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Back to the Basics

Sunday May 3rd 2020

Acts 2:42-47

Pastor Galen Zook

Comfort Foods

In times of tragedy and crisis, we often find ourselves going “back to the basics.” We become concerned with (and some might even become obsessed with) ensuring that all of our basic needs will be met.  We want to make sure that we have food to eat, water to drink, clothes to wear. These things that many of us so often take for granted move to the forefront of our minds when we’re concerned that we’re not going to have enough. 

In the first few days after news of the coronavirus broke and it became apparent that our society was going to experience massive shutdowns, people rushed out to buy toilet paper, bread, milk, and eggs — as if we were preparing for a snowstorm. Then as it became clear that this was going to last for a while, people began to stock up on dried goods such as pasta, rice, flour, and canned goods such as pasta sauce. Even now it’s difficult to find many of these items in the store. 

But in addition to these basic necessities, I found it fascinating that stores were also selling out of things like banana bread mix, and chocolate chip cookie batter — things that we might consider “comfort foods.” 

It turns out that many people have been baking more during the quarantine. CBS news actually did a story on this, referring to it as #QuarantineBaking. Apparently yeast sales were up 400% in the last month, and Google searches for banana bread recipes have spiked four-fold. The CEO of the Vermont-based King Arthur company said that their sales for the month of March rivaled the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday baking season.

Part of the reason for all of this, is that only are we stuck inside the house with more time to do things like bake, but in addition, for many people, myself included, baking is a way to relieve stress, and it helps bring a sense of peace and control in unpredictable times. The smell of banana bread baking is good for the soul.

The Early Believers

In the weeks and months following Jesus’s death and resurrection, Jesus’s disciples also experienced a sort of “return to the basics.” Following Jesus’s ascension into heaven, and the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples on the day of Pentecost, the book of Acts tells us that the early believers “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42).

For the disciples who were grieving the loss of their friend and teacher (who they now realized was also their Lord and Savior), I imagine that coming together to break bread together, to fellowship, and to talk about Scriptures and Jesus’s teachings gave them a sense of peace, and comfort in the midst of the chaos.

Of course, at the same time, as a community they were experiencing miraculous signs and wonders, and God was moving in their midst in a mighty and powerful way. People were being healed and turning to Jesus in massive numbers. Three thousand people were added to the community of disciples on the Day of Pentecost alone! Many of the followers of Christ were selling their possessions and goods and distributing what they had to those who were in need.

And the book of Acts tells us that “day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts” (Acts 2:46).

Breaking Bread Together

For those early Christians, breaking bread together was not just about making sure that their basic needs were being met. It was also a way of remembering Jesus, who referred to himself as the “bread of life” (John 6:35, 48), and who had instructed his disciples to remember the sacrifice that he made for them and for us every time they broke bread together. 

As I mentioned last week, when we participate in Holy Communion, we break bread as a reminder that Jesus’s body was broken for us, and we drink wine/grape juice as a reminder that Jesus’s blood was shed for us. 

In this season when we cannot come together to partake in Communion together, we are encouraging the practice of the Love Feast, or Agape Meal, which can be done in your own home, around your dinner table, as you share food and testimonies and prayers and Scripture readings with the other members of your household, or as you connect with other believers by way of phone or the internet.

For the early believers in the book of Acts, breaking bread and sharing meals together was also a way for them to share tangibly the Good News about Jesus Christ with those around them, through word and deed. As they shared their bread with those who were hungry, I imagine that they also shared with them about Jesus Christ, their Lord and Savior, who gave his life for them. 

Sharing their bread with the hungry was a practical way for the early disciples to minister to those in need. In sacrificially selling their possessions and distributing the proceeds to those who were hungry, they were following in the footsteps of Jesus, who sacrificed himself for us. When they received thanks and gratitude from those with whom they shared their food, I imagine those early disciples saying, “oh this is nothing in comparison to what Jesus did for you and for me! Let me tell you about Him!”=

And in this way, as they fellowshipped and broke bread together, as they prayed and studied the words of Jesus, as they welcomed people into their community, and as they reached out to those around them, the Church grew, and “day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved” (Acts 2:42-47).

Back to the Basics

I believe that in a similar way, God has been calling us back to the basics during this time. In this season with the Coronavirus pandemic, we are being reminded of what truly matters. Many of us are coming to grips with our own mortality, and with the finitude of life, especially as instances of the coronavirus are starting to hit closer to home. 

As a church, we’re also being reminded of what it means to be the Church. We’re being reminded that the church is not about a building, or rituals, or ceremonies, but ultimately it’s about connecting with God and with one another, and we’re learning new and different ways to do that by way of technology.

The Coronavirus pandemic is also bringing to the surface the stark realities of injustice in our world and in our society. The differences between the “haves” and the “have-nots,” the reality that so many people are living paycheck to paycheck or cannot afford even the basic necessities of life, while others have more money and resources than they know what to do with. 

I believe that in this time, we as the Church are being called to stand up for those who are oppressed and marginalized. We are being called to share our bread with those around us who are in need — and in so doing, to point them to the One who gave his life for us, who sacrificed Himself to bring about our salvation. We are being called to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ through both word and deed, to minister to both the physical and the spiritual needs of those around us.

Some of us do that through serving at the Food Pantry housed here at our church — and I’m so grateful for those in our church and community who have continued serving or who have stepped in to serve during this season. Others of us might have places of influence within our companies or organizations, and we can encourage our employers to adopt policies that ensure the safety and well-being of those under their leadership.

Others of us might choose to utilize social media to spread positive messages, in the midst of so much fear and anxiety, and to spread truth in a time of so much misinformation. All of us can minister to our friends and loved ones by calling them on the phone to check in with them, and offering a word of encouragement and support. 

And we can all invite our friends and family to “attend church” with us, through tuning into livestreaming worship services each Sunday morning. It’s never been easier to invite people to attend church with us than now, since people can join in from the comfort of their own homes. And since most other events are cancelled for the time being, there are a lot fewer things competing for their time and attention!

There are many other ways that we can share our “bread” with those around us during this season, and in so doing to point them to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. 

My prayer is that we, like the early followers of Jesus, would be ready and willing to share the physical and spiritual resources that we have with those around us, and that we too would be known for our “glad and generous hearts” (Acts 2:26), and that we too would continually give God praise, as we spend time in the Word and in prayer and in ministering to those around us. May God add to our number daily as we share the Good News of Jesus Christ through Word and deed!

Dinner with Jesus

Sunday April 26th 2020

Luke 24:13-35

Pastor Galen Zook

So Sad that They Couldn’t See Straight

There’s a saying that we use to describe someone who is experiencing intense anger. We say that they are “so mad that they can’t see straight.” The same thing happens when we experience intense feelings of sadness or grief or shock. Sometimes our eyes are so filled with tears that we literally can’t see, but other times we are in such shock that we feel numb. We feel like we’re moving in slow motion, or that we’re walking around in a fog. 

The two travelers on the road to Emmaus late that Sunday afternoon were so sad and confused that they couldn’t see straight. I imagine them walking with their heads down, staring at the ground, perplexed and grieved. 

One of the travelers was named Cleopas — we don’t know the other traveler’s name. I like to imagine that perhaps they were a husband and wife, or perhaps a brother and sister. 

These two travelers had been followers of Jesus, had heard him teach and preach. Most likely they were two of the seventy-two who had been sent out to preach and heal in Jesus’s name in Luke chapter 10. Perhaps like many of the others, they had left everything to follow him, or supported him out of their resources (see Luke 8:1-3).

Like many, they had had high hopes that Jesus was the One, the promised Messiah, the Anointed One, who would redeem Israel (Luke 24:21) and set their people free.

But three days prior, Jesus had been crucified. Beaten and mocked by the religious and political authorities, hung on the cross for all to see. He experienced one of the most painful and horrific deaths imaginable, and with his death all of their hopes and dreams died too.

Stranger on the Road

But then earlier that morning, some of the women disciples had gone to the tomb and reported that his body was missing, but that an angel had appeared to them and told them that Jesus had risen. The two travelers on the road to Emmaus were confused. If Jesus had risen, where was he? Why didn’t he show himself to them?

I imagine that they had delayed their journey back to Emmaus as long as possible. They had waited all afternoon to see if Jesus would appear and show himself to them, but as the hour grew late, they reluctantly tore themselves away from the other followers of Jesus, and started the long7-mile trek back home just as the sun was starting to slip below the horizon. 

As they walked towards home, they discussed everything that had happened over the past week, and they were so engrossed in discussion that they didn’t notice the single, solitary figure walking behind them until he interrupted them to ask what they were talking about.

They were shocked that this stranger didn’t know all of the events that had taken place in Jerusalem that week, but I imagine that they were glad for the chance to process aloud everything that had happened.

Bible Study with Jesus

After hearing them out, their traveling companion began to speak. Luke gives us merely the cliffnotes — that Jesus (whom they did not recognize), “beginning with Moses and all the prophets…interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” (Luke 24:27). 

Although Luke does not capture their discussion word-for-word, we can assume that what Jesus told his traveling companions that day was eventually passed on to the other disciples, and that the content of their conversation found its way into the various speeches throughout the book of Acts, and into the various letters written by the Apostles in the New Testament. 

Most likely Jesus pointed them to passages such as Deuteronomy 18:15, where Moses told the people, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people,” and Isaiah 61:1 “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.” 

I imagine Jesus quoted passages such as Ezekiel 34:11-16, where God spoke through the prophet Ezekiel regarding God’s people who had been scattered, hurt, and abused by the corrupt religious and political leaders of the day. God told Ezekield, “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep…I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak.” As he quoted these Scriptures, Jesus shared how each and every one of these prophecies pointed forward towards himself.

And of course, I’m sure Jesus took them to Isaiah 53:5, where the prophet Isaiah spoke of One who was “wounded for our transgressions…bruised for our iniquities; The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, And by His stripes we are healed.” Jesus explained to the two travelers that his crucifixion had been necessary in order for the Scriptures to be fulfilled.

Dining with Jesus

The whole time Jesus was talking with them on the road, they felt like their hearts were burning within them (Luke 24:32). Although they still did not recognize Jesus, they were awestruck by what he had to say. When they arrived at their home, they urged him to stay with them and to share a meal with them (and, I imagine, to continue their conversation), since it was almost evening, and the day was nearly over. 

As they sat down to eat, Jesus took the bread, blessed it, and broke it, and gave it to them — just as he had done so many times before. And in that moment, they recognized that this stranger was actually Jesus — risen from the dead, alive and in the flesh, sitting right in front of them! And in that moment, just as they realized who he was, he vanished from their sight. 

In his letter to the Corinthian church, the apostle Paul narrates Jesus’s last meal with his disciples before his crucifixion. Paul tells us that “the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me’” (1 Cor. 11:23-24). 

This passage is often read when we celebrate Holy Communion together here in church. We break bread as a way of remembering that Christ’s body was broken for us. We drink wine/grape juice, as a way of remembering that Jesus’s blood was shed for us. We silently confess our sins before the Lord, we pass the peace to one another, and we experience anew God’s grace and mercy and forgiveness washing over us. Holy Communion is a beautiful and moving ceremony that Jesus gave to his disciples and to us, during which we remember the ultimate sacrifice that Jesus made for us.

But when Jesus blessed the bread and broke it, and shared it with those two disciples in their home in Emmaus, this was not in the context of a church building or religious institution, nor was it part of a liturgical ceremony. Rather, it flowed from a simple and beautiful act of hospitality by two followers of Jesus, when they welcomed this stranger into their home and invited him to share a meal with them.

There in their home, when they sat around their table and broke bread and fellowshipped together, their eyes were opened to the fact that Jesus was right there with them, in their home, sitting at their table with them, dining with them.  

Love Feast

A few weeks ago, I explained that during this season when we’re not able to come together and meet in person for worship, that rather than participating in Holy Communion, we are encouraging you to practice another traditional Christian meal, the Love Feast, also called the Agape Meal. This is a meal that can be eaten together at home, with the other members of your household, or even as you fellowship with others via phone or technology. The Love Feast has often been practiced throughout history in those times and spaces when there were no clergy present to officiate the Communion service, or when people were not able to meet together for worship for fear of persecution.

Love Feasts typically involve sharing testimonies, and prayers and scripture readings, and food of any kind can be shared. In our home, our family has started doing devotions together as a family each morning during breakfast. We take turns reading a passage of Scripture and praying together before we start our day, and it has helped us draw closer together to God and to one another as a family.

When you fellowship and eat together, you may choose to say a prayer such as this:

Be present at our table, Lord;

Be here and everywhere adored;

Thy creatures bless, and grant that we

May feast in paradise with Thee.

“Be present at our table, Lord.” The simple and beautiful truth is that Christ is indeed present with us, just as he was with those two disciples in their home in Emmaus. Jesus is with us when we sit at our tables, whether we are alone or with friends or family. Jesus is present with us as fellowship with one another, whether in person or over the phone or the computer. He is present with us, whether we recognize Him or see Him. Jesus is even present with us in the faces of the strangers that we pass on the street and in the faces of those who are in need.

My prayer is that we, like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, would allow our hearts to burn within us as we read and hear Jesus’s words read or spoken aloud. Like those two disciples, may we invite Jesus into our homes and into our lives, to fellowship with us, and to commune with us. May we too learn to recognize the risen Christ in our midst, in the faces of our friends and our family members, and in the faces of strangers who are in need. And may we remember the tremendous sacrifice that Jesus made for us, every time we fellowship and break bread together. 

Seeing is Believing

Sunday April 19th 2020

Psalm 16:5-11; Acts 2:14a, 22-32

Pastor Galen Zook

I’ll Believe It When I See It

Two months ago, if you had told me that businesses, restaurants, and schools would all be shut down, that grocery stores would be completely out of toilet paper, and that we would all be walking around with masks on our faces, I’m pretty sure I would have told you, “I’ll believe it when I see it!” Even now, the whole situation that we find ourselves in due to the Coronavirus pandemic feels rather surreal and hard to believe.

Many of us have probably said something along the lines of “I’ll believe it when I see it” at various points in our lives. Even the most gullible among us often demand some sort of physical evidence when we’re confronted with the most implausible of scenarios.

The apostle Thomas, one of Jesus’s core inner 12 disciples, who followed Jesus for 3+ years, listening to his teachings and watching him heal people and do miracles, was understandably skeptical when his fellow disciples told him that Jesus had risen from the dead. Thomas had not been there when Jesus appeared to the other disciples, and he refused to believe it until he saw Jesus for himself.

Physical Proof

The idea of someone rising again from the dead was not completely unheard of. Jesus had raised several people back to life during his ministry here on this earth. Thomas had even seen it happen. But the idea of someone resurrecting himself from the dead seemed completely impossible. How could Jesus, as wonderful and powerful as he was, raise himself from the grave? It seemed to defy all logic.

Not only that, but the type of resurrection that Jesus experienced was a resurrection unlike any other. In his resurrected body, Jesus was apparently able to walk through walls and appear and disappear out of nowhere. The other disciples had told Thomas that Jesus had appeared to them in the room, when all of the doors and windows were locked. He just appeared out of nowhere, spoke to them, and then disappeared again.

To Thomas this probably sounded more like a ghost story than a resurrection story. And so he said, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25). 

Thomas wanted to touch Jesus, to put his fingers in the holes where the nails had been driven through his hands and his feet. Only then would he know that Jesus was truly risen and that it was not some sort of spirit that was haunting his friends, or some sort of figment of their imagination.

Thomas wanted physical, tangible proof if he was going to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead. And the surprising thing to me is that Jesus gave it to him! 

Jesus didn’t get offended or criticize Thomas for his unbelief. He wasn’t hurt that Thomas wanted to see him in the flesh. Instead, Jesus showed up, he revealed himself to Thomas and the other disciples, he invited Thomas to see and touch his hands, to reach out his hand and put it in his side. He met Thomas in his doubt and disbelief, and he invited him to believe.

Blessed are Those who have Not Seen and Yet Believe

Of course, Jesus does go on to say that those of us who have never seen Jesus in the flesh and yet believe are blessed — happy. I don’t think that he said that as some sort of snide passive-aggressive rebuke aimed at Thomas. 

Rather, Jesus was acknowledging that it’s difficult to believe in something that you have never seen, and so if we have been given the faith to believe without seeing, then we are indeed blessed. 

Just as we believe in the wind even though we can’t see it, because we feel it and we see the effects of the wind, so too many of us have felt the effects of Jesus in our lives. 

Perhaps you’ve been freed from fear, or anxiety, or addiction. Perhaps you’ve become kinder, or gentler, or more humble since Jesus has come into your life. Perhaps you’ve become more loving, merciful, or more grace-filled since you’ve received God’s forgiveness. Maybe there are other ways that you’ve felt the effects of Jesus’s resurrection in your life, and even though you haven’t seen him, you know that he’s alive because you’ve experienced Jesus in your life. Blessed — happy — are you!

For others, perhaps you’ve analyzed all of the data and the facts, and you’ve arrived at the logical conclusion that Jesus is alive. Just as we believe that certain historical figures are real based upon the detailed documentation of historians, and just as we believe certain events based upon the first-hand accounts of eye-witnesses, so too many of us rely upon the testimonies of those who have come before us. Even though you’ve never seen Jesus, you believe. Blessed — happy — are you! 

As I shared last week during the Easter message, for me, the idea that the Good News of Jesus’s resurrection was entrusted to women in a time when the testimony of women was not permissible in court leads me to conclude that the earliest disciples would never have fabricated such an account, and it’s one of the reasons that I believe it must be trust.

In the same way, Jesus’s male disciples are often depicted as skeptical, and prideful, and even disloyal to Jesus throughout the New Testament Gospel accounts. Why would they have ever chosen to depict themselves in that way unless it were true, and their lives had been utterly transformed by the power of the risen Christ?

All of this leads many of us to believe in Jesus’s resurrection, even though we haven’t seen him in the flesh. We believe based upon the testimony of others, or because we’ve experienced Jesus directly working in our lives. And because we believe even though we’ve never seen him, Jesus calls us blessed — happy.

Seeing the Risen Christ

Of course there are many in our world who struggle to believe, and it’s understandable. Many have never experienced the power of the risen Christ at work in their lives — or at least they have not recognized it to be so. Perhaps they don’t know any believers, or perhaps the believers they have met have not seemed so credible.

For many people, the conclusion that Christ has risen is not so logical, or not so obvious. In order to believe they need to see the risen Christ in the flesh. Like Thomas, they need to touch him, to see him, to experience him for themself in order to believe. 

But how they can do this, when Jesus has ascended back into heaven and no longer seems to be making physical appearances on this earth? How can we as the Church show the world the risen Christ? What proof can we offer to them that Jesus is alive?

The Body of Christ

Well, one of the most intriguing metaphors in the Bible is to the Church as the “Body of Christ.” In 1 Corinthians, the Apostle Paul tells us, “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (1 Cor. 12:27), and the book of Ephesians tells us, “Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior” (Eph. 5:23).

Throughout the New Testament we see references of this sort that indicate that we, collectively as members of Christ’s church, are to be the physical, tangible presence of Christ in this world. 

And, just as Jesus was filled with God’s holy spirit, so too Jesus breathed on his disciples and said “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21).  As followers of Christ, we have been filled with God’s spirit, and we have been sent forth to be the living, breathing proof to the world that Jesus has risen.

While we may not be able to convince everyone that Jesus has risen, we provide further proof and evidence to the risen Lord when we live lives that are different from the world around us. When we love like Jesus loved, and serve like Jesus served, we proclaim Jesus to the world. When we gather on Sunday morning (the day that Jesus rose from the grave) for worship, whether here in our church building, or at home watching the livestream, we remember and proclaim that Christ has risen. When share our food with those who are hungry, when we serve at our Food Pantry even in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, when we call someone who is lonely to check in on them to make sure they are OK, when we love our family members and sacrificially put their needs before our own, we proclaim with our words and deeds that Jesus has risen.

Yes, we as Christ’s body have been wounded. Yes we have holes and scars. Yes we have been bruised and beaten. Yes we have failed and fallen short. And yet, Jesus has entrusted us with the responsibility to be his hands and feet, and to carry Christ’s message into all the world, to extend God’s love and grace and forgiveness to all the world.

So let’s show the world Christ’s hands and feet! Let us be the Body of Christ, in all of our wounded glory. Let us welcome the world to see, touch, and experience Christ’s body – the Church – in action. Let’s point them to the One who redeemed us and set us free, so that they too can say, along with the Apostle Thomas, “My Lord and my God!”

Fear and Great Joy

Sunday April 12th 2020 Easter Sunday

Pastor Galen Zook

Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; Matthew 28:1-10

Easter In the Time of a Pandemic

Easter is generally a time for joy and jubilation and wonderful celebrations. 

I can’t help but reflect back to last Easter, when our day began with a beautiful Easter Sonrise service in Roosevelt Park as we gathered together with churches from throughout the Hampden community. We then had a lovely worship service here in our church sanctuary, followed by a lively Easter Egg hunt in the park and a delicious pancake brunch on the porch. Everyone was decked out in their finest Easter hats and bonnets. It was truly a wonderful sight to behold. 

But this year feels very different. Most of us find ourselves alone, or with only a few close family members, as we follow the directives of our governmental leaders to stay at home, in light of the global coronavirus pandemic. 

In fact, for many of us it may not even seem like Easter at all. Yesterday as we were having lunch, my 4-year-old daughter asked us, “When is Easter?” When we informed her that it was the following day, she said, “What!? No one even told me!” Many of us can probably relate to that feeling.

But I can’t help but think that the women who journeyed to Jesus’s tomb early that first Easter morning probably felt a lot like many of us feel this year on Easter — somewhat lost in a fog, unsure of what day it is, and alone. Very alone.

The First Easter

The women who walked to the tomb early that first Easter morning probably felt like their lives had come to a grinding halt. Magdalene and “the other Mary” (which Mary it was, we’re not sure), had just lost Jesus — their teacher, the one who had healed them and freed them. Jesus, who always took the time to listen, who always knew just what to say. Their Jesus, the one they had followed and supported, the one they had built their hopes and dreams around, the one they loved, was gone.

Although it probably felt like an eternity ago, it had only been a few days prior that Jesus had been unjustly tried and crucified, hung on a cross for all to see, publicly mocked and shamed and humiliated. 

Often family members would go to the tomb a few days after the burial to make sure that their loved one was actually dead, since sometimes people who were thought to be dead were mistakenly buried. But in this case there was no doubt. The two Marys had seen him hanging on the cross, watched him breathe his last breath. They watched as his body was taken down from the cross and carried to the tomb and sealed with a stone. In this case there was no doubt. Jesus was most definitely dead.

And yet they woke up early that Sunday morning, and not being sure what to do, or where to go, they decided to go and see the tomb. Matthew’s Gospel doesn’t tell us what they intended to do there, only that they went to “see the tomb” (Matt. 28:1). Most likely they went to honor his memory, to pay their last respects. But also perhaps they went to find some semblance of hope or assurance, some sort of answer as to why everything had happened the way it happened.

He Is Risen!

But when they arrived at the tomb, suddenly there was a great earthquake! And an angel, a messenger of the Lord, came down from heaven, rolled back the stone, and sat on it. The guards who had been watching over the tomb passed out from fear.

But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid! I know you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said.” Then the angel invited them to come and see the place where Jesus had been laid to rest. And indeed the tomb was empty — he was not there!

The angel commanded them to go quickly and tell the other disciples that Jesus has been raised from the dead. The women left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 

But on the way, Jesus appeared to them. And when they saw him, they bowed down, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him.

And then Jesus himself instructed them to go and tell his other disciples that he was alive, that they should go back to their home area of Galilee, and that there they would see Jesus.

True Story

It’s been said that one of the ways that we know this is a true story is because during that time period, the testimony of women was not permissible in court. The early church never would have invented a story like this and made women the first bearers of the good news. Like so many stories in the Bible, the counter-cultural nature of this story is one of the reasons that we know it must be true.

And so two of the most faithful, loyal women, who hardly ever get speaking roles in the Gospel narratives up until this point, were entrusted with the greatest news ever told!

Fear and Joy

I’m struck by the Gospel writer’s very brief and concise description of how the women responded. In these verses the women are speechless, but Matthew tells us that the women left the tomb quickly with fear (despite the fact that the angel told them not to be afraid!) but also with great joy, and that when they encountered the risen Jesus, they bowed down and worshiped him.

The women had good reason to be afraid. Most likely they were afraid that no one would believe them, that they would be accused of fabricating the whole story. Perhaps they were afraid that the religious and political leaders who had conspired to kill Jesus might try to do the same to them. 

And yet in the midst of all of that, they experienced great joy.

Today many of us experience a strange combination of fear and joy. Alongside the fears and anxieties and economic instability that has accompanied the coronavirus pandemic, many of us have also experienced moments of joy. Joy in the times shared with other members of our households. Joy in God’s provision and protection over ourselves and our loved ones. Even when we look outside and see the beautiful spring flowers, we might experience joy. 

Ultimately we know that joy is something that comes from God and it is not based solely upon our external realities We know that the joy that the women experienced that day came from God, because, even though Christ had risen from the grave, a lot of their external circumstances were still the same. They were still women, living in a male-dominated society. As Jews, they were still part of an oppressed minority, living under Roman occupation. And as Christ-followers, they were despised by the religious and political elites.

The joy that these women experienced was not because everything around them was suddenly coming up roses. No. The joy that they had was because they knew that somehow, some way, the fact that Jesus was alive changed everything. They maybe didn’t know how, they maybe didn’t know why, but they knew that Christ’s resurrection was indeed Good News, and it was worth sharing. And they knew that the fact that Jesus had died and was now alive again made him someone who was worthy of their worship. 

And so they did.

Here I am to Worship

Friends, this morning our Easter celebration may be marked by both fear and joy, just as it was for the two Marys on that first Easter morning. But even if we don’t understand everything that is happening around us, or why it’s happening, we too can still choose to worship. 

As we look at the world around us, we have many reasons to feel fear, as well as sorrow and grief. There is much in our world that is not the way it should be, and that is worth lamenting. 

But Jesus is alive! And that is good news worth celebrating! Jesus is alive, and He is worthy of our worship. Jesus is alive, and he is worthy of our love and devotion. 

In fact, the resurrection of Christ is what makes it clear to us that Jesus is worthy of our worship, because the resurrection would neer have happened if Jesus had not died on the cross. Death is a necessary first step in order for resurrection to take place. 

The amazing thing is that Jesus willingly endured the cross — willingly suffered and died for us, because of his great love for — so that, just as he was raised to new life, we too can experience eternal life through him. 

In Christ’s suffering and death on the cross we see clearly that Jesus understands our pain and our suffering, and in Christ’s resurrection we see that death does not have the final word. Because Jesus conquered sin and death and the grave, we do not have to be afraid of what might come our way, and we can experience joy even in the midst of sorrow and suffering. Because of Christ’s death and resurrection, we can have true and everlasting joy.

Like the women, we may not understand everything that is happening around us. But Jesus is alive, and that changes everything. Jesus is alive, and so we are not alone. Jesus is alive, and he is worthy of our worship and our praise. 

So let’s come to Jesus in worship, bringing our fears, and our joys. Let’s bow before the risen Lord, knowing that because Jesus lives, we too can live!

 

Palm Sunday

Sunday April 5th 2020

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29; Matthew 21:1-11

Pastor Galen Zook

Crowds

I love the energy and excitement of being in a crowd of people — I love parades, and live sporting events, festivals, and concerts when there are tons of people packed in together. I love the sounds of people cheering, and I love it when you feel a spirit of unity even among strangers because you’re all experiencing something together.

As someone who loves being around a lot of people, as you can imagine, the past few weeks have been rather difficult for me, as we’ve experienced social distancing and the stay-at-home order due to the coronavirus. Don’t get me wrong, I love all of the quality time that I’ve had with my family these past few weeks!  But I do miss being around other people as well.

And so when I read the story of Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, I can’t help but wish I could have been there. I wish I could have heard the children shouting “hosanna,” seen the people laying down their cloaks and palm branches on the road to welcome Jesus into the city of Jerusalem. I wish I could have seen Jesus riding past on a donkey, and felt the energy and enthusiasm of the crowd as they followed him through the city gates into the city of Jerusalem. 

Triumphal Entry

What we find out a little later in the Gospel of Matthew that this was Passover time, so the crowds of people heading into the city of Jerusalem would have been especially exuberant. Every year, throngs of people would go to Jerusalem for the Passover festival, as they celebrated how God had delivered their ancestors from slavery in Egypt. Psalm 118 was one of the songs traditionally sung during the Passover feast, so it would have been fresh in their minds. “Hosanna!” (which means “save us!”) they would sing. “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” 

As people who lived under the tyrannical rule of the Roman Empire and suffered under the leadership of corrupt religious officials, the Jewish people of Jesus’s day longed for someone to come and free them, just as Moses had freed their ancestors from slavery in Egypt. 

And now here was Jesus — the miracle worker who had fed multitudes with just a few loaves of bread and a few fish and who had healed people and even brought the dead back to life, the one who had even calmed the storm and walked on water. Here he was, making his way towards their capital city of Jerusalem at Passover time. Perhaps this was it! Perhaps God would finally redeem them and set them free from captivity.

And so the people called out to Jesus to save them, and they hailed him as the Son of David, their term for the king who was to come, the king they hoped would bring them freedom and salvation.

Five Days Later

Now although I love the energy and enthusiasm of crowds, I do not love how quickly the mood of a crowd can change, and nowhere is this more evident than during the last week of Jesus’s life here on this earth. The crowd that accompanied Jesus into Jerusalem and hailed him as the Son of David on Palm Sunday, turned against him, and yelled “Crucify him!” (Matt. 27:23) only five days later on Good Friday. Persuaded by the chief priests and religious leaders, the crowd demanded that Jesus be killed.

The events of the last week of Jesus’s life play out in almost slow motion in the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem and went straight to the temple, turning over the tables of the money changers who were charging exorbitant exchange rates to foreigners who wanted to come and worship in the temple (Matt. 21:12-17). Jesus criticized the religious and political leaders for their corruption and abuse of power, causing them to conspire together about how they could get rid of him (Matt. 21:33-45). 

The leaders looked for a way to trap Jesus, and eventually they were able to turn Judas, one of Jesus’s own disciples, against him (Matt. 26:14-16). Judas acted as a spy, telling the authorities of Jesus’s movements, leading them to the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus had spent the night praying, after celebrating his Last Supper with his disciples the night before (Matt. 26:26-56). 

The religious and political leaders arrested Jesus, found false witnesses to testify against him, had him tried and beaten, and sentenced to death in a matter of a few short hours (Matt. 27). And the same crowd who had hailed him as king five days earlier, cried out for him to be crucified (Matt. 27:23).

Mob Mentality

What made the crowd turn against Jesus so quickly? Why did the crowd who called out to Jesus to save them on Sunday, cry out for him to be executed on Friday? Why did Jesus’s popularity ratings fall so fast?

One of the things that we’ve learned during this coronavirus pandemic is that, even though we are social creatures who enjoy the company of other people, crowds can also be a dangerous thing. Although it’s energizing to be around people at parades, and sporting events, and festivals, there is also such a thing as “mob mentality” — that insidious instinct within us that causes us to be influenced by those around us, and to adapt our behavior to the majority opinion largely on an emotional, rather than rational, basis. 

It’s so easy for the mood of a crowd to change, and so often we get swept along with it. This is why fear, and negativity, and criticism can spread so easily in a society.

And so, when the religious and political authorities turned against Jesus, when they had him mocked and beaten and tried, and condemned to death, the crowd turned against him as well. They cried out for him to be crucified, and they demanded that Barabbas, a known criminal and revolutionary, be released instead. 

To the crowds that had accompanied Jesus into the city of Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and watched him die on Good Friday, it must have seemed like Jesus was just another failed Messiah. Their hopes for salvation would have to wait until another day. They would have to look for another hero to save them.

What the Crowd Didn’t Know

But what the crowd didn’t realize was that the salvation that they needed was so much larger and more all-encompassing than they could have ever known. And the Kingdom that Jesus came to establish was not an earthly kingdom that would eventually pass away, but it was a heavenly Kingdom, one that would never come to an end. 

What the crowd didn’t realize was that the cross was not a symbol of Christ’s defeat, but rather the means through which God was bringing about their redemption —  their freedom — and not just for the Israelite people, but for all people in all times and in all places who call upon the name of the Lord Jesus and who cry out to him for salvation. 

Although Jesus died alone on the cross, crucified between two thieves, rejected by the religious and political authorities of his day, abandoned even by many of his closest disciples, what the crowd didn’t realize that day was that there is coming a day when all people will recognize Jesus for who he was and is. 

As the Apostle Paul tells us in the book of Philippians, “And being found in human form, he [Jesus] humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:8-11).

Unique Opportunity

So often it’s easy for us to get swept along with the crowd, to do what everyone else is doing. Even our typical celebrations of Palm Sunday, and Good Friday, and Easter, and all of the events of Holy Week can so often be about gathering together with the most number of people, and this year many of us are lamenting the fact that we cannot gather to worship together in our church buildings during these most sacred of celebrations.

But this Holy Week and over these next few weeks, as we worship, dispersed in the safety of our own homes, I believe we are being given a unique opportunity to contemplate and meditate and even celebrate the sacrifice that Jesus made for us individually and communally. This Easter season we’re being invited to make Jesus the King and Lord of our own lives, and of our own homes, and of our own families. 

This year as we find ourselves celebrating Palm Sunday, and Good Friday, and Easter confined in the safety of our own homes, alone or with only a few close family members, we are also invited to remember that we are not actually alone, because Christ is with us. Later this morning as we celebrate the Love Feast, we’ll be reminded that Jesus is not just present in church buildings or in grand cathedrals, but that he is even present at our own tables, as we break bread alone, or together with our closest family members or those in our own households.

And so this week, and over these next few weeks, as we spend time apart from the crowds, and as we experience the intimacy that we have with Christ who is present with us wherever we are, would you commit yourself anew to following Jesus, not based on whether there are people around you who are praising Jesus, but because of the sacrifice that Jesus made for each and every one of us? Would commit or recommit your life to Jesus and make him the King and Lord of your own life, not based on the feelings or emotions of those around you, but because of the love of God poured out for us through Christ’s death on the cross?

The good news is that there is grace, and mercy, and forgiveness for each and every one of us, no matter how much we’ve messed up, no matter how far we’ve strayed. Even if and when we’ve rejected him or turned our backs on him, Christ’s arms of love are always open, always ready to welcome us back again. So let’s meditate on the sacrifice that Jesus made for us, and let’s commit ourselves anew to following him wherever he may lead us.