"SAVIOR" - Mark 11:1-11, Mark 14 & 15 Selections

A Sermon by Alex Evans, Pastor

Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA

Texts: Mark 11:1-11; Mark 14 & 15 (Selections)

Palm/Passion Sunday – 3/25/18


We are thinking today about marches. Yesterday, inspired by the amazing students from Parkland, FL, a million people showed up in Washington to say “#enough is enough” – on gun violence. There was a major march in RVA, and many cities across the world. Perhaps we are moving to a new place to talk about guns and safety and life in the USA.

We are also thinking about Jesus today – as he marches into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.

And, we are marching into Holy week – when Jesus confronts the established leaders, says goodbye to his friends, predicts that they will desert him; he is arrested and mocked and hung on a cross.

So, it seems like a good week to think about this word - SAVIOR. We keep trying to sort out these questions – who is Jesus . . . and how does he really save us?

            I have told some of you this story. It comes from Marcus Borg, who was a NT and Jesus scholar, who wrote lots of interesting books, and who died in 2015. I got to spend some cherished time with Marcus several years ago and heard him share this story.

Marcus Borg was invited to be on NBC’s Today Show on Good Friday of Holy Week. The subject, of course, was Jesus. The producer told Marcus they had a chunk of time – “a really long time” – to talk about Jesus. Marcus asked how long; the producer said, “Seven minutes.”

The seven minutes shrank rapidly. The program would use two minutes to show a video introducing Jesus in the history of art. Then the show’s host would make introductory comments for 30 seconds; and then they would interview Borg, and they said they would ask him “what would it have been like to be companion of Jesus? What was Jesus like?” The Today Show said he would have 75 seconds to answer the question; AND there would be 5 million people watching that morning on live TV.

So Borg thought – wow – 75 seconds and 5 million people! How do you speak faithfully and well about Jesus? What do you say?

Borg says that he worked very hard on a 75 second answer – who is Jesus? He wrote it out. He timed it to 75 seconds – keeping it succinct and clear. And then he knew he could not READ it – he had to have it memorized, speaking conversationally, so that he sounded sincere, not academic – a faithful, honest answer.  So he was ready and rehearsed, and Good Friday came and he was on the set of the Today Show, and the host turned to Marcus and said, “So there is a lot that the Bible does NOT tell us about Jesus.” And Marcus thought – “that is not my question” – and he wondered what to do. He could not just start his rehearsed speech about Jesus. So he said, “Yes, that is true, but the Bible does tell us some very interesting things about Jesus – and he went into his prepared response.

This is some of what Borg said: Jesus was a peasant, which tells us about his social class. Clearly, he was brilliant. His use of language was remarkable and poetic, filled with images and stories. He had a metaphoric mind. He was not an ascetic; he was world-affirming, with a zest for life. There was a socio-political passion to him – like a Gandhi, or a Martin Luther King, he challenged the domination system of his day. He was a religious ecstatic, a Jewish mystic, for whom God was an experiential reality. As such, Jesus was also a healer. And there seems to be a spiritual presence about him,  . . .  clearly he was filled with the Spirit of God. (also see M. Borg, Jesus at 2000, p.10)

This is the Jesus we think about riding into Jerusalem, to the waving of palm branches, to the people saying “Hosanna, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”

Jesus was a Spirit person, with a clear sense of the power and presence of God around him. Jesus was a healer with so many stories continuing about his remarkable care for others. Jesus was a wisdom teacher – enlightened by God, he shared an alternative vision of how to live in the world with love, forgiveness, selflessness, and service to God and others. Jesus was a social prophet so there was a political edge to him because he worked for justice and challenged the oppressive systems of the day. And he was a movement initiator – not that he came to start a new religion but that his person and his work were so charismatic, so remarkable that a movement emerged from him that continues even still (ibid, p. 11).

So this is the Jesus we are thinking about today. This is the Jesus that deserves our hearts and our lives, whom we seek to follow in downtown Richmond and throughout the world.

This is the Jesus that people – through the ages - have turned to for hope when they are desperate.

This is the Jesus that can inspire abusive husbands to quit being abusive, the Jesus that can lead drunks and drug addicts to turn their lives around.

This is the Jesus that leads us to march in the streets for civil rights and an end to gun violence, who moves us to be engaged in the world for the coming reign of God.

This is the Jesus that presidents of large companies - and small groups of women in remote villages - can study and find direction for life through Bible study.

This is the Jesus that – for Christians in China, suppressed, frightened, and forgotten for nearly 50 years – can emerge to be the inspiration of a thriving and fast-growing church in the modern world.

This is the Jesus that even “successful people” – looking for some meaning in their lives when they have everything else – wonder if following him just might lead them to life.

Yet, . . . as we move into the events of Holy Week, the picture of this Jesus gets more complicated. He becomes SAVIOR. Let’s look again at how this works, listening to portions Mark 14 & 15:

It was two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him; 2for they said, “Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.” . . .

10Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. 11When they heard it, they were greatly pleased, and promised to give him money. So he began to look for an opportunity to betray (Jesus). . .

17When it was evening, he came with the twelve. 18And when they had taken their places and were eating, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.” 19They began to be distressed and to say to him one after another, “Surely, not I?” 20He said to them, “It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the bowl with me. . .

22While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” 23Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. . . .

15As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate. 2Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” He answered him, “You say so.” 3Then the chief priests accused him of many things. 4Pilate asked him again, “Have you no answer? See how many charges they bring against you.” 5But Jesus made no further reply, so that Pilate was amazed. . . .

16Then the soldiers led him into the courtyard of the palace (that is, the governor’s headquarters); and they called together the whole cohort.17And they clothed him in a purple cloak; and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on him. 18And they began saluting him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” 19They struck his head with a reed, spat upon him, and knelt down in homage to him. 20After mocking him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him. . . .

25It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him. 26The inscription of the charge against him read, “The King of the Jews.” 27And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left.29Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, 30save yourself, and come down from the cross!” 31In the same way the chief priests, along with the scribes, were also mocking him among themselves and saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. 32Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.” Those who were crucified with him also taunted him.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

            In this part of the story, it is less about Jesus as a Spirit person, and more about him as persecuted person. It is less about him as a healer and more about him as one who was deserted by his friends and left alone to face his death. In this part of the story, we do not see Jesus as wisdom teacher but more of suffering servant – picked at and persecuted, bruised and beaten as a criminal. He does not appear as a social prophet speaking for justice against oppressive systems but one easily cast aside and mocked as insignificant. He does not look like a movement initiator – but a defeated figure crucified on a cross.

            And yet we call him SAVIOR.

            In a consumeristic, individualistic culture, with everything so readily available on smartphones and other devices, we are told that this generation will be attracted to religion only if it is easy to swallow, entertaining, and fun.  The story from Mark 14 and 15 is not easy to swallow, entertaining, or fun. What kind of SAVIOR is that?

But those verses, that story, depicts the tragic events of real life.  It is a story of pain and loneliness, when your best friends who have been nurtured and taught so many good things decide to go another way, which is familiar to all of us. It is a story of abuse and suffering, of mean people doing mean things (we know about that too). It is a story in which a teacher of great wisdom and compassion is mocked and spit on and executed by political powers in a form of exceptional cruelty  - hands and feet nailed to boards and a person hung on a cross.  It is a story of best hopes and wonderful plans being dashed hard against the rocks. It is a story of death.

            Here is why we call Jesus SAVIOR.

            The story depicts the deepest sins of human life – cruelty prevailing over compassion, betrayals and denials taking center-stage instead of fidelity and devotion, fears prevailing over faithfulness, crucifixion and death of one so inspiring, so peaceful, so god-like.

            Have you seen the movie – with this year’s Oscar winning actress Frances McDormand – “Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, MO”? After so many months have passed after the horrific death of her daughter, and no one has been caught or even pursued, Mildred Hayes, played by McDormand, takes a dramatic stand and buys three huge billboards coming into her small town. On the billboards, she challenges the revered town police chief.  It is a dark story, so much of it filled with what happens when anger and hatred, bitterness and selfishness, cruelty and death take center-stage in our lives.

            The “Three Billboards” movie leaves big questions about whether there is any real redemption in the characters of that story, or in that town, and where you can see it: so much nastiness, anger, destruction and death. This is so much a part of so many lives.

And this is why the Jesus story is so important! There is no doubt about the redemption, which he brings, which is why we call Jesus SAVIOR.

In the Jesus story, it looks like cruelty and death hold the day – but they do not. In the Jesus story, it looks like oppressive powers and politicians with their own agendas win out – they do not. In the Jesus story, it seems that evil and death – the viciousness of the cross – get the last word. NOT SO.

In the Jesus story, Jesus is SAVIOR because he saves us from our sins – sins that are revealed in the schemes of Judas, sins revealed in the desertion of his friends, sins seen so clearly in mocking, cruelty, and death on a cross. The very worst things that happen to us – and happen around us in the cruel world – are not the ways of God. God is there in the midst of every loneliness, every act of rejection and desertion, every act of betrayal – bringing redemption and revealing God’s ways of forgiveness and life.

In the Jesus story, Jesus is SAVIOR because he saves us from the worst that human life can offer – and we need to hear this today. When circumstances deteriorate – and injustice prevails, and mocking and cruelty seem to take over, and darkness covers everything – God is there in the midst (that is what we see in the Jesus story) and God is the One with the last word. Jesus is SAVIOR because he saves us from the worst that can happen in life. This story demonstrates the cruelty and evil of the world but also shows the very truth that we hold to so much – nothing is too great for God – not rulers or principalities, not height nor depth, not a crucifixion or death, not anything is all creation – NOTHING can separate us from God’s love – because Jesus is SAVIOR.

As we move into Holy Week, our focus is on the great and steadfast love of God, who through palm branches and parades, through the worst challenges and cruelty and crucifixion, Who will NOT LET US GO. Ours is a God who does not just make the world, but gets fully into the mess of the world – the darkest places, the evil places, the denying and betraying places, the most desolate places – to be with us, to redeem us, to SAVE us. And all of that intends to move us, draw us, deeper and deeper into gratitude and faithfulness, love and devotion following Jesus, SAVIOR of all.

May these days of Holy Week – especially in the cruelty and chaos of the world - give us new inspiration and insight for living faithfully.

God is in the midst.

God will not let us go.

God saves us and saves the world.

HOSANNA – which means God saves – blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. AMEN.

Prayer of Commitment: We believe, O Lord, help our unbelief. Move us, move the world, to more faith, more love, more peace, more light, following Jesus. Amen

Alex Evans, Pastor, Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA preached this sermon during Sunday morning worship on Palm/Passion Sunday, March 25, 2018. This is a rough manuscript.

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