Jesus Was NOT a Nice Guy sermon series – #6: Jesus Was Unsuccessful

SCRIPTURES – Mark 11:1-11 – As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples, saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and just as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here shortly.’”
They went and found a colt outside in the street, tied at a doorway. As they untied it, some people standing there asked, “What are you doing, untying that colt?” They answered as Jesus had told them to, and the people let them go. When they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks over it, he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others spread branches they had cut in the fields. 9 Those who went ahead and those who followed shouted, “Hosanna!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!” “Hosanna in the highest heaven!” Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple courts. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve.

Mark 8:31-33 – He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”

Jesus Was NOT A Nice Guy sermon series
#6 – Jesus Was Unsuccessful
April 1, 2012 – Palm Sunday

It’s finally Palm Sunday, and thankfully I don’t to preach about how Jesus said that losing was actually winning. Instead, I get to tell you about one of my favorite cartoons. It shows the people laying branches on the road as they prepare for Jesus’ arrival, and in the midst of the crowd is a grown man in a cheerleader’s outfit. And he tells the guy next to him, “But Jacob the Stutterer told me it was ‘Pom-Pom Sunday’!”
What a contrast in these two passages! In one, Jesus is heralded as the arriving king, fulfilling the age-old prophecy of the coming of the Messiah. “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!” Jesus represented the promises of God in the flesh, and the people felt that finally, after centuries of Roman occupation and persecution, they had something to cheer about!

But they’re going to be awfully disappointed, aren’t they? We know that in just a few days’ time these crowds that shouted “Hosanna!” will be shouting “Crucify him!” The crowds that gathered to welcome his arrival will scatter to avoid being associated with him. They’re going to find out that this Jesus they thought they knew? That’s not who Jesus is. Well, then who IS he?

That’s the question we’ve been asking during our sermon series called “Jesus Was NOT A Nice Guy.” We have our personal images of Jesus, but sometimes the biblical stories about him don’t fit our conception, so we have to decide what to do with him. That’s not unlike the Palm Sunday crowds, right? They had a pre-conceived image of who Jesus should be, and when he doesn’t fit that image, they have to decide what to do with him. Our decision is often to ignore him. Their decision was to kill him. I’m not sure which is worse.

The crowds may have had a different understanding of Jesus if they’d been at Caesarea Phillipi to hear Jesus foretell his death and resurrection. But on second thought, they probably still would have missed the point, because the disciples did. Mark tells us that Jesus made this prediction quite openly, which means he didn’t couch it in a parable or try to hide it in an allegory. “Listen guys, I’m gonna be arrested, beaten and killed. But don’t worry, because three days later the most amazing thing is going to happen! The tomb will be empty, angels will appear, the planets will align, the price of gas will plummet, lions will lie down with lambs and your lives will be changed forever. I’m going to be resurrected from the dead!” And Peter responds, “Wait! You’re going to be killed?”

How could Peter miss this? How could the crowds? Because we know the end of the story, it’s easy for us to think the contemporaries of Jesus were as thick as gravestones. But to understand their misreading here, we have to know the history with which they were working. Based on what they were expecting with the coming of the Messiah, it’s understandable that they missed it. And we’d do well to pay attention, or we very well could miss the Messiah in our midst, too.

Right before our verses from chapter 8, Jesus asks the disciples who they think he is, and Peter responds with stunning faith, “You are the Christ, the Messiah.” That statement is brimming with significance because of what the coming of the Messiah meant for Jews in those days. While they were dealing with the suffocating occupation of their homeland by the Romans, the Jews longed for a time like the reign of King David, when peace and prosperity ruled. But those good ol’ days were a long time ago. Since then, they had been exiled and occupied by Babylonians, Persians, Greeks and Romans. Still, they believe as God’s chosen people that God would rescue and redeem them. So the Jews started paying more attention to the prophecies about a savior coming from the line of David that would use divine power to restore Israel to its place of power.

During this time of waiting, in between the writing of the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, a number of books were written that talked about these prophecies. Some Bibles include these books, called the Apocrypha. This collection of writings gives us a sense of what the Jews were expecting in the coming of the Messiah. The prophecies said the time of the Messiah would be preceded by a time of oppression and persecution for the Jews, which was certainly happening. That would be followed by a messenger, who would herald the arrival of the Messiah. John the Baptist fills that role. Then, the Messiah would come. The Hebrew word “Messiah” and the Greek word “Christ” mean the same thing: the Anointed One. Just as earthly kings were anointed with oil during the coronation to symbolize divine favor, the Messiah or Christ would be God’s Anointed One.

According to the prophecies, the coming of the Messiah would mean conflict and violence. When the Messiah came, the earthly powers would conspire against him to destroy him. But the Messiah would triumph. One of the apocryphal books says, “He shall reprove them for their ungodliness and rebuke them for their unrighteousness; reproach them to their faces with their treacheries and when he has rebuked them he will destroy them.” The arrival of the Messiah would mean the end of the oppressive powers that held the Jews under their thumbs. The Messiah was expected to be a vanquishing conqueror, using violent means to rid the world of evil oppressors. This would be followed by an age of peace where Israel once again took its place as God’s shining beacon in the world.

To get a sense of what the Jews were expecting with the Messiah’s arrival, hear these words from the Psalm of Solomon. Listen to these words through the ears of the Jews, who assumed they were talking about Jesus: “Behold, O Lord, and raise up unto them their king, the son of David, at the time known to you, O God, in order that he may reign over Israel your servant. And gird him with strength, that he may shatter unrighteous rulers, and that he may purge Jerusalem from Gentiles who trample her down to destruction. Wisely, righteously he shall thrust out sinners from the inheritance; he shall destroy the arrogance of the sinner as a potter’s jar. With a rod of iron he shall shatter all their substance; he shall destroy the godless nations with the word of his mouth. At his rebuke nations shall flee before him, and he shall reprove sinners for the thoughts of their heart.”

That’s what Peter was expecting. That’s what the crowds were expecting. They defined a successful Messiah as one who would do these things, vanquishing the enemy, punishing Israel’s oppressors, and setting up once again a time of peace and prosperity for God’s people. So you can imagine Peter’s reaction when Jesus says, “I’m going to die.” No you’re not! You’re the Christ! You can’t die! And when the crowds saw Jesus arriving, they just knew that this was it! The Romans were in trouble now! But when Jesus doesn’t overthrow anything but a few tables in the temple, the people are bitterly disappointed. “We thought he was going to be the one to redeem Israel.”

It sure looked that way. For eight chapters Jesus has been healing people, driving out demons, calming storms, multiplying loaves and fish to feed thousands. That’s how a Messiah should act. Yet it is at this point in chapter 8 – the halfway point of Mark’s gospel – that Jesus moves from being a success to being a failure, when he moves from displaying power to weakness. And who wants a weak Messiah? If Jesus’ prediction of his death is his attempt to get the disciples to buy into his mission, then it’s one lousy sales pitch. Who would want to follow this kind of Messiah?
Not the person who defines success by worldly standards. We are often tempted to confuse success with faithfulness, as in the bigger the church the more closely they must be following Jesus. Peter made that mistake. He wanted Jesus to be successful in the world’s eyes because not only would that mean good things for Israel, but also for Peter. He wanted to be a cabinet member in Jesus’ administration. Power. Glory. Success. That’s the kind of Messiah I want!

But that’s not the kind of Messiah Jesus was called to be. Christ can only be understood in light of his mission, which is so much bigger than conquering Rome. He doesn’t parade into the city to change the government; he does so to change our hearts and to change the world. Or to change the world by changing our hearts. Jesus’ mission calls him to things that Peter and the crowds just couldn’t grasp, no matter how plainly Jesus said it. Do we get it?

I believe in order to fully understand who Jesus is, we have to walk with him this week, from the temple to the Upper Room, from Gethsemane to Golgotha. We have to see the importance of Jesus’ suffering and death in the overall scope of God’s plan, because to do so will remind us that God is with us as we undergo our own Holy Weeks, our own times of trial. As we walk this road with Jesus, we are reminded that Jesus walks our roads with us.

Jesus was not successful. He was faithful, just as we are called to be faithful. We as people, as a church will never be successful, because we are called to be perfect as God is perfect. Can you do that? I can’t do that. But we can all be faithful, following God’s lead, even when it takes us to difficult places in our lives. We can go there, because we know Jesus has already gone there, already endured our pain, already suffered with us and for us. And as we walk through this week, at once horrible and holy, we know that the Messiah is coming again, and he will conquer something infinitely greater than the Roman empire. He will conquer our anxiety, our hesitance to live out our faith, even our fear of death. If that means he was unsuccessful in his mission to be faithful to God, then may we all so richly blessed with such failure.

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