Christ humbled himself and was exalted by God.
Jesus’ triumph came not by his own strength,
but through weakness and frailty and death.
Likewise, in our weakness God’s strength is revealed.
Object Lesson: Follow The Leader
“The Blessing in Christ’s Triumph”
What successes, what triumphs, does God ask of us and promise us?
We have read the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem (John 12:12-16; Mark 11:1-11). Though the scripture texts do not use the phrase, the church has come to call this event in Jesus’ life “The Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem.” We have also heard Paul urge us to have the same mind as Christ Jesus (Phil 2:5-11), an invitation to weakness, submission, humility (and perhaps even humiliation?). So just what kind of triumph is this? In what way is Jesus victorious in this event, and in the things that follow? And finally, what would it mean for us to do likewise, to have “the mind of Christ”?
He does not “win” anything or “overcome” anything visible.
There are no external measures of “success” to be applied.
Of course we know by faith that Jesus triumphs over sin and death on Easter Sunday morning. In Philippians 2 Paul makes clear that the victory was not won by Jesus, but by the Father, who raised him and exalted him. There IS a victory, a triumph over sin and death, but do they really belong to Jesus? This victory is accomplished THROUGH him, but not BY him. But perhaps that is what we are talking about after all. If so, what is there from which we may learn and which we can emulate?
I wonder if Jesus’ triumph is not much more human and direct than that? Recall how in Mark 8 Peter is affirmed when he proclaims that Jesus is the Christ, and almost immediately chastised when Peter suggests that Jesus should not suffer and die? (Mark 8:27-38) Jesus then proceeds to tell the disciples and the crowd that if they want to be his disciples, they must: “…deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (v34). Again, it is at first difficult to see the triumph in this.
The triumph, I think is in Jesus (and our) willingness to set aside the normative definitions of success, effectiveness, victory. Jesus certainly knows how earthly kings are made, History is replete with the stories and Jesus has witnessed it enough times in his own life. Kings are made by seizing and holding power through any means necessary. Kings hold power over others by fear and coercion and violence. Some believed that God would counter this system with even greater divine power that overwhelms, so they clung viciously to their earthly kingdoms. “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force” (Mt 11:12).
In response, Jesus did not take up weapons of war. Jesus did not gather the wealth of the world for his campaign and control. Jesus adopted the symbols of the coming Messiah – entering from the Mount of Olives (Zechariah 14:4) humble and riding on a donkey (Zechariah 9:9). All Israel expected that the Messiah would come in power, that somehow the reference to the donkey was perhaps some kind of ruse to distract and confuse the occupying force, lulling them into complacency till he should wield his great sword and cut off their heads.
Would it surprise us to learn that Jesus himself wanted to follow such a path, that Jesus wanted to be the warrior king with battle ax, mace, sword and bow with fiery arrows? If he was fully human, as our faith suggests, and tempted in every way that we are, as the writer of Hebrews indicates, then this very thought welled up within him. (Heb 4:15) We see something of this in his cursing of the fig tree and the cleansing of the temple. (Mark 11:12-25) Jesus is certainly filled with a righteous anger that bursts forth.
Perhaps Jesus’ triumph this day is in not calling down all the powers of heaven and casting the mountain of Jerusalem into the sea, as he tells the disciples they can do by faith through prayer. Jesus triumph is in not exercising the power he has. It is in resisting violence as a solution. It is in resisting (again) the invitation to exaltation.
Jesus faced these same temptations in the wilderness after his baptism. Mark does not enumerate them, but we learn from Matthew and Luke the nature of their severity, their seduction, and Jesus’ triumph. (Mt 4; Lk 4) Something in Jesus must have been drawn toward power and glory, or these would not have been temptations. It could not have been said that Jesus was “tested”. So Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is the moment when glory and power are his for the taking. It would have launched his political career. Instead he seizes it as the opportunity to demonstrate the way of God’s kingdom: The last shall be first and the first, last. The way to true LIFE is through death. The way up is by first going down. “God’s grace is sufficient for us, for power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor 12:9)
The triumph? Jesus triumphed over his own inner desire to receive what was being offered to him – a false and temporary reward. Jesus had been steadily cultivating and practicing this Way. He fasted and prayed and studied and worshipped. He allowed himself to be tested in small ways, continually building up his own resilience, training his spiritual muscles to respond in the right way when the time came.
He was also wise and strategic. He understood that arriving in this way would stir the energy and enthusiasm of those who longed for something different, even if they did not like his methods. As this zeal swelled, it would reach a crescendo. It would not be the Mount of Olives torn in two, but the veil that separated people from God. Jesus understood that to accomplish his goal, to see the Spirit of God let loose, death conquered and the church birthed, Jesus would have to resist all the earthly wisdom that suggested he should seize control. Only because Jesus triumphed in these clearly human ways was God’s plan to triumph in divine ways made possible.
Similarly for us, God still chooses to work in and through frail humanity to accomplish divine purposes of redemption and reconciliation. It makes no earthly sense, but Paul is right. If we want to be successful in God’s eyes, and in the work of God’s kingdom, this will only come through our own humility and vulnerability. This does not mean meekness – there is nothing meek in Jesus’ cleansing the temple. It does mean that power is not ours to hold, but only to exercise on behalf of others. We stand with others when they are attacked, but do not defend ourselves when they attack Christ at work in us.
What does the mind of Christ look like in us, on the day of Jesus’ triumphal entry? It means that we say no to opportunities to gain or wield power for our own benefit, or power over others even for the greater good. We do not advance the Love of God in the world by dominating or excluding others. We do it by loving them, which means seeking their good along with our own, and believing that God will honor our sacrifice and fill our weakness with power.
** Sermon preparation reflections for 032915
Some cultural references…