“Truly I tell you,” Jesus said, “if you have faith and do not doubt … even if you say to this mountain, ‘be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ it will be done” (Mt. 21:21). I don’t know. Do we really believe this? Frankly, when I visit a mountain, I am usually hiking up it. I am counting on it staying right where it is. I want to stand at the top and marvel at the view. What is Jesus really saying here? What do we make of the idea of mountain-moving faith?
To go deeper into this, consider two factors. First, consider who is in church on Sunday morning. Who is here? Who are we?
Someone is here because this is his church home and it’s Sunday. On Sunday, you go to church. It’s what you do.
Someone else is here because today the conversation in her head went the other way. She has been through more downs than ups, and her lows are much lower than her highs are high. In her daily struggle, she has this weekly conversation. I’m going to church. This time I am actually going to do it. She’s longing for hope, for community, for salvation … for something. Week after week, she has the conversation and it always ends the same way. At the last minute, she says ‘no. Not this week.’ Today, that conversation went the other way and her she sits. She’s not sure she believe a word of any of it. She’s not sure there is a God and if there is, she’s not sure that God is any good. But, for reasons she cannot explain, she’ here.
Someone else is here because she thinks this church stuff is good for her kids. She may or may not believe the bits about God and Jesus, but her kids get positive role modelling here. Faith doesn’t have much influence in her life, but it’s good for her kids, so she’s here.
Someone else is here because church offers the opportunity for power. If he serves on committees long enough, he’ll be elected chairman. He’ll have influence. Maybe church can become his little fiefdom.
Someone else here wants to be 100 other places, but people in her life want her here and she wants to keep them happy. So, here she is.
Someone else is here because he is employed by the church. He’s got to be here.
Don’t worry! I know I haven’t described you. I know you are here out of your love for God and deep desire to worship him. I know that’s why you’re here, but overall, we’re a motley crew. Each of us has our reasons for coming to church and I am not judging. I’m glad you’re here. I am glad I am too. I want us to be real. Among us are doubters, atheists, backsliders, hypocrites, the self-righteous, the bored, charismatics, contemplatives, and honest seekers.
The second factor to consider is God is here. This might be harder, especially for the self-righteous. The atheist, the doubter, the backslider –they all secretly hope God will explode into this place and change everything. They came to church, for the faint possibility that that which they know to be false might actually true. God might be real. If the atheist or the backslider didn’t have the slightest hope of this, they be at brunch somewhere, or sitting on the front porch sipping coffee. No, God’s presence is dangerous for the self-righteous because God’s presences exposes our sins. Exposed, the self-righteous person loses all his power.
As we sing and smile and hug each other and read the Bible, please believe that God is among us, and God is never an ornament or a passive spectator. If God is here, then God is going to do something. What? It’s Palm Sunday. What is God going to do?
Follow Jesus as he moves through the story in Matthew. He rides into Jerusalem with great fanfare. “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” (21:9)! Crowds cheer. Palm branches are waved. Then he enters the temple and sees that worship has become big business.
People come from all over the Empire. For worship in the temple, an animal for sacrifice is needed. Can’t really carry a cow from Alexandria and make it in time. So, you buy one upon arrival. But, Roman coins are not accepted here. Neither are Corinthian coins or Athenian currency. Temple coins are needed. Jesus watches as pilgrims, here to find atonement for their sins, first have to go the money changing station where they are fleeced. Then, jingling the temple coins in their anxious hands, they go to the station to buy the animal for sacrifice. In the eyes of the priests collecting money, Jesus sees greed. The temple gets richer, but no one is getting any closer to God. This won’t do.
The tables are turned over, the clanging coins spilling to the floor, the animals running to and fro. Jesus doesn’t bring chaos to the scene. He uses the chaos already there to expose the evil that oozes from the cracks of the house of prayer which has become deformed into a den of thieves.
That’s when we find out who was in the temple that day. As we meet them, we need to keep in our minds who is in church this day. Who is here? Each and every one of us needs to look into the mirror of the soul and ask ‘Why am I here?’
The first temple worshipers we meet are the desperate. Verse 14: “the blind and the lame came to him … and he cured them.” They were there because there was no one where else to go. There were no social services for the blind and the paralyzed. They survived off the mercy of family and friends, and often family & friends weren’t very generous. They came to Jesus for healing. It seemed to be a far-flung hope, ludicrous really. But it was what they had. Verse 14 says, Jesus cured them. Cured, the ailments that defined them taken away, who would they become, now that Jesus healed them?
Next we meet others at the temple: the chief priests and scribes. The temple had hundreds of priests. Some, Jesus had already sent scurrying to round up the money he scattered when he turned over the currency tables over. These mentioned in verse 15, I believe, had been gathering outside the temple as Jesus rode toward it with cheering crowds all around him. As the Hosanna’s crescendoed, Jesus’ rivals, religious leaders, huddled and murmured. Verse 15 says, “They became angry and said to him, ‘Do you hear what they are saying?’”
These are the self-righteous. These are the church goers who do not want God showing up and doing anything new. When God does new things, then God is in control. These leaders wanted to be the ones in control. They knew Jesus represented God. Maybe they knew it more than anyone else. But like Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, these complainers wanted God to stay distant. They were the despisers that resented Jesus for exposing their hypocrisy and empowering the weak by drawing them close to God.
At the temple on that day that Jesus rode in to shouts of “Hosanna” and turned over tables, there were the desperate and the despisers. The desperate ran to Jesus in hopes that he could give them new life – life as healed, whole persons. The despisers ran to Jesus to dethrone him. They wanted to hold on to power as they destroyed anyone who threatened their position.
One more group was there, but we don’t meet them until the next day. On the walk back into the city the next morning, Jesus cursed a fig tree that had not produced fruit. It immediately withered. The disciples were wowed and Jesus rolled his eyes. They had seen him walk on water. They were there when he fed 5000 with a few loaves and fish. Now, this excites them, the cursing of a fig tree? Listen to what Jesus tells them. “I tell you if you have faith and do not doubt, not only will you do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ it will be done. Whatever you ask for in prayer you will receive” (21:21-22).
I think Jesus talks about mountains being tossed into the sea because he wants to remind his disciples that no prayer is too big. Jesus paints this impossible picture, a mountain tossed about, to help the disciples pray impossible prayers.
They did not get it – not at first anyway. When it came time for his arrest, they all surrendered to fear and they fled and hid. However, after the resurrection all Jesus’ words, including these, came back to them. They learned how to rely on the Holy Spirit and pray mountain-moving prayers. Without such dauntless faith, they never could have faced the sword the way they did.
Stephen, one of the original deacons, was stoned by an unruly crowd in Acts 7. Acts 12 reports the beheading of James, one of the 12. Tradition tells us both Peter and Paul continued their testimony, preaching salvation in Jesus Christ, until each was finally executed for doing so. The massive, mountain-moving faith needed to stand up for God in the face of painful death was given to these early disciples. If those seeking healing in the temple on Palm Sunday were the desperate, and those criticizing Jesus were the despisers, those who followed him became the determined. They would learn to testify to their faith in the most trying of circumstances.
Of course, when I hold up the group at the temple on that day that Jesus rode into town alongside the Sunday morning crowd here on this Palm Sunday, April 9, 2017, it’s obvious what I will say next. There were the desperate, the despisers, and the determined. Which one are you?
No, I am not going to say that because (1) the right answer is obvious; we’d all describe ourselves as the determined. And (2) to do this would be dishonest. On that day moving through the waving palm branches following Jesus, James was not determined. He would later face Herod’s sword, but not on that day. On that day, basking in the delight of the people, Peter was not ready to himself be crucified. He would go on to deny knowing Jesus. And then, he’d a leader in the church. And then he’d be crucified upside down. But not on that day. He did not yet have mountain-moving faith.
The truth is we all start out as despisers. We’re not all church leaders. We’re not all hypocrites who speak one way and act another. But each one of us has our own moment, just as Eve had hers in the garden. She told the serpent God had said she would die if she ate the forbidden fruit. The serpent told her she would not die. The serpent told her God had deceived her. She chose to believe the serpent, to accept what she knew to be a lie. We choose to trust ourselves instead of trusting God. We ignore the truth that our lives go better when we entrust ourselves to God. We despise the thought that we are called to worship. We all do it.
We do it until life breaks us. The weight of sin crushes us, and fallen, despairing, we come crawling on our knees to God because we know we have no other hope. By the way, I didn’t know this as a teenager or as a young adult. My life was relatively easy early on. I didn’t realize my own brokenness or my absolute need for God or my own dependence until I was an adult. But then I learned. I became one of the desperate. We all do. Peter and James and the rest of the disciples did the night Jesus was arrested. It happens for all of us. Broken, we come to the Lord only thinking about what he can do for us.
In his great love, he receives us in that condition. Then what? Once we’ve been healed and forgiven, restored and made new, what comes next? If we are grateful and willing to live in dependence on God, the begins working in us. Filled with the Spirit, we become determined to grow in Christ and to share the news of salvation with the world. As we see God at work in the church and join the ranks of the determined, we are given a dauntless faith. We are empowered to build the church in a cynical, self-centered society. We are emboldened to take the Gospel to other place, to unevangelized peoples, and unchurched countries. We entrusted with more difficult callings until we are even willing to embrace martyrdom and we do so joyfully.
In the story, both as it plays out in Matthew 21 and on Palm Sunday 2017 in our church and in our lives, we see the desperate and the despised, and then the determined who are given dauntless faith. I began with a kind of caricatured list of who’s here. I don’t actually know why you’re here or where you are this morning in your walk with God. I pray that the Spirit will move you.
If you are a despiser, a skeptic, I pray God will penetrate your soul and reveal the brokenness in your life.
If you are desperate, you know of the brokenness. I pray God will ready you to receive healing.
If you have and are willing to live dependently, relying on God in all areas of life, I pray you will follow after Jesus with determination unknown to mankind.
If you are already determined to grow as disciple, I pray that on this day, Palm Sunday 2017, God will fill you with dauntless faith.