Living Like Jesus in a World that Hates the Light

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 3/28/21, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture reading for this sermon was: Mark 11:1-11. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

Jesus riding into Jerusalem was out of sync with the world.

The streets of Jerusalem were full of people, waving leafy branches and calling out “Hosanna!” They were amped up and ready for a show. They believed – or hoped – that Jesus was the Messiah, God’s anointed one, the new king of Israel. 

But the crowds had no idea what God’s messiah would be. They had made God – and his messiah – into their own image. A strong man. The Son of David.

Jesus arrived in the heart of God’s world, the holy precincts of the Temple. He arrived “after hours”. Nothing was going on, no one was waiting around to greet him. Jesus was irrelevant to the institutions and the leaders. Before Jesus started disrupting the operations of the Temple, clearing out the moneylenders. Before he started debating the priests and authorities in the midst of the holy place. Before he made himself such a nuisance that he could no longer be ignored, the leading men in Jerusalem were content to turn a blind eye.

But even before they decided to kill Jesus, he was already rejected by the world.

The Pharisees rejected Jesus because they rejected the sovereignty of God – his creative presence in the world. They didn’t believe God could or would do anything outside of their interpretation of his law. The Messiah couldn’t be Jesus, because Jesus didn’t slavishly obey the rules. In Jesus, we meet the image of a personal God – a God who acts in context, not hemmed in by a set of leather-bound legal statutes.

The priests and Temple administration rejected Jesus as a blasphemer – someone who offends against God’s dignity, someone who insults God. Why? Because he claimed to be the Messiah, the Son of Man. From the perspective of the priests, it was an insult to God that someone as lowly as Jesus, someone born in Nazareth, someone without pedigree and – most crucially – someone who was an outsider to their institution, would claim to be God’s anointed.

But what about the people? It sure seems like the crowds believed in him. When Jesus rode into Jerusalem, the people were celebrating Jesus as a hero, praying that he would be God’s anointed one who would finally save them from the power of death, the sword of the Roman conqueror.

Jesus was the Messiah that they had been waiting for. The crowd – as ignorant, fickle, and dangerous as they were – were right to cry out “Hosanna” for him. But they, too, misunderstood Jesus – and when they soon came to realize that he did not come to bring the kingdom of David, but rather a different kind of kingdom, the crowd would collaborate with the priests and scribes to have Jesus put to death on a cross.

So the priests said, “No, you can’t possibly be the Messiah, because you’re not one of us.”

The scribes said, “You cannot be the Messiah, because you do not follow the rules.”

And the people said, “You cannot be the Messiah, because you do not fulfill our wishes.”

Jesus was out of sync with them all. He wasn’t what any of them had hoped for or expected.

Even the disciples, in their moment of truth in the Garden of Gethsemane, would flee and abandon Jesus. They believed that they were ready to fight and die at the side of a Davidic messiah; but they didn’t know what to do with a suffering servant.

No one understood Jesus, not even those he loved most.

Because we know that Jesus is, in fact, the Messiah – the anointed one of God. Because we know that he is God’s word to us. Because we know that he is the original apostle, the one God sent to bring good news to us, we know that Jesus was not out of sync with the world. The world was out of sync with Jesus. The world was out of sync with God.

Jesus could never have been what the world expected him to be without betraying the very nature of his mission. “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” Jesus said all of this quite openly.

Jesus knew what it meant to be a servant of God in a world that rejects the light and loves the darkness. As friends and followers of Jesus, we must never forget this.

As we remember what is called Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem this morning, I am reminded of another so-called triumphal entry. This time, into Bristol, England.

It was the year 1656, and the Quaker movement was growing by leaps and bounds. Quakers were disrupting the established religion of England, proclaiming the good news of the resurrection – the living presence of Jesus Christ – available to every man, woman, and child. England at this time was living under an unstable revolutionary government; one which had failed to deliver on its promises of social justice, liberty, and peace; one which feared that it might soon be ousted from power – as indeed it was just four years later.

In the midst of this cultural and political tinderbox, James Nayler rode into Bristol, seated on a donkey, with other Quakers around him shouting, “Hosanna” and “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Israel.” Quakers had done public signs like this before, but this time the political winds had shifted. After years of dealing with rowdy Quakers, the authorities had decided that the Religious Society of Friends was a fundamental threat to their ability to govern. 

And so James Nayler was arrested and sent to London, where he was tried and convicted of blasphemy. Parliament just narrowly decided against executing James, instead torturing him nearly to death. They left him to rot in prison. When they finally released him several years later, he was attacked on the road as he made his way home to the north of England. He died, a physically wrecked and broken man.

Most Quakers utterly abandoned James Nayler, and for centuries he has been a notorious part of the Quaker story. A cautionary tale of what can happen when individual Quakers “go too far” and “run ahead of their Guide.” The implication, repeated for centuries by the Quaker community that fled and abandoned Nayler in his moment of greatest vulnerability and suffering, has been that Nayler deserved what he got, and that Quakers need to be more careful.

I’m sure that’s what the scribes and the priests and the crowds thought when they crucified Jesus. I wonder, if it weren’t for the fact of the resurrection, if that might not be the story that Jesus’ own disciples would have been telling a few months later. “That crazy old Jesus. He had some really good ideas, but he just went too far. We tried to talk him out of it, but he just wouldn’t stop antagonizing the authorities. Anybody could have seen it coming.”

Jesus was tortured, humiliated, and executed for blasphemy. He was out of sync with the world to such a degree that the only response that he could expect was violent rejection. Jesus was the anointed one, sent to his people to set them free. To bring the word of God to them. To announce the kingdom of God. For a world that rejects the light and loves the darkness, that’s blasphemy. That’s spiritual insurrection.

As we remember Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem this morning, and as we look forward to Holy Week – including the last supper; the betrayal and arrest of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane; the trial and conviction of Jesus for blasphemy by the high priests; his torture and execution by the Roman authorities; and finally his resurrection – as we remember all these things in the coming week, we have an opportunity to enter more fully into the life and mission of Jesus.

Are we in sync with a world that hates God, or do we risk being misfits and “dangerous” characters with Jesus? In a world where even Jesus’ disciples abandoned Jesus, and the Quaker community abandoned James Nayler, will we be different? What does it look like to practice steadfast loyalty to God and to our brothers and sisters in Christ? 

Will we stand together, or will we flee and abandon one another when things get hard?

Jesus and James had to go it alone. They walked that lonesome valley by themselves. But the good news is that the Holy Spirit gives us power to become a community that is out of sync with the world, and in sync with God’s love. 

We are called to join Jesus and James in their witness as suffering servants, to lay down our lives for a world that does not yet know God, which loves the darkness and hates the light.

As we enter into this season of remembrance, prayer, and finally celebration on Easter Sunday, let us examine ourselves to see how we may be more faithful and persistent, supporting one another in this walk of suffering, triumph, and joy with the risen Jesus.