FOLLOW THE MERCY
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
April 9, 2017; Palm Sunday, Year A
Philippians 2:5-11; Matthew 21:1-11
“…he humbled himself and became obedient
to the point of death — even death on a cross.”
Anyone over a certain age — or under that age if they know their history — will recognize the phrase “Follow the money.” It became famous back in the seventies, in the midst of the Watergate scandal. Two young Washington Post reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, were investigating the Nixon White House. They were having trouble linking the Watergate burglars with the White House.
Woodward and Bernstein had a confidential informant. He told them how to make the connection. “Follow the money,” he suggested. Find out who was paying them.
They did. Then they raised a ruckus that brought down a President.
“Follow the money” is a useful principle for all sorts of things. Money is what our society supremely values. So, how people accumulate and spend their wealth — especially how much they give away — tells you a lot about what’s really important in their lives.
That is, unless you’re Jesus — or someone who takes seriously his invitation to follow him. Following the money won’t get you any closer to Jesus at all. Because Jesus proceeds in a very different direction. While everyone else is focused on upward mobility, Jesus is modeling downward mobility.
That chanting, cheering, palm-waving crowd doesn’t see it that way. What so excites them about Jesus is that he seems to be on his way up! He started out in Nowheresville — someplace called Nazareth. For three years now, he’s been building his brand, playing large venues and small. For sure, he’s the hardest-working man in the religion business.
Now here he is, at last, at the gates of the Holy City. His name’s on everyone’s lips. They say he’s a descendant of David: and he’s even riding a sure-footed mountain donkey, David’s preferred mount from his guerrilla-warfare days.
Just look at the size of that crowd! And listen to what they’re chanting: “Save us, son of David!” This Jesus has arrived. Can fame and glory be far behind?
They were so very wrong about him. They thought he was a rising star, following the money — and the fame and the power. But Jesus was quite the opposite. He wasn’t following the money. He was following the mercy.
Our first reading, Philippians 2:5-11, explains it all. Here in this famous passage, Paul talks about who Jesus truly is, and what he was doing as he came to earth.
These verses are a section of poetry Paul has embedded in the prose of his letter. They’re probably not words he wrote — at least not most of them. Bible scholars think he’s quoting the words of an early Christian hymn. The words and music would have been well-known to his readers.
To picture what happens to Jesus over the course of these half-dozen verses, it helps to hold a visual in your mind: a diagram of the journey he makes. The diagram’s shaped like a letter “V.”
He starts at the upper left and moves relentlessly downward. He keeps going until he reaches the very lowest point, before changing direction and moving back upwards again.
I was trying to think of an example of this sort of movement. The image that occurred to me was an old-fashioned roller coaster. Not from the standpoint of fun: from the standpoint of sheer terror.
Think of this roller coaster ride as beginning at the highest point: the top of the first hill. Imagine that perspective as your car slowly crests the hill. For the first time, you can look directly downwards.
Around that point you may be asking yourself, “What was I thinking?” As you start on your downward course and begin to pick up speed, it looks for all the world like you’re going to crash. The piece of track at the bottom is getting larger by the second. Yes, I know true roller coaster fans live for that moment of abject terror and crave the adrenaline rush, but for most everyone else, the rapid descent is not a pleasant feeling.
Paul describes what it was like for Jesus to sit at the top of that first hill, contemplating what was about to happen: “[He] was in the form of God.” His perspective was heavenly, and the earth below seemed very small and far away.
But he “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited.” The Greek word translated “exploited” is hard to render into English.. It means something close to “grab” or “snatch” — the way one three-year-old snatches a toy from another.
Jesus was equal with God. Yes, he was born a human being, but before that he had been living through all eternity. Jesus already had it all: the highest status in the universe. But still, he chose to climb into that roller-coaster car at the top of the hill, and make that dizzy, terrifying descent.
Paul traces it out for us, in the words of that ancient hymn. “He emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” Can you sense the coaster picking up speed?
Not only does he start that journey downwards, becoming a human being. He becomes the lowliest form of humanity you could imagine. He takes on the role of a slave. He puts aside his own divine prerogatives, devoting himself to the service of others.
But wait. The ride gets even more scary. The car still hasn’t bottomed out on its journey. “He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.”
The death Jesus dies is the worst death imaginable. A shameful death. A painful death. A criminal’s death.
The cross has become, for many of us, a proud and beloved symbol. It’s easy to forget that it was an instrument of torture. Imagine that you have a daughter who’s graduating from the eighth grade. You want to buy her a little gift, a piece of jewelry, something to hang on a gold chain around her neck. I’ve got the perfect thing: how about a little gold electric chair?
That too horrible to contemplate? Well, how about a little IV bottle that has the words, “lethal injection” engraved in big letters? Wouldn’t that be just the thing for your sweet little darling?
My point is, we shouldn’t try to make of the cross a thing of beauty. It was a horror.
Jesus’ roller-coaster car has been picking up speed by the second. The ground’s coming up to meet him twice as fast, it seems. This cannot end well!
But you know what happens. With a spectacular whoosh, the front of the car turns upward and seemingly starts defying gravity. Up and up it climbs, in the space of a few seconds, to the top of another hill. Turns out, all that momentum that was building on the downward slope has instantly been translated into upward momentum.
And so we move from the first stanza of this ancient hymn to the second: “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!”
My roller-coaster metaphor’s imperfect, I know. It’s only an amusement ride. Yes, it delivers a few seconds of carefully-monitored terror, but people line up to buy tickets because it’s fun.
There was nothing fun about Jesus’ downward ride. It was all terror. And at the lowest point, he really did crash, in a horrible, agonizing, humiliating way.
God raised him up, all the same. As we all know, three days after the crash, an angel rolled the stone away, and Jesus emerged resurrected, at the very top of his game.
But that was only the beginning. “At the name of Jesus every knee should bend…and every tongue confess that he is Lord!” It hasn’t happened yet. Every knee? Nope. Every tongue? Not a chance. But it’s coming. That’s the promise of our faith: that our Lord will return one day and make all things new!
Now, let’s talk about following the mercy, what that means. It isn’t Jesus’ mercy, not exclusively. It’s also God’s mercy.
This is the thing I discovered this week about this passage, that I didn’t know. It’s very hard to pick up, due to the differences between Greek and English, but it’s there, at the very start of today’s selection.
The Greek is usually translated, “Though he was in the form of God…” But if you translate it that way, you get the sense there was a split, a clean break, between Jesus and God — and probably between Jesus and the Holy Spirit as well. God stayed in heaven, enjoying the amenities, while Jesus abandoned his monogrammed towels and solid gold bathtub to go live in a dreadful slum with an open sewer running down the middle of the street.
That’s what you end up with if you translate it, “THOUGH he was in the form of God…”
But the Greek can also say something else. There’s not actually a Greek word there at all that corresponds with the English word “though.” There’s nothing there. The way the Greek language works, you have to infer that sort of thing from the context.
It’s just as likely the text really says, “BECAUSE he was in the form of God…” More and more modern translators are preferring that alternative. And that changes everything.
It doesn’t drive a wedge between Jesus and God the way the word “though” does. Jesus does what he does, coming to earth to die a criminal’s death, because that’s exactly what God would do. Because God is merciful. God so LOVED the world as to send God’s only son. If you want to find where Jesus is working in the world, you’ve got to follow the mercy!
Why mercy? It’s simple. Because we of the human race have already made quite a mess of this earth on our own. We love sin just a little too much, and virtue not enough. We hurt other people and corrupt ourselves. We’re so busy following the money, and the sex, and the power — and whatever other shameful, self-destructive passion you could imagine — that we’ve made an utter hash of things.
There’s no helping it. We need a savior: someone to pull us out of the wreck. We need someone who started from so high up, on the first hill of the biggest roller-coaster in all the universe, that the terrifying, careening, downward motion of his amusement-park-ride-of-death would end in a bone-pulverizing crash. Which, in Jesus’ case, it did.
But then, defying the laws of physics and biology — and every other law of nature you could imagine — the car was whole again, and he was whole again, and it was shooting up to the top of that second hill, quick as you please. And we all bowed down and worshiped, because what else could we do, based on what we’d just seen?
That procession into Jerusalem was hardly the be-all and end-all of parades. It was pretty pathetic, really. He didn’t even have a horse to ride on. Just a donkey. He had no military honor guard. Just some kids waving palms. It looked like half the crowd was making fun of him, as they shouted their hosannas.
Anyone with any sense could have seen that this was headed nowhere good. What would the chief priests and scribes do with a revolutionary this naive, especially after he trashed their temple businesses with his whip made of cords? What would the Romans do with him, once they got whiff of that nickname, King of the Jews?
This was a poor excuse for a parade. Now, the Roman emperors: they knew how to do parades! Legions of soldiers, tramping to the relentless drumbeat. Victorious generals waving from their chariots. Prisoners of war staggering along in chains, on their way to a grisly death. You came away from a Roman parade knowing who was in charge.
As for the Roman emperors, they didn’t “empty themselves, taking the form of a slave.” No, they proceeded in the opposite direction. They followed the money, not the mercy. They followed the example of that Greek, Alexander the Great. He came from Nowheresville, Macedonia. He led his armies out to conquer the eastern lands, tearing through Asia Minor — modern Turkey — circling around through Palestine into Egypt. His hunger for conquest still wasn’t satisfied, so he led his soldiers all the way through Persia to the border of India. The world had never seen anything like him: the boy wonder!
Taking a breather in Egypt, Alexander learned of the quaint tradition by which the Pharaohs were worshiped as gods. He said, “Sounds good to me. I’ll be their god.” Until he died in Babylon of a fever at the age of 33, that is. Not very godlike of him. But there were others who stepped up to fill the void.
Like the Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus. He was reigning at the time Jesus was born. There were temples dedicated to his cult, all over the Empire. He had them carve his name into everything, in big letters. In every city and town there were altars, at which people were expected — no, required — to make public sacrifices: to him. To the Emperor. Even in the land of Israel, the land of “You shall have no other gods before me.”
The emperor Tiberius was reigning by the time Jesus rode into Jerusalem. He and his whole retinue of sycophants were riding their own roller-coaster car, up and up, high as you please. But it wasn’t like the upward ride Jesus would eventually take, following his humiliating descent: the ride back up that was smooth and effortless.
No, for Augustus, Tiberius and their ilk, there was nothing of that powerful momentum, that sent them soaring upward in a smooth, fluid motion. No, their ascent was like the way you climb the first hill on a roller coaster, not the second. A chain pulls you up, clankety, clank. It’s so mechanical, so contrived, so phony.
The Romans had a phrase that captures their entire outlook on life. In the Latin it’s cursus honorum. Literally it means “chasing honor.” Theirs was a rigidly stratified class system, but it was not impossible to move yourself up from one class to another, with good fortune and a lot of hard work. Yes, some Romans were born to wealth, but others acquired it. You could be adopted by a noble family, marry into such a family, or you could distinguish yourself as a merchant, or in the army. A number of the emperors had humble beginnings: they made their way into the nobility by their exploits on the battlefield.
The Romans glorified the upwardly mobile. They loved a hero. Those few who made it as far as the Imperial throne, they literally worshiped.
Can you begin to see, now, why the downwardly mobile Jesus — the son of God who emptied himself, becoming obedient even to death on the cross — was such a threat? This is why, in the first generations of the church, the Romans sent so many Christ-followers to die in the Colosseum. They tried their best to destroy these strange people who chased not money, but mercy.
Eventually the Romans failed at that. Ultimately, the faith of the resurrected rabbi — the one whose name is honored above every name — became the religion of the Empire. That faith transformed the world: and has been transforming human hearts ever since.
So let us celebrate, now, this truth that we have come to know: as we sing together our next hymn. It was inspired by this ancient song from Philippians: “At the name of Jesus every knee shall bow, every tongue confess him King of glory now…”
As we sing these words, the ancient song of God’s people lives again!
Copyright © 2017, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.