March 16, 2008

Matthew 21:1-11

Jesus said: “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ The son answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second son and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father? What do you think?” Jesus asked the chief priests and the elders.

And they, of course, picked the first son — the one who had said the wrong thing, but done the right thing. And they were right. Obedience to God is about more than just words, it’s about action, it’s about doing the right thing, not just knowing or saying the right thing.

Not long before this conversation with the religious authorities at the temple, Jesus had arrived in the city of Jerusalem and caused quite a stir. A crowd had gathered, as it often did whenever Jesus was out preaching and healing and doing the kinds of things that Jesus did. And the crowd was just about as excited and lively as it ever was before in the stories of Jesus.

We don’t know who the people were who made up the crowd that day, but we can imagine that they were people who knew at least a little about Jesus. Many of them had probably been travelling with him along the way. They’d seen him perform miracles. They’d heard him preach sermons and tell stories with great wisdom. Some of them might have even been healed by Jesus, and then joined him on his journey.

The crowd knew that Jesus was great and they were ready to treat him like royalty as he entered the great city. They spread their cloaks on the road. They cut branches from the trees and put them along his way. And they shouted out greetings: “Hosanna- Hurrah!- to the Son of David — to the King! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hurrah! Hurrah!” The crowds had all the right words, and they even emphasized them more with waving and shouting and paving Jesus’ way with cloaks and branches.

Of course, most of the people in the city didn’t know who Jesus was. He hadn’t been there before, so many who saw his entrance must have stopped and stared and wondered what kind of person would cause such excitement. “The whole city was in turmoil” the Gospel tells us, and the people were asking “Who is this?” “What’s the big deal?” And once again, the crowds had the right answer: “This is Jesus. He is the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Every time we come around again in the Church Year to Palm Sunday, we remember once again the festal, triumphant, joyous entry that Jesus made into Jerusalem, riding on a donkey like a king in the line of David. Palm Sunday brings us a moment of celebration just as the week of Jesus’ passion and death is beginning. We know that when the procession was over and the shouts had died down, Jesus had to continue on his own, without the help of supportive crowds, as he faced the most difficult week of his life.

During Jesus’ last week, he stood up to the religious authorities and challenged the practices in the temple. He continued to teach, as he had always done, but now he preached judgment and lamented the fate of the city and those who practiced hypocrisy there. And there were people who did not appreciate what he was doing, and they conspired to arrest Jesus and have him killed. Then Jesus was betrayed, and his faithful followers denied him, and he was arrested and tried.

And the crowds… the ones who had praised him and said all the right things as he arrived… they began to shout again… but this time they shouted “Barabbas! Release Barabbas!” “Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” Pilate asked. And all of them said, “Let him be crucified!” “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!”

The second son said, “I go, sir”; but he did not go.

Have there been times when you have spoken the words, but failed to live up to them? When you have committed yourself, made a promise, declared your faithfulness, but then that was all? You never did anything about the words that you spoke. You never acted on them. Even this Lent, you may have had a plan, made a commitment to pray or to give or to love more than you usually do. And maybe now, you are looking back, and the words were as far as you got. And if this is true for you, it probably means that you are human like the rest of us… like the crowds that changed their chant, like the disciples that disappeared and denied and betrayed.

A while ago, I was watching the TV sitcom, “That 70’s Show” and one of the main characters, Eric, was worrying about his ex-girlfriend and long-time friend, Donna, who had just started dating an older guy who was known as a womanizer. So Eric approaches the older guy and challenges him, “Do you love her?” “No. But I’m having a good time,” the guy replies. Brimming with anger, Eric says, “You better not hurt Donna. Cause if you do, I’m gonna find you and I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

The older guy brushes him off without a thought, and along comes Donna herself. The older guy greets her with a hug and a kiss and says, “I love you, Donna” and she is pleased to pieces. After Donna leaves, he turns back to Eric and says, “See? They’re just words.”

If you’ve ever said those words, “I love you” to your spouse or your child, or if they’ve been said to you by someone important to you, you know as well as I do that they’re not just words. Hearing them makes a difference to you and to your relationship with the one who professes them to you. Saying them regularly to a child gives that child a sense of security and self-worth that can make a real difference in their life. They are not just words.

But if the words are not lived out in actions that match up with them, then they lose their meaning. If “I love you” follows after demeaning criticism, it becomes a lie. If “I love you” comes before abusive touch or neglectful indifference, it becomes a sham. If “I love you” is simply used as a way of getting something from the other, it becomes a hollow phrase with little meaning.

We all know that words can be very powerful. Words can hurt us deeply. Words can encourage us greatly. Words can bring healing and hope. Words can pick us up and turn us in a completely new direction, because words have great power.

Throughout history, words have been one of the most important ways that humans have been in relationship with God. God spoke to Abraham and to Moses. God spoke through the prophets. God inspired the writers of scripture and they wrote words and stories and put them in books… and through them, God speaks to us as well — through words.

And then the author of the Gospel of John described Jesus as the Word — God’s communication with humanity… only now God’s Word becomes flesh and lives among us. Words are powerful, but when words become flesh, become human, become action, then their power is multiplied and their impact is even greater.

Consider that child who hears, “I love you” every day from his mother. But now add to that his mother’s warm hugs, his mother’s caring supervision, his mother’s time spent reading to him and teaching him, his mother’s preparing meals for him and caring for him. “I love you” are powerful words, but when they become flesh, when they are lived out in loving action, how much more meaning and power they take on.

And so the Word of God became flesh and lived among us. Jesus did preach and teach, and with words, he proclaimed the good news of God’s love and the coming reign of God. And Jesus welcomed the outcasts. And Jesus blessed little children. And Jesus opened blind eyes and fed hungry people and healed those who were sick and forgave those who had made mistakes. And God’s “I love you” to us was more than just words.

And when we said “Hosanna! We think you’re great too!” Jesus was probably pleased. And when we turned away, and forgot our promises, and failed to live up to our commitments and professions, Jesus kept on loving. When we betrayed him and denied him… When we abandoned him and hurt him and killed him… he kept on loving. Because God’s “I love you” was more than just words.

And so, today, as we join in the celebration with the crowds who hailed Jesus as King and praised him with their voices, may all our words bring glory to the one who kept on loving us all the way to the cross. But may our words also become flesh. May all we do and all we are bring glory to God. May our lives be a reflection of Jesus’ life and may our loving be more than words. Amen.