Sunday, March 21, 2010

Death Crown: A Passion Sunday Sermon

In a moving short story called “Death Crown” North Carolinian Robert Morgan writes about a woman named Ellen from the mountains of western North Carolina who comes to stay with her great aunt who is in the last hours of her life. In her eighties she was dying, and Ellen had come to sit there by the bed with her so she’d know she was not alone. Sitting there with this little old woman she so much loved, Ellen stared down at her and thought to herself:

The way her head sinks into the pillow kind of reminds me of the old story of the death crown. Old-timers used to say that when a really good person is sick for a long time before they die, that the feathers in the pillow will knit themselves into a crown that fits the person’s head. The crown won’t be found till after they are dead, of course, but it’s a certain sign of another crown in heaven, my daddy used to say. I’ve never seen one myself but the old-timers say they’re woven so tight they never come apart and they shine like gold even though they’re so light they might just as well be a ring of light.

A “death crown” visible only on the other side of death, turning what was only a moment before an ultimate defeat into a triumphant victory.

“Death…crown.” Do you get the irony, the paradox, of that? What an amazing transformation of images!

It’s a transformation, I think, John would have understood. With his typical irony, John, in 11:45-53, lets us tiptoe into the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem and listen in on the conversation between Caiaphas the High Priest and the Sanhedrin as they plot Jesus’ demise. It’s a drama played out on two levels.

Fred Craddock, in his fine commentary on John, describes the scene in cinematic perspective. On the ground level, in which events are described as they are experienced by the participants, the story is played out on a small stage with puppet characters – marionettes, “people on a stick.” You only need puppet actors because these pathetic little men are puppets holding onto their pathetic little power base at the whim of a capricious Roman governor who lives on the seacoast at Caesarea. Disturb the great lion, Rome, and it all could come crashing down around them. And disturb it, Jesus had! Just a few days before, He had done the unthinkable, the unimaginable – He had raised Lazarus from the dead! “You can’t have that! You can’t have Jesus running around emptying tombs. What if Rome hears? They might come in and throw us all out!” And Jesus, this gentle man whose commitment to God is not for sale, threatens their “perceived power,” and so it is decided that it must be death for the One who opposes death – the One who opens tombs and sends shouts of life down the grim, empty hallways of institutional justice must Himself now fill one. In a brilliant stroke of sarcasm, John twice calls Caiaphas “high priest that year.” John knows that high priests were elected for life! But he knows too, even if Caiaphas doesn’t, that the high priest’s pathetic little power, to which the anxious Caiaphas tenuously clings, can be cut off in a heartbeat. And so, “Caiaphas, who was high priest that year…” decides that Jesus the Lifegiver must die. But ever the bureaucrat, Caiaphas puts the best face on it all: “Oh, it’s tragic, regrettable, of course, but in the long run…for the good of the people, you know…it’s better for us all this way.” And so the arrest warrants go out and the wanted posters go up: “Anyone having information as to the whereabouts of this Jesus of Nazareth….”

But as John pans the camera back slowly, we get a new perspective on this little scene. On another level, these pathetic little bureaucrats, spinning their little webs and hatching their little plots, and trading their little lies, are unwittingly playing a part in a drama so big, so grand that they haven’t even a clue! Caiaphas says: “It’s better, expedient that one should die for the people” not realizing that he’d just spoken more truth than he ever could have imagined. Jesus had said it himself: “And if I be lifted up, I’ll draw all men unto me!” As long as Jesus remained “The Word Made Flesh,” as John’s Prologue calls Him, He remained limited, localized to one particular place, one particular time, among one particular people. But the Word glorified – read it crucified, “lifted up,” get it? – is the Word present everywhere, at every time, in every place, among everyone! Without even realizing it Caiaphas, in plotting Jesus’ death, had unwittingly given Jesus the means to turn defeat into final victory. Caiaphas thought he was planning a crucifixion; he wasn’t. He was planning a coronation, and he didn’t even know it! Five times in just nine verses John will call Jesus “King” on the cross! In dying, Jesus will wear a Death Crown, for there is a Council of which Caiaphas knows nothing, and there is a Power that is not Rome’s!

And on this Sunday when the Church struggles with Palms or Passion, Crown or Cross, I’m not sure, but I think I heard in John’s little drama a word from God. You see, the Church has always preferred to call this Sunday “Palm Sunday” rather than “Passion Sunday,” though it’s never quite been comfortable doing so. Don’t get me wrong. It’s great fun to wave palms and shout “Hosanna! Blessed is He Who comes in the name of the Lord!” with all the others who welcomed Jesus through the Eastern Gate on that first Palm Sunday. But may I remind you that by week’s end, those same people were shouting “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” Remembering that, the Church throughout the ages has somehow almost instinctively understood that Palm Sunday is too soon to crown Him Messiah. Not yet; not on that side of the Cross.

I find it interesting that not a single NT writer, save one, does anything theologically with the Triumphal Entry of Jesus. Not a word in Paul’s Letters; not a paragraph in the great Epistle to the Hebrews; not even a mention in the Letters of Peter. Only John, the author of the Revelation, picks up on the imagery of the Triumphal Entry and interprets it theologically. Oh, they interpret other events in Jesus life – His baptism, Gethsemane, the Cross, and of course the Resurrection. But when it comes to the theological development of the theme of the Triumphal Entry, not a word, not a word. Why? I don’t know for sure. But I’ll tell you what I think. Because somehow they knew that the crowd waving palms and shouting Hosanna on that side of the Cross was wrong! The Messiah wears a crown all right, but it’s a Death Crown. And so John, in Revelation 7, describes his great vision of the Lamb and his Army going out to engage Satan in the Final Battle, and the Messiah’s army of 144,000 wave palm branches before their Leader, the Crucified Lamb. Palm Branches – did you get that? It’s the ancient Jewish symbol of victory, on all the Jewish coins from the Maccabean Period of Jewish independence. And note: the army of the Crucified Lamb John describes in this scene is an army of martyrs! Now, it seems, it’s safe to wave palms!

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to spoil your fun on Palm Sunday. The Christian faith is a thing of great joy and comfort. But it doesn’t begin in joy and comfort; it begins in pain and suffering and death.

“I gave my back to those who smite; I gave my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I gave my face to those who spit; and I gave my ear to God and He opened my ear, dug out my ear, to hear as those who are taught.”

I remind you: you can’t have Easter without the Passion, because there can be no Resurrection until somebody dies!

And therein is our hope! Without the Cross, our faith wouldn’t be a comfort to anybody. What would you say to the terminal cancer patient? What would you say to the mother who just buried her baby? What would you say to the eighty-five year old man, alone and forgotten, in cold storage in some nursing home with no one to care? “Smile, God Loves You!” No. But I’ll tell you what you can say. You can say that I believe in a God Who’s been there before you, in the pain, in the darkness, in the loneliness, in the death. And I believe in a Christ Who has come through it – not around it, but through it – and Who lives and reigns now on the far side of the Cross. That’s what you can say!

A few years ago I got an email that changed my plans, rearranged my schedule. It simply said: “Mary Lou is in Hospice. She hasn’t eaten in ten days, so weak she can only whisper. She whispered, ‘How’s Wayne?’” Plans changed. Mary Lou and her husband had been members of a church where I had served as interim pastor. I was only there a year; I don’t remember folk all that well in churches where I was interim pastor. Too many churches; too many people. I remember Mary Lou.

She was in her late 60’s at the time. Charming, gracious, attractive, always immaculately groomed with an infectious smile and ice blue eyes, she was the picture of poise and grace. She had raised three sons, helped her husband launch a successful furniture business, and still found the time to be a pillar of her church. A natural leader, Mary Lou at one time or another had directed WMU, Sunday School, Discipleship Training, and the church’s Strategic Planning Committee. After retirement, she and her husband had traveled all over the world with the Mission Board as volunteer missionaries. There’s hardly a darkened corner of the world that has not been illumined by the sparkle of her blue eyes and her winsome smile. And she and her husband traveled with me all over the Middle East on one occasion or another – Israel, Egypt, Greece, Turkey.

Then, a few years ago, I heard she’d been diagnosed with colon cancer. Hadn’t seen her in several years, but when she whispered my name, I had to go.

Cheryl and I walked into the room and found her lying on her side asleep. I thought I was in the wrong room at first – she’d lost so much weight, her hair gone, her skin white, thin, and bleeding. I walked over by the bed, sat down, took her hand in mine and whispered, “Mary Lou?” But when I saw those blue eyes, I knew it was she. “Oh, Wayne,” she said. Her husband came in while Cheryl and I were there. The four of us laughed and cried and remembered. “Remember that time,” I said to Mary Lou, “When we left him (pointing to her husband) on the temple mount in Jerusalem because he was still dickering with that street vendor?” She laughed, “I remember. He never could resist a deal.”

I prayed with her; we said “goodbye.” Actually, we said “au revoir,” “Until I see you again.” She said, “Don’t say goodbye.”

And as I turned to walk out of the room, I noticed the sun streaming in the window was creating a crown-shaped glow on her pillow. Strange.

I thought about the picture of Revelation chapter 5 as I left – John’s vision of the Victorious Lamb of God. He pulls back the curtain to let his suffering, persecuted, bleeding church get a glimpse of how it will all end. And he shows them a picture of a bloody, beaten, bruised, battered, dying Lamb. And John recoils and says, “Thanks a lot! That’s just how I feel! How’s that gonna help?” And a Voice says, “Look again, John.” And he looks again, and he sees a bloody, beaten, bruised, bleeding, dying Lamb…seated on a throne!

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