because that’s not actually what God has promised. And we may not turn away from God and shout ‘Crucify him!’ … but little by little we let go of God and drift away.

We need to realise that worship is sometimes hard work and loving our fellow believers even harder, that our prayers need to be in line with his purposes, that the majority of the blessings we have been promised have been kept for eternity. That’s why we need to read and reread our Bibles – it’s all in there, but we read and forget, so we need to read again, and again.

And then, we we feel let down or disappointed, we’ll remember two things that will transform our expectations of how things should be … we’ll remember that, in God’s mercy we are his servants, his slaves, and that in all things, God can be trusted.

Being servants means we don’t consider our own interests … but how we can serve God and his people in everything we do … which is easy when we enjoy the results, and we get what we want, but when it isn’t and we don’t … then we remember that God can be trusted, that he has promised that all our efforts are remembered and valued for the sake of our commitment to him, and our focus will shift from the present to the future,

For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:23)

On that day when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the colt, the people thought that at last they had what they wanted, a leader, a king who would free them from slavery. But when their expectations proved to be false, instead of turning once more to God in trust and humility, remembering that he had freed them before and promised he would do so again, they turned away, and shouted ‘Crucify him!’ …

Jesus came not as the saviour of one people at one time and in one place, but as the saviour of all peoples, throughout time and in every place … praise God who failed to meet those expectations and instead did something far, far greater!

LB

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