March 28, 2010

The following sermon is framed by the hymn “A stable lamp is lighted” with words by Richard Wilbur and music Paulette Tollefson.

Philippians 2:5-11
Psalm 31:9-16
Luke 23:1-49

A stable lamp is lighted
whose glow shall wake the sky;
the stars shall bend their voices,
and every stone shall cry.

And every stone shall cry,
and straw like gold shall shine;
a barn shall harbour heaven,
a stall become a shrine.

A long time ago, in an unimportant town, a young woman gave birth to her first child. In many ways, his birth was like many others. Mary wasn’t the first or the last girl to be found pregnant before her wedding day, and Joseph was good enough to marry her anyway and be a father to the little boy.

What is unusual about this child is the fact that we have heard his story – not only the stories of his adult accomplishments when he became well-known for his teaching and healing and political activity. But we have heard the stories of his birth. This person impacted the world so much that we celebrate his birth, and legends are told about how he arrived and how he survived into adulthood to do all the great and good things that he would do.

They say that his mother was a virgin – not just a very young woman – but an actual virgin. She’d never been with a man at all. The father of the child must have been God himself! He was that special! They say that he was born in a barn while Mary and Joseph were travelling. The barn was in Bethlehem of course – the city of David – what an appropriate place for such an important person to be born. He was born to be the king!

They say that a star travelled through the sky on the night he was born. It went from east to west, guiding Magi from afar. The wise ones came all that way to worship the newborn king. Others say that angels sang in the sky that night, and that wandering shepherds heard the song and came to worship the anointed one – the king.

Of course, he wasn’t the king yet, and he wasn’t the son of the king either. And so they say that King Herod was not too happy about his arrival. It’s a wonder that he survived to adulthood, because they say that Herod tried to have him killed. Many young boys were murdered, but the one who was to be king escaped with his parents to Egypt. He lived, and learned, and grew strong in body and in spirit… until it was time for his kingdom to come.

This child through David’s city
shall ride in triumph by;
the palm shall strew its branches,
and every stone shall cry.

And every stone shall cry,
though heavy, dull and dumb,
and lie within the roadway
to pave his kingdom come.

The man, Jesus, travelled about and told everyone that the kingdom of God was coming. He invited them to get ready because things were about to change. In fact, they were changing. In fact, the kingdom had arrived, and Jesus had already started to live according to that new kingdom reality. While others worshipped Caesar and lived under Roman rule, Jesus called those he met to worship only God, and to live under God’s rule.

It soon became clear that God’s kingdom was very different from the human kingdoms and social systems that everyone was used to. While other kings demanded allegiance and jealously guarded their power and glory, Jesus the king walked barefoot, served his followers, and never acquired much money or status in society. While other royal figures surrounded themselves with the wealthy, the elite, and the powerful, Jesus gave his time and attention to the poor, to the outcast, and to those who were rejected by everyone else.

At the high point of his life, when he had amassed a great following of people who wanted to worship God and live according to the way of Jesus, all the stories indicate that he went up to Jerusalem. It was almost time for the Passover festival, and Jesus became a pilgrim like so many other Jews – going to Jerusalem to worship and celebrate in the Temple.

But the way he arrived was different. He didn’t just enter the city with a caravan of friends and family, and quietly make his way up to the Temple. Instead, we are told that he rode in like a king. Crowds gathered to welcome him, to sing psalms of praise to him, to wave palm branches to honour him, or to spread their cloaks on the ground like the red carpet of the rich and famous.

Like the shepherds and the angels and the Magi who praised him at his birth, the crowds praised him now, and hailed him as their king. But he was the king who was born in a barn. He was the king who had no home, who lived among the poor, who stooped to serve rather than to be served. And so he did not ride into Jerusalem on a war horse, but he chose a young donkey as a sign of humility. They say he rode on a colt.

As they did at his birth, the people blessed him, and they praised God for sending him to them. They sang, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”

And once again, there were negative and threatening voices too. At the beginning, it was Herod’s voice threatening the child who would become king in his place – and Jesus’ parents fled with him. They became refugees in Egypt, and they kept their child safe. Now, the voices of the Pharisees were uttering warnings and threats: “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” And later, “Get out of here! Herod wants to kill you!”

But the praise was due. It was well overdue. And Jesus knew that it could not be stopped, no matter how much danger it might put him in. Even if he ordered his disciples to give it a rest, to quiet down, to stop drawing so much attention to him… Even then “the stones would shout out.” There was absolutely no denying his identity and purpose. He was the One anointed by God to be the king – not the king in any ordinary sense of the word, but the king of the whole world.

Yet he shall be forsaken,
and yielded up to die;
the sky shall groan and darken,
and every stone shall cry.

And every stone shall cry
for gifts of love abused;
God’s blood upon the spearhead,
God’s blood again refused.

Those who told the stories of Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection had come to know that he was the king who was worthy of all our praise. They looked back on their experience of the man called Jesus, and they came to believe that he was God’s very presence in the world. He was God’s presence healing and helping, guiding and directing, loving and forgiving all of God’s children. And he was God’s voice as well – calling people to love God and to love their neighbours – telling them that if they lived in his ways, they would be living in the kingdom of God. It would be a kingdom of peace, safety, and love for all people… most especially for the poor, the persecuted, and those who were suffering within the human kingdoms of the world.

As the early Christians reflected on what they had come to know and believe about this Jesus, they must have felt just sick about what had happened to him. Because he had been rejected. Those who had gathered to sing praise to him, had shut their mouths after all. And while Jesus had not been scared by the threats of Herod or the Pharisees, everyone else got frightened and ran.

Though Jesus didn’t attempt to become king by force, it seems that the people in positions of religious and political authority saw him as a threat. They wanted to protect themselves and their positions, and that meant getting rid of him. He was arrested, interrogated, tortured, and killed on a cross like a common criminal. The voices of praise were silent, and the world became a very dark place, as the humble, loving, servant king was rejected by those he came to care for.

But now, as at the ending,
the low is lifted high;
the stars shall bend their voices,
and every stone shall cry.

And every stone shall cry
in praises of the child
by whose descent among us
the worlds are reconciled.

Though the voices of Jesus’ friends and followers were silent for a time, the stones indeed, cried out. One account of the story tells us that the whole earth shook when Jesus died. And women stood by and watched, unable to do much more than offer their tears for the one who had offered his life for them.

I’m not sure how the story got started or why anyone believed it to be true… but it came to be told – over and over – and they did believe, both those who had seen and those who had not seen. They passed on the good news… that death was not the end for Jesus, the King of kings.

He was born in a barn, rode on a donkey, and got killed on a cross like a common criminal. But the angels sang for him, and the people praised and welcomed him. And though he died, his followers came to know and believe that somehow he lived on. He was raised.

And yes, he was also living in and through his people as they learned from his teachings and lived according to his ways. And so, with the whole creation, they lifted their voices to give him praise, and they dedicated their lives to his mission.

Let us join in their song and follow his way.

Let the same mind be in [us] that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,
he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death –
even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.