“Riches to Rags”
Pastor Todd Buegler
March 19-20, 2016
Trinity Lutheran Church
Grace and peace to you from God our creator, and from Jesus Christ, our Lord and savior. Amen.
The messiah was the promised deliverer or savior of the Jewish nation. And 2000 years ago, the Hebrew people were ready and waiting for the Messiah. They’d waited a long time. The glory days of Israel were centuries back during the reigns of King David and King Solomon. Israel had spiraled downward for a thousand years. Some of the degradations that they had experienced were painful beyond words. Foreign nations had conquered their land, stole their wealth, killed their sons, assaulted their women and carried large numbers of them into distant slavery.
The crowd on Palm Sunday wanted Jesus to become their King. They wanted him to muster an army, overthrow the Roman government and return them to prosperity and freedom.
The crowds wanted their Messiah to be a conquering King. But 2000 years ago, the crowds didn’t understand who Jesus really was. What they’d hoped for wasn’t exactly what they got.
“Who is this Jesus” they wondered? Who was this Jesus? And that’s a question we still ask today, especially at this time of year.
Do you know what a Horatio Alger story is? It’s about someone who overcomes great obstacles and rises from rags to riches. The stories became popular in the years after the Civil War and they remain so today, because Americans love underdog stories. It’s why we pull for little Middle Tennessee State to beat Big 10 Champion, Michigan State in the NCAA tournament. It’s little David, taking down giant Goliath! Or how crazy would this be? Can you imagine, if Minnesota could beat Michigan State in the NCAA’s. (And I’m talking about the Timberwolves, not the Gophers, by the way.)
We love underdogs. We love rags to riches stories. But Jesus’ story is different. Jesus’ story is a “Riches to Rags” story. Jesus embraces downward mobility. Emperors and conquering heroes rode in to Jerusalem on huge warhorses, brandishing threatening swords. As a matter of fact, when Pontius Pilate, the Roman Prefect, came to Jerusalem, the wagon he rode on was so large, so lavish, so huge, that it literally wouldn’t fit through the city gate! It was too wide! So does he get down and walk the rest of the way? No! He has them tear down the gate and build a new one, wide enough for him to pass through!
Contrast Pilate with Jesus? Jesus goes from the ultimate seat of power, at the right hand of God the Father, and he comes riding into Jerusalem, on a donkey. This is not what the people expected! They were looking for a King! But Jesus knew that coming in on a donkey fulfilled the prophecy from Zecheriah, where it said: your king comes to you; “triumphant and victorious, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
Jesus is making a statement here. By climbing on that donkey, Jesus is saying, “Yes, I am King.” And Jesus comes not in power but in weakness; not in might, but in vulnerability; not in judgment, but in mercy; not in vengeance, but in love. And when the Pharisees tell Jesus “you and the disciples might want to tone it down a bit Jesus…there are Roman soldiers right around here…they won’t like this donkey-symbolism, or your disciples shouting! So ixnay on the osahha-hay!” Jesus replies that if his disciples are quieted, well then, “even the stones will cry out!” This is that important a message to share.
Nothing about him conforms to the expectations of a world that believes that “might makes right,” or at the very least, that “might always wins.”
But Jesus understood that might and violence creates a hollow victory. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said that “Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that. And hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.”
Jesus was King’s inspiration. And it’s a comforting discovery when we find out that Jesus didn’t come to retaliate against us, he came to rescue and restore us. It’s almost too good to be true when we picture Jesus riding into our lives, gently…humbly…peacefully…on a donkey; and offering us forgiveness and guidance and love.
One of the most profound mysteries of the Christian faith is that the God of the universe, who holds all power should choose as the essential expression of his heart and love and character…a cross. A cross.
If you were trying to create a movement that would attract women and men from all cultures, all around the world, would you choose something like a cross? As all of you know logos are very important to the success of any movement, or organization. The Nike swoosh, the Mercedes Benz hood ornament, the golden arches of McDonalds…they all help to establish brand, and identity.
But for 2000 years, the most widely recognized symbol of what it is that the Christian faith stands for is two pieces of wood stuck together on which criminals were executed.
The cross, an instrument of death, is our logo, our identity. As it says in our reading, Jesus humbled himself and became obedient unto death; even death on a cross. But in that humility, in that sacrifice, God showed God’s true nature. God showed love.
Now you may or may not know this, but the word “Nike” comes from a Greek word, actually from Jesus’ time. And Nike means “Victory.” And we associate Nike with winners, right?
But that’s not always the case, is it? I mean think of what famous athletes have been associated with the Nike swoosh: Michael Jordan…Tiger Woods…Shaquille O’Neil…Herschel Walker (Herschel Walker…I still have flashbacks)…
And they had their time…but they faded. Their era came to an end. It becomes a memory.
But through Jesus, the message of the cross has endured! For 2000 years, this symbol of defeat…this symbol of death… has maintained its place as the most recognized symbol in human history. That’s why Paul says: “for the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God.”
The cross is foolishness.
- It’s foolish that the God of all glory and power would allow the spikes to pierce his skin.
- It’s foolish that he would allow himself to be put on a cross.
- It’s foolish that he would allow himself to be put to death.
- It’s foolish that he would love us so.
And yet he does.
Who is Jesus? It’s not just the question of the day. It’s the question of this week that we call holy, and truth be told, it’s the question of the ages.
- Who is this man? Well this is Jesus who suffers so that when we are suffering, we can know that God understands and cares for us.
- Who is this man? This is Jesus who is utterly alone at the end of the story, so that when we feel alone, we know that God understands and is with us.
- Who is this man? This is Jesus, who cries out in despair so that when we become convinced that the whole world has conspired against us, and when we feel ready to give up, we know that God understands and holds us close.
- Who is this man? This is Jesus, who dies so that we know that he understands death. And the fear of death. And he reminds us that death does not have the last word.
- Who is this man? Jesus is the God of infinite power and absolute perfection, who deserves to be the worship of all creation. Jesus is rightfully entitled to all the perks of being the creator and Emperor of the entire universe. And yet he humbly becomes one of us. And he rides on a donkey. And he dies on a cross.
In a world obsessed with money and power and prestige and politics, we follow a humble Savior whose logo is a cross upon which he showed sacrificial love beyond our comprehension. On that first Palm Sunday, they have all the wrong ideas about the kind of King that Jesus was. But if Jesus had become a political King, his Kingdom would not have survived. You see, all Kings die. All Emperors die. All Presidents die. All dictators die. Every one of them has died and few of them are even remembered. A thousand years from now, President Obama, and Benjamin Netenyahu, Queen Elizabeth and Vladamir Putin will be no more than footnotes in history books.
But there will be one King, one name that will be remembered. And at this name, every knee will bow and every tongue confess, even the stones will cry out, that Jesus Christ is Lord.
The Messiah is not always what we expect Him to be. He is better. His is a riches to rags story. And as we will see this week, he achieves his victory not with power…not with might…not with violence…but with love. Love for you.