Earlier this week, as I was working away on today’s message, Chuck came running into my office saying, “Jonathan, come here quick, you need to see something.”
Chuck led me in here, pointed at someone praying, and said, “Jonathan, I think that’s the Lord Jesus Christ praying right here in the church.” I looked closely, and whispered, “You know Chuck, I think you’re right.”
Chuck retorted, “This is unbelievable! What should we do?”
Well, being the wise and astute pastor that I am, I said to Chuck the only thing we should ever do when we encounter the Lord Jesus in person. I simply said, “Look busy.”
So Chuck broke out his tuba and got busy!
I tell this joke…a joke that yes I have told before—a joke my father-in-law was overjoyed to tell me—as a means to get us thinking about how we keep up appearances. Because we do right? We keep up appearances because that’s what society mandates we do. Work expects it. Family expects it. Schools expect it. Our sports teams encourage it.
We wear appearances like badges of honor. I’m retired—don’t ask me to do anything. We’re the best! We’re the fastest! We’re the cheapest! My kid made the Honor Roll! My kid got into USC!
And still there are others—“busyness” for instance, is a badge of honor we love to display—“We are just so busy.” Now mind you, I am not saying busy is bad or wrong, however our constant flashing of that badge gets a bit worn, but for good reason. We never want to be perceived as not-being-busy, because if we are then we get badges we don’t want: “Lazy”, “Worthless”, “Selfish”, “Disengaged parents.”
And then there is the oldie but a goody badge—and still the best: “I’m a Christian.” Christians tell this badge of honor any chance we get. Unless you’re a pastor. Pastors never want people to know they’re pastors. Not because we are embarrassed or ashamed, but because inevitably people’s demeanor suddenly changes! People become like dogs in a new house—running around nervous, unsure, jittery. This is then followed up with, “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to say those words a few minutes ago. It’s just the guy was texting at the red light, and it turned green, but he kept texting, and I was late and I’m so busy…”
And I’m always like, “You know I wasn’t in the car with you. I don’t know what words you said. And frankly, I don’t care.”
Then from there, when people find out you’re a pastor, it’s always more confessions of sins that always include where they go to church but why they haven’t been there in years—“We’re just so busy” is part of it. And always there is, “But I am a Christian.” And my response is always, “OK. Great.” And for some, that’s that. For others there’s more confessing and convincing of their Christianity, which seems more like them trying to convince themselves than me.
This gets at the heart of what we all want, and we all want to look like what we think we are supposed to look like. Or we want to look like what we know to be acceptable, cool, hip, and trendy until… whatever is acceptable, cool, hip, and trendy is not.
That how our society exists and functions today. And it’s exactly how society existed on that first Palm Sunday.
On that first Palm Sunday, a hip, cool, trendy superstar was coming to town, and the celebrity Jesus is given the celebrity treatment as he enters Jerusalem. All the expected elements are in place…
He makes a royal entrance in a procession associated with powerful kings and conquering generals. He is escorted by the citizens of Jerusalem and “the whole multitude of the disciples.”
They wave palm branches, spread their cloaks on the road, praise him for his deeds of power, and sing hymns of acclamation, crying out “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven.”
He rides on a colt, on the foal of a donkey, just as King Solomon did before his coronation— although Jesus’ choice of a donkey also means he is a bringer of peace.
Jesus is a superstar, complete with the “three G’s” of Hollywood royalty: glitter, glamour and gossip. He’s got the glitter of a royal entrance, the glamour of waving palm branches and he’s definitely got the gossip happening amongst the Pharisees.
There is a lot of buzz about this celebrity superstar as he enters the Holy City. But here’s the twist: His idolization by the people is about to soon run out— and he knows it. Because like modern celebrities, Jesus is not only idolized, he is also criticized.
He’s feeling the love on Sunday… feeling the disappointment on Monday… and feeling the rage on Friday. The machinery that kills him on Friday actually begins operating on Sunday. As the disciples sing praises, the Pharisees begin to shout, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” But Jesus refuses to do this, replying, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
And from this point on, the chatter about Jesus grows increasingly negative. People sense he is not interested in driving out the oppressive Romans. They notice he travels with a band of unarmed disciples, not a cell of terrorist operatives, as did the insurrectionist Barabbas. They hear Jesus speak of coming wars and persecutions, not of glorious victories and times of prosperity.
The chief priests, scribes and leaders of the people start to look for a way to kill Jesus, and by the end of the week have the people themselves shouting, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” The same people who just days before were wearing their Jesus loyalty badges while shouting, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
Luke tells us the Roman governor can find no ground for the sentence of death, but the crowd keeps demanding that Jesus should be crucified. In the end, the governor, not wanting to wear the label of “weak” while wanting to appear “of the people” grants them their wish.
Jesus is killed on Friday because his trendiness has run “out”. The people have changed their minds, and there is a new way of being that is “in”.
But let’s face it: We live in a “What-Have-You-Done-For-Me-Lately?” sort of ethos.
We expect even the slightest display of Christian religiosity gets us a pass to Easy Street.
We wear our Christianity badge as a means to show piety, but also to demand power and respect.
We wear our Christianity badge as a means to show we are generous and giving, but twist it so we can say who deserves such from us.
But this is not the way of Jesus of the Gospels who calls us to embrace our own cross, as he did his, and follow him.
As I have said to you before, it is not lost on me when I say words and phrases that can: get lost in translation. I know I say things that seem to be words I’ve just made up. I say things that have no particular relevance to you, like eschatological implications. I know I even say things that make you think, “He gets paid for this?!”
So you can be certain I got it when I put it out that our Lenten focus for this year would be “Putting on Jesus.”
Putting on Jesus is done, as the Apostle Paul outlines in his letter to the Romans, when we “Owe no one anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” Paul reiterates what Jesus taught, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” And then he follows up that reiteration saying, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.”
But the term “putting on” is also slang for “a deceptive outward appearance.” It means to “mislead someone”.
So yeah… I get it. And I knew you would too. Because that is what Lent is about. Are we putting on Jesus…or are we putting on Jesus.
Which one is it? Which way are we putting on Jesus? Are we putting on Jesus the Palm Sunday way? Or are we putting on Jesus the Good Friday way?
Keeping up appearances. Wanting to look like what we think we are supposed to look like—what’s acceptable, cool, hip, trendy…until it’s not. That’s our societal way.
It’s even, unfortunately, the way it works in Christianity.
There are a lot of versions of the “Christianity” badge, and it’s an easy badge to wear and tell people that we do wear it.
But it’s a whole other thing to actually put on Jesus, to put on his cross, and follow him. It’s easy to wear the “Christian” badge on Palm Sunday, and even on Easter. It’s a lot harder to wear it on Good Friday.
As we enter into this Holy Week, and head toward the conclusion of this Lenten season, we have to ask ourselves some tough questions.
Are we putting on Jesus all the time? Or are putting on Jesus when we have time?
Are we putting on Jesus and owing no one anything except to love one another? Or are we picking and choosing who we will love.
Are we putting on Jesus and loving God and also loving our neighbors as ourselves? Or are we trying to redefine the term “neighbor”?
And the toughest questions of all we must ask… Are we putting on Jesus? Or are we putting on Jesus? Amen.